The Howard University Board of Trustees today announced its plans to make broadcast spectrum used for its campus public broadcasting station, WHUT, available in a Federal Trade Commission auction this spring. And while it remains to be seen if WHUT will continue to exist in its current format, the move should show alumni, students, and other stakeholders that the university is taking a responsible, entrepreneurial approach towards the role of the station, and the future of the school.
The FCC auctions give television stations nationwide a chance to sell broadcasting licenses back to the government, which plans to auction the airspace to mobile network companies, which will use it to develop wireless Internet access with faster speeds and greater room for data transfer.
At issue for Howard’s license is the mission of WHUT, a station that since the 1980s has served as one of the nation’s oldest and most active black-owned television stations. More than just a learning laboratory for students or a public showcase vehicle for campus activities, Channel 32 has always been the DC-Maryland-Virginia region’s premier resource for black cultural affairs and broadening knowledge of the African Diaspora.
But that mission is an extension, not an independent enterprise, of Howard’s mission. And like many black colleges around the country working to deal with new trends in enrollment, new realities in federal and state funding, and struggling to connect educational access and affordability, Howard has an obligation to stretch the dollars it has, and to find new ones at every turn. WHUT’s current public access model has not raised the kind of funds that help to make this decision easy, or its broadcast potential profitable.
Some stations in major media markets are estimating that they could earn between $300 and $500 million for their spectrum licenses. Howard holds a great deal of leverage in deciding if it will sell its license, which will likely go for an even higher price if the first round of auctioning is successful. And that higher price tag could mean exponential investment in the university’s endowment, student scholarships, technology upgrades, deferred maintenance, faculty raises, and more. From HU President Wayne A.I. Frederick’s letter to the Howard community:
The Board of Trustees considered the many opinions expressed by students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the WHUT Community Advisory Board and its loyal viewers. It examined the University’s unique position as a public television broadcaster, the value that WHUT adds to experiential learning opportunities for students and faculty, and the program and public service opportunities provided through WHUT to its broadcast audience. It also considered alternative ways to accomplish these goals and the significant financial opportunity presented with the incentive auction. Over the next months, we will continue to develop an overarching Media and Communications strategy that realizes our content, academic, and broadcasting opportunities.
Selling the license doesn’t signal the end of WHUT or its content. The HU School of Communications will be able to fast-track what many cable and network companies are already doing — streaming content online to personal devices and smart TVs. If played right, the move positions Howard to break new ground in campus-based media partnerships with companies like Comcast, and stands to expand its viewing audience and learning lab opportunities for students, all within a 21st century context.
Howard can choose if it will sell the license and go off the air, or remain on the air at a lower frequency or with another station. If Howard stands to make hundreds of millions to reinvest in the university and its people, is it worth letting go of what has been an important community asset for more than 30 years?
If it means that the nation has a chance to see Howard University operating at its peak for 30 more years, then the answer is unequivocally yes.