Public Television's Roots Oral History Project, 1979-1982

Summary Information
Title: Public Television's Roots Oral History Project
Inclusive Dates: 1979-1982

Call Number: U.S. Mss 193AF; Tape 1013A

Quantity: 93 tape recordings

Archival Locations:
Wisconsin Historical Society (Map)

Fifty-six interviews from an oral history project on the beginnings of non-commercial educational television, conducted by James and Anabel Robertson with public TV pioneers from the 1950's and 1960's. The interviews concern the ideological split between proponents of educational television and proponents of public television, the primitive conditions under which some of the early stations began, problems of early programming, efforts to interest professional educators in the medium, the role of the Federal Communications Commission, and other topics. They emphasize the dreams the interviewees had for their field and how they feel public television today measures up to those dreams.

Language: English

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Scope and Content Note

The paragraphs below were published in Columns, a newsletter of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Vol. 4, No. 3, June/July 1983.

For the past three years, Jim and Anabel Robertson have been collaborating on an oral history of the beginnings of public television as recalled by those who were the pioneers in the medium during the 1950's and 1960's. The project was a natural outgrowth of Jim Robertson's involvement with broadcasting during that period and extending back to his high school days in the late 1930's.

A native of Madison, Jim attended high school and the university there. Anabel was born in Colorado but moved to Madison where she met Jim while both were students at West High School. Jim spent seventeen years in commercial radio and television in Madison, Marinette, Janesville, and Milwaukee, and then twenty-seven years with noncommercial broadcasting in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Madison, and Washington, D.C. From 1959 until 1964, he held various positions with the National Educational Television (NET) and Radio Center in New York City, including that of vice-president for network affairs; and from 1970 to 1973, he was the director of the National Educational Radio division of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) in Washington, D.C. Since 1974, the Robertsons have lived in Port Charlotte, Florida, where they have operated Robertson Associates, Inc., an independent consulting firm in educational communications.

Columns interviewed the Robertsons during their visit to the State Historical Society in December, 1982, to deposit in the Mass Communications History Center the reels and transcripts developed during their project. Working together as they have throughout the project, Anabel and Jim responded to questions collectively.

COLUMNS: You call your project an oral history of “Public Television's Roots.” Precisely what is the project all about?

ROBERTSONS: The project was conceived as a way to seek out and describe the beginnings of noncommercial educational television in this country as recalled by the principal participants. A few books have been written about the early period, but none of them tell the story of human involvement on a broad spectrum--the deep commitment, the spirit, the hopes, of a relatively small group of pioneers in different communities across the country who devoted themselves to the new medium of public communication. Many people think that public television began in 1967 with the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act. Our project deals with the earlier years, from about 1950 to 1967. We decided that the best way to approach the problem was to personally interview the people who were involved. Since they were scattered about the country, we had to develop a plan to contact them, do the interviews, transcribe the material, arrange for the final depository of the material, and find funds to help pay for it.

COLUMNS: What was your plan? This sounds like a big undertaking for two people.

JIM ROBERTSON: I worked closely with most of the people in the early days of educational TV. I knew them personally, and I was in a position to take the time to interview them. We drew up a list of about three hundred names. From that group, we eventually interviewed fifty-five people, and one of the interviewees interviewed me as one of that early group.

So, the project includes fifty-six interviews with people like Newton N. Minow, chairman of the FCC in the early sixties; James R. Killian of M.I.T., who was chairman of the 1966-1967 Carnegie Commission; Norman Cousins, a longtime board member of NET: Richard B. Hull, a leader in the fight to reserve TV channels for educational purposes in 1950 and 1951; Wisconsinites Harold B. McCarty, who was the head of WHA and Wisconsin educational radio and TV for many years and who testified at the 1950-1951 hearings; William G. Harley, also a WHA veteran who became president of NAEB; and others who worked at both local and national levels. Each interview is personal, and a variety of questions are asked, but we wanted two specific pieces of information. First, we wanted to record their voices describing what they had done--describing the hopes and dreams they had for public television when they first started in it. And, second, we wanted to find out what they thought about today's public television. In other words, what has happened to their dreams? Finally, we wanted to arrange all of this information in usable form for future researchers, and perhaps write a book about the findings.

