Building on the Bedrock
These precious television assignments cannot be preserved for you indefinitely . . . they may not even be reserved for you beyond one year unless you can give the Commission concrete, convincing evidence of the validity of your intent.
Paul Walker, Chairman of the FCC
For reasons that were painfully obvious, the educators' victory in the FCC ruling of 1952 failed to produce immediate results. Twelve months after the FCC ordered the channels set aside for education, only one of the 242 reservations, the station in Houston, had been activated and was in operation. Although considerable activity was stirring in a score of communities scattered around the country, the leaders of the movement were hard pressed to find the evidence of progress that Chairman Walker demanded.
Fletcher, eager to commit the Fund's energies and resources to the "urgency-haunted struggle," sought guarantees that the channel reservations would be held beyond one year, perhaps indefinitely. Without such guarantees, it was unlikely that the Ford Foundation would grant the Fund the needed dollars. In a bold strategic move, Fletcher, having obtained informal assurances from the FCC that the reservations would be extended, pitched his plan to the Foundation's board with Chairman Walker present. He walked out of the meeting with almost $5 million to advance the cause of educational television. His stratagem to hold the res-
ervations was capped a year later, in May 1953, with the First National Educational Television Conference. Representatives of twenty-nine communities in as many states testified to the progress they had made toward activating their reserved channels. A week later, the FCC announced its decision to hold the reservations "indefinitely." Fletcher was not one to let his Foundation role curb his natural bent for activism.
To meet his promise to Chairman Walker to "deliver" twenty to thirty new stations in the first three years, Fletcher planned action on four fronts: the Fund would continue to support the activities of the JCET, create a citizens' committee to encourage community activity, establish a national program-exchange center, and provide matching funds to help equip the first thirty stations to go on the air. The Fund's continued support of the JCET was a key element in its strategy. The Joint Committee's small staff crisscrossed the country, urging educators to take up the channel reservations, demystifying complex FCC forms for confused administrators, helping them with their arcane engineering plans, and untangling their countless legal knots. By the early sixties, there was hardly an educational station on the air that did not "owe its initial progress to personal advice and help of the JCET staff during its early and critical stages."
Fletcher felt that the JCET, effective though it was, was not enough. The movement needed a group of "tough, hard-hitting, really high-pressure boys" to act as a sales force to promote the idea of educational television nationally. Its primary mission, however, would be the mobilization of local citizen support for the activation of the reserved channels in their communities, particularly in the larger cities. The National Citizens Committee for Educational Television was "invited into existence" in late 1952 by what one of his colleagues called Fletcher's technique of "induced initiative." Marion Folsom of Eastman Kodak and Milton Eisenhower, then president of Penn State University, were recruited to co-chair the NCCET and give it high visibility. To find its executive director, Fletcher tapped into the Marshall Plan's "old boy network," choosing Robert Mullen, a vigorous and ex-
perienced public-relations man, to serve as the movement's lead salesman.
During the brief but critical two years of the NCCET's existence, Mullen hopped in and out of planes to rally interest and support for educational television in virtually every major American city. His public-relations skills, used to "mobilize public partnership," helped to create a new breed of community-sponsored public stations in the larger cities. His troops were a strike force to aid those who were struggling to mobilize their communities behind the idea of public television. If a true-believing businessman was needed to talk to skeptical local business leaders, Mullen would deliver a Leland Hazard of Pittsburgh Plate Glass or an Edward Ryerson of Inland Steel. One of his most effective strategies was the organization of an advisory committee of 106 national organizations, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the NAACP, the Junior League to the AFL-CIO. Its value was proved whenever a nudge from national headquarters put a local chapter behind its community's activation efforts.
Of the almost $5 million that the Ford Foundation allocated to Fletcher for the purpose of promoting educational television, the single largest part ($3.5 million) was earmarked for grants to help equip newly activated stations. Fletcher opposed grants for equipment; the Fund's interest lay in promoting substance in programming, not in providing the tools of production. But the movement's leaders persuaded Fletcher that there would be no substance without means, including money to buy cameras, transmitters, microphones, lights, and all the complex and expensive paraphernalia that television demanded. The Fund carefully designed a matching-grant program that was deliberately "large enough to have an effect while avoiding any tendency to retard local initiative ." To qualify, each dollar from the Fund had to be matched with two dollars raised locally—or with physical assets of an equivalent value. The maximum grant for large stations was set at $150,000, and for smaller stations at $100,000. With prudent management, the $3.5 million was to help start at least thirty new educational stations within eight years. (In fact, by 1961, when the grant money ran out, thirty-three new stations had been created.)
