The University Record, October 2, 2000

WFUM-TV celebrates the past, looks to the future

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Operations Manager Ray Miller (right) makes an on-air appeal for community pledge support during the March 1982 Festival membership drive.
In August, WFUM-TV celebrated its 20th anniversary. As a public television station, it has brought local programming as well as syndicated shows to the Flint area since 1980, when then-station manager Gordon Lawrence and engineer Donald Balcom threw the switch for the first time.

Continuing a course of bringing local shows to the area, WFUM broadcast such programs as High School Challenge, an academic quiz show for regional high school teams, and the UMPTV Town Hall Series, a format that allows citizens to interact with experts on local and national issues—the 2000 census, crime, teenagers and violence, and the school voucher system.

But the station is operating with original equipment that needs to be updated and, under a recently issued federal mandate, must move from analog to digital transmission or lose its license to operate. The move to digital transmission will cost an estimated $10 million.

Now the station has another reason to celebrate—a $2.4-million award from the Mott Foundation that will help bring it digitally in line.

“The $2.4-million grant just awarded by the Mott Foundation is the most generous and important contribution we have received toward the goal of digital conversion,” noted Juan E. Mestas, U-M-Flint chancellor. “This major technological advancement will enable us to improve and expand our educational, cultural and civic services to the Flint community, as well as the other communities reached by our signal.”

In connection with the move to digital broadcasting (mandatory by 2003), WFUM will be physically moving to the William S. White Building in the next two years. The building is currently under construction.

WFUM-TV, while located on the Flint campus, serves U-M campuses in Dearborn and Ann Arbor, as well as 50 cable markets throughout central and southeast Michigan, reaching more than three million households.

Station Manager Gordon Lawrence (center) looks on as Kevin Smith (left) prepares to start broadcasting on Aug. 23, 1980. Photos courtesy WFUM-TV
In addition to the Mott funding, the station has applied for $2.9 million in federal funding for the conversion, competing with about 300 other public television stations in the nation. The remaining $4.7 million would be raised over a five-year period and would be used to expand and enhance programming to address the “digital divide.”

The “digital divide” is the gulf between those who have access to computers and the Internet and those who don’t, and public broadcasting stations can help to bridge the gap. Once digital conversion has been completed, anyone with a television and a keyboard can tap in to Web sites for information or to complete a university course, says Leon Collins, director of telecommunications and general manager of WFUM-TV. With digital cable broadcasting and reception capabilities, television sets will be able to function not only as an entertainment medium, but also as a computer, phone, radio, game station, movie theater, Internet access ramp and a mailbox.

WFUM-TV is channel 28 in Flint and available as channel 26 in Ann Arbor.