COLUMNS: Obviously your plan worked, and you are in the final stages of the project. How did you actually complete it?

ROBERTSONS: The interviewing and gathering of information is finished, but the book isn't written yet. We're just beginning to work on that. How did we actually do the interviewing? First, let me interrupt here to say that there are others whom we didn't interview who also contributed greatly to the medium. But we couldn't interview everybody, so we had to select a representative group. The ones we taped are certainly among the most influential, and they convey the idealism, the spirit, the motive power of those early years.

Now, for the actual interviewing, each person was contacted by mail, and a schedule of appointments was set up. Then we bought a twenty-six-foot motorhome, and for eight-and-a-half months we drove more than 19,000 miles in thirty-five states conducting the interviews. We failed to complete only one. One man was in the hospital, so we sent a set of questions to him and he sent us his answers on cassettes later. The interviews average about two-and-a-half hours, although one is only forty-five minutes and a couple are four to five hours long.

During the entire trip, we only had one disaster. The day before we were to arrive home, we had parked near Disney World and while we were having lunch, someone burglarized our motorhome. They took our camera and television and one box of interview tapes. Fortunately the people on the stolen tapes lived in the Washington, D.C. and South Carolina areas, which are a lot closer to our home in Florida, than, say, San Francisco! We arranged two more trips and redid those nine interviews.

COLUMNS: You mentioned funding a while back. How did you fund this project?

ROBERTSONS: CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting]--which has an archival responsibility--gave us the first grant of $15,000, and we were able to do all the traveling and taping with that. Then, in return for nonexclusive rights to the materials for a set period of time, our consulting firm did all of the follow-up work gratis and CPB gave us a second grant of $7,400 to cover the actual out-of-pocket costs for final typing, editing, and duplicating of the transcripts, which total some 2,500 pages; reproducing transcripts for each of the participants; making reels from the cassettes for the State Historical Society's collections; and physically getting all the materials here to Madison for permanent storage. We also received a couple of minor supplementary contributions from private donors.

COLUMNS: What can researchers hope to get from your materials?

ROBERTSONS: One area of interest right now that the interviews get into is the ideological split between educational television and public television. The early television pioneers thought of what they were doing as educational television. It wasn't until 1966, when the first Carnegie Commission on Educational Television met, that a distinction was made. The Commission adopted and recommended the term public television, which emphasized the ideological split among the proponents of each. Eventually the term public embraced both functions. The people we interviewed were all part of this ideological battle, and they talk about the differences and what happened. I mention this aspect of the tapes because it is important for researchers to understand what started this country on its noncommercial broadcasting path and what has happened since.

Other topics are covered, too: the primitive conditions under which some of the early stations began, for instance. Problems of early programming. Efforts to interest professional educators in the medium. Just about every aspect of the development of public television in its first formative years. And there are loads of interesting anecdotes.

COLUMNS: How much of all this are you going to include in your book?

ROBERTSONS: It won't be a scholarly or pedantic book. It will be written for anyone who is interested in public television's past and its future direction. Its very tentative title is Public Television: How it Came to Be and What It Could Become. The story will be told through the words of the people who created and were part of the early drama. Regardless of what goes into our book, however, the raw material that's now here at the Society contains nearly unlimited possibilities for research.

COLUMNS: Has anything like this been done before?

ROBERTSONS: Not quite like this project. Burt Harrison, the head of radio at Washington State University in Pullman, did a similar study on educational radio, and Frank Gillard has been working on an oral history of the beginnings of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

COLUMNS: Can you briefly summarize the general reaction of the interviewees to public television today?

ROBERTSONS: The comments weren't at all unanimous, so a summary isn't possible, but we can pick a few responses to the last question in each interview. Each person was asked, “Well now, having gone through all this, how does public television today match your dreams of it?” The responses varied, of course, but in some respects they feel it has surpassed their dreams while in other ways many felt that the medium has fallen short of their early dreams. Many expressed regret at the limited use of television for general public education.

