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Telling Idaho's Stories

50 Years of Service to Idaho

Idaho Public Television is in a unique position with a unique responsibility. It is the only interconnected media system, private or public, that stretches to every corner of a rugged state. The network's three stations with studios, five transmitters, 18 microwave links, and 48 translators take audio and video across Idaho's rugged terrain, delivering television to 98 percent of the state's citizens. In addition, the signals are distributed through cable television and home satellite systems. Also, the network provides extensive internet content at idahoptv.org, which lets viewers enjoy programs when it fits their busy schedules. IdahoPTV has consistently enjoyed the distinction of being the most watched public television system in the nation. In 2015, the network celebrated 50 years of public television service.

The journey begins…

It was a quarter century after the public was introduced to television at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City that Idaho got its first public television station. KUID-Moscow (Channel 12), an affiliate of the National Educational Television Network (changed to Public Broadcasting Service in 1969), began broadcasting from the television-film studio building on the edge of the arboretum on the University of Idaho campus. It was September 6, 1965, and the signal was reaching homes in an 80-mile radius around Moscow. Television programs were mailed to the station from the network, usually on film. When programs didn't arrive on time, the station ran music. It was radio with a test pattern. However, "educational television" was catching on, and in July of 1971, KBGL-Pocatello (later changed to KISU on Channel 10) began broadcasting. Then, in December of the same year, KAID-Boise (Channel 4) signed on. Stations west of the Mississippi River open their call letters with a K; the BGL stood for Bengals, ISU for Idaho State University; and AID for Ada County, Idaho.

Those essential pioneers…

The early success of Idaho's three stations can be traced to several far-sighted individuals. U of I's head of communication Gordon Law and College of Letters and Science Dean Boyd Martin helped launch KUID-Moscow. Communications students at the university got hands-on experience in all phases of television production, work that gave them a leg up on jobs in the television industry. Professors in the department taught half time and worked on the day-to-day production at the station. The first program director was Peter Haggart. Cecil Bondurant was supervising engineer and Walt Johnson was chief engineer. Next to sign on was KBGL-Pocatello with the help of ISU's Director of Radio and Television Services Herbert Everett. And five dedicated people were instrumental in getting KAID-Boise launched. A.H. (Ace) Chatburn, head of the Department of Education at Boise State College, was intimately involved in the early planning for the station. Two people at Boise's KTVB Channel 7 were major supporters - Georgia Davidson, station owner, and Harold Toedtemeier, chief engineer. KAID's first station manager, Jack Schlaefle of Denver, handled the nuts and bolts of getting a station up and running with able assistance from Chief Engineer Vaun McArthur. Boise was the last capitol city in the nation to get a public television station.

The first KAID-Boise production was the governor's State of the State address. Host Gene Shumate began regular coverage of the Legislature in January of 1972 on a show called Statehouse Report (later Idaho Reports). Shumate's reports were aired at all three stations. The Boise station owned no portable equipment, so the crew hauled the 700-pound studio cameras to the Statehouse and set them up on their pedestals. A borrowed microwave aimed through an open window fed the signal. Whenever interview subjects moved, the signal was lost. The first statewide pre-election debate, now an election year tradition, aired live in 1980. The debate featured Frank Church and Steve Symms appearing before live cameras in Boise.

Reporting the way it was…

When Congress set up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (1967), the legislation said it was necessary to take risks with programs. IdahoPTV led the way in Idaho for programs that got plenty of attention, some of it negative. During the 1970s, producers looked at lead poisoning in the Silver Valley; problems of unfettered urban growth; loss of livelihood for independent loggers; tapping geothermal energy; reasons for the collapse of the Teton dam; what to do with nine million acres of roadless forest land; the dwindling elk herds in the Selway-Bitterroot area; and two programs that aired in 1976 and in 2000 on homosexuality. Several of the documentaries asked powerful interests hard questions that had not been asked in the past.

By the beginning of the decade of the 1980s, there was intense pressure to reign in the "risky coverage." The documentaries had generated pressure on legislators to get a handle on IdahoPTV. It came at the same time that the statewide 1 percent property tax initiative passed, putting the Legislature in a budget cutting mood until they could figure out what to do with the revenue hole created by the vote. Either a combination of the initiative and the documentaries or the documentaries themselves brought zero funding to Idaho Public Television in the 1980-81 budget. The legislation also required the network be placed under the Idaho State Board of Education and created the position of statewide general manager. This organizational chart is the only one of its kind in the nation, but has worked reasonably well to bring together the disparate regions of a rugged state.

The network has produced several shows that could be called experimental, but historically IdahoPTV has been a network that grows shows. Coverage of the Legislature on Idaho Reports has been growing for nearly 44 years. Outdoor Idaho began in 1983, and is still going strong. Dialogue has been growing for 21 years, and the children's version (now called Science Trek) began in 1999. IdahoPTV has been streaming gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Legislature for eight years, and during that time the coverage has expanded to the State Supreme Court, the Joint Finance - Appropriations Committee's work, and the Governor's Office. The tradition of pre-election debates has been an exclusive for IdahoPTV since 1980. The network has consistently enjoyed the highest viewership of any network in the nation, an indication that its regular programs have stood the test of time.

