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Group mounting challenge to sale of WQEX

Wednesday, January 31, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

At the Super Bowl party Matt Cone attended, he passed the bean dip and a petition "to save Pittsburgh public television." Mark Ginsburg did the same, and both men, members of the local chapter of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, are hoping other viewers will do likewise.

The petitions will be sent to the Federal Communications Commission to protest WQED Pittsburgh's plan to convert Channel 16 from a noncommercial educational license to a commercial one and sell it.

Ready to buy it for $20 million is broadcast veteran Diane Sutter, a Pittsburgh native now living in Sherman Oaks, Calif. She has not been specific about what she would do with the station but it's widely believed she might carry some programming from Pax TV, which bills itself as "family friendly" and is not represented in this TV market.

This is WQED's third attempt to sell the station and a community group's third attempt to block it. This time, the lead is being taken by the Pittsburgh branch of CIPB, which attracted a dozen people to a meeting last night in Oakland.

The session had a sense of deja vu. In June 1996, the newly formed Save Pittsburgh Public Television campaign met in the same space to oppose WQED's first attempt to sell its sister station.

Some of the players have changed, but the topics have not.

"It's a difficult issue because, in some ways, people have gotten used to seeing public television that is so mundane and so boring that it's almost difficult to convince them it can be much better than it is," coordinator Cone said.

"But we do know from looking at other stations in places like Boulder and Philadelphia that there can be some really remarkable, interesting programming -- that it's not all endless doo-wop concerts." Doo-wop specials have become a lucrative staple for WQED and other PBS stations.

For Jonathan Sterne, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, the campaign is about defending the shrinking slice of the media not driven by profit. Media outlets can be a "wonderful and beautiful thing and they ought to be available for a wide variety of uses. It's not just making money."

A recent transplant to Pittsburgh, Sterne has lived in other cities with two thriving public TV stations. "I have a sense of what 'QEX could do," he said.

The petitions are part of a campaign by CIPB and the Alliance for Progressive Action. Viewers also are being asked to write or e-mail letters to FCC commissioners requesting they block the sale and deny WQED's license renewal.

WQED has been simulcasting, or broadcasting one lineup on two channels, since November 1997.

In fact, it's the simulcasting that provides motivation for Ginsburg, a professor in the School of Education at Pitt. "Whenever I start to get a little lax on this issue, I just flip through the channels" and get reinspired, he said.

The petitions also support the efforts of Pittsburgh Educational Television "to organize a viable alternative that will restore community-responsive public broadcasting on Channel 16 as soon as possible." PET was formed in 1996 in response to WQED's initial efforts to convert WQEX's license to commercial.

CIPB is working on an alternative business plan for Channel 16 and is hoping to attract labor unions, cultural organizations and community interest groups to it. But it would need the FCC to strip the Channel 16 license from WQED and hand it over to another group before that could happen.

One of the people interested in looking at this alternative plan is Glenn Walsh, a semi-regular at WQED board meetings. He attended last week's meeting and called the Sutter deal, voted on during private executive sessions, "just plain wrong."

"As long as WQED holds that license, no big-ticket organization will have anything to do with it. That's what I'm afraid of," Walsh said. "It would be nice if some other group came forward and was willing to use it for some type of public or educational purpose."

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