One of the most concise expressions of the early dream for educational TV was given by Norman Cousins, who likened it to building a blackboard for the American people. He said he wasn't thinking of a formal prop. He was thinking of those things “that had to fit into a survival existence....I saw ETV as a magnificently designed instrument which, better than anything else, could tell the American people what they had to know--if American history was to come to anything.”

Newton Minow said he thinks today's public television fulfills his early dream during about four or five hours a week. “In children's programming, it has been outstanding,” he said. “In the arts, music, ballet, opera, brilliant. I think occasionally we will do a documentary or a public affairs program which is great....” Minow was more optimistic than some interviewees and said that he sees a bright future for public television.

COLUMNS: What materials have you deposited with the Society?

ROBERTSONS: There are ninety-three reels of the interviews and about 2,500 pages of written transcripts. There is a register of the material, and we'll be sending a cross-index eventually. The only restriction is that permission must be obtained to reproduce substantial segments of the interviews in a publication.

In 1993, Jim Robertson's TeleVisionaries : In Their Own Words, Public Television's Founders Tell How It All Began was published.

The contents list below provides the numbers assigned to the taped interviews and the box and folder locations of the transcripts. The biographical notes were supplied by Mr. Robertson.

Administrative/Restriction Information
Acquisition Information

Presented by James Robertson, Robertson Associates, Inc., Port Charlotte, Florida, 1982. Accession Number: MCHC82-40, MCHC82-73

Processing Information

Processed by Karen Baumann, January 23, 1984.

