Revisiting KPBS-TV: An In-Depth Look at its First Quarter Century
A History of KPBS: The First Quarter-Century — 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...
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.
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.
New programs and fresh faces would dot the next five-year period, indeed the rest of the first quarter century of the life of KPBS-TV. Continuing its commitment to public affairs, That’s 30, a news discussion program moderated by Gloria Penner, made its debut on KPBS-TV in October 1977, providing a blueprint for subsequent shows including Newsweek San Diego and San Diego Week. News panels continued to be popular through succeeding decades. A month after the appearance of That’s 30, another Masterpiece Theatre series, I Claudius, aired its first episode, a smash hit that would become a major topic of conversation around workplace water coolers. The program was bold and racy and the performances were startlingly good. In terms of local productions, the next year’s Star of India: Iron Lady of the Sea recounted the story of our resident sailing vessel. For the next 15 years, the station would produce a large number of high quality documentaries on a wide variety of subjects, winning numerous awards along the way.
Civic leader and dynamo Viviane Pratt (later Viviane Warren) chaired the fourth KPBS Auction and the then-mayor of San Diego actively participated. For San Diego, the annual Auction was a kind of “family” event with something for everyone.
TV programs were broadcast from a converted music auditorium at San Diego State, with staff offices located in a two-story apartment building on College Avenue. The swimming pool, an amenity of the building, was drained in 1977 and filled with dirt, providing a home for a large tree in the center. Make-do situations and settings were the norm for KPBS as kitchens and bedrooms were turned into offices. Creative solutions were devised. Still, in spite of challenges, intriguing programs continued to be produced.
In 1978, station membership hit a new high. At the same time, the KPBS Guide introduced an all grown-up persona and a new name, ON AIR. The magazine now had some color inside as well as outside. Bigger news was in store when a huge satellite dish was plunked down on the lawn outside the old music building — a considerable point of pride for all involved. Clunky looking later, but a welcome sight then.
Helen Hawkins assumed the role of executive director of humanities programs in the late 1970s, frequently producing and appearing on shows that addressed women’s issues, work she continued into the 1980s.
Contracts with public agencies provided substantial support for the station. One example was a KPBS-TV-produced series of six public service spots about good nutrition commissioned by the California Nutrition Education & Training Program, including “Better Snacks for Good Nutrition.” The Superintendent of Public Instruction and Director of Education for the State of California Department of Education at that time was Wilson Riles, a well-known figure in the state.
The arts weren’t neglected, either, as evidenced by the national debut of American Playhouse, which would have a stronger San Diego connection the following year. The initial offering of American Playhouse consisted of a 25-week array of dramas, comedies, musicals, and biographies, some of which were original and others adaptations. It cannot be overstated how ambitious an undertaking it was. The first production was the teleplay The Shady Hill Kidnapping by famed short story author John Cheever. An interesting side note: it was Cheever’s only teleplay — first and last. Cheever had a steep learning curve when it came to writing for visual media as compared to the printed page and required collaboration. He was quoted in a 1982 New York Times article as saying “I dislike adaptations of any sort…To turn a short story into a television show is like turning an Oriental rug into a ballgame and losing the principal characteristics of both.”
From that opening 1982 production to the conclusion of the June season, approximately $16 million was spent on American Playhouse programs — an astonishing sum in that it required cooperation among PBS stations across the country, which had recently been at odds as rivals over diminishing funds. Amazingly, American Playhouse was produced by four PBS stations that came together to provide money for the project. The very survival of PBS was at stake, and the four were WNET in New York, KCET in Los Angeles, WGBH in Boston, and the South Carolina Educational TV Network. PBS was facing the fact that Federal financial appropriations had been drastically reduced. There were rumors that public television might not even survive. A very strong statement had to be made.
PBS and its member stations were “going for broke,” a term that was full of meaning. Consider the remarkably ambitious first season of American Playhouse: Weekend, which was an adaptation of the Ann Beattie short story scripted by Beattie; the wonderful For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, adapted by Ntozake Shange from her Broadway play; an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Who Am I This Time? with powerhouse actors Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken; another adaptation, this one of the Shirley Jackson novel Come Along With Me, with Estelle Parsons, Barbara Baxley, and Sylvia Sidney, and directed by Joanne Woodward, who was known at the time as more of an actor than director. There was also Carl Sandburg-Echoes and Silences, The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, and the famed Working musical, based on the book by Studs Terkel, with an especially strong cast that included Barry Bostwick, Eileen Brennan, Scatman Crothers, Patti LaBelle, Rita Moreno, and James Taylor. Rounding out the season were Medal of Honor Rag, the original film My Palik Ari, and the massive seven-part biography Oppenheimer, the story of the American physicist who led the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first atom bomb.
