Fifty Years of Public Broadcasting:
Celebrating the Anniversary of Penn State Public Broadcasting
David L. Phillips and Gary Miller
NOTE: The following is the script for a talk presented by
David Phillips and Gary Miller in February 2015 at the
Central Pennsylvania Torch Club.
This year—on March 1, in fact—WPSU-TV is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary of providing public and educational television to viewers here in Central Pennsylvania and, through, its productions, across the state and, in some cases, the nation. Both Dave Phillips and I were involved in the station’s work during its first twenty years—Dave as a director of operations and the station’s second general manager. We’d like to talk tonight about those early years and where public broadcasting is today.
Penn State has had a long history with educational media and public broadcasting. Very early on—in the 1920s—Penn State experimented with broadcasting courses over the radio. But it was at the Nittany Lion Inn back in 1953 that the federal government announced its decision to set aside bandwidth to support noncommercial educational television stations. That same year, WDFM went on the air as a nonprofit student-operated FM radio station. As early as the 1940s, Dr. Ray Carpenter had begun to research educational uses of film. In the 1950s, he received a Ford Foundation grant to test the use of television to alleviate high-enrolling classes. They set up an on-campus television network that connected 24 classrooms with one-way video and two—way audio. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s—when the GI Bill and the early Baby Boom generation were crowding its classrooms, Penn State also used television on campus to capture important course lectures and to distribute popular courses. Dr. Kenneth Nelson taught Accounting 101 through this system for many years. The Colleges of Engineering and Business routinely recorded lectures from courses in the TV studio. Students could then view these in the library or as part of their class sessions. The University Division of Instructional Services grew up around these uses of media.
In 1963, the federal government passed the Educational Facilities Act, which stimulated funding of new educational television stations. During that time, the emphasis was on education; many stations focused on delivering videotaped lessons to K-12 classrooms. In Nebraska, this involved broadcasting from an airplane to increase geographic coverage.
In 1964, Penn State received a construction permit for what was then called WPSX-TV—which would become the nation’s 101st public television station.
DAVE: The Early history of WPSX
Gary mentioned Ray Carpenter, who was one of several people instrumental in getting WPSX started. Others included Les Greenhill and Arthur Hungerford. But the person who is most identified with the founding of WPSX is Marlowe Froke. Marlowe came to Penn State in 1959 after having served as a news director for the Armed Forces Radio and Television service, as news director at KWAT-AM in Watertown, South Dakota, and news director at WGN radio and TV in Chicago. He taught television news at the University of Illinois before coming here as associate professor of journalism. In 1964, he was named the first Director of Broadcasting for WPSX-TV and devoted the rest of his long career to the development of educational and public media at Penn State.
Gary also mentioned the construction permit for WPSX and makes getting a construction permit sound simple. It usually is, only in this case, it was anything but.
In the late 1950s, The FCC’s initial educational television allocation was for UHF channel 45. In the cities, that would work fine but in rural Pennsylvania the reach of UHF would encompass very few people.
The largest area would be covered by a low-frequency VHF channel — channels 2 through 7 would be best. The limiting factor would be the required separation between stations to avoid what is referred to as co-channel interference. For our purposes, that would be approximately 120 air miles. So the engineers started measuring. Starting with Channel 2, they didn’t have far to go. They found Channel 3 stations in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Syracuse. They drew their 120-mile circles and –lo, and behold – they found a one-mile triangle on Penfield Mountain near Clearfield, Pennsylvania. Penn State requested allocation of Channel 3 and was granted permission to operate a remote studio. Which answers the perennial question of why Clearfield is identified as the station’s location.
To digress for a moment: the other perennial question is why wasn’t it called WPSU in the first place. The answer is that a small junior college in northern Virginia already had those call letters and didn’t relinquish them until long after Gary and I were gone.
Operating under a conditional license, the station finally went on the air on March 1, 1965. It operated initially only in the daytime, offering classroom supplementary materials to schools, which had banded together as the Allegheny Educational Broadcasting Council with the purpose of selecting and paying for the broadcast materials.
On June 7, 1965, the evening schedule began. Remember – there were no live networks at that time. Programs were distributed by mail on film or the primitive version of videotape then available.
Finally, on June 17, 1965, WPSX-TV received its full license to broadcast as the 101st educational television station.
At that time, staffing was less than minimal. Everybody did a little of everything to keep on the air. There was no studio. Programs originated on film or videotape from our remote truck, which could operate two live cameras if the opportunity presented itself.
Offices were in Wagner Building, which we shared with the ROTC and University Press. Wagner Annex was under construction. It was basically an addition to the Wagner ROTC Armory. It would house a studio and control room.