Contents List
Tape 1013A/U.S. Mss 193AF
Tape No.   68-69
Box/Folder   1/1
Appy, Gerard
Note: Activated University of Georgia ETV, then worked at ETS and NET.
Tape No.   1
Box/Folder   1/2
Arms, George
Note: Assistant manager at KUHT Houston, then managed KETC, St. Louis.
Tape No.   2-3
Box/Folder   1/3
Armsey, James
Note: Ford Foundation staff associate in charge of ETV grants in early 60's.
Tape No.   4
Box/Folder   1/4
Barthold, Roy
Note: First employee and ultimately the manager of Houston's KUHT.
Tape No.   70-71
Box/Folder   1/5
Blakely, Robert J.
Note: Staff representative for the Fund for Adult Education in early ETV days.
Tape No.   72
Box/Folder   1/6
Breitenfeld, Frederick, Jr.
Note: ETS-NAEB staff for key conferences in mid-60's, then built Maryland ETV.
Tape No.   5
Box/Folder   1/7
Broderick, Gertrude
Note: U.S. Office of Education staff member and early leader in educational radio & TV.
Tape No.   6
Box/Folder   1/8
Campbell, Elizabeth
Note: More than anyone else, the citizen who led the effort to build WETA-TV, Washington.
Tape No.   7-8
Box/Folder   1/9
Case, Everett
Note: Associate of Owen D. Young in the 20s; frequent board member & chairman, NET.
Tape No.   73
Box/Folder   1/10
Cauthen, Henry J., Jr.
Note: Guiding force in establishment and subsequent growth of South Carolina ETV.
Tape No.   9-10
Box/Folder   1/11
Christiansen, Kenneth
Note: Field rep in southern states for SREB, then program coordinator for Educational Television & Radio Center, then WUFT, Gainesville.
Tape No.   11
Box/Folder   1/12
Cohn, Marcus
Note: Communications attorney who helped NAEB in early formulations of petitions to FCC.
Tape No.   12
Box/Folder   1/13
Cousins, Norman
Note: Writer-lecturer-publisher, longtime member and once chairman of the board, NET.
Tape No.   74-75
Box/Folder   1/14
Crabbe, John C.
Note: Instigator of KVIE, Sacramento, and then its manager after a program stint at ETRC.
Tape No.   13-14
Box/Folder   1/15
Davis, David
Note: Participant in early commercial TV, then Michigan State and mainly WGBH-TV, Boston.
Tape No.   15-16
Box/Folder   1/16
Day, James
Note: Manager of San Francisco's KQED from its inception and largely responsible for its unusual quality and adventuresomeness.
Tape No.   17
Box/Folder   1/17
DuBridge, Lee
Note: Caltech president who marshalled forces in Los Angeles to activate KCET, also member of NET board and Carnegie Commission I.
Tape No.   18-19
Box/Folder   1/18
Engar, Keith
Note: Activator of KUED in Salt Lake City and first head of Educational Branch of FCC.
othertype no tape
Box/Folder   2/1
Fletcher, C. Scott
Note: Industrious and imaginative president of Fund for Adult Education during the 50's when it was primary incentive and source of support for new stations and ETRC; also strategist who developed agenda for financing conferences and subsequent national developments leading to Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.
Tape No.   76-77
Box/Folder   2/2
Frischknecht, Lee
Note: Staff member then manager of Michigan State's WKAR-TV, then station relations for NET.
Tape No.   78
Box/Folder   2/3
Gable, Martha
Note: Pioneer in school television in Philadelphia both before and after advent of WUHF-TV.
Tape No.   79-80
Box/Folder   2/4
Goldin, Hyman
Note: FCC Broadcast Bureau staff member who later was staff for Carnegie Commission study.
Tape No.   81-83
Box/Folder   2/5
Griffiths, G. H.
Note: Vice president of Fund for Adult Education and close associate of Fletcher in handling early ETV support grants to stations and ETRC.
Tape No.   20-21
Box/Folder   2/6
Gunn, Hartford N.
Note: Manager of WGBH from early days through major growth period, then first president of PBS.
Tape No.   22-23
Box/Folder   2/7
Harley, William
Note: Program-production head of WHA-TV who became NAEB president and led it throughout the major growth period of ETV.
Tape No.   24-25
Box/Folder   2/8
Hudson, Robert
Note: Early consultant to FAE, program executive of ETRC under Newburn and of NET under White.
Tape No.   26-27
Box/Folder   2/9
Hull, Richard
Note: Manager of WOI-TV, co-originator of JCET, often board chairman of NAEB; master strategist for ETV.
Tape No.   84-85
Box/Folder   2/1O
Hungerford, Arthur
Note: JCET field representative assisting stations; then head of New York's META prior to WNDT.
Tape No.   28-29
Box/Folder   2/11
Hunter, Armand
Note: Early public service TV programmer and university department head who then fought Michigan State's long battles with UHF.
Tape No.   3O-32
Box/Folder   2/12
Hurlbert, Raymond
Note: The school administrator who became head of Alabama's ETV network development and built the first state system in the nation.
Tape No.   33
Box/Folder   2/13
Hyde, Rosel H.
Note: Longtime member of the Federal Communications Commission who participated in virtually every development leading up to public TV.
Tape No.   34
Box/Folder   3/1
Killian, James R., Jr.
Note: MIT chancellor and chairman of the corporation, early trustee of WGBH, head of Carnegie Commission I, subsequent chairman CPB board.
