Fate of Black TV Station in FCC Limbo : Television: The UHF outlet, one of only two black-owned public-TV stations in the U.S., is embroiled in a power struggle.
The fate of a black-owned public-television station in Los Angeles that has been kept off the air for more than 2 1/2 years has stalled within the Federal Communications Commission.
“Nothing official is happening on the case pending a recommendation by the (FCC) general counsel’s office on a request to disqualify the judge assigned to hear the case,” explained Rod Porter, deputy chief of the regulatory agency’s Mass Media Bureau.
The petition filed with the FCC to remove Administrative Law Judge Joseph Chachkin from a hearing that could end the long-standing dispute over who controls KEEF Channel 68 was filed in March, 1989.
The Los Angeles UHF outlet, operated by the Black Television Workshop and one of only two black-owned public-TV stations in the United States, has been dark since August, 1987. The FCC initially shut the station down for violations of the construction permit that the commission had issued but then kept it off to investigate allegations made in FCC filings by three original board members that control of the station had shifted without FCC authorization from the original board of directors to another group controlled by station founder Booker T. Wade Jr. KEEF has been in limbo ever since.
Porter would not speculate on the reasons for the 13-month-long delay in receiving a general counsel recommendation on Wade’s petition to disqualify Chachkin on grounds that he was predisposed to rule against Wade. Nor would Porter speculate on when KEEF might return to the air.
A spokeswoman for the FCC general counsel office told The Times there would be no comment on any aspect of the KEEF case because “it is a pending matter.”
FCC Chairman Al Sikes also declined to talk about KEEF, and Mass Media Bureau Chief Roy Stewart, whose office investigated the charges against Wade, deferred to Porter, his second-in-command.
“When a party files a request to disqualify a judge,” Porter said, “the proceeding is automatically stopped. Until that request is acted upon, the proceeding remains in a non-active status.”
Porter admitted that the five-member commission has the authority to act on Wade’s dismissal request without a recommendation from its general counsel, but said such a move would be “highly unusual.”
KEEF had been operating for only four months when the FCC shut it down. A year later, the agency declared that “KEEF-TV’s silence has deprived the Los Angeles community of noncommercial educational television programming intended to meet the needs of its minority populations” and gave temporary permission for the station’s original board of directors to return it to the air until the ownership issue could be resolved. But by then internal dissension at Black Television Workshop made that impossible.
“Are there any other possibilities of getting the station back on the air? None come to mind,” Porter conceded.
Wade, who could not be reached for comment, created the nonprofit Black Television Workshop in 1981 with the announced goal of building KEEF into the nucleus of a national black-oriented production center. Stymied by his regulatory stand-off with the FCC, Wade has spent more than 14 months trying to sell the station to the Burbank-based Hispanic Christian Communications Network.
The commission, however, has declined to approve any transfer until it settles charges leveled by several members of the original board of directors that Wade, acting then as legal counsel, wrested control of KEEF away from them by exercising provisions of by-laws that they had neither seen nor approved, then failed to properly disclose the change in management to the FCC. Wade has denied the charges.
Although an FCC Review Board asserted last November that it is “the singular province of the commission to determine who is or should be in control of a broadcast facility,” the controversy keeping KEEF silent has yet to be discussed by the five commissioners.
“I’m not familiar with the case at all,” Commissioner James Quello, a self-described “strong supporter” of public broadcasting, told The Times. “If it’s black-owned, its programs are black-oriented and the black community wants it, I would think those would be pretty strong reasons for putting it back on the air. . . . We wouldn’t take if off in a feckless way.”
Quello, the only current commissioner who has been with the agency since KEEF was silenced, told The Times he would look into the case, which still hasn’t been brought before the body in an open meeting.
“If the commissioners want to expedite this matter or any matter, (they have) the power to do that,” Porter said.
FCC officials said that the agency’s five commissioners have the authority to resolve the KEEF case immediately, by opening up the channel to new applicants, for example, or by approving sale of the station to a qualified buyer. The Mass Media Bureau, however, has so far been unwilling to forgo the proceeding that Administrative Law Judge Chachkin has been waiting to convene since December, 1988.
“You can always argue that it would be easier and faster to get the station back on the air by making an exception (to FCC policy),” said an FCC official involved in the case, who asked not to be named, "(but) we have to have a policy where, if you get into trouble, you just can’t sell the station and walk away.”
But Steven Yelverton, the exasperated former FCC attorney representing Wade, argues that the time has come to be flexible.
“This case needs to be settled,” he said. “The commission would be abusing its own processes not to give a good faith consideration to any such settlement.”
Both Yelverton and Vince Curtis, a Washington attorney representing the spurned Hispanic Christian Communications Network, have considered “abuse of process” lawsuits against the FCC in the hope of resolving the stand-off but say they are reluctant to antagonize the agency while there is still hope of a peaceful resolution.
While the various parties engage in a game of legal tug-of-war, several outside observers believe it is probably too late to save KEEF.
“The FCC has essentially strangled the baby,” concludes Charles Firestone, like Yelverton a former staff attorney with the commission. “It’s really death by fiat.”
Dan Brenner, an adviser to former FCC Chairman Mark Fowler during the 1980s who is now director of UCLA’s communications law program, agrees with Firestone that the commission probably erred by taking KEEF off the air in the first place.
“I think Charlie’s right,” said Brenner. “I would let new applicants in and simply start the whole process all over again. . . . The public will not be served one whit by finding out whether Booker had proper control or not. . . . Anything to end it would make sense to me and I think that’s good government.”
Firestone, now a Los Angeles-based communications attorney and director of the Aspen Institute’s communications and society program, feels the commission should have allowed some form of broadcasting to continue while the other issues were being resolved.
“The delay has worked against having an ongoing entity capable of operating the station and has in fact assured that there wouldn’t be,” he believes.
Firestone and Brenner also question why the FCC has not asked state authorities to determine who has legal control of Black Television Workshop, a nonprofit California corporation.
“The result is kind of outrageous,” Firestone said. “The opportunity for an independent, black-community broadcasting station is now gone. What’s going to happen out of all this? At best, the station will be sold to a religious group or the license is not renewed and the process starts over again with new applicants. It would probably take years to select a new operator.”