Meanwhile, viewers followed the lives of those Brits “to the manor born.” Who can forget the British series Brideshead Revisited? Those gorgeous programs, with their tales of the upper crust, focused on subjects then quite daring for television. They aired across America and had a huge impact. Based on Evelyn Waugh’s 1944 novel, the story covered the period from the early 1920s to 1945. Waugh claimed the theme was memory, commenting “Our dreams of the days that are past throw less light on our past than on our present situation.” Viewers followed the saga for 13 hours over 11 weeks as it explored themes ranging from aristocracy to Catholicism and teddy bears to self-hatred. Waugh’s landscape was large and the characters were both indelibly drawn and well portrayed by a very talented cast.
At the same time, Ken Burns’ Brooklyn Bridge documentary was distributed to PBS stations in 1982. Overall, programming mixed international, national, and local shows, a successful approach that built a loyal audience. Fundraising efforts continued through pledge drives and the Auction, for which prominent San Diegans were recruited as volunteer chairpersons. Among other notable programs aired on KPBS in this five-year period was the first of 37 plays of Shakespeare in 1979. It would take six years for the BBC to finish the project. A stunning achievement. Who-dunnit fans were treated to Mystery! Rumpole of the Balley and, for devoted fixer upper fans, This Old House debuted. So, for those into solving mysteries or in restoring old buildings, there were fascinating experiences to contemplate.
Then, back at KPBS, News Week ended its run following the death of longtime journalist Harold Keen, a widely admired pursuer of the truth who had contributed to the show, adding gravitas to it. Keen was editorial director of commercial KFMB-TV at the time of his death and had been perhaps the best recognized TV newsman in San Diego for three decades. Born in the Bronx and an alumnus of UCLA, he was a seasoned journalist, having started as a reporter at the San Diego Sun in 1936. Later, he was a reporter for the San Diego Union, the San Diego Evening Tribune, a contributing editor at San Diego Magazine, and, as mentioned earlier, editorial director at KFMB TV. Of note is the fact that Keen was the anchor of San Diego’s first TV broadcast in 1949. That he participated in KPBS-TV’s News Week was, therefore, no surprise. The man as reporter was everywhere. The editor of the San Diego Evening Tribune, Neil Morgan, was quoted as saying “at times Harold was the conscience of San Diego.”
There were other high points. The Whales That Wouldn’t Die, a documentary by Wayne Smith, had its first airing and Nature made its debut as the first natural history series in prime time.
Fast forward. By 2019, Nature would be in its 38th season, still exploring and sharing the marvel of nature.
Soon after that debut of Nature, a new computer system was welcomed with glee and relief. Information would now be organized and accessibled, but, even with these steps, few imagined the technological revolution that was yet to come.
The idea to produce jazz performance programs at KPBS was born in 1977 with programs that featured the Milt Jackson Quartet and the Gabor Szabo Quartet. A nightclub setting in a TV studio provided the perfect venue. The Larry Vuckovich Quartet with Tom Harrell in 1982 was a great segue to the many future jazz performances at KPBS, ones that would be enjoyed around the world
When American Playhouse broadcast the production of The Skin of Our Teeth live from San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1983, it was a “first” precisely because it was live. WNET New York distributed it on the network’s makeshift hookup, making it available to all PBS stations. A KPBS team that included Tom Karlo filmed the promotional spots. Other memorable moments from this time include the premiere of Reading Rainbow, the arrival of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, and a KPBS profile of Mexican revolutionary Pedro J. Gonzalez. Titled Ballad of an Unsung Hero, it was produced by Paul Espinosa, who specialized in Latino issues. Wayne Smith produced and directed The Old Globe: A Theatre Reborn, which traced the history of the Old Globe Theatre. The program premiered in 1984, while in the meantime, producer Anassa Briggs, following in the footsteps of Almeta Speaks and David Crippens, stewarded programs focused on the African-American community. That same year, the pledge drive broke its previous fundraising records and the locally produced Three Generations of the Blues came on the scene along with the nationally produced Wonderworks. Three Generations of the Blues captured three great female blues singers performing at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. From youngest to oldest, the women were Jeannie Cheatham, Big Mama Thornton, and Sippie Wallace.
