VILNIUS, LITHUANIA — FLORIDA media baron Mark Wodlinger's thrust into radio and television in the Baltics and the Ukraine comes more from a vacuum than a vision. These are parts of the world where reruns of ``Dynasty'' broadcast from nearby Poland are cause to break most social engagements. Here is a market happy to drink up what he offers - religious programs, commercial cable TV, and rock `n' roll.
In Lithuania, Mr. Wodlinger is the controlling partner in Vilnius' first and only FM rock `n' roll radio station - the first independent station in the Soviet Union. In Estonia and the Ukraine, he is engineering cellular telephone networks. In Latvia, he is the architect for a pioneer fiber optics communications system.
In all of those places, MTV, London's Super Channel, Cable Network News, and old Hollywood movies are on the long-term menu for his cable TV. Already in place in the Ukraine on radio, Jimmy Swaggart and two other Christian ministries will soon be standard Sunday morning fare on Baltic TV.
Taking advantage of the presence of joint TV receivers on the top of many apartment houses in the Baltics, Wodlinger plans to introduce his wireless TV cable system free of charge for six months. Presuming viewers are by then hooked on his programs, the signals will be scrambled and viewing will require a decoding box and a monthly fee. With some 90 percent of urban households in the Baltics and the Ukraine owning TV sets, Wodlinger sees payment of the cable TV bill becoming routine.
``They have a system where once each month a person comes into a central banking office with a book of coupons to pay his rent, telephone, and electricity. Now there will be one more, the cable TV bill,'' he says.
As borders relax, the introduction of Western consumer goods will be followed by commercial advertising, Wodlinger figures.
``Right now it wouldn't make any sense to advertise products that weren't on the shelves. But in time that will all change,'' he says.
Wodlinger explains that his interest in the Baltics was sparked by a newspaper article he read about a year ago which outlined Moscow's willingness to give Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia more economic freedoms. Accustomed to risky business, a nine-day visit last year ended in as many agreements with both government and independent firms.
Venture with ministries
With the exception of the Lithuanian FM radio station of which he is a two-thirds owner, Wodlinger shares equal partnership with the republics' local communications ministries. He estimates that the two dozen separate projects he has an involvement with will need a total investment of $300-$400 million.
``Our part from the West, including equipment and financing, is in the neighborhood of $100 million. Our basic deal is that the local ministries provide the people, the facilities, transmitters, and studios ... and we provide the programming and sales effort,'' he says.
Like other Western businessmen in the East bloc, Wodlinger faces a problem of unconvertible currency. He has met this challenge in several ways, including the religious programming. ``The religious programs will be paid for in the United States by religious groups. That will be a source of hard currency, of course. We also have plans to invest rubles in Soviet products which can be sold in the US,'' he says.
An American working closely with the Lithuanian government was skeptical about what he called ``the fiercest corporate rush week since World War II'' going on in the Baltics.
Referring to Wodlinger's plans to produce home-grown varieties of ``American Bandstand,'' ``Jeopardy,'' and ``Wheel of Fortune'' in the local languages, he suggests that other parts of Americana would better suit the intellectual needs of citizens of the Baltic states.
``Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have been in solitary confinement from the West for 50 years since the Soviets took them. They are obviously starving for what has been denied them, but their ability to discriminate is childlike and naive. I would advise them to seriously consider what they are about to import in terms of new values, particularly a mentality of consumerism,'' he says.