Revisiting KPBS-TV: The First Quarter Century
By Darlene G. Davies
Posted on September 5, 2019
For 52 years, San Diego KPBS television, originally named KEBS, has provided programs on topics ranging from science and theatre to children’s education and public affairs to history and cooking, all in one place. Looking back, the first 25 years of the station’s TV life tell an improbable tale of dreaming big and doing the seemingly impossible. It all began in 1967.
For myriad shows delivered to our homes by KPBS-TV over the years, a big “thank you” is owed Kenneth Jones and John Witherspoon. Jones, a professor of broadcasting at San Diego State College, recruited Witherspoon from KVIE-TV in Sacramento in 1967. The KEBS (Educational Broadcasting for San Diego) radio station was already up and running at the college, but Jones planned to add TV. Witherspoon soon brought in Brad Warner, then Paul Steed and Paul Marshall, men also from KVIE. Philanthropist Ernest Mandeville made a huge difference with his financial support.
Those extraordinary pioneers, Jones and Witherspoon, made KPBS-TV a reality. Who knows what would exist today without their contributions?
Jones was an interesting man, a cheerleader personality with solid knowledge and skills, having earned a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern and a master’s from Stanford. He and Witherspoon had the latter in common — they were Stanford men. While at Northwestern, Jones won the Best Acting Award over fellow classmate and thespian Charlton Heston, and despite going into broadcasting, he maintained his love for theatre, directing productions at San Diego State. He had a commanding speaking voice and probably would have had a successful acting career had he chosen to do so. Instead, he fixed his attention on the field of broadcasting within academia, creating a strong curriculum and laying the foundation for radio and televisions stations. Jones was the father of KPBS television as well as KPBS radio.
Witherspoon graduated from the College of the Pacific in 1951 and served in the Navy during the Korean War before attending Stanford. Tom Karlo, the current KPBS general manager, described Witherspoon in this way to a reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune: “John always emphasized that KPBS had to be relevant in producing programming that inspires, educates and informs our local audience…He preached covering public affairs, culture and arts-national, international and local — to become a one-stop-shop service. His vision is still the backbone of what we do.”
Witherspoon enjoyed working as director of television activities at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and was founding president of the Public Service Satellite Consortium as well as a consultant to the Western Governors Association after leaving PBS in the 1970s. He was committed to the idea of long-distance learning, a field that would dominate education and business in the coming decades. Capable and well liked, Witherspoon listened to others and, above all, was a gentleman. In 1987, he co-authored the influential The History of Public Broadcasting, and concluded his long career at SDSU as Professor Emeritus of the School of Communications in 1992.
With the station team in place, the educational TV station officially went on the air in June of 1967. Among the programs broadcast that first day were a cooking show with Julia Child, a musical performance by Dave Brubeck, and a message delivered by San Diego Congressman Bob Wilson. Only months later, Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which gave life to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Witherspoon was present at the White House when President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation. A few months later, Peter Kaye was brought on board to form the first public affairs unit at KEBS. Kaye had a solid resume, having served as a reporter for The San Diego Union, and he would go on to win an Emmy for his national coverage of the Watergate hearings for PBS.
Kaye put together his own public affairs team, which included Paul Marshall, David Crippens, and Jorge Sandoval. Crippens, who served in the Peace Corps in Nigeria and was then working on his Masters degree, would carve a strong television career in the future.
In 1968, the station decided it would cover the Democratic Party presidential candidates when they campaigned in San Diego. Both Senator Eugene McCarthy and Governor George Wallace were filmed and reported on when delivering speeches. In addition, Kaye and Marshall covered the motorcade of Senator Robert Kennedy as it passed through Southeast San Diego, as well as his appearance at the Civic Center downtown. While in town, Kennedy also addressed an enormous crowd at the El Cortez Hotel. San Diego was his last campaign stop. Within days he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The KEBS footage from 1968 spoke to that turbulent time in the country’s history.
