Originally created 12/29/96

Low-power stations feel threat

As the hour draws near, the man upstairs is trying to reach Pastor Mitchell Dunn.

Several tries go unnoticed as Pastor Dunn sits on the floral print couch, his head bowed, his eyes closed.

Suddenly, a voice echoes through the cavernous room.

"Hello, Pastor Dunn?"

"Yes?" he says, looking up through the bright television lights at the window of the control room high above the set.

"Sound check, please."

"1-2-3-4," he says slowly.

"That's fine."

"Hallelujah," Pastor Dunn adds.

The voice is master controller Ben Spivey, but everyone in the studio says God is really the producer at television station WBM (Channel 36).

Whenever the low-power station in North Augusta needs a piece of technical equipment to continue its religious broadcasts, a picture is tacked up on a prayer wall in the control room, and somehow, days later, it will be donated to the station, said co-manager Dorothy Spaulding. The full-time, unpaid technicians say they rely on the Lord to somehow make ends meet.

But soon, the station will need a little a help from Congress to fix a glitch in the sweeping reform of telecommunications this year, a reform that could wipe out low-power stations such as Channel 36 around the country.

To further the growth of high-definition, digital television, the Federal Communications Commission will grant the nearly 1,200 commercial television stations another channel or frequency to broadcast the digital signal once the equipment is bought and installed. The new digital signal will offer an astoundingly clear picture and sound that current sets just can't pick up, said Louis Wall, general manager of television station WJBF (Channel 6) (and soon to be Channel 44).

"It's like the difference between color television and black-and-white," Mr. Wall said. Though some cities may see high-definition digital television in 1998, Mr. Wall predicted it would be closer to the year 2000 before it hits Augusta.

The new digital signal will also offer multiple choices and interactive features such as down-loading popular video games in seconds, said Bill Evans, general manager of television station WRDW (Channel 12) (and soon to be Channel 59).

It will also force local stations to spend between $3 million to $5 million to install an entirely new second system, from transmitters to studio cameras, to handle the new technology, Mr. Wall said. Hence, the need for a second channel so that it can carry the new signal while the old channel carries the old analog signal, Mr. Wall said.

But with only a limited number of frequencies available, and with some low-power frequencies already bought up for mobile and cellular phone lines, the second channel may come from some of the 1,940 low-power stations across the country, such as Channel 36 in North Augusta or Channel 67 in Augusta.

"The reason for that is the commission is saying low-power is secondary" to the full-power commercial stations, said Hossein Hashemzadeh, supervising engineer with the FCC's low-power bureau. "That's sort of the risk they take" in getting a low-power license.

It's a risk U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., hopes to eliminate. He plans to introduce a bill next year that would redefine the licensing procedure and put in some protections for the low-power stations.

"(It) leaves them in, I think, a a very uncomfortable position of, `Well, I've got a license but I don't know how long for,'°" Dr. Norwood said.

Low-power television station WBEK (Channel 67) is facing a double whammy, said general manager Jeremy Coghlan. If a full-power station doesn't take his channel, the FCC may auction it off to a mobile or cellular phone company, as it has already done with some other low-frequency channels.

"It's up for political sale or graft or gift," he joked.

Mr. Hashemzadeh confirmed the FCC is looking into auctioning off channels 60-72, though no decision has been made yet.

"They made a lot of money off of them," when other channels were auctioned off, he said. "It brings down the deficit, I guess."

Low-power stations argue they are worth keeping.

"We brought a Fox network to town when there wasn't a full-power station" to do it, Mr. Coghlan said. "We brought a Warner Brothers network when there is no full-power station" to do it.

The value of "Club 36" comes from the religious outreach and community programming they offer, and the 30-50 calls a night, even responding to a few suicide calls so far, Mrs. Spaulding said.

"They wouldn't have been uplifted if we weren't on television," she said.

There is a more immediate concern for Channel 36, but one that may just be as unattainable. The station has been lobbying Jones Intercable to get on its channel lineup, as Channel 67 already is. The station has been asking supporters to send letters and sign petitions urging Jones to carry its signal. But while Jones will be adding six new channels in February, including the religious Inspirational Network, it won't be adding the North Augusta station, said general manager Ben Blackmon.

"From surveys of our customers, we have not seen a desire to launch 36," said Mr. Blackmon. "I'm not going to add a channel my subscribers don't want."

The Spauldings and the rest of the volunteers will not be daunted. They keep building sets at the studio for cooking shows and chorale performances, adding equipment and praying for more.

"I just believe in God that He's going to work a miracle here," she said.

And if it won't come through the cable company, maybe it will come through Congress.


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