KQED made its mark by making programs

Commentary by David Stewart

San Francisco’s KQED-TV remains one of the most-watched public TV stations in the country, but, in the 1980s and ’90s it suffered under the expectations of a viewership that recalled its early years. David Stewart reminds us of KQED’s fertile ’50s and ’60s.

In his history of public TV, The Vanishing Vision, James Day recalls that the first year of KQED/San Francisco, 1953, was nearly its last. Its headquarters was in the back seat of a station wagon. Day, the president, and a staff of eight had managed to keep the station on the air, but the board, alarmed by its increasing debts, had decided to call it quits.

Day argued successfully for one more month to raise enough money to reorganize, to bring the Bay Area’s corporate leadership onto the scene.

Friends donated a few thousand dollars, a public relations organization was hired, and an all-night telethon was held. Net gain: $6,000, not nearly enough. With the 30-day grace period about to expire, the PR firm proposed a drastic solution: stage a 24-hour TV auction. The idea seemed crazy. But as Day remarks, “… skepticism surrendered to desperation.” The now-exhausted staff agreed to give it a shot. After all, KQED had taken its call letters from the Latin phrase “Quod erat demonstrandom” (“that which is to be proven”). A final push toward fiscal solvency seemed necessary.

No one could have guessed that out of the ensuing bedlam of donated barking dogs, chirping birds and the frenzy of on-air sales, the production crew was creating the mother of public broadcast pledging. The crisis was averted, the KQED Board was reorganized and, more important, as Day says, “We became part of the community.” In 1954, KQED got by on $69,500. By 1991, the budget topped $33 million.

Meeting adversity with creative programming was to become a characteristic of KQED. The telethon and auction were themselves examples of innovative, attractive live television.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time, “Without realizing it [KQED] put on the best show that has been on a San Francisco station.” The telethon had featured, along with civic leaders, physicist Edward Teller and stripper Tempest Storm. During a later auction, someone bought the (unlaundered) sheets in which Kim Novak had slept the night before at the Cliff Hotel for $250, cut them up and made them into ties–in which form they were auctioned again. Shirley Temple, a frequent guest, once led the bidding for a boa constrictor. During his auction stint, Dick Gregory remarked, “One hundred years ago I would have been for sale.” In 1963, the year WGBH sent its first French Chef programs to a national audience via National Educational Television (NET), Julia Childs’ cooking knives became KQED’s first membership gifts.

‘Don’t flush during broadcasts’

KQED was the country’s sixth public TV station. When it went on the air it possessed the nation’s least promising production facilities, particularly for an organization so determined to create live programs. Its first studio was a dressing room atop the Mark Hopkins Hotel (on top of “The Top of the Mark”), close to its transmitter donated by commercial station KPIX. The quarters were so cramped that in order to frame his subjects the cameraman had to back into an adjoining bathroom.

This site gave way to a trade school where signs in the restrooms above the studio warned, “Don’t flush during broadcasts.” Eventually, a truck garage was rented (for $500 a month) and converted–egg-crate acoustic walls–by the staff to a usable facility. Here, however, there were unremovable columns (frequently disguised as trees) in the middle of the studio space.

Throughout this time, KQED produced hundreds of live programs, in some part because its own programs cost less than the ones then for sale (many of its production crew were volunteers). And then there was Jonathan Rice, the program manager, an exceptionally curious, intelligent and daring producer. It was Rice who urged the creation of live programs seemingly impossible to create in those improvised circumstances–performances of small orchestras, dance and jazz groups, for example. He also offered air time to articulate people–stevedores, artists, mechanics, scientists, politicians, cultists and cooks.

On the station’s 25th anniversary in 1979, Rice described the projected schedule when the station went on the air: “Of the 23 programs, only seven were expected to come from sources other than KQED. Partly because programming available was very . . . limited, educational television consisted largely of high hopes.” Those who worked with Rice then speak of his willingness to support their frequently off-beat program concepts and his help in turning their ideas into programs without constant supervision.

In KQED’s first live program, Day interviewed Frank Baxter, who had enjoyed great success teaching Shakespeare on TV in Los Angeles. It was the beginning of Kaleidoscope, a series of interviews that would run until Day left the station to become president of NET in 1968. Kaleidoscope was ideally suited to KQED, to Rice’s inquiring mind and Day’s informal but persistently probing style. Its early programs featured Buster Keaton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Aldous Huxley, Bing Crosby, Robert Kennedy, Maurice Chevalier, Ella Fitzgerald and Ogden Nash.

