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MINORITIES SCARCE AT LOCAL TV STATIONS MANY HAVE GONE TO BIGGER CITIES

OCTAVIA HUDSON resigned her job as a Channel 4 reporter this month.

Pam Oliver, who had been co-anchoring the noon news, left in March for a job in Tampa, Fla., and hasn't been replaced.

Since Hudson had been on leave since October, WIVB hasn't had a full-time, on-air minority reporter or anchor in close to four months.

Channel 2's new weekend anchor, Wanda Starke, is the only on-air minority person in the news department. She replaced Sandy White in March. White had co-anchored the weekend news with another minority journalist, Les Trent, until Trent left in December to become a reporter in San Francisco.

Channel 7 is the only station with two minority reporters -- promising weekend anchor Jean Hill and general assignment reporter Winston Brown. However, it has not filled its minority training position.

A TV news scene with so few minority journalists on the air would be embarrassing enough on its own.

But there's an additional reason for the local affiliates to be uneasy about their apparent insensitivity to the minority community.

Two Buffalo network affiliates are now owned by minority groups, which is far above the national ownership level of 3 percent.

Channel 7's owner, Queen City Broadcasting, has a chairman and largest stockholder, J. Bruce Llewellyn, who is one of the richest members of a minority group in America. His ownership group includes some prominent athletes and entertainers including Dave Winfield, Julius Erving, Bill Cosby's wife, Camille, and the Jackson family (without Michael).

Channel 2 is owned by Tak Communications, whose owner, Sharad Tak, is a native of India.

Channel 4 is owned by King World, but it also has a minority connection. Oprah Winfrey is an investor.

The new owners might not want to be judged differently, but you might have thought they would have promoted the hiring of on-air minorities rather than preside during the lowest employment level in years.

In fairness to the local stations, the absence of minorities on TV news and in print journalism is a national trend.

To their credit, Channels 2 and 4 also recently hired minority photographers.

And the departures of Oliver, Trent and former Channel 7 anchors Karl Brown (Los Angeles) and Nona Barbee (Detroit) also point out a real problem for local stations: Strong minority anchors and reporters are lured to bigger markets.

The impetus to leave, however, is even greater because no black has ever advanced to a weekday prime-time anchor position in Buffalo.

Ironically, some people believe the new owners may be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

With heavy debt loads, they have more economic pressures than the previous owners. The theory is that the new owners can't afford minority recruitment and training programs or don't want to spend the money.

Sarah Norat, the program director at Channel 7 and the only minority in top-level management in Buffalo television, calls the reduction in on-air minorities "a sad statement for diversity, period. Certainly we have a large enough percentage of the population in this community that is minority, and largely African-American, that all of the news operations should have a significant presence."

The City of Buffalo is about 30 percent minority and the county about 13 percent minority.

Norat knows the stations' ready excuse, that "qualified African Americans don't want to move to Buffalo." But, she adds, "Stations have to find a new way to do outreach, toward the development of training and developing their own talent."

Why hasn't Channel 7 filled its minority intern position? "I assume it is a budgetary consideration," said Norat.

Although no station would admit it, there has been an unofficial quota system for years of two minority reporters per station.

"Numbers speak for themselves," said Norat. "It's hard to make an argument against there being an unofficial quota system. At one point we might have had three or four. We knew it wouldn't last long."

Perhaps the best way to change the system is to put pressure on it. But the local chapter of the National Black Media Coalition, an advocacy group, appears to be dormant. John Smith, the local chairman of the Black Media Coalition, faults the new ownerships for failing to change the old pattern.

"It is institutional racism within the stations," said Smith. "They are afraid to change because it might have an effect on income. They are up to their necks in debt."

"People who have talked to the new owners say they say, 'We're running a business and we have to trust our management and let them do what needs to be done,' " said Hudson.

She echoes Smith's comment on institutional racism, but sees hope in Channel 4 General Manager Gary Nielsen. Hudson, who has taken a job at Buffalo State College, credits Nielsen for assigning Oliver to the noon news and also praised him for holding her job for months while she was on leave.

"I'm encouraged by Nielsen," said Hudson. "I think they'll replace me with some other minority." Channel 4's new news director, Tony Ballew, is expected to speed the search for minorities.

White, a pleasant and smooth anchor, was believed to be in line for Oliver's job. She believes the departure of News Director Tim Larsen hurt her chances. She is now commuting to New York City to be a reporter for cable's Black Entertainment Television.

White says a better question than why there are so few on-air minorities here is why minorities are relegated to weekend and early morning shifts.

"Pam Oliver was the first anchor in a long time who was able to get out of that shift," said White. "So many blacks don't stay in Buffalo because they know they are not going to get any further in their careers."

She said she was offered a new contract by Channel 2.

"I was also told that I would probably not go any further than the weekends," said White. "I decided to think about my future. Did I want to stay at a station with this kind of mentality?"

Channel 2 General Manager Tom Hartman declined to be interviewed for this column.

Hudson, who wasn't as smooth a reporter as White, feels she's a symbol of lack of opportunity.

"I was a general assignment reporter for seven years. You want to do other things; you want to do some anchoring," said Hudson. "I had one news director tell me I wasn't attractive enough to anchor. That's the kind of thing you get in the industry."

Of course, evaluating TV talent is subjective and the stations' certainly have the right to make their own judgments. But numbers are objective and there is no excuse for having only three on-air minorities.

Hudson and Smith feel that local stations don't try too hard to keep minorities.

"The African-African community is not thought of very highly by the stations," said Smith. "They feel any African-American will do, so you can replace that person and still not lose your African-American audience."

Sadly and noticeably, the stations haven't even done that lately.

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