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PBS magazine may be moneymaker

It is a magazine you can't buy at the local newsstand, but you can get it by supporting your local public television station.

It's slick, full-sized, and splashed with color. It's TV Guide, People Magazine, Esquire, and a literary journal all rolled into one.

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The magazine is the Dial. You may not have heard of it, but it now reaches more than a million people in 15 major US cities.

Almost three years old, the publication is a sort of TV Guide for Public Broadcasting Service viewers. It carries the program listings you would expect, plus news and features related to PBS progams. It all makes for a slick magazine that is a cross between an esoteric journal and a pop-culture publication.

The magazine was started by a consortium of four stations - WNET, New York; KCET, Los Angeles; WTTW, Chicago; and WETA, Washington, D.C. Since then, however , it has spread to serve PBS viewers in 11 additional cities: Miami, Detroit, St. Louis, Rochester N.Y., Salt Lake City, Seattle, Milwaukee, Boston, New Orleans, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Portland, Ore.

The publication started out in 1980 with a circulation of 600,000 - the number of paid members of the original four stations - but that number has now jumped to 1.2 million.

But don't try to buy the Dial on your local newsstand. It is available only as a premium for PBS station members in the 15 cities. Each station pays a fee to add the names of its members to subscription lists. Local stations share in the advertising revenue from the local pages in the magazine. However, the mother publication keeps the national advertising revenues to pay expenses and, eventually, to help support the stations themselves.

According to publisher Peter Bonanni, a former publisher of the New York Times Magazine and book sections, as the magazine enters its third year it has had two successive break-even months. He hopes to see the magazine in the black in 1983. If this comes about, it would be quite a feat. Today it often takes several years and millions of dollars in losses before a publication is established.

Mr. Bonanni sees the 15 editions as ''a string of pearls with each edition a pearl which must be nurtured.'' Thus, there will be greater emphasis on editorial material in the local sections in the future, instead of mainly listings.

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The idea for the Dial originated with the British Broadcasting Corporation, which has put out programming-oriented publications for some time. Besides listings, there are many stories about miniseries in progress as well as on-camera and behind-camera artists. The editor of the Dial is Don Erickson, a one-time Esquire magazine hand. The latest issue includes ''King Lears I Have Known'' by John Houseman, a piece on choreographer George Balanchine by dance writer Anna Kisselgoff, and a column by Mortimer Adler on ''What Good Is Philosophy?'' All articles concern specials or series currently airing on PBS.

There is also a regular Public Broadcasting Crossword and previews of future programs. According to Mr. Erikson, the Dial has no sacred cows. One recent story that evoked widepsread response, for instance, was a rather unflattering profile of Katharine Hepburn. It aired the same month as a PBS tribute to her.

While the magazine comes as a kind of bonus to PBS members (and is advertised on the air as such), some recipients feel that unless the publication is a big moneymaker, it is a waste of PBS time and resources. They say the magazine competes with other publications that cover the same field. Moreover, it may compete with PBS itself for the underwriter's dollar. Observers say that in some cases corporations are diverting advertising funds from PBS progamming to the Dial.

There has also been a lawsuit filed against the magazine by another publisher. The suit charges the Dial with unfair competition because it purports to be a not-for-profit operation and thus gets lower mailing rates and tax benefits.

For a fledgling publication, the magazine has pulled in a smorgasboard of advertisers. The current issue includes such names as Oldsmobile, Time, IBM, and Mitsubishi. Some advertisers are beginning to discover the magazine as a vehicle to reach what they consider an affluent audience.

Two months in the black do not a successful magazine make, however. And it remains to be seen if the Dial can keep its head above water for a whole year. If it can, it will be not only a pleasant moneymaking surprise for hard-pressed PBS, but a near miracle in publishing as well.

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