Flash back to June 8, 1953. KUHT (now HoustonPBS) was minutes away from broadcasting its formal dedication as the first educational television station in the country to go on the air. Dignitaries flown in from Washington were shoehorned into the cramped studio, carved out of what had been a theater for live shows in the University of Houston’s radio station.
The TV station had actually begun airing nightly programming a few weeks earlier, on May 25, to work out bugs before the high-profile ceremony. Frieda Hennock, the audacious and charismatic FCC commissioner who had persuaded her fellow commissioners to set aside more than 200 channels nationwide for educational television, was to make the opening address.
As chief engineer Bill Davis recalled in a phone interview 50 years later, the transmitter was being temperamental a few hours before show time: “When I turned it on there was a . . . band on the top and on the bottom of the screen and white in the middle.”
Davis had worked at the campus radio station and knew how to handle audio problems, but video troubleshooting was new to the staff, whose only training had been a crash course in TV production. He tinkered to no avail as the clock ticked away and airtime approached. “We had been tweaking this for a week. I was so frustrated and I just kicked the transmitter.”
A wallop by one of Davis’ heavy cowboy boots was apparently just what was needed—a beautiful, clear picture snapped into focus. “A cowboy kick saved the day, so to speak,” he said.
Hennock was able to go on the air at 5 p.m., as planned, and Davis’ boots are to be put on display in HoustonPBS’ new 65,000-square-foot broadcasting center as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. Davis, now retired in Wyoming, will be a guest of honor at the station’s May 17  gala.
A cowboy boot isn’t a bad metaphor for the frontier spirit that pervaded what was known as educational television in those early years, 15 years before CPB and PBS were drafted into existence and the phrase “public television” came into widespread use. Within two years of KUHT’s first broadcast, 15 ETV stations went on the air, including WQED in Pittsburgh, the first community-owned station; Alabama ETV, the first state network; and San Francisco’s KQED, a trailblazer in both programming and fundraising.
Launching a station didn’t mean it would stay launched. The second to go on the air, KTHE in Los Angeles, pulled the plug after nine months when its benefactor withdrew support after a tiff with the licensee, the University of Southern California.
The rush to get on the air was fueled in part by a desire to snap up licenses reserved for educational TV before the FCC put unclaimed ones up for grabs to commercial operators (though the commission didn’t follow through on that take-back), and partly to qualify for $10,000 grants offered by Emerson Radio and Phonograph Co. to the first 10 ETV stations to begin broadcast, said Jim Robertson, who helped start Chicago’s WTTW in 1955. Robertson interviewed 55 public television pioneers in the 1980s as part of a CPB oral history project, later adapted into a book, Televisionaries.
“We didn’t make it in Chicago—we were 14th or 15th to go on the air. But there was this desire to get that grant for the tremendous amount of $10,000—it was quite an incentive,” he said, chuckling.
Before there was a KUHT, there was Hennock, a self-employed criminal lawyer from Brooklyn who rose to become the first woman appointed to the FCC. She saw the potential of television as an educational tool and quickly made it her cause.
She championed tirelessly for the educational channel set-asides during the FCC freeze, the period from 1948-52 in which the commission suspended issuing TV licenses while it studied how to handle airwave interference. Having worn down the other six commissioners’ resistance to win the channel reservations, she campaigned across the country to rally education and community leaders in major cities to raise station start-up capital with no federal cash and no blueprint to follow.
More than one person interviewed for this story described Hennock, who died in 1960, as a dramatic and commanding person who turned heads with her floor-length fur and high-fashion hats and who did not take no for an answer.
Jim Day, who would go on to start KQED in 1954, remembers meeting her for cocktails and laying out the roadblocks to starting a station in San Francisco. Many of the ETV stations then in development were associated with land-grant universities or public school systems, but KQED was prohibited by California law from using school funding. “She just said to me, ‘you’re going to get that station on the air,’” said Day, now professor emeritus at Brooklyn College in New York. Day writes in his book, The Vanishing Vision: The Inside Story of Public Television, “I had no immediate solutions to our problems, but I knew that it would be unthinkable to let her down.”
The answer, it turned out, would be to muster support from the community and its cultural institutions, a prototype WQED in Pittsburgh was exploring at the same time.
“Because we had no parent institution, we had no one to be responsible to but our audience,” Day told Current. “That brings about a different kind of television. When you have to appeal to your audience for support, it encourages you to be much more provocative. . . . It’s very poor business for TV stations to depend on government support, or institutional support. Our vision was different from the very beginning. We thought of ourselves as an American BBC, different from [stations] providing instructional programs.”
Hennock had also bent the ear of Walter William Kemmerer, then president of the University of Houston. Kemmerer thought TV telecourses might be a way of handling the flood of GIs who were taxing the capacity of the nation’s colleges after World War II, according to William Hawes, professor of communication at the University of Houston and author of Public Television: America’s First Station. “Hennock and Kemmerer were the dynamic duo who brought educational television to Houston.”
All of the early start-up cities had their own versions of a Kemmerer, excited about the possibilities of educational television. Many were philanthropically minded business leaders already involved in the city’s cultural network. In Pittsburgh, it was Leland Hazard, v.p. of Pittsburgh Plate Glass and chairman of a cultural organization that supported museums, symphonies and other arts institutions and brought them aboard the ETV bandwagon. In Chicago, Robertson remembered, it was Edward L. Ryerson, president of Inland Steel, a regent of the University of Chicago and patron of many local arts organizations.
