When it went on the air on Nov. 17, 1980, Howard University's WHMM was the nation's only non-commercial television station licensed to a predominantly black institution.

Today, nearly a decade later, it still is.

That status -- unique in the United States and special in a community that boasts the most robust black middle class in the country -- would seem to give Channel 32 a firm niche in American broadcasting. But there is a problem.

WHMM is also one of three PBS outlets available to viewers in the Washington metropolitan area, and airs some of the same programs they do. The others -- WETA in Washington and the Maryland Public Television stations -- dwarf Channel 32 in resources.

Under its new general manager, Ed Jones, WHMM last year embarked on a dramatically different type of fund drive designed to raise money as never before from corporations, foundations and from viewers who have not matched money to their viewing habits.

But now there is a new challenge facing the station: In line with a university-wide policy, Howard's new president, Franklyn G. Jenifer, has cut Channel 32's budget.

"We are holding his {Jones's} feet to the fire," said Jenifer. "We expect the organization to be self-sufficient."

Jenifer added: "The fund-raising has to be successful ... I hope we don't have to cross that bridge when the capital of the United States is not ready to support a public station like this ... We have just begun to fight."

The cut alone is not that dramatic, some $130,000 from a budget of $4.3 million a year. But it comes at a time when a year-long fund drive has sputtered along.

Jones said this is the first time in the history of the station that a definite cut has been imposed. He added that there has been no real growth in WHMM's budget to compensate for increased production and programming costs for at least the last five years.

To counteract the trend, the station began its first major fund-raising drive. Launched last September, the campaign's goal is to raise $1 million from viewers, corporations and foundations for new programming and equipment. Jones lists corporate donations totaling less than $100,000.

Howard University's decision to decrease its contribution as well as WHMM's planned increase in local productions prompted station officials to try to raise another $550,000 by September through a direct-mail campaign and on-air appeals scheduled to air between Aug. 4 and 12.

Jones's goal for Channel 32 is self-sufficiency, "to relieve the university of this obligation by the year 2000." But he predicted that lay-offs would follow "if we can't get a handle on fund-raising and get the community involved."

He pointed out that if only one-fourth of the estimated 375,000 black television households in the Washington area contributed the station's membership fee of $32, the station would raise $3 million.

"That's how simple this problem is ... That's why I remain so hopeful."

Ed Jones has been general manager of WHMM since November 1988. He came to his job after a long career in commercial television programming, promotion and production locally at Channel 9 and in Hartford, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

He walked away from television in 1985 to study for the ministry, but returned when WHMM officials sought him out following the resignation of program director Otha Brandon. (He was ordained last month by the Montgomery Baptist Association and serves as the assistant pastor to the Koinonia Baptist Mission in Silver Spring.)

He served first as a consultant to WHMM and then as director of broadcasting before replacing Arnold Wallace as general manager. His mission: to develop a programming and fund-raising strategy at WHMM.

Jones sees WHMM's role as informing its audience and interpreting the world for its viewers.

Its primary target audience is the African-American community, "Democratic, Republican, rich, poor," Jones said. He wants to reach "the young African-Americans who are killing themselves, {so they may} ... gain pride and self esteem ... {and learn that} your heritage is too rich to kill yourself." Channel 32's secondary audience, he said, is other minority communities and white viewers.

The $1 million fund-raising drive is part of a six-year plan to raise more than $7 million for new programming and new equipment at the station.

Marketing and development manager Sydney White said WHMM is looking for companies that would contribute to Channel 32 out of a desire to serve the community, rather than to advertise.

Contributions so far include $10,000 from Pepco to fund local programming, and $37,500 from the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Foundation to fund an upcoming series on urban health, as well as $5,000 from the National Institute on Aging.

Jones said these grants were a first for WHMM, and added that in the past the station had not had "an aggressive marketing strategy, part of ... {its} overall problems."

He added, "It is going to be an uphill battle all the way. We are going to need every $32. It's a considerable challenge for us as a station. It's never been done before."

Jones, who believes that viewer support is crucial to his station's future, is trying to raise the WHMM membership rate with a new fund-raising technique. Approximately 25 spots air throughout a day's programming like commercials on commercial television. The spots feature WHMM personalities soliciting viewer support and provide a telephone number viewers can call to pledge their contributions between sign-on and sign-off.

They replace the biannual fund-raising drive used by WHMM, which pitted it directly against WETA and MPT, in an unfavorable competition. According to Jones, WHMM actually spent more money organizing the drives than it raised.

Jones said the new approach has been successful so far, raising an average of $2500 a week and giving station officials viewer feedback as well.

WHMM is also using direct-mail campaigns and its newly computerized data bank to solicit new members and retain them through better service.