Fletcher framed the eligibility requirements for the Fund's capital grants with an eye to the future. Successful applicants were required to give evidence that their communities had both the means and the will to construct and operate the proposed station as well as the local resources to program it. They also had to agree to participate in a newly organized national program-exchange service and to include in their equipment purchases a kinescope recorder. This relatively crude device, used for recording television programs before the invention of videotape technology, would permit them to contribute to the proposed program exchange. The Fund's influence was felt in other ways. In choosing which applicants would receive the original equipment grants, Fletcher had a big hand in determining where new stations would be built. More important, he helped determine how they would be built. By enforcing minimal standards for equipment bought with Fund dollars, he effectively upgraded a system that was in danger of being jerrybuilt because of the pressure to stretch scarce dollars. With a hardheaded recognition of the system's fragility during those early years, the canny Fletcher saw to it that the Fund retained title to the equipment for the first eight years of a station's existence. (For some grant recipients, the eight-year term extended beyond the life of the Fund itself; in 1961 the Ford Foundation folded its Fund for Adult Education back into the parent body, ending its existence as a separate entity.)
Fletcher's deft handling of Fund resources also resulted in the creation of a new type of educational television licensee, the nonprofit community corporation. When he formed the National Citizens Committee for Educational Television and directed it to enlist the interest of community groups in the activation of their local educational channels, Fletcher virtually ensured the creation of the community stations. The community stations, notably those located in the large metropolitan centers, dominate the system today, give it much of its strength, and produce or procure most of its national programming. Fletcher's influence was also evident, though less directly, in the creation of the funding mechanism the system now relies upon for most of its support. In the mid-1950s, Fletcher funded a study of listener sponsorship, conducted
by Lewis Hill, the founder and president of the Pacifica Foundation's FM station. KQED/San Francisco later adopted Hill's principle of voluntary audience sponsorship and applied it to television.
Critical as the Fund's influence was on the structure of the system, its role in shaping the mission of the new medium may have left a deeper and more lasting imprint on public television's future. Among the conditions of its equipment grants to the early stations, the Fund required of its recipients that "a reasonable proportion of [its] programming should be in the area of adult education in the liberal arts and sciences." By including the liberal-arts requirement in the Fund's Letter of Agreement, Fletcher may have steered the nascent system away from a much narrower focus on systematic education: slide lectures on the Age of Charlemagne, visits to the ocean habitat of the gray whale, and similar fare of the type associated with adult extension courses. The liberal arts, broadly translated, encouraged programming for adults that occasionally probed political and social issues, debated public policy, offered music and dance performance, and—when the underfunded medium could manage it—presented classical and contemporary drama. "Without the Ford Foundation's philanthropy," Jack Gould told readers of the New York Times , "there very probably would have been little or no noncommercial TV directed to the general audience." However, the story of Ford's philanthropy might have been different had the Foundation's other subsidiary fund, and not the Fund for Adult Education, taken the lead in shaping the new medium. As it was, the Fund for Advancement of Education, whose monies were dedicated to the improvement of instruction, hesitated to leap into educational television until some time later.
By the end of 1953, the pieces of educational television's curious mosaic were in place. The Fund, under Fletcher's supervision and with the Ford Foundation's deep pockets, had established an educational medium that would evolve into a uniquely American version of public television. Months before the first station went on the air, the outlines of that design were clearly visible. At the base of the public system, its so-called "bedrock," are the inde-
pendent, autonomous stations, locally controlled, serving local needs and local constituencies. Every other element in the system is designed to cater to the needs of this loosely federated assembly of independent stations—a system built from the bottom up. Europeans have difficulty understanding how our system works. Theirs are built typically from the top down: a centralized bureaucracy, charged with creating a comprehensive program service for the nation as a whole, delivers that service through a nationwide network of transmitters that are part of the bureaucracy, not independent of it. Even Canada, whose public system is built in part on independent stations, organizes the stations under a single public-service corporation. Experience on both sides of the Atlantic has brought modest modifications to both systems in more recent years. But in 1953, there was no question in the minds of Fletcher and the leaders of the educational television movement that theirs was the right plan for America.
