A Short History of Pioneer PBS
By Brendan Stermer A Short History of Pioneer PBS | 1952 - 2014
The origins of public television in the United States can be traced to 1952, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reserved 242 channels on the public spectrum for non-commercial, educational use. The first of these stations to launch in the upper Midwest was KTCA-TV, channel 2, which began broadcasting in St. Paul, MN in 1957. Soon after, KTCA officials developed plans for a six-state educational television (ETV) network to serve North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin through a series of linked microwave towers. Appleton, in western Minnesota, was identified by the FCC as a logical location for a new link in this network because it was in the geographic center of an area not yet covered by an ETV signal and, once constructed, it could serve as a relay point to carry KTCA programming via microwave signal to other stations in the network.
When Appleton resident and state representative Martin McGowan was informed of the possibility, he promptly shared the exciting news and assembled a group of local movers and shakers who would become, in 1959, the inaugural Board of Directors of the West Central Minnesota Educational Television Company. James R. Bennett, a local attorney, served as President and provided legal work for the project free of charge. With the help of Dr. John Schwarzwalder and William Donaldson of KTCA, the new board met regularly and began to assess the financial requirements of the new enterprise. Of the projected $268,000 total cost, the board planned to raise $20,000 through an Appleton area fund drive and the remainder was to be secured through grants and federal funds.
“Finally in 1963, after a great deal of guidance by KTCA-TV, we began a campaign in earnest. Local groups assisted greatly in the soliciting campaign and in local projects to raise money,” wrote board member William Sandberg in an Agralite News column. “Everyone was in favor of getting the station in Appleton. The businessmen and townsfolk began having bake sales and all sorts of events to help raise money,” said Appleton resident Judy Pfaff in an interview with the Montevideo American News. Reports were frequently published in the local newspapers about the latest developments and how much money still needed to be raised. Individuals, businesses, clubs, associations, and churches from Appleton and dozens of surrounding communities had together contributed more than $17,000 by June 1964. Many of these gifts were $1, $2, and $5 donations from individual families offering what they could afford.
Other donations came in the form of land, equipment, and buildings. In July of 1963, the Alvin Lia family donated 8.25 acres of land located two miles southeast of Appleton, on which to place a tower and a transmitter. In 1965, John Klindworth, President of K & M Electronics in Minneapolis, began searching for an organization to which he could donate some surplus television equipment. Dr. Schwarzwalder convinced him to donate the equipment, worth about $22,000, to the Appleton station. In 1966, School District 2202, which had recently consolidated with Appleton, donated its old one-room schoolhouse to hold the television equipment and controls. The schoolhouse was moved to the new transmission site, given a fresh coat of red paint, and branded “The Little Red TV Schoolhouse.” A Minneapolis Tribune article about the reclaimed building stated, “The little schoolhouse in western Minnesota appeared to have outlived its usefulness […] Then the rural school got a new lease on life and a chance to continue serving education.”
Eventually, after “endless red tape,” (as Sandberg put it) the necessary federal funding was secured. In August of 1965, the $268,000 needed to establish the station was granted through an appropriation from the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare of $168,719, plus $35,000 from KTCA as retroactive matching federal funds and $42,000 from the Hill Family Foundation. The remaining $22,000 was contributed locally. Later that year, a 500-foot tower was erected at the transmission site, and the FCC assigned call letters to the new station: KWCM-TV.
At 1:22 p.m. on February 7, 1966, KWCM-TV broadcast its first educational program. William Sandberg, the local school superintendent who had recently become KWCM’s first general manager, wrote in a local newspaper, “Many individuals heaved a sigh of relief [once the station began broadcasting], but the job is only half done. The station must be kept on the air and this takes money. Our expenses during current operations will amount to about $30,000 per year.” The KWCM board advanced a plan to collect these funds from area schools who could utilize KWCM programming at a rate of $1 per pupil.
The first month’s program listing included a variety of 50-minute courses such as Spanish, German, French, science, math, and music, for grades two through high school. The station began broadcasting at 9 a.m. and signed off at 4:15 p.m., but soon extended to an 11 p.m. sign-off. The evening programs, intended for an older audience, covered world affairs, history, landscaping, cooking, and other topics.
By 1969, 41 schools were participating in ETV programs and paying membership fees. Unfortunately, however, not all of the schools that used the programs were willing to pay for them, and there did not seem to be any way to enforce the fee. As stated in the minutes of a meeting of the Board of Directors on April 17, 1970, “Mr. Sandberg described the financial circumstances of the corporation as being generally unsatisfactory as a result of disappointing results of attempts to increase school participation in the area. Lengthy discussion followed concerning the difficulties of securing financial assistance from participating schools.” Eventually, KWCM turned to the Minnesota state legislature for compensation for the educational services they provided to area schools.