WPSX had an advantage of a rich source of programming utilizing Penn State’s faculty and staff. The first live program was actually a continuation of a program – Farm, Home, and Garden – originated by Agricultural Extension and distributed via microwave to Channel 10 in Altoona. Later, a segment of that program featuring Penn State meteorologists was split off into its own 15-minute program called The State of the Weather/ Shape of the World. It continues today as Weather/World.
Our production resources at that time were minimal. We had two bulky black-and-white TV cameras, which required a crew of at least six people to operate. Or we had black-and-while film cameras, which required one person (or two, if we added audio). We also were fortunate to have a real, live documentarian on staff. His name was P. J. O’Connell. P. J. had a real gift for single camera, cinema verite style production – very intimate looks into the lives of people in central Pennsylvania. Over the years, he and his team produced several series and specials that documented life in rural and small town central Pennsylvania communities. Some examples:
· NOTES ON AN AMERICAN BUSINESS—a documentary series about a smelting company in Mifflin County that, while PJ was filming, was working through a decision to relocate the company in the South.
· THE SPIRIT OF PUNXSUTAWNEY—which took a close look at a small town newspaper—The Spirit—and its relationship to the community.
· A TALE OF RELIANCE AND HOPE, the story of two Philipsburg area volunteer fire companies.
· THE LAST PROUD DAYS OF ELSIE WOOSTER, which followed an elderly Central Pennsylvania woman as she prepared for her final journey.
· VISITING WITH DARLENE, a series of observational documentaries that followed a poor Appalachian family in Blair County—who PJ re-visited a decade later.
Unfortunately, P..J. retired some years ago and was killed in a bicycle accident in Colorado. I am happy to report that P.J.’s documentaries are still available through Media Sales at Penn State.
GARY: Engaging the Community
From the outset, WPSX-TV was committed to building bridges between the university and the communities that we served. An early mission was to use Channel 3 to extend televised lessons to K-12 classrooms. It was a partnership that involved the University, school districts throughout the area, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Before the station even went on the air, Marlowe Froke met with the superintendents of the many school districts in the 29-country viewing area. They created a nonprofit organization—the Allegheny Educational Broadcast Council—AEBC—that was the liaison between the station and the schools. Participating schools paid an annual membership fee that supported AEBC staff. Every spring, representatives of the member schools met to review available programs and to match them with curricular needs across the K-12 curriculum. WPSX then acquired the programs, with PDE funding, and broadcast them during the school year.
Working with the AEBC and the PDE—and Penn State faculty—we also produced programs for K-12 teachers and students. One example is Investigative Science for Elementary Education—a series of science demonstrations for grades1-3 developed with Dr. Paul Welliver of the College of Education. Another popular series was What’s in the News, a weekly current events series that eventually was broadcast nationally and helped students understand current events. The series was hosted originally by Stu Chamberlain, who went on to a career with ABC Radio in New York. Today, many people remember Katie O’Toole’s long-standing role as host when the series went national.
We also worked with faculty across the university to produce a wide range of instructional programs for adults, many in cooperation with the Cooperative Extension Service or various Penn State Colleges. Topics were wide-ranging: Beginning to Sew, Parenting, woodcarving, fly fishing, etc. Several college credit “tele-courses” were also developed, including Principles of Accounting, Business Logistics, and a collection of courses in the inter-disciplinary Science, Technology, and Society curriculum on topics like behavior modification, limits to resources, and bio-ethics. These STS courses were part of a collaborative among faculty at Penn State, Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh.
In the mid-1970s, the station joined a statewide Community Service project, broadcasting programs about community issues with supporting materials and, in some cases, organizing community meetings around those issues throughout the viewing area. Examples include: Small Town Repair Kit, FoodSense, To Age is Human, and a series of national specials on major diseases. These projects often involved community organizations around the viewing area and local Penn State campuses, which organized local community meetings. We also arranged for Penn State faculty to travel to libraries around the viewing area to give lectures on programs of historical and literary interest, which helped not only to generate audiences for the shows but to create new demand for related books in local libraries.
DAVE: Connections: Statewide, Regional, and National Networks
I mentioned earlier that in 1965 there were no “live” networks. Each station was its own fiefdom and served its area as best it could under its educational license. But even then, many station managers recognized the value – even the necessity – for co-operative programming and co-operative planning for growth beyond the confines of an “educational” designation.
The early distribution of programs was facilitated by the Educational Radio and Television Center, later National Educational Television Center or NET. Stations that produced program series would offer them to the other station and NET would organize copying and delivery, very much the way it worked for years in educational radio.
One of the early efforts to be more pro-active in planning and producing programs was EEN – the Eastern Educational Television Network. It included a mix of stations from small ones like State College to ambitious and well-funded stations in places like Boston, New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago. They saw the wisdom of pooling resources to improve quality – and it would be best, of course, if that pooling was done at their stations.