In the early days, the station was sustained primarily through contracts for daytime classroom teaching via TV. The schedule was also boosted with additional locally produced shows. The award-winning film When Peace Comes, a documentary about San Diego, a military town confronted with the prospect of peace, aired in 1968. Shot on location with professional equipment funded by Mandeville, the film was processed in Hollywood, and distributed to other fledgling stations in the system by the National Television Network (NET). Everything was done inexpensively in those first years when the station truly depended on philanthropy. Money and usable equipment were welcome, and CBS-TV donated a remote van when upgrading its own equipment.
Another leap forward was taken in 1969 with the founding of the national Public Broadcasting Service, while at the local level there was tremendous excitement over the assignment of a Sesame Street producer, who, with the aid of the KEBS crew, filmed sequences at the San Diego Zoo. Sesame Street was a brand new show from Children’s Educational Workshop that was designed to teach as well as entertain. It included muppets and characters dressed in costume, as well as actual actors and actresses. It also used animals to demonstrate concepts, and it was the filming of one such sequence that led to what may be called The Case of the Disappearing Frog.
The mystery unfolded in the Zoo’s reptile and amphibian house. The zookeepers were showing the crew the various animals in the glass cases around them when the producer asked, “What do you have we can use for both big and little?” The answer was frogs — tiny African tree frogs and frogs the size of bowling balls.
The building had a central patio with good natural lighting and one of the large frogs was placed in the middle. The lead keeper then introduced one of the tree frogs, which was about an inch in size. The two frogs didn’t do much. They also weren’t especially photogenic, and someone in the group suggested putting the tree frog behind the big frog, then giving him a bit of a goose so that he would hop up alongside the larger frog for the size comparison. It seemed like a good idea and the cameraman got on his stomach to frame the shot. The little frog was then put into position and given a bit of a push, at which point it did indeed start hopping toward the giant frog. The cameraman was thinking, “that’s good,” but suddenly he didn’t see the little frog anymore. People searched, but couldn’t find it and someone asked, “Do frogs eat frogs?”
“I don’t think so,” the keeper replied, taking another tree frog from a jar of them. Again the cameraman got into position. This time everyone paid strict attention and when the tree frog began to hop, shazam — it once more disappeared before their eyes. At that point, people were definitely thinking the big frog ate the little one, and when the film was processed and the crew anxiously looked at the footage frame by frame, a large tongue could be seen slashing to the side and in the very next frame there were two tiny legs protruding from the big frog’s closed mouth. A few frames later, everyone watching saw a big gulp as well. It was agreed the footage would not provide a positive educational experience for children and it was never shown.
With the documentary Troubled Waters, a film about the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, KEBS had the distinction of being the first local station to produce a program for the newly formed PBS. The station also produced eight science programs featuring such famed researchers as Jonas Salk, Harold Urey, and Carl Rogers.
During this same period, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, Kaye produced Under 30, a collection of programs reflecting the prevailing mantra “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30.” The series consisted of documentaries and panel discussions aimed at matters of concern to the under-30 generation, focusing on such topics as the free speech movement, gay rights, local politics, women’s liberation, underground film, and Chicano issues.
In 1970, PBS began to distribute programs to stations across the country and KEBS officially changed its call letters to KPBS, forever aligning itself with the mothership. It was also in that year the station published its first program guide, edited by Gloria Penner. A graduate of Brooklyn College and Syracuse University, Penner’s first job in TV was as Associate Producer of the Washington, D.C. segment of the Today Show. After relocating to San Diego, she joined KPBS as director of Community Relations. During her long career with KPBS, Penner closely followed politics in her adopted town, probing myriad aspects of the ever-unfolding political scene.
The initial KPBS Guide was black and white with a one-color cover and a few modest ads. In addition to articles about programs and the station’s on-air personalities, it included a full-page monthly schedule. With no Google or social media in those days, the program guide was an essential tool for viewers and listeners. Sent through the mail, it was eagerly awaited in those days.
Masterpiece Theatre arrived in 1971, creating quite a stir, but as the station’s first five years were coming to a close, the main topic of conversation was the conversion from black and white to color. Color television! It was hard to imagine things could get much better, but it was only the beginning.