Right or wrong, the start of America's public-television system was faltering at best. Although all the essential elements of the plan were in place within a year after the channels were reserved, growth was painfully slow, even with the Fund's help. The end of 1953 saw only two stations on the air. Eight more joined the following year, and another five the year after that. Ten years would go by before the system could boast of as many as fifty stations, still less than one-fourth of the channels set aside for education.
The climate of the early 1950s made the new medium a tough sell. The viewing audience was still in the thrall of conventional television; networks were beginning to fill the screen with eye-popping color, which offered an inducement to watch even when the content left much to be desired. Millions of satisfied or mesmerized viewers sat still to watch practically anything that moved on the face of the tiny tube. If they had had cause to wish for a more nourishing television diet, the chances are that it would not have been for one forbiddingly labelled "educational."
The political climate was not much more welcoming to new and untried media ventures. The country, already tied down by a war in Korea, was being cleansed of dangerous ideas by the junior
senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, whose illiberal storm troopers were not about to extend a welcome hand to a new medium that had "liberal adult education" as a self-described goal. The Hearst press, meanwhile, was damning the noncommercial medium as "socialism," feeding America's latent fear that educational television might become a mouthpiece for a Big Brother government. Few if any saw the new medium as a necessary corrective to the excesses of commercial media, but only because there remained in the 1950s a strongly held faith in the self-righting force of "public interest" regulation.
Those struggling worthies who sought to put down the roots of the new system faced other problems as well. Two of every three reserved channels were in the ultra high frequencies (UHF), including the key cities of New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Los Angeles. Each of these faced the unhappy prospect of raising large sums of money to activate stations that could not be received in most homes. (Congress eased the situation somewhat with UHF several years later when it forced set manufacturers to include the higher channels on all receivers.) But even those communities that were fortunate enough to have a channel reservation in the standard VHF channels found that it was difficult at best to raise large sums of money for an untried and expensive venture. The Fund's matching-fund offer helped, but it was available only for acquiring equipment and not for meeting operational or building costs. Even to qualify for the Fund's equipment grant meant raising up to $300,000 locally among the community's committed citizens and corporations—a sizeable chunk of change in the post-war economy. The circumstances called for a remarkable feat of local ingenuity and energy. Out of it emerged today's system of public stations, some huge, boasting multimillion-dollar budgets, others barely blips on the television map. They come in all sizes and shapes. But only one can lay claim to being the first on the air.
KUHT/Houston's premiere in May 1953 as the public system's pioneer station is essentially the story of two men, both ardently entrepreneurial, unorthodox, and idiosyncratic. Dr. Walter W. Kemmerer, president of the University of Houston, KUHT'S licensee institution, had the vision from which the station sprang:
he surmised that by using the educational television station for teaching, the university could save $10 million in construction costs by not building new lecture halls. Kemmerer recruited Dr. John C. Schwarzwalder from the university's radio-television department and installed him as KUHT'S general manager. The vision, however, was to cost Kemmerer his presidency; a month after KUHT went on the air, he was sacked by the university trustees. Schwarzwalder survived the Kemmerer debacle and remained to shift the newly innaugurated KUHT away from its exclusive focus on instruction, while holding at bay those university forces that lusted after the television budget for what they deemed more worthy causes. Schwarzwalder, as his colleagues came to recognize, was a formidable opponent. In Houston—and later, as the first manager of the public station in Minneapolis-St. Paul—Schwarzwalder wore with self-congratulating pride his label as public television's "vice president of dissent." His targets were legion. Periodic memoranda—addressed to A Favored Few but widely disseminated—attacked virtually everyone in the system for their imagined apostasy to his rigid concept of the educational medium.
Not surprisingly, the nation's first public-television station was built with the black wealth of the Lone Star State. Kemmerer created KUHT largely out of the generous philanthropies of oil millionaire Hugh Roy Cullen. Whether it was coincidence or simply the nature of philanthropy in oil-rich states, the nation's second public station was even more redolent with the smell of raw crude than was the first. Although KTHE/Los Angeles was licensed to the University of California, the station was the virtual plaything of one man, an oil millionaire. Captain Alan Hancock—the stripes were earned; he was both a master mariner and a transport pilot—was heir to a fortune extracted from oil deposits beneath Los Angeles's famed Miracle Mile. The captain was closely allied to the University of Southern California, not only as a member of its board of trustees, but through his generous benefactions, one of which was a building on the USC campus that housed the Alan Hancock Foundation.
