One of KWCM’s founding board members and most dedicated volunteers, Ralph Schmidt, is featured in the documentary talking about the early years of the station. Dan McGowan tells how his father, Martin McGowan Jr. (Appleton Press newspaper editor and State Senator), was contacted by Senator Eugene McCarthy in the late 1950s and asked if Appleton wanted a TV station. The local business community, with the help of surrounding towns, worked for six years to raise the necessary matching funds to bring the station to town. Judy Pfaff talks about how bake sales were held and Phemie Johnson relates how her family donated the land for the tower site. School District 2202 donated a one room schoolhouse to be used as an equipment room and at 1:22 p.m. on Monday, February 7, 1966 KWCM went on the air and it has since been broadcasting every day for the past 50 years.
When the first manager and board president William Sandberg left town, Ralph Schmidt was pressed into service on behalf of the TV station in addition to his regular job at the Farmers and Merchants State Bank in Appleton. Judy Pfaff was hired to assist him but eventually the time commitment and responsibilities became too extensive for Schmidt. The KWCM Board turned to the new accountant in town, Ansel Doll. “We approached him, and sure enough, he took the job, and it was off to the races,” Schmidt says.
Under Doll’s leadership the station grew exponentially in the early 1980s. According to one of the early employees Jonathon Hegland, Doll hired local farm boys who had to learn on the job and figure out things as they went. “I remember the first day he (Jonathon) was here, he asked me what he's supposed to do,” Doll recalls. "I said You figure it out. So he did; he did a good job. He started our production operation.”
Doll was able to raise funds to build a new office and pay for a new 1,000 foot tower and local productions began. Long time collaborator, Roger Boleman of the University of Minnesota, describes the very first live fundraisers that were broadcast from Appleton’s historic Opera House. Soon the station was rebranded as Pioneer Public Television, local productions began and new towers were constructed in Chandler and Fergus Falls. But financing it all was always a concern. “The expansion of Pioneer happened quickly,” says Carrie Bowers, whose father, Jim Aasland, was a longtime board member. “It always takes the income to supplement growth and that just wasn't happening as quickly as it could have,“ she added.
After 20 years as General Manager, Doll retired in 2000 and was replaced by Glen Cerny who worked to put the station on sound financial footing and to make the transition to digital broadcasting. In 2007, western Minnesota native, Les Heen, took over for Cerny and with funding from the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment, was able to launch the popular arts, history and culture program Postcards. In 2013, Pioneer began to win awards for its local productions for the first time in its history. “I’ve never seen more talent than we have right now,” says Hegland.
In 2014, Pioneer greatly expanded its viewing area again by securing access to the Dish Network and DirecTV satellite distribution networks in the Twin Cities designated market area (DMA). The station’s signal is now viewable in an estimated 2.5 million homes stretching from the Missouri River to western Wisconsin and from Detroit Lakes to Sioux Falls.
The challenges now facing Pioneer have to do with the rapidly changing nature of the television industry, the need to stay abreast of the latest technology and to continually recruit young talent to work at the station.
After several years of identifying needs and planning for a new facility, leaders at Pioneer conducted a feasibility study and interviewed Pioneer supporters to explore their interest in supporting a future capital campaign effort. Shortly after the study was complete, Pioneer members Ron and Diane Fagen stepped forward with a transformational gift which included an offer to provide the land and build Pioneer a state-of-the-art facility to showcase the future of public television for the viewers of the region.
In December 2015 Pioneer Public Television's Board of Directors made the difficult decision to move the station’s headquarters from Appleton to Granite Falls, Minnesota beginning in 2017. The new facility will be constructed near the intersection of Hwy 212 and 23 and will greatly expand Pioneer's capacity toserve rural communities in an otherwise urban-focused television media environment.
“The entire region served by Pioneer Public Television is grateful to the people of Appleton for helping to launch and sustain Pioneer for the first 50 years,” said Heen. “We are excited to expand our capacity to share local stories with the world for the next 50 years.”
About Pioneer Public Television
Established in 1966, Pioneer Public TV is an award-winning, viewer-supported television station dedicated to sharing local stories of the region with the world. For more information visit: www.pioneer.org.