Ken Jones, John Witherspoon with President Lyndon Johnson, Julia Child, KPBS Program Guide: Images courtesy of KPBS-TV Sesame Street: Images courtesy of Paul Marshall Ernest Mandeville & John Witherspoon; Paul Steen, Paul Marshall, John Witherspoon, and Brad Warner: Images courtesy of KPBS
In 1973, a college student named Tom Karlo signed up for duties on the KPBS production crew — Karlo would eventually become general manager. The hit BBC series, Upstairs, Downstairs was distributed by PBS in 1974, and KPBS broadcast and rebroadcast it so faithful viewers could follow the lives of wealthy aristocrats upstairs while empathizing with the working class servants living below. Devotion to the series, which chronicled early 20th century life in England, was intense and ensured continued success for Masterpiece Theatre. Soon thereafter, the science series NOVA debuted. In that same year, Paul Steen became the station’s general manager. Content continued to grow in quantity, variety, and quality.
The money to purchase PBS programs from PBS had to be raised by local stations, so mechanisms were devised. Pledge drives started in the early 1970s and the “ask” approach made “pledge” a permanent feature of TV stations. The drives were controversial with plenty of opinions on both sides, but no other approaches were found to be more effective at both raising funds and adding members. They worked, and as the cost of purchasing national programs and producing local productions grew, the money had to come from somewhere. Added to the pledge drives was the first KPBS Auction, conducted on air in May of 1974. The architect Homer Delawie and his wife, Ettie, chaired the televised event, which raised more than $100,000 — a whopping sum at the time for a local public television station. Ken Kramer described the Auctions of the 1970s and 1980s as “everything went” affairs, and the popular Kramer seemed to enjoy every minute of the high-profile evenings.
The local auctions were based on the first public television auction, which was held by KQED in San Francisco in the early 1960s. The tale of that first auction goes like this: KQED committee members and staff searched for unusual auction items that couldn’t be easily obtained. Thus the movie idol Kim Novak’s lavender silk bed sheets from the St. Francis Hotel. It was widely publicized that Novak slept in the nude, and the bedding was somehow made available for the upcoming auction, resulting in much media coverage. The used sheets went to a well-known clothier who transformed them into hundreds of neckties and re-auctioned them the very next day. KQED made big money and doubled its publicity coverage. Truth or myth, it’s a great tale.
Auctions on public television were gaining popularity. While in Sacramento, Paul Marshall and his colleague Brad Warner visited promising painter Wayne Thiebaud. They went to Thiebaud’s home to select a painting for the KVIE station’s upcoming auction. The art was all around them, leaning against walls and perched on surfaces, and Marshall remembers he could have had any one of them for $5. He wasn’t collecting art in those days, but it was something he thought about years later when he visited the De Young Museum in San Francisco, a gallery featuring the works of Thiebaud, John Baldessari, Cindy Sherman, and others. Indeed, the painting featured in the Thiebaud poster on sale in the museum store was one of the originals Marshall could have purchased for $5 all those years before.
Fast forward a couple of decades to when Marshall directed Speaking of the Arts program, a three-part symposium held in the SDSU Don Powell Theatre. The segments were titled The Artists, The Critics, and The Funders. Thiebaud, playwright Edward Albee, and others were on the arts panel. A wonderfully cozy dinner was held at the Gaslamp Hotel following the filming of the programs. Thiebaud, Albee, violinist Ida Kavafian, the great L.A. Times critic Charles Champlin, and others were at the table. They were with their peers. It was a memorable evening.
The KPBS Auction of 1977 offered a menu of various items including trips to India, the Caribbean, and a week at Sun Valley. “An Afternoon of fun and games at Earl’s Old Place” was to be held at the palatial former home of wealthy investor Earl Gagosian. The package included a garden party and tennis on the tennis courts with Mayor Pete Wilson and his wife, Betty, as ball people. The Auction offered tickets to the Chicago Symphony and the San Diego Symphony. Special art and wine nights were also planned.