Commenting today on the success of Kaleidoscope and similar KQED series, Day gives much credit to San Francisco, itself: “It made a great difference. We were in a city that was wide open to new ideas. It attracted talent from around the country. Once we got our name in Time and Newsweek, people came to us, people who were able to do and say unconventional things.” People and their ideas were KQED’s chief assets. Very early in its long string of important productions was a debate between Nobel-winning biochemist Linus Pauling and H-Bomb architect, Edward Teller. It was seen locally and nationally before becoming one of public TV’s first internationally distributed programs.

Rice assigned his secretary, Winfred Murphy, to produce Kaleidoscope after Day complained, “I can’t keep calling my friends to appear on the show.” Several guests were later put to work on their own series. One was Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman/philosopher whose 12-part Conversations with Eric Hoffer, produced by Murphy and distributed by NET, created an enthusiastic national audience.

‘But he’s cute’

In her unrelenting search for new talent, Murphy learned (from a young studio crew member) about an artist, Takahito Mikami, recently arrived from Japan. She recruited him to demonstrate Japanese brush painting on Kaleidoscope, a broadcast that Day says was “distinguished by his inability to understand my questions and my inability to comprehend his responses.” Day recalls: “When we finished, Win said, ‘Wow, that would make a great series!’ I told her she must be out of her mind. I’d been in Japan for two years and I was certain she couldn’t find anyone to watch Japanese brush painting. ‘I know about that,’ she replied, ‘but he’s cute.’”

In the end, Day suggested she talk to Rice who, typically, encouraged her to try it, with a budget of next to nothing. “I went out and bought hundreds of rolls of pink toilet paper,” she says, “to make blossoms for the set. I made blossoms for days.”

As it developed, T. Mikami (he apparently thought two Japanese names might be more than an audience could handle, even in San Francisco), proved to be not only cute but an immensely skillful artist and teacher. “He was good,” says Murphy, “and he knew he was good. He hated rehearsals, thought them phony, but was flawless in performance.”

Japanese Brush Painting became the first of KQED’s unqualified hits, both locally and nationally. Its extraordinary success, however, nearly derailed the series before it could muster a full head of steam. The station had put together some brush painting kits–an ink stick, a stone on which to rub it to create ink, a brush and some rice paper–so that viewers could sketch along with Mikami. The entire staff, including the engineers, sat on the floor putting the kits together. “In no time,” says Rice, “I had a corner on all Japanese brush painting equipment in the U.S.” The kits were advertised for $3.00. The demand was sudden and overwhelming, requests far outnumbering the kits that could be assembled from existing supplies. Whereupon the ever-resourceful Rice began working the phones until he found a new airline flying to Japan. It agreed to bring in thousands of sets for an on-air credit.

When NET distributed the series it received considerable national attention. In 1958 and ’59 an enormous number of people were drawing fish, bamboo leaves, pine trees, roosters and horses (Mikami also turned out to be a champion rider and polo player). The series sequel, Once Upon a Japanese Time, was equally popular. Few seemed to mind that Mikami’s drawing paper occasionally slipped off his easel. During one live performance, baby chicks that had been brought in as models escaped, running through the artist’s ink and throughout the studio. (Recently, I discovered the brush painting materials I had purchased from KQED nearly 40 years ago, much to the delight of my grandchildren.) When it became clear that the brush painting craze had peaked, KQED quickly mounted a new national series on origami, the art of folding paper.

Ready for the ’60s

As part of KQED’s original staff, Richard Moore was hired as membership director. Moore, who had been a ballet dancer (with Jose Limon) and poet, was one of the early associates of Pacifica Radio and an executive and announcer at its first station, KPFA in Berkeley, where community support for noncommercial radio had been invented. At KQED, he soon became a TV producer and an accomplished filmmaker. As a poet he had been associated with Kenneth Rexroth’s anarchist libertarian group. “Coming to KQED in 1952 was my version of going straight,” he says.

It was Moore who suggested the series, Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life and recruited its host, Alan Watts, who had been presenting–also at Moore’s request–a regular Sunday morning program on KPFA entitled Way Beyond the West. Those who may have considered Japanese brush painting an esoteric and unlikely alternative to commercial TV (until its undisputed popularity) must have been truly bemused by Eastern Wisdom, another one-person presentation.

“Alan Watts was very intellectually important to me and others,” says Moore, “both at KPFA and KQED. We thought there should be opinions expressed that were not the products of western civilization. I remember bringing him into the KPFA studios and telling him the programs needed to be exactly 15 minutes long. I asked him if he wanted a countdown. ‘Oh, no,’ he said and ad libbed a perfect 14-minute, 30-second program. Quite astonishing.”

