NY-based Muslim TV network survives after founder charged with beheading his wife

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — A year ago, the future of a television network that was formed to counter negative portrayals of Muslims after 9/11 was in doubt after its chief executive was charged with killing his wife, the company's general manager.

With Bridges TV's two founding forces — Muzzammil "Mo" Hassan and Aasiya Zubair Hassan — suddenly out of the picture, the first English-language TV channel in the U.S. devoted to Muslim lifestyle faded to black.

But not for long.

Within a week of Aasiya Hassan's death, Bridges had a new general manager, elevated from the ranks of the roughly 25-member staff. Hunaid Baliwala reached out to viewers through e-mail with a promise to move the groundbreaking station forward.

"While the staff is obviously in a state of shock given how closely we all worked with both Aasiya and Muzzammil," Baliwala wrote, "we are all unwavering in our determination that, for the sake of Aasiya's vision of this channel, we remain strong and continue the good work that she had initiated."

More than a year later, Baliwala said, Bridges is succeeding in that goal.

It launched an improved website on Feb. 12, the anniversary of Aasiya's death. And with ties to Mo Hassan ended, the network has settled into a smaller, more focused operation.

"Here we are a little more than a year later and a much improved product than what we were before," Baliwala said recently at the network's bare-bones studio in suburban Buffalo. The channel, with its mix of political discussion, sports, cooking and news, is carried in about two dozen markets, including Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

"We closed 2009 with about 3.7 million households," Baliwala said. "Right now we are up at about 4 million households nationwide and still growing."

When Mo Hassan, 45, walked into the Orchard Park police station and said his wife was dead, the grisly crime made news — but barely. Soon after officers found Aasiya's stabbed and decapitated body at the television network, the Buffalo-area news media became singularly focused on another tragedy that occurred the same day, the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 onto a Buffalo-area home, and its 50 deaths.

In a way, it gave the Bridges staff breathing room, away from the public glare.

Faced with the choice to walk away or press forward, employees thought about their own futures and the Hassans' young son and daughter, then 4 and 6 years old. Baliwala wanted the children, now living with Aasiya's mother in Pakistan, "to have something at the end of this," he said.

"We sat down and said let's look at everything," said Baliwala, who had previously handled the network's investment relations. "We had, in our own minds, hit rock-bottom. The only way was up. So in that sense we took this opportunity and we looked to reassess ourselves and see what we had to do."

Bridges surveyed viewers about programming preferences, signed on new programming, revamped its locally produced newscast and moved on with a staff of 10.

After issuing a public statement offering condolences to 37-year-old Aasiya Hassan's family, the staff stayed determinedly silent as Mo Hassan's second-degree murder case headed to court.

It was important for advertisers to see the killing as something unrelated to the station and its mission to build understanding among cultures.

"They realized this was something that was separate," Baliwala said. "It was a domestic case that happened to happen at work."

The station's carriers stuck by it too, to the relief of investors.

"We didn't know what to think" after Hassan's arrest, said Todd Goergen, whose Ropart Asset Management had been Bridges' first institutional investor. But more than a year later, "it's growing and it's cash-flow neutral," he said.

The idea for Bridges TV began during a road trip the Hassans made in 2002, when a pregnant Aasiya was disturbed to hear derogatory comments toward American Muslims on the radio. She wanted an outlet that could make her children feel good about their identity as Americans and Muslims. She persuaded her husband, who previously worked for Kodak and M&T Bank, to take the lead.

Its mission, to foster understanding among cultures, remains.

"It has such a valuable function," said author Robert Lacey, who taped a half-hour program about his book, "Inside the Kingdom," at Bridges in the fall and is rooting for its young staff to move the station forward and succeed.

"It's such a tragedy that this undeniable event contradicts or damages the message so much," he said of Aasiya's death. "It's no good pretending that it doesn't."

As Hassan's second-degree murder trial approaches, Bridges employees know it will renew attention on the network. He has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers have indicated they will pursue a psychiatric defense that will include claims it was Mo Hassan who was abused. Pretrial proceedings continue Tuesday in Erie County Court.

"We're never going to be removed from this," Baliwala said. "But we do what we can. There obviously are going to be challenges when that starts, and we'll handle that when it comes."


On the Net: www.bridgestv.com