QED: The Search for Answers
In action, KQED calls to mind the old saw about a bumblebee, which, by the laws of aerodynamics, can't fly, but, not knowing this, goes ahead and flies anyway.
George B. Leonard, Jr.
In both washrooms, signs warned don't flush during broadcasts. It was the only way we knew to keep the rumble of plumbing out of our air shows. KQED's home at the time, a ramshackle wood-and-stucco building nestled in the shabby heart of San Francisco's South-of-Market industrial district, had only two washrooms. And, unluckily for us, both opened directly onto a balcony that overlooked the production studio. The situation could be a source of embarrassment for all concerned.
For us, at least, the washroom signs were a metaphor for the improvisational, make-do state of public television in the mid-1950s. Desperately needing quarters we could afford, we found what had once been a building for a small manufacturing plant, and more recently a garage for telephone company trucks, and transformed it with our own hands into a crude but workable studio. We couldn't afford acoustic tile, so we used cast-off egg crates. Our equipment was secondhand. Our transmitter was donated by a local commercial station. And our studio was wired with cable abandoned at the end of the 1964 Republican National Conven-
tion by the profligate commercial networks. Where money was lacking, imagination and energy were substituted.
Notwithstanding its inconveniences, we were grateful finally to have a studio we could call our own. For our first two years, we made do with a borrowed studio of sorts, a trade-school classroom used to train television technicians. The studio, its cameras, and its student operators were available to us only three nights a week, so our broadcast schedule during those years was pitifully thin—hardly substantive enough to make a dent in the viewing habits of our potential audience. But that didn't deter us from pitching for money. Significantly, KQED's first live broadcast was a fund appeal, made by me, from a makeshift studio hastily put together in the small room that housed our transmitter. The room, in the attic of San Francisco's Mark Hopkins Hotel, was so tiny and cramped that the camera operator, in order to get me in the frame of the picture, had to back into and shoot from the toilet. Critics of public television may make of this what they will.
The origins of San Francisco's public-television channel can be traced back to the lively imagination, determination, and unbounded energies of one man. Unlike his counterparts in Boston, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, Vaughn D. Seidel was not a powerful business leader with access to the pockets of the rich. He was the superintendent of the suburban Alameda County school district, a true believer in audiovisual education. Active in the pre-1952 movement to reserve frequencies for educational television, he was a dedicated force in finding the means to activate Channel 9, the valuable VHF channel reserved for the San Francisco Bay Area. Knowing his own school district was not the best licensee to serve the larger Bay Area, Seidel brought into being educational television's first community corporation, the Bay Area Educational Television Association. BAETA's board, composed largely of the heads of the Bay Area's various educational and cultural institutions, was weighty with high-mindedness but light in clout. In its first year, it managed the purchase of a secondhand transmitter at a fire-sale price, negotiated leases for largely unusable studio space at the University of California and San Francisco State Col-
lege, and amassed a bank account approximating $2000 by soliciting $10 memberships from the station's projected audience.
In early 1953, however, the tide turned in BAETA's favor—two grants from local foundations gave BAETA the funds needed to hire a manager. The board blithely assumed that a full-time television professional would fit all the pieces together, hire a staff, turn on the power, and light up the screens of the Bay Area with exciting, stimulating, and inexpensive fare. For better or for worse, I was the one chosen to bear this mantle of responsibility, although I was neither a television professional (my experience was in radio) nor a miracle worker. But I didn't have to be either to realize that the picture was missing some key elements.
My first priority was to find a program executive with the idealism of a reformer, the energy of a backfield runner, and the power to turn ground round into Chateaubriand. Our search began and ended with one man, Jonathan C. Rice, a former Marine combat correspondent and news photographer who, when we found him, was news chief of KTLA / Los Angeles, commercial television's most aggressive and news-oriented independent station. The hands-on television experience that he brought to our early planning, essential as it was, may have been the least of his contributions. Rice's gift for sharing his own creative spirit and nourishing it in others was the catalyst that saved us from humdrumdom. The catholicity of his interests and his amateur's love for exploring ideas, whether in music, the arts, or science, became the template for KQED's program schedule. As we sat to plot a course for the future station, neither of us knew that it was the beginning of a fifteen-year partnership that was to be firmly rooted in our shared interests and in a tacit acceptance of our respective roles: I didn't want his job; he didn't want mine.
