WHEN HOWARD UNIVERSITY television made its debut three weeks ago, I felt good, real good, I looked forward to the first black-owned-and-operated educational television station in the nation. Like others in the community, my expectations for a different viewing experience were high. A little like a thirsty person in a desert.
Our expectations were heightened by the long wait for the station to get on the air.It had been a rough six years getting started, with its appearance delayed by a series of hurdles the university managed to conquer.
On Monday, Nov. 17, the big night arrived to toasts from some 300 persons the university administration and the station management had invited to watch the first hour of programming. The community cheered at the opportunity for another voice to emerge, a voice too long excluded from the airwaves, an antidote to the pitiful wasteland that now exists for blacks on commercial television, and the inadequacies of public television.
Maybe we expected too much -- a hungry person seldom uses caution when he finally sits down to a long anticipated treat. But inflated expectations or not, we've been disappointed at the narrow and, at least so far, unprofessional scope of WHMM, Channel 32, which calls itself The Capstone Station.
The trouble started the first night. That evening, the station appropriately began its broadcasting in a congratulatory mode, with city officials and others praising the night and WHMM's promise. It was a perfect prelude to the station's getting down to serious business.
For the viewer's trouble of tuning in, however, he was rewarded with a travelog about Barbados, which droned on overly long about the visit there of the Queen of England. It's no surprise that Washington's considerable Caribbean community was angry with the fostering of the colonial viewpoint.
An interview with the head of the Howard University Gallery curiously was conducted by one of the university vice presidents and took place in the studio. The station presumably lacked the manpower to travel a few hundred yards away to the gallery where we might have seen the current exhibition.
Prime-time programming is shown five nights a week and includes 3 1/2 hours of local programming, as well as shows from other public broadcast stations. But even the borrowed programming is of uneven quality and value. A film on Mozambique, for example, was quite dated, while a monologue on prejudice by comedian Bill Cosby, though about 10 years old, did contain some historic interest.
A daily show called, "Evening Exchange" features a magazine-on-the-air format and is cohosted by Ann Sawyer and Jerry Phillips. But some persons have had a negative reaction to Phillips, who often appears uninformed about his guests.
Moreover, the station still leaves much to be desired technically, with one show often sliding so imperceptibly into another that the viewer is confused by what is before him.
Doubtless part of the problem is that more is expected than the station can today deliver. It was created as a training laboratory for broadcasting students, and the station's tiny staff sometimes finds itself in stressful, on-the-air situations, often with students who scant weeks before had barely touched a camera. Training minorities for the telecommunications industry is urgent and the administration is right in giving it high priority. Beyond that, the professional staff is seriously handicapped. There are only two producer-directors. A single person constitutes the design staff. There are no associate producers, no production assistants. Rarely will a station with so little manpower attempt as much local programming. "We just don't have the people to try to do what we need to do," admitted one staffer. The station's capacity is expected to expand within the next few months.
I'm sympathetic with the problems of money, manpower and mission which WHMM is experiencing. But even its role as a training ground for students is no reason to expect the community to support a mediocre station indefinitely.
I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is; WHMM will have to solicit funds from the viewers and that will doubtless bring it toward a higher level of excellence and professionalism.
WHMM's sister station, WHUR Radio, came on the air with personality and presence. But despite some instances of attractive programming, WHMM so far seems largely a tale of a good opportunity missed.
Howard University calls itself the Capstone of Black Education, and boasts some of the most talented men and women in the country. We viewers of the Capstone Station are still hungry -- and hopeful.