While the Carlyle Group was garnering attention this year for its attempt to force a restructuring at Harsco Corp., the Pennsylvania defense and industrial products giant, partners at the Washington merchant banking firm were more quietly eyeing much smaller targets.

Last month, Radio Ventures I L.P. of Marlow Heights, a limited partnership formed by Carlyle and another partner last year, acquired its third radio station since February, launching a plan to become a big player in radio broadcasting.

Carlyle and radio veteran Jerry R. Lyman, the partnership's other general partner, say they plan to build a major broadcasting company operating 12 FM and 12 AM stations in the southeastern United States over the next several years -- the maximum number allowed under current Federal Communications Commission regulations.

The company originally had a third partner, Ralph Hardy, a partner with the Washington-based communications law firm of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson. Hardy has since left both the law firm and the Lyman-Carlyle partnership, but he remains an independent consultant and legal adviser for Radio Ventures.

In February, Radio Ventures acquired its first station, Richmond-based WMXB-FM, for $18.7 million, culminating nearly a year of research and negotiation, said Lyman, president and chief executive of Radio Ventures. In April the company acquired WXTR-FM (104.1) of Washington for $34 million and on June 20 completed the acquisition of Suffolk, Va.-based WAFX-FM for $10 million, he said.

"We don't have anything else on the horizon," Lyman said. "Our initial goal was to form a company of three stations... . We love the triangle setup we've got now."

Funding for the acquisitions, totaling almost $63 million, has been provided entirely by the Carlyle Group. The purchases have been overshadowed by its much larger deals, including the bid to prompt a reorganization of Harsco.

But David Rubenstein, managing director of Carlyle, said the firm has wanted to pursue deals in the communications field for some time. "We don't want to be just {a leveraged-buyout} firm, or just a firm that's interested in the giant deals," he said. "Sometimes it's just as easy, or easier, to make money ... off the smaller deals -- if you pick the right smaller deals."

Under that strategy, Carlyle plans to make a variety of investments that "have interests throughout the economy," he said, and the radio venture is one facet of that plan.

"We wanted to get into communications, but we thought prices in television and cable were much too high," he said. The radio field also was attractive because it is not as fiercely competitive as the television industry, Rubenstein added.

With Lyman overseeing a full-time staff of four, Carlyle found an experienced hand to lead its venture.

From 1972 to 1984, he was general manger of WGMS-AM/FM here, and from 1984 to 1988 was president of RKO Radio of New York -- at the time one of the biggest radio broadcasting companies in the country.

But entering the market still was not easy.

"The radio market has not been good because the whole financing situation is so bad right now," Rubenstein said.

Carlyle invested about $25 million of its own funds in the acquisitions, he said, which made it easier to get loans for the remaining amount of capital needed to complete the purchases.

Historically, people who invested in media companies borrowed heavily to do so, Rubenstein said. But many banks are now reluctant to make such loans, unless the investor has more than 10 percent equity in the deal.

"It means that you're not likely to default on your loans, but you're also not as likely to make as much on your money because you're not highly leveraged," Rubenstein said.

But Carlyle is satisfied with its progress so far, he said. "We've shown our commitment to radio by putting a lot of equity into this ... and I think we've gotten good deals."