It was clear from the outset, however, that ideas, whatever their intrinsic worth, have little value in television without the equipment to transmute them into programming. We had ideas but no equipment. Fortunately, Scott Fletcher's program of equipment grants was there to provide the leverage to loft us, and many others, onto the air. Not even that would have helped, however, without the amiable flexibility of the Fund's West Coast representative,
G. H. (Bill) Griffiths. To qualify for a grant, we knew we had to match every Fund dollar with two of our own. Griffiths, knowing that we lacked the cash, allowed us to capitalize every piece of technical equipment, functioning or not, plus "properly appraised gifts in kind" (including, incidentally, a donated piece of furniture known as a cockfight chair, which was used as set decoration). In a deal that would do credit to a tin-siding salesperson, we qualified for a desperately needed grant to acquire basic equipment.
Rice and I began work on June 1, 1953, and a year later, almost to the day, our vision became a reality. KQED was on the air, tentatively, shakily, its paid staff of eight straining to sustain a three-nights-a-week broadcast schedule. Admittedly ill prepared, we rushed into service in order to qualify for a much-needed $10,000 grant that Emerson Radio awarded to each of the first ten stations on the air. We were number six. Our name, QED—for the Latin quod erat demonstrandum —was suggested by my wife, Beverley, who understood those things. Its meaning—that which is to be proved—was well suited to the uncertain venture on which we were embarked.
Without a clear direction from Washington, and lacking even the precedent of an earlier station—Houston was not yet on the air when our planning began—Rice and I crafted a mission partly by instinct and partly by shared conviction. Both of us felt that the station should be a cultural institution in its own right and not simply a conveyor belt for the community's many other cultural institutions. Months before we had a studio of our own—we were still using the trade-school studio with a student television crew—Rice brazenly mounted a series of in-studio concerts with the thirty-piece Little Symphony of San Francisco. A rhapsodic critic hailed it as the "crowning glory in the short life of KQED" and "the most important local TV development of the season." His words may have said more about conventional television's cultural aridity than about our concerts—in which, incidentally, even he found such "minor production flaws" as off-camera crashes and on-camera images that ranged from "crystal sharp" to "inexplicably diffused" to "frequently out-of-focus." Nothing, however,
could dissuade Rice from attempting more live studio events in the years ahead—solo recitals and performances of chamber music, jazz, and dance. Each performance drew us deeper into the cultural life of the community. And that's precisely where we thought a community television station ought to be.
June 1955 was our first anniversary on the air. It was nearly our last. The board, up to its knees in debt and with prospects dim for meeting future expenses, voted to call it quits: to turn out the lights, lock the door, and wait for a more propitious time to introduce noncommercial television to the Bay Area. My "no" vote was a plea for time. Why not let the public decide? It was their station. Closing shop now would result not only in losing our small staff and abandoning our loyal supporters, but in the surrender of our most cost-effective fund-raising tool, the station itself. We reached a compromise: a thirty-day moratorium, during which the board would tackle the task of retiring the deficit and I, to keep us from sliding further into debt, would raise the dollars to meet six months' expenses. An additional six months of life would give us breathing room to call on a blue-ribbon citizens' committee to study our long-term economic viability and recommend remedies. If this seems an unsubtle ploy to involve community leadership in our plight, we were not the first nonprofit to use it.
With money borrowed from the parents of two of our employees, we engaged a small public-relations firm and plunged into a series of hastily planned events, all aimed at getting our hands into the community's pockets. We kicked off with an all-night telethon, its volunteer talent stretching from nuclear physicist Edward Teller to exotic dancer Tempest Storm. The telethon may have helped our image more than our bank account: after the strippers and nightclub comics, viewers could hardly think of their educational channel in the same way again. "Without realizing it," said the San Francisco Chronicle , "[KQED] put on the best show that has been on a San Francisco station."
