The Federal Communications Commission is considering a major policy change that is expected to lead to creation of the nation's first black-owned VHF television station.
At a hearing scheduled for Dec. 19, the FCC will act on a proposal to "drop in" four additional VHF television stations, the first new stations on Channels 2-13 in about 20 years.
One of those new stations under consideration is in Johnstown, Pa., where black construction company owner Burrell L. Haselrig Jr. and partner Robert Audey have invested more than $150,000 in feasibility studies.
There are no black-owned VHF stations now. Black businessman Ragan Henry is negotiating to buy a Rochester, N.Y., station now owned by Gannett Co., a leading newspaper chain.
The Johnstown station, if it is approved, would be the first television station built from the ground up by a minority firm.
On the same day it takes up the controversial plan to add more VHF stations, the FCC also will re-examine its licensing of "clear channel" AM stations, an action also expected to create new opportunities for minority broadcasters.
The commission yesterday moved to enlarge the number of AM radio stations by seeking worldwide approval to expand the band of frequencies on which AM stations can operate.
Radio stations now broadcast on a range of frequencies from 540 kilohertz to 1600 kilohertz. The FCC will ask the International Telecommunication Union next year to extend the upper boundary of that range to 1800 kilohertz, making room for up to 700 new AM stations.
But a more immediate expansion of broadcasting opportunities could come from the FCC's decisions on two issues known as "drop-ins" and "clear channels."
Clear channel radio stations are powerful broadcasters whose signals at night cover as much as half the continental United States. Although radio stations in different geographic areas share most radio frequencies, the clear channel stations have no competition at that point on the dial. The clear channels were created in the early days of radio to serve rural areas with no local broadcasting.
With that need long since filled, the FCC is considering allowing new stations to move into some or all of the clear channel frequencies. That action, FCC say, would set off a gold rush of applicants for the new stations.
Minority broadcasters would likely get top priority for the new radio frequencies, because both Congress and the FCC have adopted politics aimed at ending the dearth of minority radio and television staions.
A minority firm has also led the fight for one of the four "drop in" VHF stations that are under consideration.
More than two years ago, the FCC said it would consider proposals to "drop in" additional VHF stations if it could be proved the new stations would not interfere with the signals of existing channels.
Although the nation's top 100 television markets were considered for possible expansion channels, only four communities proved to be technically feasible for additional VHF stations-Salt Lake City, Knoxville, Tenn. Charleston, W. Va., and Johnstown, Pa.
In an interview yesterday, Johnstown builder Haselrig said he had assembled a group of black businessmen to consider purchasing a failing UHF station in that city when he learned that the market might be opened up for an additional VHF station.
Johnstown has only one VHF station, owned by the local newspaper, the Johnstown Tribune, which also has AM and FM radio stations there.
Haselrig said he organized GATS Inc. - Group for Additional Television Service - and began a two-year effort to qualify for the license.
Although Haselrig and his construction company partner Audey have invested more than $150,000 in their technical studies and legal fees, they still will have to apply for a license for the channel if the FCC decides to allow the "drop-in."
Haselrig said he already has begun negotiations with the ABC network for the station and has started lining up black investors to provide the $2.5 million to $3.5 million needed to build the facilities.
That price, he noted, is only a fraction of what it would cost for a minority firm to buy an existing VHF station.
"This is the first chance for a minority broadcaster to get in on the ground floor like everybody else did and build their station," Haselrig said.
A coalition of television station owners has been opposing the whole concept of "drop-in" VHF stations, arguing that any additional transmitters will cause interference with the signal of existing stations. CAPTION: Picture, Robert Audey (left) and Burrell L. Haselrig Jr. want to build one of four new VHF television stations proposed by the Federal Communications Commission. By Joe Heiberger-The Washington Post