WHMM's annual budget for the last five years has been about $5 million. As a university-licensed public television station, it has derived most of its revenues from a grant by Howard University, an average of $4.3 million annually.

Only one in 200 Channel 32 viewing households is a subscribing member, Jones said, and over the years there has been a high turnover among members.

WHMM members contributed $200,000 in the fiscal year ending in June 1990. Though this is more than twice what they contributed in the previous fiscal year, Jones noted, it is far less than the station needs to grow.

By contrast, a WETA spokesperson said its viewers contributed almost $10 million in the fiscal year that ended in June for use by the radio and television divisions of WETA. One of every five WETA viewing households was also a member in 1989. WETA's overall budget was about $40 million.

WETA has also cultivated substantial corporate support for its programming. Local businesses, corporations and foundations contributed $1,630,000 for unrestricted use by WETA in the 1990 fiscal year. Local and national corporations and foundations contributed $25 million for specific programs produced at WETA. Most of this money was allocated to the television division of WETA.

As a state-licensed network, MPT receives substantial support from the state of Maryland. A little over half of its $22 million budget in the 1990 fiscal year was contributed by the state. One in 10 MPT viewing households contributes to their stations, producing about $3 million in the last fiscal year.

The rest of MPT's 1990 budget came from corporate underwriting, the sale of MPT programs such as "Wall Street Week" and "Timeline," and a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (also received by WETA and WHMM).

WETA and MPT audiences are far larger than those of WHMM. Whereas WHMM reached 397,000 households per week, WETA reached 817,000 households per week, according to February 1990 Nielsen figures. The same figures show that MPT's statewide system of six stations reached 700,000 households per week.

If the competition of other PBS stations weren't enough, WHMM, like PBS stations in general, also faces competition from cable services that generate similar programming. The Arts and Entertainment network and The Discovery Channel are competing for PBS-type programs and viewers, and Black Entertainment Television is after much the same audience as Channel 32.

WHMM hopes to become active in providing programming for a national audience. Later this year, PBS stations will be offered Channel 32's weekly news analysis show, "Reporter's Roundtable," hosted by "Evening Exchange's" Kojo Nnamdi.

"Reporter's Roundtable" is an edited version of "Evening Exchange's" Friday night news analysis show, and is broadcast on Saturdays at 8 p.m.

WHMM has also planned a number of documentary and magazine-type series and specials. Funding has been obtained for some and is being sought for others.

WHMM was begun with two purposes: to provide Howard students with a training laboratory, as well as to present black-oriented programming for the local market. (As a training center, WHMM has turned out almost 1,000 Howard students schooled in the creative and technical aspects of television production, many of whom have gone on to media-related jobs.)

Arnold Wallace, who was general manager of WHMM when it went on the air in 1980 until 1988, said WHMM's dual mission and the fact that the station was responsible to the school caused problems. University officials, he said, did not have a clear programming agenda when the station was founded, did not understand what it would take to run a television station and were not willing to commit the resources necessary to run it.

"No one ever gave me ... written goals or a statement," he said. "I was just told it should be different."

He expressed frustration that the station was overseen by university officials who had no background in broadcasting, and treated WHMM as another academic department. "{University officials} did not appear to understand the national potential {of WHMM} ... as a credible national voice for black Americans."

There were bureaucratic problems. For example, he said, a request to purchase newspapers for program producers was denied because university officials felt that the producers would "sit around and spend the day reading papers." Requests for equipment were sometimes not fulfilled for months, he said, because of bureaucratic rules.

Wallace's comments were supported by the observations of Mildred Morse. As assistant to the president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and director of human resources development from 1980 to 1989, she assisted WHMM during the station's formation. She is now president of Morse Enterprises, Inc.

"Universities are academicians, not broadcasters," she said. "You cannot run a broadcast station like an English department.

"If a light bulb goes out in an English department, it has to be requisitioned ... If a light bulb goes out in a television station, you need it within minutes, not weeks."

Jones said he feels less constrained by the relationship between Howard and Channel 32. He pointed out that he has increased local programming and fund-raising at WHMM "playing on the same playing field, {with the} same university, same mission, same staff {as Wallace}."

But he conceded that he had some help that Wallace had not had, namely Howard's new president, Jenifer, who took over as president in April after James E. Cheek's 20-year tenure. He is "much more outgoing" and has helped with on-air appeals and in trying to raise funds in the community, Jones said.

Marketing and development manager White confirmed that relations between Howard University and WHMM had been stormy in the past, but have improved under Jones.

"{We} cannot try to change a university bureaucracy," said White. "{We have to} help them to understand how a station can work in the context of a university bureaucracy."