But the bigger show was yet to come. Our public-relations team, Curt Roberts and Len Gross, had a novel fund-raising scheme: a television auction at which donated merchandise would be displayed on camera and auctioned off to the highest bid called in
by telephone. It had never been tried. With the end of the thirty-day moratorium drawing nearer, skepticism surrendered to desperation. A weary staff and corps of volunteers, having finished the telethon only three days earlier, threw themselves into a twenty-four-hour selling frenzy that ended in the predawn hours with the station closer to its goal by $6000. But something else had happened in those frenzied hours that proved more important to our future than money. We became a part of the community. Strangers called to wish us well, sent food and drink to sustain us through the tiring hours, and even showed up at the studio door to volunteer their services. The term community television suddenly had palpable meaning. That morning, as we locked the studio door and filed wearily into the foggy dawn of another day, we knew with certainty that what had begun as an act of desperation was about to become an annual KQED event, a rite of bonding with the community with tangible benefits to our bank balance.
The television auction did become an annual event, expanded from one day to ten, and did much to identify the station with the community. In time, however, its charming ingenuous quality was lost in the push to squeeze more and more money out of the event. But long before that happened, and KQED Auctions became history, the highly unpredictable process produced a wealth of stories. I remember well the year (I think it was the third) that we found ourselves in possession of a pair of lavender bedsheets whose auction value had been enhanced by having been slept in by Kim Novak. The actress, then in her lavender period (her cats were even dyed lavender), had insisted that the Clift Hotel supply her with lavender sheets for an overnight stay in San Francisco. On her departure, the hotel graciously donated them, unlaundered, to the auction. The sheets were snapped up for $250 by a young man named Beale Ernst, who was then wavering between continuing his job promoting records or succumbing to his hobby of making neckties. The Kim Novak sheets tipped him to neckwear. Ernst returned the following day to give the auction dozens of neckties fashioned from the lavender sheets, all neatly labelled to remind buyers of Ms. Novak's previous presence. National publicity generated by press accounts of the episode launched Ernst
on a career in fashion neckwear that eventually led him to become the nation's fourth largest supplier.
The 1955 rescue effort succeeded. But knowing that a death scene only plays once, we took seriously the recommendations of our citizens' panel and beefed up our board with business people. The position of corporate chair was turned over to a prominent civic leader and the scion of a famous San Francisco family, Mortimer Fleishhacker, Jr., and increased effort was devoted to using our airtime more effectively for fund-raising. Then as now, most of KQED's operating funds came from audience support in the form of voluntary contributions, an idea BAETA borrowed at the outset from Berkeley's KPFA radio. Today, audience support is standard for most public stations. In the mid-1950s, however, most stations thought it too unreliable; only KQED dared to experiment with it. After our 1955 crisis, we sought a way to make it work more effectively and hit upon the idea of "pledging"—giving viewers a telephone number to call to declare their support of the station, with the promise of a check to follow. Pledge nights gave rise to pledge weeks when programs were interrupted with repetitious and seemingly endless pitches. Unfortunately for the hapless viewer, we discovered that income from these pitches increases in direct proportion to the time devoted to them, not to the quality of their content. In more recent years the KQED invention has become a national nuisance through semi-annual funding weeks that PBS likes to call "festivals." The necessity for them, however, remains.
Before the invention of videotape released us from the perilous high-wire act of live programming, back-to-back programming was a daily occurrence. KQED's three cameras were whipped from one part of the studio to another in the brief interval between shows (we were careful, of course, to avoid the pillar in the middle of the studio). We stretched and strained our limited resources to fill a slim weekly schedule. Because it was cheaper to produce our own simple shows than to buy programs off the shelf, our schedule was largely a pastiche of locally produced shows. Many were aimed at children, a top priority for the public medium then as now. Most were mildly instructive—storytelling, natural science, body
coordination, and the like—intended, so we advertised, to make "do-ers out of viewers." This, too, was true of much of our adult programming. Television's "how to" genre offered an easily produced and popular format—needing only an expert in something, anything, who had an engaging camera presence. In the early years, the formula produced courses in a wide variety of skills: skin diving, typing, shorthand, memory training, investing, public speaking, gardening, speed reading, beginning piano, home repairs, and gift wrapping. Some were more successful than others. Rice dropped the memory-training course when the instructor forgot an appointment that he had made with us.