In 1967, the public television movement was gaining traction, which also provided the basis for a different kind of network in Pennsylvania. WPSX and WITF-TV in Hershey established microwave interconnection that allowed us to extend the reach of our local shows, while demonstrating the power of a more networked system. This helped to create a rationale for the creation of the Pennsylvania Public Television Network. PPTN was a co-operative of the seven stations in the Commonwealth. Although it talked a good game about public affairs programming that would expose citizens to the working of government, etc., it s two main goals were to (1) provide a live interconnection of the station, and (2) – most importantly – provide subsidies to all seven stations to ease their fund-raising needs. This strategy worked well for more than 15 years until state budget concerns and the stations’ successes ended the largess.
As I said, the public television movement was moving ahead nationally and became a reality in 1967 with the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, although it wasn’t until two years later, in 1969, that PBS was created to manage the programming on the new public television interconnection. Although early proponents envisioned CPB and PBS as clones of Britain’s BBC, which is funded by a tax on TV sets, Congress had other ideas and has kept tight reign on government funds going into the system. There are periodic attempts by legislators to eliminate funding for CPB and PBS, saying the public should fund “public” broadcasting, but viewers of signature programs like “Sesame Street” have prevailed to this point.
GARY: New Delivery Environments: Satellite and Cable TV
In the mid-1970s, WPSX joined an experiment called the Appalachian Educational Satellite Project (AESP). Funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, AESP used an experimental communications satellite to deliver teacher education courses, nursing courses, and other professional education and training resources to the otherwise isolated communities up and down the Appalachian chain. Then, in 1978, the first information revolution happened when PBS shifted to satellite to deliver its national program service. Not only could every station receive programs from the network, but stations could also uplink programs to the network. Having a national satellite network stimulated several important innovations. For instance, in 1980 university-owned stations created the National University Teleconference Network, which allowed us to share live television seminars with other universities—essentially offering national conferences. The first national satellite conference from WPSX gave faculty in Nuclear Engineering the opportunity to share with their colleagues around the country video from the damaged Three Mile Island nuclear reactor. PBS used the system to create the PBS Adult Learning Service, which made video-based credit courses available to stations—and local colleges and universities-- nationally. Then, Walter Annenberg gave the Corporation for Public Broadcasting $150 million to fund the creation of postsecondary video courses rooted in national-quality television series on a wide range of topics. The CPB/Annenberg Project—supported by PBS Adult Learning Service— brought many colleges and universities around the country into a new era of extending access to education for adult, part-time learners.
Around the same time, cable television was maturing. For cable television operators, satellite meant that they could capture and re-distribute signals well beyond their local area. In Pennsylvania, a group of cable operators worked with WPSX and others at Penn State to create PENNARAMA, which was envisioned as a statewide educational delivery system. WPSX managed the service, which essentially meant programming a second 24-hour channel that offered credit courses and other educational programs.
DAVE: Today’s Public Media Environment: Multiple Channels
Back then, programming a second channel was a big deal. In today’s digital world, three or more channels are the norm.
WPSU-TV, for example, has its main channel with sufficient bandwidth to provide high-definition television. It also has two sub-channels: one is called Create, and provides a mix of arts and crafts and cooking programs that have been a mainstay of programming since the days of Julia Child and Bob Ross, the guy who paints “happy little trees” with spatulas. The second channel – The World – features public affairs, science, and general interest programming.
Likewise, WPSU-FM has its main channel and two sub-channels on HD FM, giving the community access not only to classical music, but also jazz and news radio.
At the same time, the new technology provides PBS with the means to by-pass the stations by creating their own cable channels such as PBS Sprout, which is a network of children’s programming, and PBS Online, an internet based channel that includes access to past programs such as Masterpiece Theatre, Nova, and Live at Lincoln Center. PBS also has an online repository of programs that meet K-12 education goals and that can be downloaded by classroom teachers.
GARY: Public TV Today
Over the past half century, public broadcasting has seen many changes. Certainly, it has had to adjust to incredible changes in technology—from the early days of black and white television programs recorded on two-inch-wide videotape to microwave and satellite delivery and, most recently, the Internet.
But a lot has stayed the same. It was created at the beginning of the Information Revolution, stimulated in part by the government’s response to the Cold War—the Sputnik challenge to improve American education, especially in science. It operates today in a media-rich Information Society, where education is again becoming an important societal issue as “STEM”—science, technology, engineering, and math—skills have emerged as essential skills to helping our communities maintain their competitive edge in an increasingly global economy.
What hasn’t changed is the importance of the “public” in public broadcasting—what is now probably better-called “public media.” These things tend to work in cycles, and we’ve gone from a period of high public investment through federal and state budgets to public investment by individuals who use public media’s resources and foundations and businesses that grant funds for specific programs. Today, we are again seeing government interest in using public media for education.
What has remained the same, though, is a commitment to engaging and working with local communities.