You only need to be around the Smiths -- patriarch Julian, mother Carolyn and sons Fred, David, Duncan and Robert -- for a few minutes before coming to the realization that they seem like a typical television family. Not the founders and owners of a station, which is what they are, having launched WBFF-TV (Fox 45) 20 years ago and run it ever since, but the subject of their own show. And not one of the hip new comedies that air on their outlet, but a warm and wry sitcom from the early days of TV, kind of a cross between "My Three (or should it be Four?) Sons" and "Father Knows Best."
Listen as they gather in the stately Roland Park home of the parents to talk about themselves and the station, the sons joking and wisecracking and chiding one another as if they are at some sort of bawdy class reunion, adding to each other's thoughts, and ultimately deferring almost solemnly to the father, now confined to a wheelchair by Parkinson's disease and reduced to a few simple words of affirmation, and the mother, a quiet pillar.
The tale of Channel 45, and its founding family, takes an important turn tomorrow when the station launches "Fox 45 News at Ten," a nightly, hourlong, local newscast at a cost of about $5 million in new equipment, facilities and talent. The station -- which billed itself as the "telemovie" channel when it first went on the air on April 11, 1971, with 75 percent of its programming devoted to films -- hopes the investment will pay off in prestige as well as profits, narrowing the difference between Channel 45 and Channels 2, 11 and 13, the trio that has dominated the local television market for years.
"From an image point of view," says David Smith, president of Sinclair Broadcast Group, the family corporation that owns Channel 45 and television properties in four other cities, "when the news goes on the air, the marketplace will look at us as a virtual equal."
The potential of signals in television's UHF, or ultra-high frequency, band was something Julian Sinclair Smith envisioned far back as 30 years ago.
He was born here 71 years ago, the son of a prosperous grain exporter who took a huge hit in the Depression. But he was more interested in circuitry than commerce. He spent World War II at the Great Lakes Naval Station, instructing navigators on the intricacies of sonar, then returned after the war to study electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins, while working as an engineer at WFBR-AM, then one of the leading radio stations in town.
Upon graduating in 1952, he bought an electronics trade school downtown that remained in operation until 1979 and began a series of high-powered engineering jobs with Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab, Martin Marietta and Fairchild-Hiller. But he had his sights set on something more.
"I was listening to WCAO one day," remembers Fred, who at 42 is the oldest of the four sons, referring to what was then an AM radio colossus. "I couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 years old. And Dad said to me, 'In 10 or 15 years, nobody will be listening to that.' He said, 'The technology will not be as good or clear as what's coming down the line from FM.' "
In 1958, Julian Smith applied to the FCC for an FM radio license; two years later, WFMM-FM (93.1) went on the air as a classical and later light pop station. He built the control panels used by the station himself, on a table in the dining room of what was then the family home in Bolton Hill, and was the epitome of the hands-on manager.
"There was a song that when there was a transmitter problem everyone played twice in a row," says Robert, 27. " 'Amazing Grace,' two versions. It was the signal for Dad to head out to the [transmitting] tower."
"That was before they had cellular phones," deadpans Duncan, 37.
The sons became as drawn to the business as their father.
"Our job on Sundays was to clean the garbage out of the building," says Fred.
"It became a hangout," says David, 40.
L "Dad would give us soldering irons to play with," says Fred.
As early as 1962, Julian Smith began thinking of applying for a UHF television license. In 1965, he and a couple of engineer friends finally filed with the Federal Communications ( Commission; six years later, WBFF debuted with a mixture of old movies, syndicated reruns and children's shows.
To get the station off the ground, Carolyn Smith says, the family put up "every penny we had. And we had all the boys in private school at the time."
There was, she remembers, little discussion about taking such a momentous step. "It was a matter of him saying, 'This is what I want to do,' " she says. "He was not a person you could sit down and say 'No' to. I just held my breath."
Julian Smith was no idle dreamer. Far from it. He was more than willing to work, and work hard, to make his dream come true.
Bill Murphy, WBFF's business manager, who has been with the station since its inception, describes him as a "workaholic. He'd be up until 1 o'clock in the morning, trying to put the station together. He would put in so many hours it was incredible. He had an incredible appetite for work. He wanted to succeed when others didn't think it would work."
But Mr. Murphy says the elder Smith made time for those he worked with. "He was a people person," he says. "If you had a problem, you could sit down and talk to him and you never felt like you were talking to the chairman of the board."
Bruce Lumpkin, who went to work at the station three months before it went on the air and is now the general manager, remembers that many of the early rewards were psychic. "There were months upon months when Julian collected a paycheck from the business, but there wasn't enough money in the till for him to cash it," he says.
The Smith family routine was defined as much by the station's programming schedule as by the clock. "We had dinner 6 o'clock sharp," says Carolyn Smith. "That was Maxwell Smart -- 'Get Smart!' "
"A lot of families turn their television sets off at dinner," says Robert. "We turned ours on."