There was another respect in which we were strongly influenced by Pacifica radio: KPFA's practice of keeping its listeners apprised of station policy by airing a weekly report from its manager. My own effort, however, was barely begun when Rice transformed it into something else by shunting a visiting dignitary my way for an on-air interview. At the time, my report was the only live show on the schedule. The incident gave birth to a weekly half-hour interview program, ambiguously titled Kaleidoscope , which remained in the schedule for fifteen years. When Rice sent his secretary, Win Murphy, to be the show's producer (she later directed it as well), he inadvertently created a professional partnership that lasted longer than many marriages. We managed, over those fifteen years, to bring before our cameras a virtual Who's Who of leaders in the arts, entertainment, and public service, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Buster Keaton, Aldous Huxley, Bing Crosby, Norman Thomas, Robert F. Kennedy, Rube Goldberg, Alexander Kerensky, L. S. B. Leakey, Ruth St. Denis, Leo Szilard, and scores of others. In the early days, when the show was live, we never booked guests without first meeting them. We broke the rule one Labor Day in our desperation to find a subject appropriate to and available on the holiday. I had heard about a longshoreman who worked on the waterfront unloading ships by day and writing books by night. He seemed a good bet but we had no idea how to reach him. He had no telephone, so Murphy mailed a postcard inviting him sight unseen. We need not have held our collective breath. Eric Hoffer, dressed in khaki working clothes, playing his
huge voice like a mighty Wurlitzer as he punctuated the air with his enormous hands, was an immediate hit and a natural performer. Murphy later turned our Labor Day triumph into a national series of twelve half-hour Conversations with Eric Hoffer .
On another occasion, Murphy persuaded me to interview a visiting Japanese artist. The results were disappointing; his art was esoteric and his English was beyond penetration. Murphy, however, saw in T. Mikami the makings of a successful "how to" series, instructing aspiring amateur artists in the arcane art of Japanese brush painting. At first, Japanese Brush Painting was a local series. Viewers were told that they would need certain tools—a brush, an ink stick, and a stone. Skeptical though he was, Rice bought out Chinatown's supply of the materials, packaged them into Japanese brush-painting kits, and offered them to our viewers at a modest price. When the show aired, we were swamped with more requests than we were able to fill. We faced a dilemma: do we disappoint the latecomers, or do we import more kits from Japan and, at the already announced price, sell them at a loss? Rice solved the problem by working the phone until he found an airline, a new one, willing to fly in more kits from Tokyo in exchange for an on-air credit to help establish its identity. Sometime later,Japanese Brush Painting went national, followed by a sequel, Once upon a Japanese Time . KQED found its way into the business of importing, packaging, and marketing brush-painting paraphernalia on a national scale.
With our interest in actively involving KQED in the political life of the community, we did not hesitate when necessary to step into the minefields of controversy, knowing that the station was at greater risk if avoiding controversy meant ducking important and significant issues. This would not have worked without the backing of a board ready to make policy but courageous enough to leave its implementation to management. Because the boundary is blurred at best, the temptation to cross it in moments of crisis is virtually irresistible. Our programming gave KQED's board ample temptation to breach the boundary, but the boundary always held. I was given, within board policy, considerable freedom to make operating decisions and even to take substantial risks, always with
the clear understanding that I bore full responsibility for the consequences. However, the viability of that relationship was, like a marriage, put to the test in each and every crisis. The crisis in 1963 was one example.
The year was a time of particular turmoil and tension. In the South, blacks were pressing to gain their constitutional rights; racial incidents and rallies followed one upon the other. In Dallas, a president was felled by an assassin's bullet. The conscience of the nation was bared like a raw nerve. In the midst of these events, the KQED film unit produced for national release a highly provocative documentary, Take This Hammer , in which author James Baldwin was filmed touring the streets of San Francisco, lifting metaphorical rocks and exposing the ugly presence of racism. The film's message was simple and direct: racism is not confined to the Deep South, it lives everywhere, lurking even in the corners of "America's favorite city." Advance word of the film's assault on the city's good name sent shock waves through the ranks of the board's civic boosters. Without examining the evidence, they angrily dismissed Baldwin's thesis, blaming his wrongheaded conclusions on his ignorance of the city. One board member, discreetly couching his self-righteous cry for censorship in the rhetoric of board policy, declared "it is not the function of KQED, in the name of educational television, to produce inflammatory, distorted, sacrilegious, extremist programs." Another warned me of the mayor's displeasure, apparently believing that his honor's attitude, if not a matter of policy, was at least a cause for concern. Neither had seen the film, of course. In resolving the crisis, the board held firm to principle, deciding that "as a practical matter it must rely on the judgment of the staff." But it wisely added that it "may at times serve as a board of review after the program has been broadcast" (emphasis added). The distinction is critical, not only for public broadcasters but also for all not-for-profits governed by citizen-volunteer boards whose work brings them into areas of controversy. If public broadcasters have a particular concern, it is because their decisions are on the screen, immediately and widely visible for the world to judge.