Watts, a former Anglican priest and leading exponent of Zen Buddhism in the U.S., illustrated his talks with Asian art objects as well as drawings and diagrams that he created with Chinese ink and brushes. By far the most impressive production element in these half-hour programs was Watts, himself; his deep and resonant voice, his piercing eyes and graceful movements. Though many viewers may have understood little of what he said as he examined contrasting concepts in Eastern and Western philosophies, few would forget his enthralling cadences and riveting presence.

Watts was born in England in 1915 and educated at Kings School in Canterbury. He published his first book (of many), The Spirit of Zen, when he was 20, three years before he came to America. His slight British accent and ascetic features did nothing to diminish his attractiveness. By the time he began his talks on KPFA he had been a guest professor at Cambridge, Harvard and Northwestern universities and dean of the Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco.

Alan Watts’ KQED debut on June 1, 1959, followed Kaleidoscope, by now the station’s most popular program. “Death” was its singularly inauspicious premier theme. Sitting cross-legged in the lotus position, Watts discussed the wheel of life and the Buddhist idea of reincarnation. It was, most agreed, mesmerizing. Once again, KQED had created a success from what many thought was improbable material. The audience grew as Watts contrasted Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist concepts of physical and moral pain, Zen gardens, Zen in fencing and Judo, and the relationship of Zen to psychiatric techniques.

For audiences on the cusp of the counter-culture ’60s, these were pregnant topics. In some sense Watts brought to Zen what Max Morath was then bringing to ragtime music (The Ragtime Era), produced at public TV station KRMA in Denver: a command of his subject, a quick wit and an intensity that many would (and did) call “showmanship.”

Moore and Watts, near neighbors in Mill Valley north of San Francisco, were friends for many years. “As much as I respected him,” says Moore today, “he was not in the same league [intellectually] as Lew Hill [founder of Pacifica]. By the time he got into his second year at KQED, I began to have misgivings about Alan’s increasing interest in his self-image and the softening of his inquiring mind.

Alan Watts continued to write and lecture long after his Eastern Wisdom series had been run repeatedly on the public TV circuit. The Library of Congress contains 57 of his programs in its NET archives collection. His son, Mark, now distributes the videotapes as well as a large number of audio cassettes through his San Francisco company, Electronics University.

Richard Moore would eventually succeed Day as KQED’s president and later become president of KTCA in St. Paul-Minneapolis. He produced a wide variety of programs for KQED, nearly all of which were distributed nationally: Jazz Casual with Ralph Gleason, which set the standard for such series; Monterey Jazz Festivals; the only TV program ever made with John Coltrane; film documentaries such as “Take This Hammer” (about racism, with James Baldwin); “Love You Madly,” a profile of Duke Ellington; “Losing Just the Same,” on ghetto life in Oakland; “Louisiana Diary,” about voter registration, and one of the first helicopter fly-over programs, following the California coast from Mt. Shasta to the Mexican border. With funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, Moore once produced a ballet in the open air of San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square. It was choreographed by Merce Cunningham with sounds (the crackle of taxi radios) arranged by John Cage and entitled, not inappropriately, “Assemblage.”

Moore made 110 film documentaries at KQED, most of them for NET distribution, after he and Day established the Special Projects Unit across the street from KQED’s main studios. He describes its independence as “a great advantage,” adding, “Neither Jon nor his staff ever forgave me.” Of all the programs, he believes the Poetry USA and Writers in America series will have the most lasting influence because of their continued use by colleges and universities, and says the Ellington documentaries, including “Sacred Concerts,” were the most interesting because of Ellington himself.

Hated the familiar

Rice reflects upon Moore’s penchant for odd subjects: “He hated anything that was familiar. He would drive me crazy wanting to do things that often didn’t seem to make any sense. He didn’t want to do anything typical.”

“When I got there, Dick Moore was the great creative force,” says Candyce Martin, a former CPB staffer who now heads her own production company, Crossways. Martin was hired by KQED in 1964, when she graduated from Stanford.

“When I arrived, San Francisco, and KQED, were in the throes of the ’60′s: flower children, rock music, drugs, experimental drama, political protests, encounter groups. We were trying it all.