"We were always concerned about technical glitches," explains David. "It was kind of like a baby. You had to baby sit the thing all the time."
Not everyone appreciated the result of all that work. One newspaper critic wrote of an early version of the station's newscast, "A desultory news program comes on every night at 10:30, slithers its way across the screen and provides a boundless source of amusement for a few employees."
"Do we have to talk about the old stuff?" groans Robert.
"It was kind of 'rip and read,' " concedes David. "We did what we could economically in those days. It obviously wasn't the greatest product in the world."
At home, Julian Smith ruled with the same firm but gentle hand he used at work. In the 1960s, Carolyn and the four boys spent many summers at a rustic family farm in Keyser, W.Va., that had no hot water and a wood-burning stove. Julian would come up on weekends, leaving each child a list of tasks to be completed when he returned the following week.
A prodigious intellect himself, he encouraged his children to excel, but never pushed them. "He said, 'Just do the best you can,' " recalls Fred.
"That was the line," agrees Robert. "In math, I would tell him, 'I can't get this.' He wouldn't say, 'You're an idiot.' He'd say, 'Do the best you can.' "
The result is a family in which the sons honor their father but are not hamstrung by him. David and Duncan show up for a photo session in blue jeans, in marked contrast to their father's natty sport coat and trademark bow tie. Fred trained as an oral surgeon and David left the family business for a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s to form a company that built television facilities around the world.
It is also a family that provides a united front. Last year, the sons bought out their parents' interest in the business. David became the titular head of the holding company but says, "Titles are irrelevant. We all own 25 percent and we all have one vote."
Almost as soon as Channel 45 went on the air, Julian Smith began thinking of trying to replicate the success elsewhere. In 1974, he sold WFMM to Nationwide Communications, which changed the call letters to WPOC and the format to country music, to raise money to launch a station in Pittsburgh.
Five years later, he had a contract to sell WBFF for $16.5 million to a group headed by Larry Israel, former head of Westinghouse Broadcasting and the Washington Post. David, who admits the business had "cash-flow problems" at the time, says the sale offered an "opportunity to make a lot of money and expand the business" elsewhere. But the deal fell through when the buyers were unable to come up with the money, a happenstance the family now describes as "fortunate."
The 1980s saw the family buy out the station's minority stockholders and affiliate with the then-fledgling Fox network. They also saw a worsening of Julian's Parkinson's, first diagnosed in 1978. "The tragedy is that he can't fully enjoy what the station has accomplished," says Carolyn. But she notes that despite his infirmity he still goes into work for a few hours every day. "He may need help getting out of the house," she says, "but he's the first in there in the morning."
But no milestone has been as potentially significant as pTC tomorrow's launch of "The News at Ten," which the family began thinking of as far back as 1987 and for which it has restored a
44,000-square-foot building at the foot of Television Hill.
Rival executives are matter-of-fact about 45's entrance into the local news sweepstakes. "Any newscast is competition," says Arnie Kleiner, president and general manager of WMAR-TV (Channel 2), whose local news ratings have been upward bound recently. "There's also CNN and there's also WTTG [Channel 5, the Fox-owned and -operated station in Washington] at 10 o'clock. News at 10 is not new in this market."
But the program presents a definite challenge in a recessionary economy and an age when the television audience is fragmented by cable. "You don't dangle your feet in the water on this one," says business manager Bill Murphy. "You jump in or you don't. We're up to our necks."
But David Smith, saying Baltimore has been one of only two of 22 top television markets not to have a 10 o'clock newscast, says, "If it was a gamble, we wouldn't do it." He hopes to draw viewers from those who don't want to wait until the three network affiliates come on with their local newscasts at 11 o'clock and from those attracted to a one-hour, as opposed to a half-hour news program.
And Channel 45's position as the only locally-owned station will also be a definite plus, he says.
"We can cause the news to go in the direction we think is in the best interests of the station and the community," he declares. "We can do that because we live here."
Smith broadcast chronology
1958 -- Application filed for a license for WFMM-FM.
1960 -- WFMM goes on the air.
1965 -- Application filed for a license for WBFF-TV (Channel 45).
1971 -- WBFF goes on the air.
1973 -- Application filed for a license for WPTT-TV, Pittsburgh, first of four out-of-town broadcast properties.
1974 -- WFMM sold to Nationwide Communications, which changes its call letters to WPOC-FM.
1979 -- Deal to sell Channel 45 for $16.5 million falls through.
1986 -- Smith family buys out minority stockholders, forms Sinclair Broadcast Group; Channel 45 affiliates with the Fox Broadcasting Co.
1990 -- Julian and Carolyn Smith sell their interest in the business to their four sons.
1991 -- "The News at Ten," an hourlong 10 p.m. newscast, debuts.