Influential pioneer of pubcasting Robert Schenkkan dies at 93

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Robert F. Schenkkan, who worked with President Lyndon Johnson on the 1967 act that established CPB and was one of “the Six Pack” of early pubTV station managers who provided counsel on the membership design of the Public Broadcasting Service, died Wednesday (Feb. 9) in Austin, Texas, of complications of dementia. He was 93.

Top public broadcasters were quick to pay their respects. Jim Lehrer, anchor and editor of PBS NewsHour, told the Austin American-Statesman, “He was the first to understand the immediate meaning and ultimate importance of public broadcasting. He really got it. It was ‘educational’ TV when he started, and he realized it could be so much more. He also believed very strongly that if public broadcast was going to deal with news and public affairs, it couldn’t be seen as a political branch of government or special interest. He protected that from all who might have thought otherwise and did so stridently, eloquently and repeatedly.”

Schenkkan helped found Austin’s KUT-FM in 1958, and KLRN in San Antonio in 1962. (KLRU broke  from KLRN in 1987 and is now the Austin PBS affiliate.)

“Only Bob could have persuaded LBJ to see that it was a good thing for Austin to have a noncommercial television station, even though it would compete with Johnson’s own KTBC,” longtime PBS news journalist Bill Moyers told the Texas newspaper. “But Bob was a visionary in his quiet-spoken way, and he had this talent for persuading people without any histrionics – because he made such sense, was so principled and sought nothing for himself from the outcome. I’ve never known anyone more dedicated to the community’s interest. . . . And others fell behind him from sheer admiration.”

He worked with Johnson on passing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In 1969, CPB’s Ward Chamberlin turned to a representative group of station managers for advice on formation of PBS. The managers became known as “the Six Pack,” according to The Vanishing Vision: The Inside Story of Public Television (by James Day, 1995). There was Schenkkan, James Loper, and Presley Holmes from the NET (National Educational Television) Affiliates Council; and Hartford Gunn Jr., Warren Kraetzer, and Lloyd Kaiser from the board of the Educational Television Stations group.

Schenkkan authored the influential paper, “Public Broadcasting and Journalistic Integrity: A Policy Statement of Public Broadcasting Service,” in January 1971. While g.m. of WRLN, he was also the first chairman of the board of the ETS (Educational Television Stations) division of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.

He protested to the White House in the final days of President Nixon’s presidency, as Nixon loaded the CPB board with partisan appointees who threatened to stop money for public affairs programming. “Bob really got his dander up, and thank God he did,” Lehrer said. “He was forceful, and he had credibility. He was a natural defender against the onslaught. Our defense against the Nixons of the world is that we’re instruments of nobody – not Nixon or any other administration.”

He always held firm to the belief that the educational aspect of public broadcasting was of utmost importance. As he told Current in 1993, “When you say something to that [station] board about education, everybody sits up a little straighter. . . . There is an enormous amount of concern out there about the education of children.” He was one of three founding administrators of the College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin.

Schenkkan was born in New York to Dutch immigrant parents. He studied drama at the University of Virginia and earned a graduate degree from the University of North Carolina. He fought with the Navy at Guadalcanal during World War II.

While on leave from the service, he married his college sweetheart, Jean McKenzie, and the couple had four sons: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Jr.; Tex, an executive with the San Francisco firm Digidesign, which makes music hardware and software; Pete, an attorney in Austin; and Dirk, an attorney in San Francisco. Jean died in 1985. Four years later, he married Phyllis Rothgeb. She survives, along with her sons John and David, and two grandchildren – including actor Benjamin McKenzie of TV’s The O.C. and Southland and the indie film Junebug.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.

For his 90th birthday in March 2007, KLRU and KUT hosted a tribute that gathered 150 friends and family members. Accolades poured in, including from Chamberlin and former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow. Here’s a slide show of the celebration.

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