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Signal's getting weak for buying Conrad site

Wednesday, February 09, 2000

By Adrian McCoy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

While a preservation battle is still being waged over the Fifth and Forbes corridor Downtown, another significant site is on the verge of being lost.

The property in question is the proposed National Museum of Broadcasting site, which includes a house and garage that once belonged to inventor and Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad. It was Conrad's research and experiments in this same garage that launched the world's first commercial broadcasts, and soon after, Westinghouse's KDKA-AM (1020).

The Conrad Project has been trying to put together the funding to buy the property for years. So far, they secured the promise of a $5,000 challenge grant from the CBS Foundation.

The buildings are on the border of Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg, and the Conrad Project has tried to engage both communities in helping the project along.

Wilkinsburg Mayor Wilbert Young and the borough council have been working with them to get community development funding, but it hasn't come through yet.

The most recent idea being explored was a community development strategy that would use the facility for several purposes, including a museum, a restaurant, and other community-based activities - all of which would pay rent and generate income for the project.

While the borough can't fund the project itself, it has been looking at sources of state, county and private funding, along with cooperation from the city, says Young.

"Everybody's been interested in it because it's a good project. We'll do all we can to see that the project happens." Young says he remains optimistic that a deal can be worked out, even in the 11th hour. "This is a real estate situation. You just have to keep working on it."

The Conrad Project negotiated a $320,000 deal with the building's owner - the Wilkinsburg Elks - who have since moved to a new facility and are eager to get rid of the old property. But they can't sit on it forever. And by the end of the month, it goes back on the market.

With only three weeks to come up with a loan, or enough funds to keep the sales agreement alive, things look bleak. "The timeline is not compatible with the sales agreement deadline," said museum president Alice Sapienza-Donnelly.

"We just can't seem to get people excited about preserving the property [in terms of funding]," says Conrad Project chairman Rick Harris.

With the help of several organizations, the National Museum of Broadcasting has drafted a business plan that contains plenty to get excited about: the museum, which would encompass the history of both local and national radio and TV and a look ahead to its future with Webcasting and digital technology displays, plus dinner theater performances like "The 1940s Radio Hour," live jazz performances and other ways to draw people.

Donnelly firmly believes that the development of culture and the arts aren't just the icing on the cake of regional development, but part of the cake itself.

Now it comes down to buying time - maybe with bridge funding to secure the property, or a bank loan to cover the costs. Or maybe it will come down to letting go.

"This is where the idea of broadcasting was conceived," Donnelly says. "It's like kicking your father in the face."

If the worst-case scenario happens and they lose the Conrad homestead, it looks like the project probably wouldn't happen anywhere, without that hub to center it around.

And then we'll all lose out.

GOOD SPORTS: WWCS-AM (540), known primarily for its world news and music programming, is taking the plunge into a new area: sports talk. Paul Pish will host "In the Cheap Seats," a weekday sports talk show airing from 4 to 7 p.m.

The former advertising agency owner has been hosting a radio talk show by the same name that airs in St. Mary's, DuBois and Punxsutawney. He's also worked as part of the Pitt Panther broadcasting team.

"It's a little different from what you're used to hearing," Pish says. "Every day is open mike day. Any sport is free game."

WWCS is in the process of outfitting its studios to better handle live talk shows. Pish will start when that's completed - probably within the month.

RECORDS: WOGG-FM in Uniontown (94.9) recently pitched in on an effort to help a young girl achieve an unusual goal.

Sherry McDonald, 10, of Searights, who is battling a serious form of juvenile arthritis, wanted to amass the world's largest pencil collection.

Thanks to on-air requests by the station, and the efforts of several area organizations, she went well beyond the goal. More than 153,000 unsharpened pencils were presented to her at school last week. The station is trying to get the feat listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

CHANNEL SURFING: WDVE-FM (102.5) morning host Jim Krenn will host the Pittsburgh portion of Microsoft's upcoming Windows 2000 launch. The Feb. 17 multicity launch at the Doubletree is already sold out. Bill Gates is the keynote speaker via satellite. ... Stephen Bates is the new local sales manager for WAMO-FM (106.7, 107.1). The Pittsburgh native and James Madison University graduate has been with the WAMO sales staff for three years.

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