That is not to say the network has avoided special programs that would be of interest to Idahoans. IdahoPTV has always had its radar sweeping for subjects that fit Idahoans' interests and when funding could be found. In 1972, KAID-Boise took its cameras to the Western Idaho Fair. KUID-Moscow produced McCall Will Miss You after Boise Cascade closed its lumber mill in 1977. And Moscow's Ballet Folk troupe's presentations in small-town Idaho was another special called Ballet Ho! in 1980. Cowboys became a television special in a show called Buckaroo in 1981. Fanfare for the Common Man opened the new Morrison Center in Boise, and KAID-Boise was there in 1984.

To celebrate the state's centennial in 1990, IdahoPTV presented 13 hours of television covering the state's history. In 1993, public television went to the Snake River Birds of Prey area for a documentary on raptors titled The Vertical Environment. Two specials on the Lewis and Clark trek across the West appeared in 1998 - Echoes of a Bitter Crossing and Lewis and Clark in Idaho. Hearts and Minds, Teens and Mental Illness, which aired in 2000, won the highest award in electronic media - a Peabody Award. The network's first docu-drama Assassination: Idaho's Trial of the Century aired in November of 2007. Capitol of Light, which documented the expansion and renovation of the State Capitol, aired in 2010. A year later, The Color of Conscience delved into human rights issues in Idaho. The 50th anniversary of Idaho's wilderness areas became the subject for an Outdoor Idaho special in 2015.

Do something for the children…

When Congress created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967, the legislation was specific about the problem of "underserved audiences." Children were emphasized in that list, and IdahoPTV has taken the charge seriously. Today, there are 12 hours of children's programs aired daily statewide. All the shows have been tested for educational value and for age appropriate content.

KUID-Moscow airs Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (1968) and Sesame Street (1969) as soon as they were available from National Educational Television. The other two Idaho stations did the same as soon as they were on the air in 1971-72. A first local children's program started in 1965 at Moscow was TV Kindergarten With Miss Marin. As soon as the three stations got vehicles that could be taken to the field, they began to cover high school and college sports, shows that were extremely important for students. By 1973, Electric Company, ZOOM, and Villa Alegre (a Spanish/English show for children) had joined the children's lineup. 3-2-1 Contact became available locally in 1979. Other children's programs that make up the 12-hour day have been added to the schedule as they have been produced and field tested.

Big Bird holding the letter H

But IdahoPTV didn't stop there. By the decade of the 1980s, the network was heavily involved in productions directed at both grade and high school levels. Stand Out, Don't Drop Out got produced at the end of that decade, and outreach programs in local communities got underway. Outreach involved the Idaho Young Writers and Illustrators Contest; Ready to Learn to prepare kids for kindergarten; and First Book to get books into the hands of underprivileged pre-schoolers. Television programs included A Childcare Almanac, a call-in show for adults working with children; Dialogue for Kids, later changed to Science Trek, which included science camps each summer; Saved by the Bill tracing the path to passage of state legislation directed at high schoolers; and 90 workshops statewide for adults on using television to boost literacy skills.

We didn't stop there. Often appearing on the backside of some specials has been extra videos for classrooms. This was true early in the Outdoor Idaho era. The Trail series took video from the monthly shows and applied natural laws and concepts giving the state's 4th and 5th graders a new way to look at natural science. The same thing happened with the centennial history series. Schools around the state received 15 videos covering major themes in Idaho's history. Throughout its life, IdahoPTV has offered a variety of educational telecourses for people from pre-kindergarten to GED's to college level.

In fact, KISU-Pocatello was one of the first experimental sites in the state for educational television. Back in 1956 the television crew at ISU Trade and Industrial Building sent three programs out to the city's schools. There was a 4th grade lesson in reading and social studies (volcanoes at Craters of the Moon); a panel discussion on state government led by Governor Robert E. Smylie; and a state policeman discussing the use of radar in highway safety. The experimental teaching program was funded by Bannock Cable TV's parent company, Jerrold Electronics of Philadelphia.

Funding: IdahoPTV's limiting factor…

Federal grants and state dollars are spent only to keep IdahoPTV coming to home and school TV screens. The programs delivered through that infrastructure have to be paid for by other fundraising. Today, the funding breakdown is 26 percent coming from the state; private funding contributes 63 percent; and the rest comes from grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

KAID-Boise first asked viewers to become members in 1972. Suggested fees were $6 for seniors and students; $10 for individuals; $15 for families; $25 for organizations; $50 for patrons; $100 for small businesses; and $1,000 and up for corporations. In 1974, KAID held its first on-air fundraising event, and the idea spread to all three stations becoming a March tradition called Festival. Friends groups at all three stations formed in the early 1970s to help with raising money to pay for national programs and for local productions. Friends groups also helped to identify community needs. The groups joined forces in 1985 to consolidate and boost their fundraising efforts as state and federal funds became less predictable. To counter this trend, the Friends, Inc. set up a public television endowment to get the network through hard financial times.

Looking at the next 50 years…

Shortly before IdahoPTV celebrated its 50th anniversary, the network underwent the largest change in its history - the switch from analog to digital television. The change came as an unfunded mandate, so the network had to do all the hardware changes and find ways to fund all of it, just over $25 million. The state came through with 60 percent of that cost. Digital gave IdahoPTV four channels that brought sharper and brighter television to home screens. It also responded positively to the changes in the way people watch television - when it fits their schedule, not the station's schedule.

Television by computer came to IdahoPTV in rudimentary form in the mid-1980s with Learning Link, a computer connection mostly for educators. The network developed its own website in 1995, and that site has expanded to program streaming and maintaining an online presence including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Work is underway to expand web television, so expect some new ventures in the coming months.