Nothing heightens sensibilities, arouses passions, and tests the
limits of board-management roles faster than the subject of sex and where to draw the lines in its treatment on "family" television. Two episodes in our experience make the point. The first was a locally produced documentary on homosexuality, The Rejected . If it was not the first, then it certainly was one of the earliest to treat the then taboo subject on television. Its imminent airing prompted the threatened resignation of one board member, who warned that homosexuality was a disease that could be spread by discussions about it, or worse, could be "made respectable." The board, holding to principle, left the decision to management. The Rejected aired both locally and nationally, the Republic held, and the skittish board member retained his seat for several more years of useful service.
The other episode involved a film series on sex education chosen by the schools to air in our television service to elementary classes. The inclusion of graphic descriptions of male and female sex characteristics and the use of terms such as "pubic hair" and "masturbation" aroused the opposition of several parental groups. One of our board members took up their cause at the next meeting, telling her colleagues that she had received "a number" of letters from "friends" protesting the series and warning that sex education was a communist plot to undermine the moral fiber of America. She did not, she added cautiously, necessarily agree with her friends. The board reacted with shocked silence, not entirely because of the allegation—that could be dismissed as cold-war hysteria—but because the member who voiced the protest brought to it the authority of celebrity. Shirley Temple Black was a living legend, and almost no one on the board had the courage to challenge her. In their hearts she was still Little Miss Marker. Struggling for an easy exit, the chair—although fully aware the series had been programmed by the schools and not by the station—proposed that the board screen the series and come to its own decision. The critical issue was whether airing it might adversely affect our public fund-raising. Fortunately, before the board was led by panic to breach the line between policy and operations, one member—a woman who, as an outstanding civic leader, was not easily awed—proposed a compromise: leave all
programming decisions to management but offer the board an "informational" screening. The compromise was quickly adopted, the screening was held, but only Shirley Black attended. To her credit, and my undying gratitude, she patiently viewed the films, asked questions, and, with minor reservations, concurred in our decision to air them.
Some areas of programming, Rice and I agreed, were better left to commercial television. One was daily news. It was much too difficult and costly for us to attempt. Besides, we thought the local stations were handling it reasonably well. The situation changed suddenly and dramatically on a Friday night in 1968 when we learned that the Newspaper Guild was about to strike San Francisco's two daily newspapers. Rice and his newly hired public affairs director, former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Mel Wax, fearing that local television would not fill the news void, huddled over the weekend and emerged Monday morning with a plan. Newspaper of the Air would be a nightly news show, but an unconventional one; we couldn't afford the conventional kind. Working with what we had—reporters hired as needed off the picket lines at $100 a week, a managing editor, and a long studio table—we kicked off Newspaper of the Air promptly at 7:00 P.M. that first Monday evening. Bill German, the Chronicle 's managing editor and our managing editor as well, had assigned each reporter a story to cover. That evening, the reporters gathered around the long, rectangular table for the air show. German, seated at the head, called on each reporter in turn to tell his or her story from notes—we had no newsfilm at the time—and then subjected them to questions from him and each other. Editorial cartoonist Bob Bastian closed the night's show with a folio of witty comments on the news, drawn while the show was in progress.
In Marshall McLuhan's lexicon, Newspaper of the Air was "process." It was news in the act of becoming a newscast—unedited, unformed, unfinished. The show's free form was a radical departure for a medium that worships convention and avoids risk. But the audience liked it. And so, incidentally, did KGO-TV, the local ABC-owned station. Its news department copied Newspaper 's for-
mat—reporters talking to each other—but not its serious substance, giving birth to a commercial mutant derided as "happy talk." The distance between the genuine article and its meretricious offspring was never more sharply defined than in Newspaper 's coverage of the ecumenical service at Grace Cathedral following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968. German had assigned Bill Chapin to cover it. Chapin was perfectly cast as the hardbitten newsman of Hollywood cliché who's seen it all and felt nothing. But the stereotype crumbled that night. Called on to describe the scene at the service, Chapin had barely begun when he suddenly, shockingly, broke off, choked back a sob, and buried his head in his hands. It was an electrifying moment when the humanity of the storyteller was touched by the story itself and a far cry from the factitious "happy talk" that it inspired.