People smile recalling an Auction donation by an individual who will be nameless here. The man produced porn films and he offered to donate a role in one of his movies, with the choice of the role up to the auction winner. At the last minute, General Manager Paul Steen pulled the item, despite great enthusiasm on the part of the staff and crew. The item might have brought in money and it was amusing to some people. KPBS had certain standards, however.
A future auction would bring a donation of hundreds of Hummel figurines. The staff spent countless hours studying Hummel catalogs, comparing and matching images in preparation for the Auction. Because there were so many donated Hummels, hundreds and hundreds, those items were auctioned continuously throughout the evening. Not too much variety, but they proved to be popular with viewers. Money was raised.
Bill Moyers Journal, produced at WNET in New York, was broadcast on PBS from 1972-1981. Moyers provided threads of continuity on PBS for decades, a familiar presence in the lives of PBS viewers.
The KPBS-produced documentary Cities for People aired locally in 1974 and was distributed to more than 240 PBS stations nationwide. Funded through a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, it won prestigious awards. The hour-long film took two years to make, having been shot at various locations. Written, directed, and produced by filmmaker Amanda C. Pope and architect John Louis Field, the cities of America and Europe were searched for what were referred to as “human places,” spaces conducive to pleasant living and human interaction. Pope was an experienced documentarian, having worked on 14 films prior to the Cities for People project, while Field was an award-winning architect with two degrees from Yale whose work had been recognized by the American Institute of Architects, Architectural Record, and the State of California Governor’s Design Awards. Paul Marshall, KPBS Director of Production, was the film’s executive producer. The musical score was composed and performed by John Lewis, musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet. During two summers, the film crew visited and documented urban spaces in San Antonio, Boston, San Francisco, Savannah, Atlanta, and New York City in the United States; and Milan, Asolo, Bologna, Cortona, Perugia, San Gimignano, Todi, and Vernazza in Italy.
The thoughtful film focused on the spaces left in cities after buildings were constructed. Did those spaces encourage human social interaction? Winston Churchill’s comment regarding architecture made for an apt quote: “We shape our buildings and they shape us.” In livable cities, humans are treated to a variety of sights in spaces around and separate from buildings. Textures, patterns, edges of buildings, pathways, and steps, are only a few of the characteristics of cities for humans.
During filming in Vernazza, Italy, Dutch cameraman Hans Visser and his production assistant loved to play a game with passersby in the town, which had no cars, only a train that ran a couple times a day. When people asked what they were doing, Visser frequently replied they were filming for Fellini and that Sofia Loren was going to stop by later. A little inside joke. In the traffic-free village, Visser could work in the middle of streets with no fear.
A new editor, Kathleen Peck, was announced for the KPBS GUIDE in the February 1974 issue. Peck had joined the GUIDE staff the previous September as assistant editor and had taken over as editor the month before, so the February issue reflected her influence. The issue devoted a full page to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and another two pages dealt with the upcoming show Trauma: It’s an Emergency, part of The Killers series. The show examined the need for improved emergency medical care and included a call for community action. A phone number was provided for the public to call with questions about San Diego’s readiness for dealing with accidental injury, its prevention, and treatment. Monthly program schedules that included such staples as Theatre in America, Washington Week in Review, Masterpiece Theatre, and Bill Moyers’ Journal formed most of the publication, which remained quite simple, being printed in black and white with a one-color cover.
The inside cover of the March 1974 GUIDE heralded the upcoming Auction Gala at the Sheraton Harbor Island Hotel. There were also two pages promoting the upcoming show Cancer: The Cell That Won’t Die, offering statistics and other useful information about various forms of cancer. Following the show, the station aired local responses as it had with the Trauma program a month earlier.
Paul Steen was now Acting General Manager and Gloria Penner, no longer editor of the program guide, was Director of TV Program Development. February concluded with Public Television Week, while the line-up for early March included Zubin Mehta conducting Ravel’s Bolero, the Monteux Jazz Festival, and The Barbershoppers, with their theme “Keep America Singing.” Funny Nights, short subjects featuring Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and others offered mirth, and the European premier of Bernstein’s Mass also aired.
