Armstrong Williams may be the consummate Washington insider, but he is logging serious mileage outside the Beltway as he hits various markets to moderate issues-based town hall meetings. Williams is more than a moderator—he’s one of the very few African-American station owners in America, whose Howard Stirk Holdings includes WCIV Charleston, WWMB Myrtle Beach, WBMA Birmingham and WEYI Flint. He says he arrives in the cities a few days early and simply chats with the local citizenry to see what’s on their minds.
“I’m getting to know the markets better,” Williams says. “I’m getting to be a better broadcaster.”
Much has been made of the dearth of African- American ownership of commercial stations in the U.S., but Williams is not the only minority owner putting his stamp on local programming. On Aug. 3, DuJuan McCoy’s WEVV Evansville brought back local news after its demise at the station.
Williams’ position as an owner would not likely exist without the backing of Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has sold Howard Stirk Holdings (HSH) stations that the massive broadcaster could not retain due to ownership limits. The various deals, including Sinclair selling WCIV, an ABC affiliate, for $50,000 following its Allbritton acquisition, raised eyebrows around the industry for their bargain basement price, but ultimately passed muster with regulators. Williams refers to David Smith, Sinclair president and CEO, as a close friend.
‘Right’ on Point
A conservative commentator who got his start in Washington as an assistant to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Williams hosts both a local and national show under his “Right Side” brand. He was dinged up by a scandal a decade ago, in which he did not divulge payments made to him for speaking in support of then President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative, a snafu Williams speaks openly about and has put behind him. Williams’ national profile may have decreased as he has focused on the local markets, but the affable broadcaster remains a presence in DC political punditry. “He’s a pretty dynamic guy,” says Paul Farhi, Washington Post media critic.
Williams initially did not wish to comment for this story, preferring that the town halls be the focus, not their moderator. The forum topics range from political and social issues to personal betterment, and air on a mix of HSH stations, Sinclair’s WJLA and NewsChannel 8 cable network, and other Sinclair stations, depending on the scope of the topic. According to HSH promotional materials, the sessions are “focused on addressing local and national issues with the goal of creating dialogue that drives action, and positive outcomes throughout the local community and nation.”
“We really believe in serving the community through them,” says Marques Mullings, executive VP of HSH.
Sinclair has been criticized for imposing conservative viewpoints throughout its group, though those charges have mostly subsided as the group has grown to one of the largest in the nation. “You wait and see how they may be sneaking their particular pet organizations and issues and all that into the discussion,” says Farhi. “But from what I’ve seen, it’s hard to find anything sinister.…You can’t be completely cynical about them.”
Back to School
Williams is also working to train and hire minorities in local television. Through his foundation, he’s set up a training program at Coastal Carolina University near Myrtle Beach. Fourteen students will start with the program in January, learning the various aspects of broadcast journalism, and he plans to expand it to each of his owned markets. Besides Williams’ own seed money, he says Smith pitched in $100,000.
His town halls touch on a wide variety of topics. WBMA Birmingham hosted “The Relationship Between Law Enforcement and the Community” earlier this summer, while “The Survival of Our HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities]” went down in South Carolina. Aug. 15 tackles “ISIS and Terrorism,” and Aug. 29 has “Too Many Laws on the Book” scheduled. Farhi refers to the public affairs oriented programming as “eat-your-spinach stuff,” but gives Williams credit for running them. “That they exist at all is noteworthy,” he says. “It’s something local broadcasters don’t do, and should do more of.”
The travel may be a grind, but Williams—who is adding stations in Las Vegas and Lancaster, Pa.—is clearly energized by the panels, and by ownership. “We’re very satisfied going to bed at night,” he says, “knowing we’ve made a difference.”
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