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Opponents to WQEX deal consider challenge

Friday, December 31, 1999

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Challenges to the license swap between WPCB and WQEX may still be in the offing.

Despite a lengthy order this week from the Federal Communications Commission, leaders of the Save Pittsburgh Public Television campaign, who oppose the swap, had an hour-long conference call yesterday with their Washington, D.C., attorneys to weigh their options.

"We have 30 days to file for reconsideration or appeal to the court. There are whole dimensions to this decision that we find very troubling," spokesman Jerry Starr said.

"It's clearly complex and controversial and was decided very narrowly, and we're seriously considering what would be grounds for reconsideration or appeal," he added. Starr and co-leader Linda Wambaugh are consulting with lawyers from the Institute for Public Representation at the Georgetown University Law Center.

They expect to decide by next week what, if anything, they will do.

Earlier this month, the FCC approved a $35 million deal that would eliminate WQEX, permit religious broadcaster WPCB to move to Channel 16 and take over its educational license, and let Paxson Communications Corp. buy Channel 40. That approval, which came on a 3-2 vote, was affirmed in a 40-page order issued Wednesday.

In other developments:

The FCC yesterday said it had renewed the licenses for WQED and WQEX. Both had been challenged.

Paxson's Channel 40 has a new general manager. Michelle Wilson is coming to Pittsburgh from a Pax TV affiliate in Washington, D.C.

This week's order has not stopped a campaign to gather signatures for a letter that will be directed to George Miles, president of WQED Pittsburgh, and the board of directors that oversees the two public TV stations, WQED-FM and Pittsburgh Magazine.

Edgewood resident Michael Schneider, who spearheaded a letter to the editor published in Wednesday's Post-Gazette, said he expects to gather 100 signatures on a statement asking WQED to reconsider its plan.

Asked if he thought Miles would put the brakes on a deal that's been in the works for four years, Schneider acknowledged, "Realistically no, I don't expect George Miles to change his mind" or for the board to reverse itself.

"It's an appeal that we'd like to make to the conscience of these people. Part of the point here is WQED has characterized the group of people who oppose their effort as a small fringe group" and the names on the list suggest otherwise, he said. "We feel in our hearts this is a very bad deal for Pittsburgh."

Schneider, a science writer, is joined by others including Dennis Brutus, professor emeritus of the Department of African Studies at the University of Pittsburgh; George David Exoo, formerly the "Church Man" on WQED-FM's "Sunday Arts Magazine"; Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, CMU professor of computer science and psychology; and the Rev. Maurine C. Waun, chair of The Diversity Project and pastoral consultant to two Unitarian churches.

Schneider and others are especially concerned about a Cornerstone television program that advances creationism rather than evolution. In a country hobbled by scientific illiteracy -- "half the people don't know there are nine planets in the solar system" -- Schneider considers this troubling.

Schneider's correct in assuming Miles won't reverse himself.

"We've been out here trying to move and save WQED for five years. Not one time has anyone ever stepped forth from this group saying how we can solve the problem. No one has ever given anything positive," said Miles.

Not surprisingly, Starr disagrees.

"We have made numerous suggestions over the past three years as to practical solutions to WQED's self-inflicted debt problem, some of which they have, in fact, implemented themselves," said Starr. He pointed to the sale of the WonderWorks family movie library as one of those recommendations and said the possible sale of Pittsburgh Magazine could wipe out a chunk of WQED's debt.

"The fact of the matter is, they've never shown any interest in any other solution than selling the station."

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