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Onetime Army nurse interviewed for Wisconsin Public Television; vintage photo inset

Elizabeth Baehr, an Army surgical nurse during WWII (inset), talks with producer Mik Derks for Wisconsin PTV's series of veterans' stories. (Photo above: James Gill, WPT.)

Stations mobilize to gather veterans’ stories
Burns’ series is flagship for WWII flotilla

Originally published in Current, Feb. 26, 2007
By Karen Everhart

Public TV stations are gearing up one of the most extensive outreach campaigns tied to a national broadcast—the Sept. 23 debut of Ken Burns’ The War.

Unlike the self-help thrust of “Take One Step,” an ongoing national pubTV health campaign [website] encouraging viewers to change their eating and exercise habits, the outreach objective for The War is to ask veterans to contribute to history again by recording their firsthand accounts of World War II for local public TV stations.

Wisconsin Public Television charted a path into this subject area four years ago with its series Wisconsin World War II Stories. Maryland Public Television plans local productions to introduce an ongoing programming theme, “Maryland Generations.”

Participating stations will produce local TV shows, interactive web content and events that build on Burns’ 14-hour documentary series, which examines World War II through experiences of the ordinary soldiers who lived through it.

The vets’ advanced age lends urgency to the project. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated last fall that World War II veterans are dying at the rate of nearly 1,000 a day. By 2010, fewer than 2 million will be alive. More than 16 million Americans served in the military during World War II.

WETA in Washington, D.C., co-producer of The War with Burns’ Florentine Films, is managing the CPB-backed $1 million outreach project, supporting community engagement activities and stations’ projects and publishing a multimedia high school curriculum package that helps students record oral histories. In addition, is developing tools to assist stations highlighting local vets’ stories on their websites.

Stations are eagerly picking up the challenge, according to Anne Harrington, director of web and outreach for WETA. She received 101 station applications for CPB aid by the Feb. 1 deadline, outstripping WETA’s original plan to back 40 station projects with grants of $12,000, Harrington said.

After consultating with CPB and the National Center for Outreach, WETA last week decided to award at least one grant in each of the 50 states and Guam. To stretch the money, grant amounts will be reduced, Harrington said. She plans to announce grant awards on March 1. 

The Wisconsin and Maryland networks are seeking CPB money to continue their projects, which are seen as models: WPT began airing Wisconsin World War II Stories in 2003, when Burns’ project was just getting started. MPT will use local productions and outreach tied to The War as the launching pad for a multiyear branding campaign. Execs from both stations described their projects during PBS’s Feb. 12 planning meeting in Washington, D.C.

Wisconsin: Vets’ stories tell the story

Wisconsin World War II Stories has already aired on several midwestern stations, and Salt Lake City’s KUED borrowed the production design for its own local World War II history. WPT initiated the series after recognizing there was limited time to interview surviving WWII vets.

Producers started gathering stories informally through a series of listening sessions convened with veterans around the state. “We didn’t know what we were getting into,” said Carol Larson, e.p. The sessions gave producers “an idea of Wisconsin veterans’ experience and who was coming forward.”

“A lot of it was networking—not just through organizations but with individuals.” 

WPT’s partners in the production were the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates its own museum and archive.

Some veterans had never told their families about their war experiences and were reluctant to describe them on camera, said producer Mik Derks. He and his crew tried to make the taping sessions as casual and comfortable as possible. “We assured them that we wouldn’t push them to talk about things that were difficult.” 

“As we started to think about it and hear the vets’ stories, it became clear that we needed to let their stories tell the story,” Derks said. Indeed, the vets carry the programs; their stories are woven together with sparse narration.

“I can’t say we had the expertise to realize this was the way it would turn out,” Derks said. The veterans’ stories were compelling enough to drive the format of the show. “It just put you there in a way that was real,” he said. “These are normal, everyday guys talking about the experience they had, and you identify with it.” 

WPT broadcast five episodes from May 2003 to August 2005, drawing a cumulative audience of 233,000 statewide, not counting rebroadcasts. WPT produced a traveling photo exhibit of the featured veterans and a robust website with streaming video, lesson plans and more veterans’ stories. Funders were enthusiastic about their ties to the project.

Each of the participating veterans received interview tapes and DVDs of the programs. “They were so grateful for that,” Derks said. The archives of the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum also received more than 100 hours of interviews.

To support other stations’ local productions, WPT will distribute DVD sets with 30 hours of logged public domain World War II scenes. The footage is a “best of” reel culled from 64 hours of archival footage provided to WPT by Connecticut Public Television’s Richard Hanley, Larson said. In addition, WPT will report on its fundraising and outreach efforts tied to the broadcasts, said Malcolm Brett, interim executive director.

Maryland: Looking beyond The War

MPT is preparing to launch production of local TV content, including interstitials, local docs and town-hall meetings, for a long-term campaign using its new branding line, "Maryland Generations."

This year’s project—The War: Maryland Generations—aims to enlist young Marylanders, specifically the millennial generation born between 1982 and 2000, as catalogers of oral histories.

“The premise around reaching out to millennials is that they are very much into creating their own content through YouTube and other places on the Web,” said Eric Eggleton, chief content officer. By providing information about how to collect family histories and offering a platform for those stories, “we can help them become publishers of that content,” he said.

MPT is working with the Frederick County library system, which is a partner in a broader-based Veterans’ History Project managed by the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. That national project, authorized by Congress in 2000, collects oral histories, photographs and other materials from veterans.

The county library system has collected 20 stories from World War II vets, according to Eggleton. MPT will draw on this material to produce interstitials and a website slated to launch on Memorial Day. MPT’s outreach will help students and others prepare to gather vets’ war stories.

MPT chose the theme Maryland Generations so it could continue beyond the first run and reruns of The War. “This is just a real great way for us to have a platform to explore this,” Eggleton said. MPT plans to adapt the production tools for other local projects, such as its annual programming package about the Chesapeake Bay. “The War will provide a real promotional push for viewers to pay attention to this, and it will create a wave that we can ride for some time.”

“It is in the community’s interest and MPT’s interest to get people to participate with their local public television station in this way,” Eggleton said.

Web page posted March 30, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee


The Burns-Novick series runs into fierce criticism for omitting Hispanic troops, March 2007.


Wisconsin Public Television began working on its Wisconsin World War II Stories series four years ago.

WETA, presenting station for The War, is coordinating a major community engagement project that accompanies the series.