Back in Houston, Kemmerer had recently tapped John Schwarzwalder, head of his speech and theater department, to run the new campus radio station. Constructed in 1950, “it was modeled after the NBC studio in New York, a gorgeous building that included a huge audience participation theater,” said Hawes. “Lo and behold, it was barely in operation when it was turned into the TV facility. They ripped out all of the seats. The radio station was reduced to one of the control rooms. The TV operation took over all the rest of the space.”
Schwarzwalder, who was put in charge of the TV station as well, was a professional singer and actor who had come from Hollywood to Houston in the ’30s, said Hawes.
Schwarzwalder was neither the first nor the last leader in the field to hold to his own views about what public TV should be—which for him did not include becoming the “American BBC” that Day envisioned. Day remembers that he proclaimed himself “vice president of dissent” at early meetings of ETV g.m.’s and argued forcefully that instructional programming, not general interest shows, was the future of ETV. Day recalled that Schwarzwalder once suggested that he and Fred Friendly kill themselves to rid educational television of its general audience advocates.
Friendly was then an advisor to the Ford Foundation, the primary funder of educational television until CPB was created in 1967. It helped 37 community organizations put ETV stations on the air in the 1950s and underwrote National Educational Television to provide early national programming, spending $290 million on public broadcasting before CPB and PBS came into the picture.
Educators in Alabama, meanwhile, were busy designing a prototype different from the university and community licensee model. Most of the major players involved in starting the nation’s first educational state network are dead, but Alabama ETV public information director Mike McKenzie, the net’s unofficial historian, explained that the thinking behind a network setup was that it would improve the school system statewide.
“Even then Alabama had significant problems in spreading good teaching to the poor as well as rich parts of the state. A state network that could reach all the schools was thought to be a solution to that problem, and could do it cost-effectively,” he said.
“The Australian postal system had developed this technology of using microwaves to communicate across the outback. Our engineers went to Australia, brought back the technology in 1955, set up the first microwave hop [tower to tower connection],” McKenzie recounted.
“To set up the microwave system, you have to know what the lay of the land is, plot out the high points. Most people do this by plane, but it’s pretty expensive to do a flyover. Alabama didn’t have the money. So our engineers would find the highest points by driving around. Then they would shinny up the pine trees with mirrors and shine mirrors to see if they could catch each other’s reflection. They went from pine tree to pine tree to make up the lines of where towers would be. A lot of old-fashioned Boy Scout know-how was needed to implement this new technology,” he said.
Once stations were up and running, they needed programs. In the early 1950s, before videotape had been developed, the only options were to air programs live, air films that had been obtained, or replay films of live broadcasts that had been shot off the TV screen, known as kinescopes, which offered very poor resolution. ETV stations filled the airwaves in those early years with a pastiche of instructional programs (ranging from university telecourses in psychology and biology to public school-created programs for elementary children), how-to’s on housewifely topics such as flower-arranging and good grooming, and high-minded discussions on Shakespeare, modern art, and current events. Commercial and ETV stations alike depended on corporate publicity reels (for example, Industry on Parade, from the National Association of Manufacturers) as filler.
KQED set the industry standard with imaginative programs such as Day’s thoughtful talk show, Kaleidoscope; a Japanese brush painting how-to that sparked a national fad; in-studio concerts with a 30-piece orchestra; and 12 half-hour conversations with articulate longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer, which became a national hit.
“This was in part because it was cheaper to produce local programs than to buy them, and there wasn’t an awful lot of good programming available anyway,” said Day. “Also, we thought of ourselves as a freestanding cultural institution, not just a conduit for other cultural institutions. We had to create, so we did create.”
Jack White, manager of WQED from 1955-59 before going on to run National Educational Television (the precursor to PBS), remembers winning a Peabody for a series called Heritage.
“I remember we brought Robert Frost in for 10 days [for Heritage]. We taped a dozen or 15 programs with him, either talking by himself or talking with citizens as he read his poetry,” said White.
KUHT engineer Davis remembers what it took to air live University of Houston basketball and football games. “We would have to haul all the equipment over in a truck and set it up. And we would be off the air all during that time, till we got it set up again.”
Jack McBride, who was creating educational programming for the University of Nebraska even before Lincoln’s KUON became the eighth ETV station in the system, remembers that one of the production center’s most popular offerings was a 39-part series on 16mm film called the Great Plains Trilogy.
“The first 13 episodes were on paleontology in the Great Plains; the second 13 were archeological, related to Indian development. The final 13 were historical. They were in great demand. I think it got such widespread play because there were 39 30-minute programs that were timeless,” said McBride, now a senior consultant for Nebraska ETV. “In those early days everybody was scrounging for programming.”
Some of the old-timers, asked what they thought of public television circa 2003, sounded wistful that the system still faces the underfunding that plagued ETV’s early years.
“The dream was originally that the station should reflect the educational and cultural needs of the people who live in that community,” said Robertson. “But stations have never been funded to the point where they could attract the production and performing talent to do that, except on the national level.”
“I think it has lost much of its vitality,” said Day. “I happen to be fond of a few things they do. But it’s interesting that the best [Iraq] war coverage came from public television, but not American public television. It was British public television, French, Italian. Not American—too risky to deal with this type of thing. Congress doesn’t really want a vital public television system.”
“There’s no question it has met every initial target and then some,” said McBride. “It received big boosts in quality when federal funding became available. I think it’s done well despite the hardships, despite the limitations, particularly the lack of sufficient funding. I think through these first 50 years it’s done a magnificent job.”
“Joan and I called it our baby,” said White, referring to his wife, and sounding the most wistful of all. “It’s changed, but it had to grow up.”
*Discontinued operations in September 1954 (see story). Source: 1963 dissertation by Donald Neal Wood. Thanks to National Public Broadcasting Archives for this and other material.
Web page posted May
14, 2003, revised June 10, 2003
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
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