Tape No.   86
Box/Folder   3/2
Loper, James L.
Note: Organizer of all elements of southern California education behind activation of KCET, then an executive and later president of that station.
Tape No.   35-36
Box/Folder   3/3
Macandrew, James
Note: Pioneer in school broadcasting by radio in New York City who became head of ETV for New York schools and also organized the Regents' Project and subsequent WNDT ITV service.
Tape No.   39-4O
Box/Folder   3/4
McBride, Jack
Note: Leader in developing Nebraska ETV network and flagship station KUON-TV; also frequent participant in national studies and consultant to many other states in developing their ETV stations and services.
Tape No.   41
Box/Folder   3/5
McCarter, William
Note: First program director WHYY, Philadelphia, development officer for NET, manager of WETA, Washington, and later of WTTW, Chicago.
Tape No.   42-44
Box/Folder   3/6
McCarty, Harold B.
Note: Pioneer in educational radio in Wisconsin, key witness in FCC hearings re reservation of TV channels for education, head of University of Wisconsin radio and television, WHA.
Tape No.   37
Box/Folder   3/7
Marks, Leonard
Note: Communications attorney, longtime friend of NAEB, backroom strategist in developing key legislation of assistance to ETV.
Tape No.   38
Box/Folder   3/8
Marquis, Chalmers
Note: Involved with production and development at Chicago's WTTW after years in commercial TV, then staff head of ETS and later executive vice president of NAEB.
Tape No.   45
Box/Folder   3/9
Minow, Newton
Note: FCC chairman during early 60s and strong supporter of ETV growth; later board member of NET and chairman of board of WTTW, Chicago.
Tape No.   87
Box/Folder   3/10
Neustadt, Stanley
Note: Administrative assistant to Frieda Hennock at FCC during her early days on the Commission; communications attorney for many ETV clients.
Tape No.   46-47
Box/Folder   3/11
Novik, Morris S.
Note: Head of WNYC, New York municipal broadcasting and broadcast counsel to national AFL-CIO; longtime proponent of the use of radio and television for educational purposes.
Tape No.   48-49
Box/Folder   3/12
Oberholtzer, Kenneth
Note: Superintendent of schools in Denver who almost single-handedly furnished the leadership to activate KRMA-TV, later served on NET board and instructional TV boards nationally.
Tape No.   5O-51
Box/Folder   3/13
Rice, Jonathan
Note: Partner of James Day in activating KQED in San Francisco; the program genius of the team.
Tape No.   92-93
Box/Folder   3/14
Robertson, James
Note: Supervised activation of WTTW, Chicago, and chief executive in activation of KCET, Los Angeles; Station Relations head and subsequently a vice president of NET; head of Wisconsin public TV and radio efforts, 1967-1970.
Tape No.   52-53
Box/Folder   3/15
Schooley, Frank
Note: Educational radio pioneer at University of Illinois who eventually headed WILL-TV and subsequently was appointed to CPB board.
Tape No.   54
Box/Folder   3/16
Sikes, Rhea
Note: Pioneer in use of TV for children, built the in-school service of WQED, Pittsburgh, and served as consultant to scores of other stations and school systems, and to CPB.
Tape No.   88-89
Box/Folder   3/17
Skornia, Harry J.
Note: Executive director of NAEB in radio days and early ETV period, subsequently university professor and observer of educational media.
Tape No.   55-56
Box/Folder   4/1
Steetle, Ralph
Note: Executive director of the Joint Council on Educational Television during late 50's and early 60's; a key influence in early ETV growth.
Tape No.   57-58
Box/Folder   4/2
Stone, Loren
Note: Manager of KCTS-TV, Seattle, from its inception until mid 60's; strong proponent of the educational capabilities of the medium; frequent member of national committees and boards.
Tape No.   90-91
Box/Folder   4/3
Taverner, Donald
Note: Manager of WQED, Pittsburgh, in its middle years, then manager of WETA Washington; led in the formation of Maine ETV Network earlier.
Tape No.   59
Box/Folder   4/4
Taylor, John W.
Note: Lifelong educational administrator who was executive director of Chicago's WTTW from its inception until the early 70's.
Tape No.   60-61
Box/Folder   4/5
Tyler, I. Keith
Note: Ohio State University researcher-professor who was first chairman of JCET and played key role in arranging testimony during FCC hearings on channel reservations, 1950-51.
Tape No.   62-63
Box/Folder   4/6
Wheatley, Parker
Note: First manager of WGBH-FM and of WGBH-TV and an early participant on NAEB policy-making with respect to educational radio and TV.
Tape No.   64-65
Box/Folder   4/7
White, John F.
Note: Best-known as manager of WQED, Pittsburgh, when it created early top-quality television productions, then as president of National Educational Television for ten years.
Tape No.   66-67
Box/Folder   4/8
Wittcoff, Raymond
Note: St. Louis businessman who saw possibilities in ETV, led in formation of KETC, served as chairman of National Citizens' Committee for Educational Television, also as board member of NET.