KTHE/Los Angeles, which began operations on Channel 28 in
November 1953, was entirely underwritten with Hancock money, its studios were in the Hancock Foundation building, and its general manager was the captain's personal aide-de-camp, Dr. William Sener. Not even the station's programming escaped the unmistakable mark of the captain's enterprise and versatility. KTHF aired weekly live concerts featuring the Hancock String Quartet: the captain was the cellist.
KTHE survived less than a year, doomed from the outset by its dependence for support on a single, all-too-human source. When the captain, after a tiff with the USC trustees, resigned his seat on the board and left the campus, he took with him the station's only source of funding, as well as its general manager, Bill Sener. USC was left with a television station it probably did not want and certainly could not support. After KTHE went dark in September 1954, the Los Angeles area was left without a public-television outlet for ten years—Channel 28 was not returned to the air until 1964. When it came back, however, it did so as a community station, licensed to a spirited group of Los Angeles citizens led by Dr. Lee DuBridge, president of the California Institute of Technology, supported by community-wide funding (including viewer subscriptions), and renamed KCET.
The nation's third public channel, Michigan State University's WKAR/East Lansing, was, like Los Angeles, assigned a UHF frequency, and shared with it the dilemma of putting on the air a channel that most viewers were unable to receive. In January 1954 the station began operations, but its efforts at reaching an audience on its assigned Channel 60 met with little success. A decision was made to give up the UHF channel and join forces with the operators of commercial Channel 10 in nearby Jackson, Michigan. Under their time-sharing agreement, the educators would have the daytime hours, leaving the valuable prime-time hours to the commercial operators. The arrangement soon tested the patience of both parties. After successfully negotiating the acquisition of another, lower UHF channel from a neighboring city, Michigan State withdrew from its time-sharing arrangement with the commercial station and returned to a channel of its own.
It is not by accident that the nation's first three public channels
were licensed to universities. Even when, as in the case of USC, a university lacks funds to support a station's operations, it does provide an institutional structure with which to pursue the financial and legal problems of channel activation. Other applicants, hoping to get their channels up and running, were compelled to pull together a viable institutional structure before either confronting the other problems associated with the process or, in the case of state networks, negotiating at length with hard-to-convince legislators.
The first of the new breed to form its own institutional base was Pittsburgh's WQED, the nation's fourth public station. WQED was licensed to the Metropolitan Pittsburgh Educational Television, Inc., a free-standing, self-sufficient nonprofit corporation, the type of community-based group promoted by Fletcher and the National Citizens Committee for Educational Television. By choosing the community model as licensee, rather than one of the area's many educational institutions, WQED was positioned to serve equally each of the city's educational and cultural institutions. The community corporation became the organizational model for public stations in most major cities.
With its industrial money from steel, banking, and manufacturing and its strong citizen leadership, the Golden Triangle was well suited to the creation of this new breed of community-based station. Pittsburgh's mayor, David Lawrence, brought the money and leadership together under the insistent and tenacious prodding of his longtime friend, FCC commissioner Frieda Hennock. Others fell behind the mayor's leadership in a process of community organization that is uniquely American and that has over the years led to the creation of most of this country's cultural institutions. Europeans undoubtedly puzzle over the roundabout method of this process, accustomed as they are to the larger role of the state in cultural enterprises, but it has been remarkably effective in the United States given Americans' penchant for individual initiative and love of volunteerism. Typically, the process begins when a citizen with the requisite political clout and qualities of leadership becomes interested in a project to meet a particular need. He or she recruits a board of volunteers, more often than not from
friends and fellow club members, which, in turn, goes to the philanthropic community for seed money. At this point, a process is under way that will, in due course, produce a new hospital, science museum, art center, orchestra, or private school. Or a public-television station.
WQED's leadership came from a crusty, civic-minded attorney, Leland Hazard, one of the city's most influential citizens, who at the time was vice president and general counsel of Pittsburgh Plate Glass. The manner in which he and his friends mobilized Pittsburgh's business and cultural leadership behind WQED served as a prototype for many of the community stations that came later. Each city had its counterpart of Leland Hazard. In Chicago it was Edward L. Ryerson, president of Inland Steel; in Boston, Ralph Lowell, a member of one of New England's most distinguished families and president of Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company; in St. Louis, Raymond Wittcoff of the Caradine Hat Company; and in New Orleans, Darwin Fenner of the investment brokerage house that bore his name. In virtually every city where a community station exists there was at least one leading citizen willing to gamble name, reputation, and standing in the community to further what was then a largely untried and unproven new cultural institution called educational television.