Though Jeannie Cheatham began singing in a church choir like Big Mama Thornton and Sippie Wallace, her musical path was different from theirs. Cheatham’s music wasn’t confined to ragtime blues or rhythm and blues. She reveled in jazz and rock ’n roll and included other genres in her mix. From her early years in the church choir, she learned to play just about everything, including jazz, country music, and classical piano. She provided piano accompaniment for such jazz greats as T-Bone Walker and Eubie Blake, but her favorite partner was her husband, Jimmy Cheatham, a trombonist. Separate, they were really something, but together they were magic. In Three Generations of the Blues, Jeannie brought genuine feeling to her delivery, and laced it with sassiness. Beautiful, smart, and knowing, the youngest of the three artists knew her way around the blues.
Big Mama Thornton died at 57, only one year after her performance at the Belly Up. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, her father was a minister. Hard times and poor health were well known to her, as she struggled with illness, poverty, and decidedly up and down career cycles. Her presence was commanding. Big Mama took great pride in her unconventional dress, which included a big western hat and cowboy boots. She often wore a man’s suit coat with slacks. In 1952, she performed at the famed Apollo Theater in New York, which is where she acquired the “Big” in her name. She was, after all, six feet tall. Notable especially for being the first artist to record “Hound Dog,” Thornton’s version was number one on the rhythm and blues charts for 14 weeks. That was in 1953, before Elvis Presley’s version of the same song propelled him to stardom. She also wrote “Ball and Chain,” recording it long before Janis Joplin, who was plainly influenced by Thornton.
Sippie Wallace, the oldest of the three women, was born in 1898. It was her church that provided her training in piano and singing. Sippie entered a disastrous marriage at the age of 16, following which her brother became her manager and adviser. Her brother also wrote and arranged many of her songs, and she made 48 recordings between 1923 and 1929. More than half were hits, but despite her popularity, the royalties went to her brother, who only paid her in small stipends. She rarely performed during the ’30s, ’40s, or ’50s, but she resumed in 1966 and in 1984, the same year Three Generations of the Blues was aired. She joined Bonnie Raitt in the studio for an album. That would be her last recording.
As a result of the strong response, the following year in 1985, a second program was produced focusing on three generations of male blues singers. Also filmed at the Belly Up Tavern, Robert Cray, Smokey Wilson, and the legendary John Lee Hooker delivered the goods.
New programs continued to be produced, including an Artist in Residence series that consisted of six half-hour programs, each showcasing three visual artists working and living in San Diego. The following year, The New Image Teen Theatre debuted, while the initial KPBS Sweepstakes raised $132,000. It took money to purchase national shows and additional money to create local ones.
The most significant local program produced in 1985 was The Lemon Grove Incident, which told of the first successful legal challenge to segregation in U.S. schools, a story that would remain relevant. The program looked at a 1930 Lemon Grove school board attempt to segregate Mexican American children in one district school. The response of the Mexican American community to the move was examined, combining a unique blend of dramatized scenes, actual interviews, and historical footage in telling the story. Russell Carpenter, a former KPBS intern who went on to win an Academy Award as Director of Photography for the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic, was cinematographer. Paul Espinosa was the producer and writer and Frank Christopher was the director and editor.
KPBS’s stature in journalism was further reinforced in 1986 when it televised the prestigious 25 Years of the Presidency — Chiefs of Staff, the first in a series of three programs about the presidency held at UC San Diego. Convened in honor of the university’s 25th anniversary, the symposium featured John Chancellor as moderator with panelists Andrew Goodpaster, Ted Sorensen, Harry McPherson, H.R. Haldeman, Alexander M. Haig, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard B. Cheney, and Jack Watson, Jr. — all the men who served as chief of staff from Eisenhower to Carter. Peter Kaye and Sarah Luft co-produced the program, which led to a fascinating discussion of the evolution of the role during that time. Topics included the Korean War, the launch of Sputnik, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Vietnam war, Watergate, and the Iranian hostage drama. Moderator Chancellor summed up the gathering, saying, “You’’e seeing something that has never been seen before…Never before have these men ever gathered together. Each person on stage has played a critical role in the running of the White House.”
