San Francisco’s KQED-TV remains one of the most-watched public TV stations in the country, but, in the 1980s and ’90s it suffered under the expectations of a viewership that recalled its early years. David Stewart reminds us of KQED’s fertile ’50s and ’60s. In his history of public TV, The Vanishing Vision, James Day recalls that the first year of KQED/San Francisco, 1953, was nearly its last. Its headquarters was in the back seat of a station wagon. Day, the president, and a staff of eight had managed to keep the station on the air, but the board, alarmed by its increasing debts, had decided to call it quits.
Max Morath reminded America about a largely forgotten part of its musical legacy, but beyond that achievement of mass education, the musician also helped educational TV accept the element of entertainment in its programs. This article by Contributing Editor David Stewart is part of Stewart’s planned book on public TV programming. Stewart, who retired as CPB’s director of international activities, profiled early television’s favorite professor, Frank Baxter, in a January issue of Current. In the summer of 1959 an itinerant musician and sometimes TV producer, Max Morath, was playing piano for melodramas in the restored mining town of Cripple Creek, Colo. A year later, the 33-year-old graduate of Colorado College had written and performed a 12-part TV series that would change noncommercial television forever. Over the next five years — while the music rights were held by National Educational Television (NET) — The Ragtime Era became the most watched noncommercial series up to that time, run and rerun constantly by all the educational (and many commercial) stations throughout the country.
You may have recently reacquainted yourself with this classic public TV mini-series. The American Program Service and 20 stations have brought it back for a third set of broadcasts this year, after a few runs on Bravo. Here, David Stewart reminds us of the quality, scope and impact of the production when it premiered in this country 14 years ago. On Monday evening, Jan. 18, 1982, the 11-part, 13-hour television series Brideshead Revisited broke over the PBS audience with the suddenness of a storm.
Like Norman Corwin, the exceptional radio producer profiled in the last issue of Current, Frank Baxter had his great broadcast successes on the cusp, just before his medium became too commercially successful to continue airing the kind of programs that made Corwin and Baxter famous. Both were forerunners of today’s public broadcasters. This Baxter profile was written by CPB’s director of international activities, David Stewart as part of his history of public television programming. When he died in 1982 many were astonished: Frank Baxter still alive in the ’80s! Many remembered him as mature, if not quite elderly, nearly 30 years before when he grasped national attention simply by talking to a TV camera about Shakespeare’s plays and poetry.
The old-timers wandered curiously among the shelves, munching cookies and poking into file boxes, looking casually for their footprints in the history of public broadcasting. It was the concluding field trip of this month’s Public Broadcasting Reunion [related article] — a bus ride from Washington to nearby University of Maryland at College Park, where the new National Public Broadcasting Archives is open for business. Donald R. McNeil, the founding director, and Thomas Connors, his designated successor, showed off a facility that already has:
2,500 shelf feet of corporate records from CPB, PBS, NPR and other organizations;
360 shelf feet of personal papers and dozens of oral histories of the field;
5,600 audio tapes from the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, WAMU-FM and WETA-FM; and
3,000 videotapes from PBS, WETA-TV, Maryland PTV and other sources, among other things. Five hundred file boxes from Children’s Television Workshop are on the way, and 800 more reels from NPR. Standing in the high-ceilinged, half-empty room in the basement of the university’s Hornbake Library, Connors invited the visitors to talk with the archives about old correspondence, reports and other items that might make the day of some future historian.
The man who put New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia on the radio, reading the comics during a newspaper strike — M.S. “Morrie” Novik — talked the other day about his first trip west of Chicago. That excursion to Iowa more than 50 years ago was also the first time the head of New York’s municipal radio station, WNYC, had much contact with the midwesterners who were big in “educational radio.” Novik recognized they were up to the same thing he was, and he joined a fellowship that continues today. He was among his fellows again Oct. 8-9 , during a Public Broadcasting Reunion, where a big roomful of admitted idealists reminisced, ribbed each other, tut-tutted about things these days, and unabashedly proclaimed their values.
The Depression created a demand for sober, public-service uses of radio. Seizing the moment, NACRE launched the most ambitious experiments in national educational broadcasting that had ever been tried in America.
“If you educators do not hold radio for yourselves,” Judge Ira Robinson told educational broadcasters in June 1930, “it is going to be so fortified by commercial interests that you will never get it.”
The lone pro-education member of the Federal Radio Commission, Robinson had ample grounds for alarm. Since the mid-’20s, dozens of school-operated stations had been driven from the air by a combination of commercial competition, FRC pressures, and their own lack of resources and resourcefulness. In 1930, the mortality rate seemed to be rising; more than 20 educational stations would fall silent by the end of July. During the previous winter, Commissioner Robinson had been involved in a promising initiative that might have brought the federal government to the rescue. But the Advisory Committee on Education by Radio, appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, had pulled back from recommending measures that would do much good for beleaguered educational broadcasters.