In 1973, Sandberg accepted a job at a new school district and resigned from his position as general manager. Ralph Schmidt, a local banker and member of the original KWCM board, was picked to fill his place. One year later, the new general manager was notified that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) had established criteria that would have to be met by KWCM if they wished to continue receiving CPB funding. One of these new requirements was to offer regularly produced local programming. Fortunately, KTCA was willing to lend the use of its studios to KWCM, which otherwise would not have been able to meet the new demands. On March 24, 1975, KWCM premiered its first locally developed program, taped at KTCA, featuring the Future Farmers of America. Another important programming development occurred in 1976, when KWCM was selected by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and CPB as a site for a satellite receiving ground terminal, which would give the station access to a larger selection of programs. After securing grants from PBS and the Kresge Foundation, the terminal was installed in 1978.
Schmidt announced his resignation in 1979, writing, “My partners in business have been very generous, but now voice a very definite expression that I am taking too much time out of banking for television work.” Schmidt’s wife, Goldie, was a key volunteer throughout Schmidt’s tenure. After he left the post, she continued to work for the station as a volunteer coordinator and planned-giving officer. The dedicated service of Ralph and Goldie Schmidt to KWCM was an inspiration to the hundreds of volunteers that followed in their footsteps through the decades, making the station what it is today.
Local accountant Ansel Doll was hired to be Schmidt’s successor. Energetic and ambitious, Doll quickly set forth a new vision for the station. Doll believed that the station’s operation and maintenance costs should be supported locally, and that this could be achieved only if the station catered to their rural audience and prioritized local programming. As stated in the minutes of a meeting of the Board of Directors on January 17, 1980, “It was the manager’s opinion that the only way KWCM is to stay alive and be viable is to become more responsive to what people want and need. Get into production of a local nature on a regular basis. Concentrate on farm and small town populations, banking and retail, senior citizens, and elected officials at township level.” With this new vision in mind, Doll and his small staff quickly set to work.
A milestone was reached in March of 1980 when KWCM broadcast its first live production – a membership drive– from the historic Appleton Opera House, using equipment from the University of Minnesota, Morris. Doll later recalled the event in an interview with the Montevideo American News, saying, “We had no heat up there and it took place in March so it was cold. Jim [Hegland] brought in an old Knipco heater that had been in Koosman’s hog barn and the whole place smelled like hog.” Despite these difficulties, the drive was a success. In the coming years, KWCM’s local production repertoire would continue to grow, with the addition of popular programs such as “Your Legislators,” “Let's Talk About It,” and “Sports Profile.”
The project that drew the most media attention, however, was not a program but an innovative information service for farmers. In the early 1980s, shortly after farmers on the station’s board of directors requested local weather and marketing programs, Doll conceived the idea of using the station’s closed captioning capability to broadcast market reports for farmers. He called this new project Agvision and, in October 1980, traveled to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate the concept for USDA managers. In an interview with the West Central Tribune, Doll stated, “We jerry-rigged a set-up there, using their ag marketing reports. The USDA managers for everything from hazel nuts to zucchini became quite excited and that encouraged us. Within about two or three months we were on the air with Agvision.” By the end of 1981, more than 350 farmers in KWCM’s viewing area had purchased the $250 decoders that were needed to access Agvision. Viewers responded positively to the new achievements in local programming: in Doll’s first three years as general manager, membership subscriptions rose from 1,700 to 2,700, and membership revenue rose from $27,000 to $51,000.
Soon enough, the growing station was in need of a larger office space. In 1980, Doll was approached by city officials who suggested that KWCM relocate to the historic Appleton Old City Hall, which was constructed in 1895 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Doll obtained approval from the Board of Directors and, by 1981, the move to the historic structure was complete. In 1983, the city of Appleton was awarded a community development block grant amounting to $464,300, which would be used for repairs to the Old City Hall building and the construction of a conjoined building for additional KWCM offices and studios. This new addition, which matches the older building in design and materials, was constructed in 1984. Another important construction development occurred in 1985, when a new 1,200-foot tower was installed at the transmission site. The project was funded with a $742,000 grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
With the rapid growth in staff and the combined stresses of local programming and the office relocation, it’s no surprise that newspaper accounts from this period describe the station as a place of “organized confusion” and “wiry disarray.” Throughout the chaos, however, Doll did his best to make sure every employee had a creative voice. He described his management style in a 1982 interview with the Montevideo American News, saying, “Every Monday morning we have a staff meeting, and all the employees attend, including the janitors; everyone has an equal voice. Another curious thing here is that sooner or later, almost every employee gets a chance to get behind a camera, or in front of one, and get some broadcasting experience.”
