Rockville radio station WINX, celebrating its 30th birthday as "the station that has an affair with the community," is facing challenges by Washington-area groups that are questioning the station's commitment to minority concerns and seeking to have its operating license revoked.
The fight for control of Rockville's only radio station has divided some of the area's best-known politicians, businessmen and civic leaders in a lively debate over how well the station has served the community over the last three decades.
A group called Community Airwaves, headed by Maryland State Sen. Laurence Levitan, and with the support of two other Washington-based black media organizations, has taken its case to the Federal Communications Commission, which licenses broadcasters.
But for the station's owner -- United Broadcasting Co. of Bethesda -- the battle stretches far beyondthe range of its Rockville airwaves. The challenges to WINX are only the latest in a series of assaults against the communications empire of the late Richard Eaton, the white Bethesda radio pioneer who died in June after building his black and Hispanic-oriented radio stations into one of the nation's largest privately-owned communications corporations.
Eaton is recognized as a pioneer for establishing radio station WOOK in the District in 1947, the first radio station targeted for the capital's black community. Many of his nine other stations follow similar formats, programming for black or Hispanic audiences. Nonetheless, the challenges to many of those stations are coming from minority groups or groups with significant numbers of minority stockholders.
"It's a question of ownership," said Roscoe Nix, director of the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP. "Blacks now believe that they should be owners, like any other group. It's like how the question used to be our right to sit on the bus. Now blacks want to own the bus companies."
Nix said blacks want ownership in order to control programming on stations supposedly geared to black audiences. "It's now all the kind of programming that blacks are getting resentful of," Nix said. "It's all rhythm and blues, with a lot of jive-talking. Blacks believe that what is being done is kind of a put-down. This kind of music and programming has no redeeming social value for blacks."
To many Eaton supporters, these challenges from groups claiming to represent minorities better are the ultimate in ingratitude, since it was Eaton, after all, who first established black-oriented radio programming in this area.
"Because of the fact that he was a white guy doing this, he got attacked by some minorities," said one Eaton backer who requested anonymity because of his proximity to a case pending before the FCC.
WINX's middle-of-the-road popular music format is not oriented toward a minority audience, but four other United stations facing challenges -- in New York, Baltimore, San Gabriel, Calif., and the District -- aim their programming toward black or Hispanic audiences.
Washington attorney Bucky Bernard, who represents groups involved in two of those challenges, said United stations are tempting targets for would-be minority station owners because the company has lost license challenges in the past.
"This one particular company has a poor track record, according to the FCC," Bernard said. "The FCC favors minority ownership. The impetus for a minority group would be to go in and challenge based on that preference. Unless you have a licensee that has already lost a license, it's pretty hard to go in and challenge."
The FCC has revoked one United radio station license in Miami and one in the District for improper conduct by the company. A federal administrative law judge has issued an order initially revoking two more licenses in Cleveland for violations of FCC rules and policies as well as federal communications law. United has appealed that order. The company was ordered in 1974 to sell two New Hampshire television stations after Eaton was found to have made improper payments to an ABC network official.
In an April memorandum issued in connection with the challenge to United's D.C. station, WOOK-FM, the FCC wrote: "United's past misconduct is serious, repetitive, [and] far-flung . . . "
Jack Beach, United's press relations representative, defended his company's record by pointing out that other large companies have also lost licenses.
"Any time a license comes up for renewal, any responsible group that thinks they can do a better job can challenge it," he said. "It's an easier way financially to go in and challenge for an existing license than to go in and build from the ground up. It's not unusual."
While none of the current challengers are accusing United of specific instances of misconduct, all are drawing attention to the history of challenges to the company.
WINX vice president and general manager Pierre Eaton, Richard Eaton's son, said his station's record should be considered on its own. But Community Airwaves, Inc., has decided that United's past record makes WINX vulnerable to a serious challenger.
Community Airwaves includes among its four stockholders a prominent black Washingtonian, former Army secretary Clifford L. Alexander. Company officials think Alexander's presence will improve their chances for a favorable hearing from the FCC, which recently issued a policy statement favoring minority ownership in broadcasting.
"There's a 25 percent black minority owner there," said lawyer Lou Cohen, who is representing Community Airways."The commission favors minority ownership. Richard Eaton was not a minority. It's a critical distinction. His programming is aimed at blacks, but it is not owned by blacks."
Two Washington-based black media groups filed a challenge to WINX's license renewal in September, claiming the station had failed to hire enough minorities. The groups, National Black Media Coalition and the D.C. Media Task Force, charged that WINX employed only one black in a high-salary position in 1979 and none in 1980. There are two blacks on WINX's staff now, but the groups said in a brief filed with the FCC that the new black staffers represent a "sudden upgrading, occurring the year license renewals happen to be due." oth media groups recently announced their support for Community Airwaves, because of its one-quarter black ownership.
WINX lawyer Harry Cole, in a separate brief filed with the commission, called the charge "ill-founded" and pointed out that two blacks on a staff of 11 is within FCC guidelines. Also, Cole said, both persons were on board before the licensing renewal period began.
Pierre Eaton said he was "shocked" by the first license challenges in WINX's history. He immediately launched a counterattack, beginning with a barrage of support letters from prominent county and Rockville city residents, including Rockville Mayor William Hanna and County Council member David Scull.
"I'm afraid its definitely going to be a fight," Eaton said. "I'm not going to sit back and let them take my license."