There was another American Playhouse connection when All My Sons, directed by the Globe’s Artistic Director, Jack O’Brien, aired in 1987. In all, O’Brien, who would go on to win three of the seven Tony Awards for which he was nominated, directed six programs for American Playhouse. He would also win five Drama Desk Awards, but not yet. O’Brien, who earned his masters at the University of Michigan, learned about regional theatre in the company of top directors and thespians, assisting theatre “greats” including John Houseman, Ellis Rabb, and Eva Le Gallienne. Many of the performers from those early apprentice days later appeared in O’Brien’s productions. His directing career at the Old Globe Theatre began in 1969 when he directed The Comedy of Errors, returning permanently in 1981. He remained Artistic Director of the Globe for the next 26 years, through 2007. Ultimately, however, the demands of theatre and opera around the country, including Broadway, would make it impossible for him to continue in the Artistic Director position. When he directed All My Sons in 1987 he had already served successfully as artistic head of the Globe for more than six years. O’Brien was prolific as a young man and, if possible, even more so in ensuing years.
The plug was pulled on the station’s auction following the 1987 iteration, and KPBS tested “Pledge Lite,” which had only half the number of pledge breaks during the drive. While greeted with positive comments, the station ultimately returned to longer pledge segments. Importantly, as undocumented workers came into public consciousness, In the Shadow of the Law was produced in 1987.
Lawrence Welk reruns filled a time slot at KPBS while British programs, particularly historical pieces, continued to command the attention of large American audiences.
In 1987, NOVA spotlighted the discovery of a supernova in Death of a Star. By that time, there was strong emphasis on science, Jeff Kirsch having firmly established a science presence with award-winning documentaries and series during his earlier tenure at KPBS-TV.
Club Date continued to feature acclaimed and touring recording artists such as Larry Vuckovich in 1982 and the Peter Sprague Trio in 1987. The series would grow and strengthen in the coming years.
Many local programs were produced by KPBS-TV during this era, when arts took center stage. The Club Date jazz performance series continued through the latter part of the ’80s and into the ’90s, where legendary jazz artists such as Barney Kessel, Mose Allison, and Freddie Hubbard were showcased in a nightclub-like setting as they performed live before studio audiences. Meanwhile, Speaking of the Arts, as well as San Diego Arts Awakening, explored various aspects of the cultural arts landscape. The genesis of Speaking of the Arts was a day-long symposium at San Diego State University consisting of three panels that addressed the topic of the arts from different perspectives.
Made possible by the SDSU College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts and the Los Angeles Times, the first panel was devoted to “The Artists,” and featured playwright Edward Albee, violinist Ana Kavafian, painter Wayne Thiebaud, and performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, who together more than fit the bill. Among the themes addressed were tensions between artist and critic and the artist’s place in the public sphere. A second panel was titled “The Critics” and featured LA Times music critic Martin Bernheimer, Seattle KING-TV theatre critic Greg Palmer, San Diego Union art critic Robert Pincus, and The Wall Street Journal theatre critic Ed Wilson. An energetic discussion ensued. The symposium concluded with a third panel, “The Patrons.” This segment dealt with funding, the benefactors, and their motivation. The moderator was the great LA Times arts editor Charles Champlin and the guest panelists represented an array of arts funders.
The shorter version of the symposium aired on KPBS-TV and commanded attention. On a personal note, the evening following the symposium’s conclusion, the accomplished and acclaimed participants gathered for an intimate dinner downtown in the Gaslamp District at the historical Horton Grand Hotel. Their collegial and respectful questions and conversations reflected their unique perspectives, having lived in or near the arts in ways unknown to most people. They seemed humbled to be in the company of so much greatness, their peers. Closed to the public, it was a remarkable evening.
Seniors Speak Out, a series targeted for the seniors crowd, began as an experiment at KPBS-TV. Initially, 12 half hour programs were aired — only 12 because the station wasn’t sure an audience of sufficient size was out there. But the show proved to be such a success that it became a weekly one-hour program. The topics were diverse and audience members participated in discussion of wide-ranging subjects. Intergenerational issues were of particular interest and the host was purposely not of the senior generation. Doug Waldo was only 42, a casting decision that had to be defended sometimes but kept the discussions lively. Accomplished panelists, notable seniors, frequently headlined the show, but interaction between the panelists and audience was always energetic.