By 1983, following the flurry of activity and innovation at KWCM in the early 1980s, a rebranding of the station was undertaken. The station organized a new name contest and, after reviewing a list of submissions, settled on “Pioneer Public TV.” A pamphlet announcing the change stated, “Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘pioneer’ as: ‘a person or group that originates or helps open up a new line of thought or activity or a new method of technical development.’ To us, this definition captures the essence of what this rural public TV station is all about. The station is ‘pioneering’ new ways to make the benefits of electronic technologies more accessible.”
Throughout the remainder of the decade, Pioneer continued to develop ideas for new local productions. Two popular live call-in shows, “On Call For Health” and “Legal Lines,” premiered in 1985 and 1986, respectively. “On Call For Health” was hosted by Doctors Lachlan Smith and Patricia D’Aquila of Willmar and focused on different health-related themes discussed by a panel of local medical professionals who answered viewer questions on the air. “Legal Lines” followed a similar format, but focused on legal topics and was hosted by local Appleton Attorney Brian Wojtalewicz. Another program, “Your Legislators,” featured a discussion of hot-button political topics moderated by Elbow Lake’s Virginia Smith representing the League of Women Voters. In 1987, Pioneer collaborated with Roger Boleman, Director of Media Services at the University of Minnesota, Morris, to create “Prairie Yard & Garden,” another call-in show originally hosted by Wes Gray and later by Sue Gooch of Morris.
Reflecting back in a 1991 interview with Minnesota Farm Life, Doll stated, “I guess of all the things we’ve done over the years, I would say I’m most proud of our local productions. We’ve been able to produce shows that are important to the people of this area and all our viewers; shows that are informative and interesting.”
While the station’s financial circumstances had never been ideal, the situation grew particularly bleak in the 1990s, as federal and state funding became increasingly scarce. In 1991, after Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson recommended the elimination of all state funds for public television, Doll wrote to the Pioneer Board of Directors, “I believe, unless we find some other source of revenue to replace the state money we have been receiving, the station cannot continue its operations.” Fortunately, after receiving several letters from board members and viewers, the Legislature did not follow Carlson’s recommendations.
Nevertheless, the experience alerted many at the station of the need for a more stable revenue stream. Pioneer management soon decided that the best response to potential losses in federal funding would be signal expansion in order to grow the membership base. In October 1994, a $1.2 million dollar grant from the State of Minnesota was made to Murray County for a Pioneer relay tower and station in southwestern Minnesota. Construction of the tower and transmitter building at the Murray County site was completed in December of 1996, and the new station, KSMN, began broadcasting soon afterwards. In February 1999, another new Pioneer low power TV signal, K49FA, began broadcasting from Fergus Falls, completing the signal expansion. The small rural station, which first broadcast out of a “Little Red TV Schoolhouse” in western Minnesota, was now available to more than 750,000 viewers across the state.
Even as viewership grew, Pioneer remained committed to representing rural people and rural interests in an otherwise urban-focused media culture. With funding from the Bremer, Kellogg, and McKnight foundations, Pioneer collaborated with the University of Minnesota, Morris on an ambitious thirteen-part series about the history of the Minnesota River basin, called “Minnesota Rivers & Fields,” which aired throughout the 1990s.
In July 1996, Doll announced that the production crew would be leaving for Gibbon, MN to film a polka festival for a new series, in response to suggestions from viewers. The new program, named “Funtime Polka,” premiered in November of that year. Eighteen years later, it remains one of Pioneer’s most popular local productions. The 1990s also saw the premiere of the local program, “Prairie Sportsman,” an outdoor adventure program hosted by Rich Massey of Appleton and produced by Jon Hegland.
In 2000, Pioneer produced “Country Spires,” a three-part documentary exploring the architecture and history of rural churches in the Midwest. The program, narrated by Minneota, MN-based author Bill Holm, produced by Cindy Green, directed and edited by Jon Hegland, and filmed by Tim Bakken, garnered critical acclaim and was broadcast on public television stations across the country.
Local programs “Your Legislators,” “Legal Lines,” “On Call for Health,” and “Prairie Yard & Garden” continued to be produced throughout the 1990s. It was during this time that some of Pioneer’s longest serving employees began working at the station, including Program Director Shirley Schwarz (1989), Production Director Tim Bakken (1990), Chief Engineer and Station Manager Jon Panzer (1990), Office Manager Jeanette Pfaff (1995), and Membership Director Janet Suckow (1997).