“But one of the most extraordinary things about KQED was the volume of production. When I was there we were putting out 22 programs a week, live or onto tape. Everybody did a lot of work. You might produce two or three shows and direct one or two for someone else. All the producers were jammed into one large room. At opposite ends were private offices for Jim and Jon. For a year, I shared a desk with Tony Smith. He was brilliant.” (This was Anthony Smith, then a BBC producer, sent to KQED on a fellowship. He was later one of the architects of Britain’s Channel 4 and is now president of Oxford University’s Magdelan College. Another fellowship employee was poet-writer Maya Angelou.)

By the late ’50s, KQED had moved to larger quarters from its original offices, described by one staff member as “three rather tacky offices above Woolworth’s.” But its production studios, even in the ’60s, remained inadequate. Time Magazine, while describing KQED as “the best noncommercial station in the country,” (of 149 then on the air), reported that its studio was in “three splintering wooden warehouses near San Francisco’s Skid Row.”

Local personalities continued to be pressed into service to host dozens of programs, most of them live and back-to-back: the “Hop, Skip and Dance” kids would be ushered out the door just in time to make room for the Who’s Who at the Zoo animals. Mortimer Adler’s Great Ideas would very nearly blend with Profile: Bay Area, hosted by Casper Weinberger (later Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense). The station sold several hundred thousand copies of the study guides accompanying Laura Webber’s Folklore Guitar. A national series on semantics was presented by S. I. Hayakawa, and Ansel Adams hosted Photography, the Incisive Art. Edward Teller taught a physics course.

In a 1967 feature headlined “KQED Rules Mkt. in Creativity,” Variety quotes a local commercial TV executive: “I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how they can get away with it.”

Jonathan Rice, now 80 and completing his most recent term on the KQED board, remembers, “I have this image of Cap Weinberger and Alan Watts–now there’s a funny combination! But give them a one-minute cue and they could both end their shows with a perfectly phrased paragraph. There are very few people who can do that. My talent, skill or good luck was to be able to do things with minimal tools or the wrong tools.”

KQED was now hitting its stride, and still improvising. Most of the sets were dressed with furniture from the homes of staff members and furnishings from the Salvation Army. Rice was still making parts for sets in his home woodworking shop. Frank Baxter (who Rice says was his chief inspiration to join noncommercial TV) observed that “KQED is held together by faith, adhesive tape and capillary attraction.”

A visitor to the station in those days entered a sometimes harassed but usually relaxed and always informal environment in which creative and energetic professionals and volunteers seemed to be participating in a nonstop party. In fact, there often were parties. Once, in a demonstration of high spirits, Tom Borden, the art director who routinely turned cheap materials into elegant sets, poured 30 martinis into plastic bags and tied them with red ribbons to a tree outside the studio. “There are so many nice people around here,” remarked a staffer at that time, “it’s surprising that anything gets done.”

A culture of freedom

In the ’60s, several stations in the burgeoning noncommercial system enjoyed greater financial stability and production resources (WGBH in Boston and KRMA in Denver, to name two), but KQED was both the envy and pride of them all. Its success was partly, as both Day and Rice explain, its location. But more important was its highly creative staff and the management styles of Day, Rice and Moore.

Day, a graduate of University of California at Berkeley, had spent five years in the Army, two years with the NBC-owned radio station in San Francisco and another two with Radio Free Asia. He had also lived in Japan as part of MacArthur’s Army of Occupation, teaching new NHK radio employees how to produce local news and public affairs programs. On the day he resigned from Radio Free Asia (a CIA operation), he was asked to become KQED’s first president. “Jim was the sort,” says Candyce Martin, “who would come in on the weekends, when the place just got too untidy for him, and start cleaning the Venetian blinds or cleaning out the refrigerator. There was no job Jim wouldn’t do, but he never interfered, there was no micro-management.”

Rice grew up in St. Louis, a self-described “spoiled brat,” the son of rich and creative parents. His mother (who donated $1,000 when the station nearly went broke in 1953) loved music and was vice president of the St. Louis Symphony. His father (whom Rice describes as “creative and daring,” words Day has used in talking about Rice, himself) was a lawyer who loved the wilderness and fishing.

“As a child,” says Rice, “I didn’t do anything well–not girls, or studies or sports.” At Stanford he enrolled as a pre-law student, but his extracurricular work on The Stanford Daily changed his life; he switched to journalism. “I think everything I’ve done since has been a result of that change. All of my jobs have been the result of being able to write and take pictures.”

He became a major in the Marine Corps, a combat correspondent, and following World War II a professional journalist, heading the news division at commercial KTLA in Los Angeles. He came from KTLA to become KQED’s second employee and remained program manager for 27 years before beginning a long process of partial retirement, finally leaving as a staff member when he was appointed to the board.

