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The battle to keep Detroit's WGPR; blacks are fighting to block CBS's purchase of the nation's first black-owned TV station.

The battle over Detroit's WGPR-TV, the nation's first black-owned TV station, is shaping UP as the Motor City's version of the Johnson Products debate. Opponents of the sale are angry because the station's owners have agreed to sell to a majority-owned network, CBS, instead of to other blacks.

CBS became interested in WGPR after the Fox network bought Detroit TV station WJBK, which had previously been affiliated with CBS. The sale of WJBK meant CBS faced the possibility of having no network affiliate in the nation's ninth largest market.

In September, CBS announced it had agreed to purchase WGPR. Although the station began broadcasting CBS programming last December, the sale is still pending before the Federal Communications Commission. Regardless of whether the FCC eventually approves this bid, the station is expected to remain a CBS affiliate.

The sale of WGPR angered a group of black investors who wanted to buy the station and operate it themselves. "I could come in and do a hell of a job," says Joel Ferguson, a developer from Lansing who led a black investment group that bid on WGPR. They planned to retain. much of WGPR's trademark programming, while still operating the station as a CBS affiliate.

Ferguson calls WGPR's decision to sell to CBS puzzling, especially since his offer of $36 million was substantially more than CBS's $24 million offer. Ferguson and other Detroit leaders are trying to block the sale, so they can either buy WGPR themselves or form a joint venture with CBS.

WGPR went on the air in 1975, when it was purchased by the International Free and Accepted Modern Masons, or the "Black Masons." "It's important to the African-American community that Channel 62 was America's first black TV station," says Bishop P.A. Brooks, one of many community leaders who have joined the fight to block the sale. "It's a sacred property."

Maybe. One thing is for sure: WGPR, which struggled as an independent, will be much more profitable as a CBS affiliate with network programming.

Ferguson, a real estate developer with properties in 14 Michigan cities, already owns a successful ABC-TV station in Lansing. Ferguson's group is not contesting WGPR's affiliation with CBS; rather they do not want CBS to own the station. Baffled by WGPR President George Mathews' decision to sell to CBS, Ferguson questions Mathews' commitment to the black community.

But Mathews appears unruffled by Ferguson's criticisms. "We're in America, and we certainly have freedom," he says. "I cannot tell you who to sell your business to, and you cannot tell me who to sell my business to." Mathews tagged Ferguson and other critics "Johnny-come-latelies" and questioned why they didn't step forward several years ago when the station was having financial problems. "There was no one else in line when CBS came to us [in 1994]," Mathews says.

Ferguson is better known in political than business circles. He was Jesse Jackson's Michigan campaign manager in '84 and '88, and last year he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. But he has not let Mathews' rebuff stop him. He's formed a company--Spectrum Detroit--that includes a BE 100s CEO, Dave Bing; auto dealer Mel Farr; Sam Logan, the publisher of the Michigan Chronicles; and 95 churches.

Michigan Congressman John Conyers has also entered the fray, vowing to do all he can to persuade the FCC to reject the deal. Although he understands the financial implications, Conyers believes black owners would retain the station's black-oriented programming. As an independent station, WGPR's format included religious programs, music shows and ethnic talk shows. "We have an opportunity to keep the station in its current programming priorities," Conyers says. "Empowerment of the African-American community must not be lost."

CBS has said it will spend substantial sums to expand WGPR and to boost its signal, and it will make major programming changes. Black professionals such as Hoyett Owens have played a visible role in the network's efforts to acquire WGPR. Owens, a Chicago-based public relations consultant, will help CBS develop Detroit programming. "I'm African-American, and I'm sensitive to doing what's right," Owens says. "And CBS is sensitive to going into a city like Detroit and making sure they attract viewers."

But that's not enough for Ferguson and his supporters. They welcome WGPR's affiliation with CBS, but they want to be the station's sole or majority owners.

"CBS would rather give a banquet for minorities, as opposed to sharing the upside and the profits," Ferguson says.
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Author:Holly, Dan
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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