Public TV programming ‘giant’ Jonathan Rice gone at 84

Jonathan C. Rice, the storied program director and co-founder of KQED-TV in San Francisco, died July 22 [2001] at the age of 85. He succumbed at his home in the city after a long illness.

The other co-founder, James Day, wrote that Rice filled the bill as “a program executive with the idealism of a reformer, the energy of a backfield runner and the power to turn ground round into chateaubriand.”

Rice was to public broadcasting “what Abraham was to the Book of Genesis,” said Bill Moyers at one point, according to KQED.

“He was a giant of a man–a person of incredible warmth and sensitivity, a taskmaster for excellence in programming and responsiveness to community concerns, and the veritable ‘glue’ which held KQED together through thick and thin,” said KQED President Mary Bitterman.

“My real dream for KQED,” Rice once told oral historian Dick Robertson, “was that we would become what the nation lost when it could no longer have town meetings–that we would be the town meeting for an urban center of enormous size.”

The station started modestly. Before they had an office, Day and Rice carried their typewriter in Rice’s station wagon. Later, they aired their first pledge breaks from a former bathroom atop the Mark Hopkins Hotel.

He was credited with inventing the informal and in-depth “newsroom” approach to news coverage with Newsroom, starting in 1968, and the public TV auction–a key to the young station’s survival.

“Jon had a wild abandon about him that helped that auction enormously,” Day recalled to Dick Robertson. Viewers tuned in “because it was one of the few live television programs left where anything could happen and frequently did.”

With Day, fellow programmers Richard Moore, Win Murphy and others, Rice stretched the boundaries of TV to include poetry, cooking, art, architecture and philosophy. Guests included Edward Teller, Linus Pauling, Eric Hoffer, and a young Casper Weinberger.

One of Rice’s least successful guests, he said later, was a memory expert who had to be taken off the air because he couldn’t remember his lines.

Rice joined KQED in 1953 and remained as program director until 1978 and a board member until 1996. In 1972, he became the second recipient of CPB’s annual Ralph Lowell Medal, and the following year he received the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Governor’s Award. KQED named a studio after him and created a legacy society in his name.

Before Rice joined public TV, he was news director of KTLA, a commercial station in Los Angeles. He had worked previously as a wire-service photographer and writer. He covered World War II in the Pacific for two years before becoming a correspondent in the Marine Corps and then an intelligence officer. After the war he was picture book editor for Look magazine before going into TV.

Rice once said he was looking for something “calm” to do, and went into educational TV after deciding he couldn’t make it as an avocado or grape farmer.

His wife, Kathleen, died in 1964. He is survived by a son and a daughter, Jefferson Charles Rice of Sebastopol, Calif., and May Nanette Rice of Ross, Calif.

Donations in Rice’s name may be made to the KQED Campaign for the Future [link to station’s website]. A memorial service will be held at the station Aug. 19 [2001].

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