Day has described their lengthy partnership at the station as “firmly rooted in our shared interests and a tacit understanding of respective roles: I didn’t want his job; and he didn’t want mine.”

“I was totally free,” Rice confirms, “to cancel a show or continue it. Jim never interfered. I had total control . . . no committees. I was once sitting at home watching a live discussion between the writers Yevtushenko and Anais Nin. They were arguing about who was more honest. It was so interesting I phoned the station and told the director to let it continue another half-hour, to cancel what followed. We were open to ideas from every source and I had a very good idea about what people would watch.”

In 1972 Rice won public TV’s prestigious Lowell Award. “For the most art,” he said then, “our schedule is made up of programs we enjoy and believe in, that we find interesting or illuminating or moving.”

Both Day and Rice were experienced and confident, qualities that allowed them to nourish creativity in others, to encourage staff members to, as Day recently reflected, “reach beyond themselves.”

A 1968 TV Guide story credited the station’s “freewheeling attitude” for a large part of its success, and quoted Rice: “The difference between KQED and other stations is that we take far more chances. If you always have to be right, you don’t do much.”

Looking back, Winfred Murphy says, “A TV station is like a plant; you need to nourish it. Without nourishment, without love, it won’t grow or be successful.”

“Jim and Jon didn’t respond to political influence in the usual ways. The things I’ve seen turn national executives to jelly didn’t seem to affect them. This was great for staff morale. There was no in-fighting and the kind of nastiness I’ve seen in other broadcast organizations.”

Shirtsleeves in the Newsroom

One of KQED’s last major contributions to both public and commercial TV in its early years grew out of a news format hastily devised during a weekend in 1968, following a local newspaper strike. Known initially as Newspaper of the Air, reporters were hired off the picket lines (at $100 per week), each assigned a major story to relate and then expected to answer questions.

Mel Wax, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, was its host and moderator. Everyone sat in shirtsleeves around a long table. An editorial cartoonist created drawings as the program progressed. It was an immediate success, and KQED was suddenly thrust into the news business. “When [the program] began,” recalls Candyce Martin, “most of us dropped everything else and worked on the show. We were down there 17, 18 hours a day. To put out a nightly news show took the entire staff.”

When the strike ended after nine weeks, KQED secured a $750,000 Ford Foundation grant–thanks largely to Fred Friendly, a former CBS News producer and a Ford adviser–to keep it on the air in a refurbished format. By this time, local San Francisco restaurants were reporting a sharp drop in customers during the 7-8 p.m. broadcast slot. The rechristened Newsroom lasted nine years before rising costs eliminated it. In this time it had an impressive influence upon both local and national TV news reporting. The format was soon exported to other public TV stations including KERA, Dallas, where Jim Lehrer moderated the daily programs.

As more public TV programs came on the air, NET and its successor, PBS, had wider choices for their nationally distributed program packages, and more programs were imported from abroad, particularly from England. In 1970, when the number of public stations reached 200, KQED was one of seven to be named a “major production center.” Its World Press series joined Sesame Street, The Advocates, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Washington Week in Review, The Great American Dream Machine, Wiseman documentaries and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation in the national schedule.

New stations joining the PBS network no longer faced the empty program shelves that confronted KQED in 1954. Indeed, KQED itself no longer felt pressed to create local programs. Plenty of problems remained but the necessity to produce programs was not at the top of the list.

Dick Moore resigned from KQED in 1972 and formed an independent production company with Lawrence Grossman (later president of PBS) before moving on to KTCA in 1981. There he became director of special projects before taking over as president and finally retiring in 1990. He now lives north of San Francisco, continuing to write and publish poetry in, as he says, “national, but obscure, magazines.” He gave up long-distance running last year at 75.

Moore recently reflected upon public TV, program production and his tenure at KPFA, KQED and KTCA. “There’s a big difference between breadth of vision and running a public television station. KPFA, and to a lesser extent KQED, were simply a means of exercising one’s interest in many things, the arts and public affairs particularly. That’s a very different attitude from most managers who don’t think in programming terms, or are not qualified, frankly, not having the educational or intellectual background, to say nothing of the openness of mind or curiosity. Translating broad visions into programming was very much a presence at KPFA and KQED in its early days.”

KQED was exceptionally industrious in its first two decades. But it did much more than turn out an astonishing number of programs. In the 1950s and ’60s its productions were defining what educational television was and what public TV would become. As James Day has written, “. . . if what we invented bore very little resemblance to . . . the commercial networks, the difference was entirely deliberate.

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