Newspaper of the Air died with the end of the strike nine weeks later. Efforts to revive it failed. The reporters, no longer working exclusively for us, were not about to scoop their own newspapers. Worse, our money had run out. The Ford Foundation had funded the nine-week run with a $50,000 grant, made in remarkably swift fashion by Ford's television adviser, Fred Friendly. His response to my single telephone call was vintage Friendly: no questions asked, just a demand that we do our best and "let everyone know you're doing it." Two months after Newspaper 's demise, Ford announced a new grant program: the Foundation was prepared to fund "innovative new series." Many suspected the tender was Friendly's veiled enticement to other public stations to follow our lead into daily news shows, and some did. But the first application into Friendly's in basket was ours. We were ready to return to the news business.
The resulting $750,000 grant allowed us to hire our own reporters and support staff, and by September of 1968 we were back on the air with a daily news show whose title, Newsroom, was deliberately chosen to suggest "process." The new show used more sophisticated production techniques than its hastily planned and thinly budgeted predecessor, and yet it was visibly the direct descendant of Newspaper of the Air. Reporters were still print-trained
journalists with specific beats—city government, education, environment, and foreign affairs—and as before, they returned to the studio at airtime to sit around a table, tell their stories, and parry the questioning of their peers and of anchor Mel Wax. As the show matured, increasing use was made of news film. Newsroom was aggressive, interactive, and contentious journalism. Objective reporting was its aim, but not always its result: a reporter's lifted eyebrow, tone of voice, unplanned flippancy, or ad-libbed response to another's question could occasionally tilt the show in one direction or another. On the positive side, news stories were reported in depth and treated as developing strands, not as isolated, self-contained fragments of the day's events.
Predictably, Newsroom 's volatile format produced occasional controversy. Several days after Dr. S. I. Hayakawa took over as president of the rebellious San Francisco State College campus, he appeared on Newsroom . But in mid-interview, angered at the aggressive questioning, he stormed off the show with a parting imprecation to the reporters to "go to hell." The mini-drama made newspaper headlines the next day and drew a heavy volume of mail, some harshly critical of our news practices and much of it reflecting the dilemma all news shows faced in covering the student rebellions of the turbulent 1960s. Older viewers saw the riots as a metaphor for a breakdown in traditional values, a souring of parent-child relationships, for which the remedy was more discipline. The mostly younger staff of Newsroom , however, saw student grievances as legitimate concerns and thus found themselves swimming against the current of viewer expectations—that were shaped in large measure by the images projected in more conventional news shows. Still, virtually every letter from eyewitnesses to events on the state college campus praised Newsroom for its "fair and accurate" coverage.
KQED paid the price for its unconventional approach to news. Corporate donors were easily put off by Newsroom 's aggressive style. On one occasion, the public-relations vice president of a major corporate donor, whose five-figure support check had been banked only days before, called to protest a story critical of his company aired on the previous evening's Newsroom . He made
forcefully clear that his company did not make charitable contributions in the expectation of being booted in the corporate derriere. My reflexive response was to offer the immediate return of the check. Luckily, the offer was refused. But in a separate incident, an unwillingness to be linked with our "volatile and unpredictable" news show was the reason given by a Bay Area school district for abruptly cancelling its obligation to pay a share of our televised school service. No doubt the superintendent was beyond appreciating that volatility and unpredictability, the qualities he complained of, were the same qualities that won Newsroom its large and loyal following.
Scoring a beat on the conventional press, as with the bizarre story of Patty Hearst's abduction by the Simbionese Liberation Army, brought exceptional satisfaction to the show's crew. Newsroom 's Marilyn Baker, using contacts no one else had, managed to stay "two weeks ahead of the police in her revelations about the Hearst kidnapping case" while providing the national press and local police with "nearly every substantial clue." An envious FBI agent offered the grudging sort of praise accorded women in the business: "I wish I had that broad's connections."
