Unashamed idealists

At reunion: proud of past, concerned for future

By Steve Behrens

The man who put New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia on the radio, reading the comics during a newspaper strike — M.S. “Morrie” Novik — talked the other day about his first trip west of Chicago.

That excursion to Iowa more than 50 years ago was also the first time the head of New York’s municipal radio station, WNYC, had much contact with the midwesterners who were big in “educational radio.” Novik recognized they were up to the same thing he was, and he joined a fellowship that continues today.

He was among his fellows again Oct. 8-9 [1993], during a Public Broadcasting Reunion, where a big roomful of admitted idealists reminisced, ribbed each other, tut-tutted about things these days, and unabashedly proclaimed their values.

As did William Harley, once president of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters: “Not many can say to themselves, ‘I did something worthwhile today — I stretched some minds, I nurtured some souls, I opened some windows on the world.’”

He and his colleagues could say so, as the inheritors of educational radio and the founders of public television.

These people had attended many a meeting over the years, but this one somehow left many of them elated. “People, for the first time in many conferences, had a really good time,” said Donald McNeil, who organized the reunion. “There was an emotional pitch about the connection between the past and the future.”

By the end, retirees and working stiffs alike were talking about pushing for improved training — and a renewed sense of mission — to help their successors carry on in the multichannel era.

Before leaving D.C., they saw the new National Public Broadcasting Archives [sidebar article], founded by McNeil, where artifacts of their careers will reside.

The grayheads turned up their hearing aids, commiserated over illnesses, called people “pups” if they had worked in the field just 10 years, and congratulated a colleague for his child’s achievements (Bob Schenkkan’s son Robert won a Pulitzer for his play “The Kentucky Cycle”). The straight and tall Harley, one of the grandest old men present, celebrated his 82nd birthday during the reunion.

Remember when?

As they indulged themselves in nostalgia, listening to oral-history tapes of colleagues no longer alive, there were little gasps around the room at the mention of half-forgotten names.

The old-timers talked about:

  • the big duplicating machines that began grinding out copies of radio programs in the 1930s so that they could be shipped from station to station;
  • the panic that set in when kinescopes of scheduled programs didn’t arrive on time via Greyhound bus;
  • the many conferences in Urbana, Madison and other college towns — including Columbus, where stripper Rose La Rose always seemed to be performing at the Gaiety Theater;
  • the time Freida Hennock, the feisty FCC member who fought for ETV’s reserved channels, was accidentally smacked in the head with a boom mike operated by Lee Frischknecht;
  • the day when O. Leonard Press alarmed the FCC staff by wheeling in a cart loaded with 13 applications to start up Kentucky ETV;
  • the Nixon Administration’s maneuvers to get public affairs programming off the PBS schedule after the 1970 airing of the documentary “The Banks and the Poor”; and
  • the day when Mister (Fred) Rogers captivated an impatient Senate committee, bringing old legislators to tears and reportedly causing Chairman John Pastore to turn to his aide and say, “Give him the $20 million.”

In his retelling of NAEB’s history, Harley recalled the pivotal grant from the Ford Foundation’s Fund for Adult Education that led to the foundation’s vital support for early public TV. NAEB won that grant in the ’50s to demonstrate that educational radio could be as entertaining as the programs on CBS or NBC, Harley said, and the proof was in such series as the 1951 docudrama The Jeffersonian Heritage, with Jefferson’s words elegantly enunciated by Claude Rains.

Ford Foundation officials were impressed. “In a way,” Harley said, “educational radio gave the start for public television.”

Harley also looked back at the tense period during the Nixon Administration when the White House canned CPB’s first president, John Macy, and brought in Henry Loomis, who “wanted to crack down” on PBS programming.

Loomis happened to be in the audience and later stood up to deny the charge. He told Nixon aides that he wouldn’t work against public affairs programming on public TV, he said. Though Nixon’s assistants did write memos about cracking down on PBS, “that doesn’t mean it was accepted or anybody did anything about it,” Loomis said.

Off with Lawrence Welk

On the second day of the conference, nostalgia gave way to admonitions about the future.

Chalmers “Chuck” Marquis — public TV’s man on Capitol Hill for more than two decades — noted that federal aid generally has declined as a portion of the field’s funding. “That tells you a great deal about what programming will be,” said Marquis, candidly, “because the programming follows the money.”

Loomis, the second CPB president, observed that the quality of appointees to the CPB Board quickly declined from the “first-class people” appointed by Lyndon Johnson to a group of “fourth- or fifth-level patronage” appointees and “ideologues.”

James Loper, former president of KCET in Los Angeles, who went on to run the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, advised public TV stations to pay no attention to ratings and to take Lawrence Welk reruns off the air. “We don’t want to look like a cheap imitation of the Family Channel,” he said.

Bob Schenkkan, former head of KLRU in Austin, agreed that education holds a special power as a motivator of supporters, including station board members. “When you say something to that board about education,” he said, “everybody sits up a little straighter. … There is an enormous amount of concern out there about the education of children.”

Proposes a leadership institute

In an address linking past to future, Nebraska ETV General Manager Jack McBride urged pubcasters to avoid “overemphasis on audience numbers,” which could turn PTV away from “the ideals of the pioneers.”

“The opportunities are greater in the future if our successors are wise enough to take advantage of them,” McBride said. But he said it remains a “serious, serious question” who will replace the current generation of station leaders.

Margaret Chisholm, a prominent lay board member from Seattle, specifically urged the field to found a “leadership institute” that would identify potential leaders and train them for the future.

Mike Soper and Sandy Welch, two of the younger participants, voiced their own worries. Soper, the development chief at WETA in Washington, wondered how well the field can compete for bright newcomers. “How do we paint a bright future for public broadcasting,” he asked, “instead of an uncertain future?”

McBride could offer no assurance. Public broadcasting’s future will always be indefinite, he said. “I do not think the day will ever come when we have truly adequate funding.”

John Witherspoon, a onetime CPB official now teaching at San Diego State University, was more encouraging by implication: “If [Mike Soper] thinks the future is uncertain today, he should have been here in 1963.”

Like Soper, Welch, executive v.p. for education at PBS, said that she was concerned that many workers in the field today don’t know its history or understand its ideals. She picked up on a point made earlier by McBride: “They’re struggling, because we currently have no systematized program of training for people to move through the ranks.”

In her 20 years at Kentucky ETV, before coming to PBS, Welch said her boss, Len Press, had given his staffers that kind of “training and nurturing.”

“He made it clear what business we were in — helping people. We were there to help the people no one else was helping.”

She thanked Press for occasionally “yanking us by the hair.”

“We had the Nielsen book at KET, but we hid it whenever Len came in the room.”

And Welch testified to Press’s editorial integrity. “It was a miracle that he could cozy up to all those governors and legislators, and never let them touch the programming.”

As Witherspoon and others have observed, Welch contended that public broadcasting was a good way to spend a life.

She remembered the advent of ETV in Lexington, Ky., in 1968, when she was a school librarian and saw kids nearly “riot” to get copies of The Wind in the Willows after the children’s book was featured on educational TV’s reading series Cover to Cover.

“Seeing youngsters respond, seeing adults with tears streaming down their faces because they learned to read — these are the rewards I am so enriched by.”

But would today’s public broadcasters be motivated in the same way? Though some folks had doubts, Schenkkan said he isn’t too worried about a shortage of younger idealists. “If we give them the opportunity to participate in a new crusade,” he predicted, “I think they’ll pick up their swords and their shields and be off to the Holy Land.”

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