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Epilogue | Mark Damen

Former WEDU executive Mark Damen put public broadcasting station on solid ground

TAMPA — Through the late 1980s, his PBS colleagues considered Mark Damen a traitor. Fortune magazine even called him a pariah.

The reason: Mr. Damen, then president of WEDU-Ch. 3, had the audacity to pursue a channel swap with Channel 44. In so doing, WEDU would surrender its single-digit status enjoyed by other public stations in Florida, along with its VHF signal.

"That was considered the same as giving away our birthright," said WEDU's vice president, Leah Brainard, 67.

Mr. Damen, who died Saturday at 85, saw it as a way to make money for the station. In the end, he got WEDU a much stronger signal and wider audience without having to swap channels.

Mr. Damen's early years had prepared him for controversy and may have directed his career.

Born in Oosterhout, the Netherlands, he was forced out of high school in 1940 under the German occupation. As part of the resistance, Mr. Damen listened to Allied broadcasts in secret, then wrote news bulletins. Others slipped the one-page memos into cigarette packages for the public.

The Nazis found out what he was doing and tracked him to a Catholic home for the elderly.

"The nuns hid him out, Sound of Music-style," said Mr. Damen's son, Mark, 53, a Utah State University historian.

He spent several years with the Royal Netherlands Air Force, leaving with the rank of captain.

After coming to the United States in 1957, he worked for public television stations in New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Gainesville. As program manager for WUFT in Gainesville, he interviewed nuclear weapons pioneer Edward Teller and his colleague Robert Oppenheimer.

Mr. Damen signed on as WEDU's manager in 1977. After replacing Leroy Lastinger as president four years later, he entered into talks with broadcaster Stanley Hubbard, who owned WTOG-Ch. 44.

Hubbard wanted WEDU's VHF signal, and was willing to pay as much as $40 million to acquire it.

WEDU's research showed that switching to UHF wouldn't hurt the signal at all.

In pursuing the deal, Mr. Damen bucked a tide of purists who contended public stations who swapped channels for cash were selling out.

A federal law killed any chance of the deal going through. But by the time it passed in the early 1990s, WEDU had already moved to Channel 44's 1,649-foot tower, doubling the station's range and viewer donations.

"We don't think it could have worked out more favorably for WEDU," said chief engineer Frank Wolynski, 59.

Mr. Damen died the day after television switched over from analog to digital, confirming his vision of a changing technology. His son found that fitting.

"It's kind of like he was saying, 'I told you so,' " he said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

. BIOGRAPHY

Mark Damen

Born: Nov. 4, 1923.

Died: June 13, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Martha Louise Damen, son, Mark Damen and his son's wife, Frances Titchener; brother, Broer Damen; sister, Loes Zwennes; nieces, nephews.

Former WEDU executive Mark Damen put public broadcasting station on solid ground 06/16/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 10:51am]
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