In 2000, after twenty years of leadership at Pioneer, Doll announced his plans to retire. Glen Cerny, Doll’s successor, was hired at a pivotal time in the station’s history. Cerny’s most important projects involved navigating the congressionally mandated conversion to digital TV and tackling an alarming pile of debt that had accumulated during the expansion projects of the 1990s. Cerny’s first priority, however, was to create a positive work environment that would be able to efficiently manage these big challenges. As stated in the minutes of a meeting of the Board of Directors on November 20, 2003, “Mary Lou Smith praised the complete turnaround in the staff’s attitude - thanks to Glen. Craig Wilkening praised his public relations contribution to the community - he goes the extra mile. Comments were made regarding the sprucing up of the station and general pride in the station.”
In the years that followed, Station Manager Jon Panzer played a key role in upgrading equipment, modernizing production control and workflow systems, and guiding the station successfully through the digital conversion process. Meanwhile, Cerny and others worked at reducing Pioneer’s long-term debt. As stated in the minutes of a meeting of the Board of Directors on June 28, 2006, “At 11:14 a.m., after signing a $10,635.61 check to PBS, Glen stated that we now owe PBS absolutely nothing! Congratulations, Pioneer!” From 2001 to 2006, Pioneer’s long term debt was reduced by more than $900,000.
Western Minnesota native Les Heen became General Manager in 2007 after Cerny left to become General Manager of PBS member-station KRWG-TV in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Again Panzer played a key role in providing continuity and leadership during the transition from Cerny to Heen.
With his background in commercial news television, farm journalism, and legislative relations, Heen brought extensive network relationships and institutional know-how to Pioneer. Heen continued to reduce and all but eliminate the long term debt, while also overseeing staff expansion and launching new local programs.
In 2008, Minnesota voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution, creating a funding stream that allowed Pioneer to hire local producers, videographers, and a webmaster to produce and promote local programs about the art, culture, and history of the region. New programs launched under Heen’s tenure include “Postcards,” “Great Minnesota Parks,” “On Stage”, and a renewed commitment to broadcasting candidate debates for local legislative races. “Postcards,” one of Pioneer’s flagship local productions, is a weekly magazine program exploring the arts, history and cultural heritage of western Minnesota.
In 2013, Pioneer’s first Upper Midwest Regional Emmy was awarded to “Caroline Smith: My Way Back Home” in the Arts/Entertainment Program category. Willmar native Dana Johnson produced the documentary, which features the story of a small town singer-songwriter who finds critical acclaim and success in the Twin Cities as she reflects back on her small town upbringing. As it turns out, this first award in 2013 has led to a string nine consecutive years of Upper Midwest Emmy Awards for its local programs, for a grand total of 20 Emmys since 2013.
The station’s online home, www.pioneer.org, has expanded Pioneer PBS’s visibility beyond the furthest reaches of its over-the-air broadcast signal. The Pioneer PBS Video streaming service video.pioneer.org combined with our Pioneer PBS YouTube channel and Pioneer PBS Facebook page attracted more than 1,376,450 views across platforms annually.
Also, as a result of the multicasting capability made possible by the 2007 conversion to digital TV, Pioneer PBS now broadcasts six digital channels to a viewing area that reaches from Detroit Lakes, MN to Rock Rapids, IA. The main channel is Pioneer High Definition (HD) followed by three Standard Definition (SD) channels: Pioneer Create, the Minnesota Channel, Pioneer PBS KIDS, Pioneer World and the First Nations Experience (FNX) channel. It is possible to capture all of these channels over the air using a simple “rabbit ears” antenna. No cable box or satellite dish is required.
From the “Little Red TV Schoolhouse” to www.pioneer.org, the West Central Educational Television Company has continued to educate and sustain rural communities through communications services that reflect and uphold local values. Pioneer PBS is a rare example of how democratic greater-good principles and small town cooperative values have been applied to the sophisticated world of broadcast communications.
If the past is indeed prologue, we can expect that Pioneer PBS will continue to tell rural stories to the world, and to bring the stories of the world into rural living rooms.
About the Author
Brendan Stermer was a third-year student at the University of Minnesota, Morris majoring in Philosophy. He worked for Pioneer during the summer of 2014 as part of the Community Assistantship Program through the Center for Small Towns.
About the Center for Small Towns
The Center for Small Towns (CST) is a community outreach program of the University of Minnesota, Morris. CST serves as a conduit between the resources of the University and people and projects in small towns. The network of stakeholders in the region helps CST to identify the most urgent rural issues and the most promising rural opportunities, ensuring that the University continues to learn and to evolve along with the communities that it serves.