ON AIR magazine continued to entertain and inform KPBS members. It covered both radio and TV and offered inside peeks at upcoming programs. It was well written and served as a helpful program guide for KPBS viewers. The plug would be pulled on it later, but not in this formative first quarter century. ON AIR was popular.
Artistic forms were celebrated at the TV station. For instance, in 1989, locally-produced The Art and Vision of James Hubbell introduced the magical world of the Julian-based visual artist to national and international viewers. Hubbell worked and continues to work closely with nature. As critic Kevin Brass wrote, “He uses natural material and apparently has never conceived of a square corner, evidenced by the flowing lines that accent all his designs.” Fluid surfaces suffuse his work.
Hubbell makes use of whatever materials are available, whether metal, glass, cement, tile, or brick. His stained glass pieces, which grace homes, restaurants, parks, and spiritual settings, are brightly colored and capture his open spirit. Hubbell creates sculptures as objects, but he also views buildings themselves as sculptures. Though he is a trained architect, he is not a traditional one. On ten acres near Julian he created a fantastical compound, designing highly decorative buildings that resisted corners. Together in the space, they fire the imagination, and many visitors compare the buildings to places where J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits would live. Many decades later, all the structures and sculptures would be destroyed in a massive fire, but, in time, rebuilt on a larger scale.
The end of 1989 saw Newsweek San Diego reinvent itself and adopt a fresh name, San Diego Week. Gloria Penner remained as host. After 1992, news and public affairs would become the primary focus of KPBS-TV programing. Local filmmaking became prohibitively expensive, though magnificent programs had been produced that way for a quarter century. The nation, indeed the world, had paid attention.
Dance got its share of attention, with Take 3 highlighting local dancers from 3’s Company. Take 3 had aired in late 1986, but was invited to be showcased at the XLI Mostra Internazionale di Cinema di Montacatini Termi festival in Italy in December of 1990 — a high honor. Another admired San Diego dance company, Malashock Dance, was also featured on KPBS-TV.
Before the 1992 budget crises, it was true that more and more generous program underwriters stepped up to bolster premiere program production. For example, in 1990, the formidable The Presidency, the Press, and the People, the second in the Presidency series, was taped for broadcast, again at University of California, San Diego, later known as UC San Diego. Once more moderated by John Chancellor, the show featured ten former presidential press secretaries in the first session. Press secretaries are story tellers and the panel of ten provided plenty of stories. The hope, of course, is that the stories from the White House press podium are truthful. That second symposium provided ample opportunity to confirm and to set the records straight, if need be. Some very amusing tales were told by articulate wordsmiths in an amicable setting. Among the engaging participants were Pierre Salinger, Bill Moyers, Ron Ziegler, Jody Powell, James Brady, and Larry Speakes, creating a most enjoyable segment. The 1990 program was nominated for a national Emmy for National News and Documentary Programs at a ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria in 1991 but it lost to Peter Jennings and an ABC team — a loss, but one in excellent company. With completion of a third program about the presidency and campaign managers, there was a full series of three shows.
In 1991, public television ran a new series called Making Sense of the Sixties. The six segments attempted to arrive at some understanding of a decade filled with turmoil and tragedy. The essential question was how could an era entered with great hope degrade into massive riots and incomprehensible assassinations. By the close of the decade, the nation was in tatters. The upheaval propelled change, however, resulting in a kind of revolution in art and culture at the same time. It was hard to make sense of the decade, one that was electric and confusing.
The year 1992 saw work begin on …And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him, an adaptation of the Tomas Rivera novel. The project, which was part of the American Playhouse series, was in the hands of director and writer Severo Perez and producer Paul Espinosa. A sparkling Silver Anniversary Gala was staged in the fall, celebrating the quarter-century milestone of KPBS television. Broadway star Betty Buckley was the featured performer. But KPBS stumbled in mid-1990 and in late 1992 a budget deficit necessitated painful staff layoffs. New topic focus and independent production arrangements allowed for adjustments. Not easy, but with redirection, things were righted, offering a brighter future. There was so much change in the air.
The next quarter century-plus would offer KPBS new leadership and a head spinning future stuffed with technological advances. The strength of the station during its first 25 years would bolster it. A soon-to-be-completed capital campaign funded construction of a handsome new building that would open in 1995, providing upgraded equipment. The best was ahead, but the story of how KPBS-TV got there is inspirational. Many talented people provided the shoulders on which the 21st century station now stands.