WQED/Pittsburgh went on the air in April 1954. Later in the year, it was followed by new stations in Madison, Wisconsin (WHA-TV); San Francisco (KQED); Cincinnati, Ohio (WCET); St. Louis, Missouri (KETC); Lincoln, Nebraska (KUON-TV); and Seattle, Washington (KCTS-TV). At the same time, some state legislatures were beginning to see in the new medium a partial solution to the problem of spreading the state's educational resources among more of its citizens. Although Alabama was not the first to come up with the idea (an earlier plan for a New York State network died with Governor Dewey's veto), it was the first to act. The state's reserved channels, joined together under a government commission to form a statewide network, were put in the service of the state's widely scattered complex of school districts and colleges. Other states followed suit, including New Jersey, Georgia, South Dakota, Connecticut, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.
WGBH-TV began broadcasting in May 1955 as the nation's fourteenth public station. While it was not one of the earliest to go on the air, the Boston station was destined to play a special role in the public medium by becoming one of the system's brightest and most creative program producers. Much earlier, a consortium of Boston's many educational and cultural institutions had formed the WGBH Educational Foundation to serve as the licensee for a public radio station (WGBH-FM). When television came along, the Educational Foundation served as the licensee for the television station as well. WGBH-TV broadcast from makeshift facilities in a former rollerskating rink until they were destroyed by fire in 1961 and new studios were built on the edge of Harvard's playing fields. A somewhat less spectacular but nonetheless significant event occurred in the station's second year. A staff revolt, occasioned by dissatisfaction with its leadership, unseated the first general manager of WGBH, Parker Wheatly, and brought to power the young manager of its FM station, Hartford Gunn, Jr. For Gunn, it was to be the start of a distinguished career in public television, one that would have a profound influence upon the system in subsequent years. We shall have reason to return to his story later.
Boston and the other starters among the system's pioneer public stations lent the first substance to Fletcher's struggle to activate educational channels before a lack of action cost them their reserved status and caused their frequency to be reassigned to commercial use. The system was slow to start and sluggish to expand despite the Fund's aid and insistent encouragement. Station activations were fitful, haphazardly planned, and bore no correlation to the geographical distribution of the country's television homes. Viewers in some parts of the country, including New York and Los Angeles, had no access to public television's programming for a decade or more. The system's uneven, random growth resulted from the decision to leave activation of the reserved channels entirely to local initiative and local money. In each community, nothing moved until one person was fired with the zeal to organize a group to raise the needed funds. That type of leadership is not easily found. When leaders of this caliber are identified,
they are often fully committed to social causes that make television seem trivial by comparison.
Faced with these and other difficulties, it may be a minor miracle that America's landscape is now dotted with more than 150 licensee institutions—community corporations, universities and colleges, public-school boards, and state networks—operating more than 350 stations, each of which is variously devoted to some form of "educational" service. Most stations are loosely federated into a national program service that they share and jointly control. But what they share is not what defines them. They are defined by their independence and autonomy, not their collectivity. This self-possessed sovereignty produces all too frequently a highly parochial approach to public television's national concerns, a malaise that has its roots in the system's start-up. While the fight to reserve educational frequencies drew local advocates together in a national crusade, activation of the reservations was in every case a local battle fought by local leaders to overcome purely local problems. The victors in these local wars left the field of battle flushed with the heady feeling of proprietorship; even now, they refer possessively to their station's viewers as "my audience." Medieval England's feudal lords must have felt much the same way when success in the battlefield secured their fiefdom. The danger is constantly present in public television, however, that the independent spirit born of local pride can slip easily into destructive provincialism.
Whatever their strengths and weaknesses, local stations form the heart if not the soul of the American public-television system. In both its structure and governing spirit, the whole is defined by its hundreds of diverse parts, and not by any central, cohesive core. For that reason alone, the story of each station, and the local forces that produced and shaped it, could be seen as the key to understanding the complexities of the system as a whole. To tell the story of each of the system's stations would, of course, weigh too heavily in the reader's hands and on the reader's patience. I have chosen instead to tell the story of one station, knowing that it may not be typical of all, but was nevertheless among the very
early stations and thus survived the problems of public television's awkward birth. More to the point, my natural desire is to tell the story I know best—the story of KQED/San Francisco. That is where public television and I first met and were to spend fifteen rewarding years together looking for answers to questions that were rarely asked.