Newsroom 's ability to be closely involved in the affairs of the community was never better served than by its part in what came to be known as the People's Park War. The dispute centered on a small patch of undeveloped property owned by the University of California and adjacent to its Berkeley campus. A group of urban poor, known as "street people," had taken over the plot and converted it into a crude park. When the University reasserted its rights by forcibly removing the park's occupants and enclosing the disputed parcel in an eight-foot steel mesh fence, a bloody melee resulted in which one person died and scores were injured. Governor Ronald Reagan sent in an armed California National Guard to restore order. Newsroom followed events with daily reports and film. At one critical juncture in the dispute, KQED arranged and televised a face-to-face meeting with representatives of the city, the University, and the street people. It failed. A second meeting, arranged by the University, was also aired and also failed to settle the dispute. The situation had grown steadily more ex-
plosive and was heading toward a potentially dangerous climax on Memorial Day. On that day, a reported force of 50,000 "street people" and their supporters planned to storm the steel mesh fence and the National Guard troops protecting it. In a last desperate effort to avoid the feared Armageddon, Berkeley's mayor convened an emergency session of the city council on the eve of the planned assault and again asked Newsroom to cover the event. This time he wanted the show aired statewide, not only to lower the heat on the conflict locally, but to send a message elsewhere to dissuade out-of-towners from trekking to Berkeley to join the march.
That evening, an overflow crowd filled the tense council chambers. Hour after hour they heard impassioned arguments on both sides. Among the images caught by our cameras was one of a group of teenagers, sprawled on the council room floor, looking up in disbelief at a retired general as he warned the city council of the imminent danger of a communist takeover by the "street people." It was long after midnight when the meeting reached its dramatic climax: a heart-stopping 5 to 4 vote that opened the way for eventual settlement of the long-standing dispute. Memorial Day's bloody conflict was averted. The next day's march was peaceful, even joyful. In a festive mood, young women who only a day earlier were steeled to march against the loaded rifles of the National Guard laughingly stuffed flowers in the muzzles of their rifles as the startled soldiers were pulled into the street for a spontaneous dance. Newsroom 's cameras brought the celebratory images to a statewide television audience. City and university officials later cited KQED's extensive coverage of the crisis, and particularly coverage of the crucial council meeting, as a critical factor in the dispute's peaceful outcome.
Newsroom survived for nine years, winning Dupont-Columbia and Peabody Awards, and giving local commercial news a run for their audience numbers. Nicholas von Hoffman called it "reportage of a different and higher order." Three successive KQED managements struggled to keep Newsroom alive, but after the Ford grant ran out, the show's rising costs outran the station's ability
to support it without sacrificing every other local program. During the fall of 1980, over howls of protest from the audience, the show was cancelled. Several dedicated Newsroom fans were elected to the KQED board, pledging to reverse the decision. But it was too late. The show had spent its energy, its freshness was gone, and in some ways the show was a victim of its own success. The original ink-stained print journalists, who looked, talked, and dressed so differently from the button-neat and blow-dried reporters on the commercial channels, were a breath of fresh air in the show's early years. But not even a tough-minded team from the print press could escape the insidious power of television to reduce flesh-and-blood people to spectral personalities. In time, Newsroom reporters slipped inexorably into the role of self-conscious performer as their comments and responses became ever more predictable. An occasional replacement in the lineup helped. But when a bitterly fought labor dispute closed the show down for four months, its fragile internal fabric was torn. In the wake of changed relationships, both the show and its appearance took second place to its participants' overriding concern for their job security.
Newsroom was a single but significant episode in the life of one station, a tale told from a period in its history when anything and everything seemed possible, when the accretions of growth and expansion—more people, more money, more risk—had not yet clouded the vision of what public television was about. Our experience was in some respects typical of other stations and in other respects unique to a particular time and place. Each public station has its own story to tell, and each has its own face and style. The best of the stations not only reflect the character of the communities they serve, they play an integral role, shaping events as well as reporting them. At KQED, our efforts to honor that credo were played out with all the imagination and resources we could muster. But there were limits.
The most obvious was the limitation of time—not too little, but too much. The hours in our daily schedule were more than our modest staff and meager resources could possibly fill, a problem common to all broadcast stations. Commercial stations, however,
fill out their schedules with programs provided from a major national network or draw from a pool of syndicated shows. Public stations had no counterpart, not in the beginning. We had to invent one. And if what we invented bore very little resemblance to any of the commercial networks, the difference was altogether deliberate.