The following year, 1975, Jacob Bronowski became the rock star of science with his series The Ascent of Man. Bronowski’s on-camera presence made stories about the cultural evolution of human beings fascinating, as well as well as understandable and accessible. Bronowski was a world figure, but also a local hero. He lived in La Jolla and worked at the Salk Institute. Not surprisingly, his wife, Rita, an artist and arts leader in the community, was an enthusiastic KPBS supporter.
Many noted that Bronowski was a seeker of truth. He had a passion for finding what was true and that passion guided him in all his pursuits. A trained mathematician, he also had a great appreciation of poetry, with particular interest in the work of William Blake. A brilliant intellectual with an enormously wide range of interests, he was also friendly and elegant, relating well to all kinds of people in a range of settings. In 1971, Kaye produced a series of conversations with Bronowski. There were five separate interviewers including Paul Saltman, Roger Revelle, and Herbert York. That was four years before the original 1975 U.S. airing of The Ascent of Man, and while Kaye was still at KPBS. The conversations were replayed. Nine years later, following Bronowski’s death, KPBS aired the series again, and the July 1984 issue of On Air included a moving tribute from Rita Bronowski to her husband. Rita was also featured in the six-minute on-air fillers that accompanied the broadcasts. Later the same year, KPBS-TV produced Jacob Bronowski: Life and Legacy, which aired on the tenth anniversary of Bronowski’s death. In Life and Legacy, Peter Kaye explored the extent of Bronowski’s work in a wide range of fields.
Joining the stellar PBS program lineup, National Geographic appeared on PBS for the first time with its program The Incredible Machine, receiving positive reviews and high ratings. The Robert MacNeil Report was broadcast on KPBS beginning in early 1976, though it had aired elsewhere the previous year. The name would evolve over the years, eventually becoming the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and finally the PBS NewsHour. MacNeil had earlier connections with PBS, having moderated Washington Week in Review at WETA from 1971-1974. In 1973, he and Lehrer covered the Watergate hearings daily, gavel to gavel, for WETA, work for which they won an Emmy. They also covered the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaigns, which had been created to investigate the Watergate matter, adding comments and perspective. Viewers around the country were glued to their TV screens as one story after another was told, culminating in Alexander Butterfield’s revelation regarding the tapes in the oval office, which came as a complete surprise to everyone listening, in person and over the air. While MacNeil and Lehrer anchored those Senate hearings, Peter Kaye, who had moved to WETA in Washington, D.C., did the on-site reporting. He pursued senators and their staff, as well as witnesses, and he learned to be assertive to get camera time among the packs of reporters. It was Kaye who broke the news about Butterfield’s oval office recordings and the Watergate tapes. He also participated in the special about the “Saturday Night Massacre” when President Nixon went on a firing spree.
MacNeil had a solid background in journalism. Born in Montreal and a graduate of Carleton College, he first worked for ITV in London. Coming to the United States, he worked for Reuters and NBC News. He was in the Presidential motorcade as a reporter when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. He reported that terrible gunshot and was also present when Lee Harvey Oswald was killed. Over the years that followed, he penned novels and nonfiction books, one of them titled The Way We Were about the year 1963. He even played the Player King in a Hamlet film that starred Ethan Hawke. From 1975-1995 on the News Hour, he would provide significant understanding to our increasingly complex world.
From 1972-1977, KPBS delivered fresh and innovative programming, a potpourri that included Dance in America and Live from Lincoln Center. But it was the public affairs component, frequently cutting-edge and fearless, envisioned by Mandeville, that became a major element of the KPBS identity.
Check back in November for the next installment in this series
Pledge drive: Image Courtesy of Laura Walcher Auction Photo, Wayne Smith and Tom Karlo: Images Courtesy of KPBS Cities For People, Jacob Bronowski, John Lewis: Images courtesy of Paul Marshall