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WEDU hopes fund drive gets good reception

Imagine Big Bird going quiet in midsquawk, Louis Rukeyser unable to finish his pun, Lawrence Welk disappearing from the screen before the countdown even begins: "Anna one, anna two .

.

." Dozens of times over the past two years, WEDU-Ch. 3 has gone suddenly dark. The rest of the time, in some parts of the Tampa Bay area, no amount of dial-twisting can make the picture crystal clear.

The reason is simple: WEDU's transmitter is old, and its tower is too short.

"Our antenna is nothing but a bunch of rusted metal," said station president Mark Damen.

But finding the money for a new transmitter and a suitably high place to put it hasn't been easy for WEDU, which, like many public broadcasting stations around the country, has watched its membership wane and its fund-raising appeals grow increasingly difficult in this era of videocassettes and cable TV.

Now, in an emergency appeal, the station is asking its corporate donors and viewer-subscribers to contribute $1.5-million during the next three months to buy and install a new transmitter, transmission line and antenna.

It's an ambitious appeal. WEDU raised only $1.6-million in viewer contributions all last year and needs that money again to balance this year's $4.2-million budget.

"It is ambitious, but I have no choice," Damen said. "We have to keep Channel 3 on the air. .

.

. If it were to go off the air, it would be disastrous."

Damen said the broadcast problems began about two and a half years ago, when the Federal Aviation Authority increased the allowable height for broadcast towers to 1,649 feet. Almost immediately, all the commercial television stations put up higher towers. WEDU's nearby tower at the "antenna farm" in southeast Hillsborough County remained at less than 1,000 feet.

Because WEDU's tower is slightly north of the others, its signal is often blocked or clouded to the south, including parts of St. Petersburg and all of Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties.

To make matters worse, the station's transmission equipment is showing the effects of age and salty, humid Florida weather.

"Twenty-three years is a respectable life span for that equipment, but it has had it," Damen said.

One morning two years ago, Channel 3 went dark for about three hours, just as Captain Kangaroo and other children's programs were about to begin. The station got plenty of phone calls.

"Mothers get very upset with WEDU if their little kitten doesn't get to watch Sesame Street," Damen said.

Damen blames the recent decline in station memberships _ viewers who make a suggested contribution of $25 or more _ mainly on poor signal quality and the fairly frequent broadcast interruptions since then. He said about 500 people a month write or call to tell the station so.

"Usually it's just a scribble. They might say "Can't see you any more,' or "Lousy picture,'

" Damen said. "But they all mean the same thing, that they can't get our signal."

Improvement is on the way. Damen recently persuaded his board of directors to take out a line of credit for new equipment. Engineers are installing a new transmitter now. A new antenna and transmission line should be delivered in March, to be placed on a tower owned by competing commercial station WTOG-Ch. 44. Damen estimates the value of that donation at $2.5-million during the next 10 years.

He acknowledges that WEDU might not be able to collect all of what it needs during the next three months, as the current batch of frenetic fund-raising letters suggests. The line of credit will make up for whatever isn't raised through the fund drive.

But Damen said he was pleased with the response to an initial letter sent several weeks ago to major corporate donors.

"We've gotten several thousand-dollar checks."

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