Will Howard University’s TV Station Be Auctioned Off to the FCC?

The nation’s top HBCU has to decide by December whether to auction off its most visible, and impactful, public utility.

The WHUT station on Howard University’s campus
The WHUT station on Howard University’s campus Wikipedia Commons

Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick is considering auctioning WHUT—the university’s public television station, and for 35 years the only black-owned public television station in the United States—to the Federal Communications Commission for anywhere between an estimated $100 million and $500 million, according to a universitywide memorandum released Friday.

The channel’s broadcast spectrum, containing both Channel 32 and its currently unused digital channel, Channel 32-2, would be submitted to an “incentive auction” that the FCC would have in March. The federal agency wants to sell the spectrum gained at the FCC auction to wireless companies that, according to the memo obtained by The Root on Sunday, “need more spectrum to accommodate the increased use of wireless services.”

If Howard applies by the filing deadline, Dec. 18, and the FCC accepts, the move could net Howard, which has seen significant cutbacks in staff in recent years, hundreds of millions of dollars in needed funds. But it would also deprive Washington, D.C.—a large and historic black community that has become increasingly gentrified in the last decade—of an important black-owned platform for documentary and local public-affairs programming targeted to blacks, as well as a significant opportunity for the university’s students in its School of Communications to learn television production.

Under the rules of the FCC national auction, the bid for WHUT’s spectrum could start anywhere between $184 million and $461 million, according to Frederick’s memo. But Frederick also explained that the FCC action is a “reverse auction,” meaning that the ultimate price will depend on how many channels across the nation compete to sell their spectrums to the FCC. He postulated that the university would probably get “a fraction” of the opening amount.

WHUT’s fate will be decided in early December by the university’s board of trustees, said Gracia Hillman, the university’s vice president of external affairs, in a telephone interview with The Root Sunday night. She confirmed the memo’s existence. Hillman also emphasized that Howard was just looking at its options within a process controlled by the FCC, not the university. “We are reviewing all the information available. … We have not made a decision yet.”

In his two-page memo to the university community, dated Oct. 16, Frederick called WHUT’s spectrum “valuable.”

“Through the auction, there is the potential for the University to realize significant income as a result of the sale of its spectrum,” he said. He also cautioned: “The upcoming Incentive Auction of television station spectrum will be a unique marketplace. It is unlikely to occur again.”

Howard’s president explained that the university has four options: sell, refuse to sell, change WHUT from the higher UHF spectrum to the lower VHF spectrum, or “partner or share broadcasting with another broadcaster.” Hillman confirmed that the two more complicated options outlined by the memo—moving the channel to a lower spectrum, something that the FCC would have to decide for WHUT if it gets all the spectrum it wants, and sharing airtime with another channel—are indeed on the table if Howard moves forward.

In the memo, Frederick explained that he understood what was at stake on both sides of the issue: “Howard University must consider the significant financial opportunity presented with the Spectrum Auction. At the same time, we will consider the value that WHUT adds to the experiential learning opportunities for students and faculty of our School of Communications and College of Engineering, and the program and public service opportunities we provide to WHUT through our loyal viewers.”