"Pretty primitive" and "held together by baling wire" are terms founders of KAET-TV (Channel 8) use to describe getting the public TV station up and running from the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe a half-century ago.
It was 50 years ago - Jan. 30, 1961 - that "Eight" signed on the air from a trailer on campus with the purpose of offering ASU courses via television. In the unfolding years, it would carve out its own niche with news, arts, culture and entertainment, including such shows as "Sesame Street," "Masterpiece Theatre," "Wall Street Week," "Evening at Pops," "The French Chef with Julia Child," "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report," "Austin City Limits," "Frontline" and "Antique Road Show." It became the premier producer of programs showcasing Arizona: "Seasons of a Navajo," "Arizona Artforms," "Monumental Arizona" and "Arizona Memories."
"We were a university station," said Bob Ellis, KAET station manager from 1961-91. "We went on the air to do telecourses for the public. We stayed with the university schedule, and we went on the air in the afternoon most of the time."
The original schedule showed "Channel 8 Educational Television" beginning with "Bulletin Board" at 4:10 p.m., followed at 4:15 p.m. with a half-hour "Audio-Visual Telecourse." Among the nine offerings before each 9:30 p.m. sign-off were "Magic Doorways," "Elementary Spanish Course," "Day in Review News" and "Opera For Today."
Daily markets carried a listing of selected stocks with the prices handwritten on tape next to the listing.
At first, KAET was off the air mornings, holidays and weekends.
"We didn't have the staff, but slowly we got the baling wire together and were able to increase the programming schedule," Ellis said. "The first big hump was going all day and then going weekends, holidays and finally, much later, 24 hours."
ASU students handled many tasks. Some moved on to national attention: Lou Dobbs, who did nightly news at KAET; ABC sportscaster Al Michaels; Vonda Kay Van Dyke, 1965's Miss America; and Mary Jo West, the Valley's first news anchor on a commercial news station, KSAZ-TV (Channel 10).
Cooperative extension services in the upper Midwest had first teamed with universities to offer television courses, but the first public broadcasting station was KUHT at the University of Houston in 1953. In Arizona, KUAT went on the air in 1959 from the University of Arizona. KAET would be about the 40th such station to go on the air in the U.S., Ellis said.
Richard Bell, then director of the radio-television bureau at ASU, applied in 1958 for a license from the FCC. The next year the Walter McCune Foundation of Scottsdale provided $88,000 for studio equipment. In turn, Phoenix commercial station KVAR-TV (now KPNX-TV, Channel 12) sold them its aging transmitter, tower and antenna on South Mountain for about $30,000, as KVAR switched to higher-powered technology.
"It was the department of broadcasting that taught radio and TV," said Chuck Allen, who taught production at ASU, helped launched the station, took programming jobs in Pennsylvania and California before serving at KAET from 1980 to 2002, the last 11 years as station manager. "There was a terrific esprit de corps." Of the three initial courses, Spanish, business 101 and sociology, "Spanish was the big hit," Allen said. "I think the first year we sold 800 Spanish books - through the bookstore or Channel 8." Ellis credits much of that to the charismatic instructor, Quino Martinez.
Station founders wanted it to be called KASU, but Arkansas State University had already claimed that. KAET, standing for "Arizona Educational Television," was subsequently adopted, but Ellis said, "I think it was a poor choice. It is hard to say K-A-E-T."
"Dick Bell wanted a logo" featuring a schoolmarm named Kaet, with a mortarboard," Ellis said. "Somehow we talked him out of it."
"At the beginning, our biggest challenge was to try to get programming - local and national," he said. With the launch of the National Educational TV Network (NET), public stations moved from strictly instructional to more culture and art. Public stations in Austin, Texas, Lincoln, Neb., and Boston led the way in producing attractive programs, but the tapes had to be "bicycled by the post office" or passed along from station to station on a circuit at the whims of the mail. It might arrive Wednesday, have to be aired Thursday and mailed Friday to San Francisco, for example. "There was no way of telling the public when we were going to broadcast," Ellis said.
Allen recalls how concerts and ASU theater productions were readily aired. "We took advantage of everything we could get our hands on, and we were lucky that a lot of university activity ended up as part of our cultural fare. Most of it was live, but the dramas were on tape."
Congress' creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967 provided a key stream of support. Today, about 15 percent of the station's $12 million budget is funded by CPB, said Kelly McCullough, station manager for 2 1/2 years. It amounts to about $1.35 in an average taxpayer's annual federal bill. But KAET's 46,000 annual contributors, or "Friends of Eight," provide more than two-thirds of it.
From its early decades, KAET has hosted periodic "pledge breaks" and Friends appeals, with phone banks, classic PBS programs and Valley media personalities. Ellis recalls a time when one Sun City volunteer died of a heart attack on the pledge drive set. Another volunteer fell off the raised platform.
When Allen, who had worked with popular science icons Carl Sagan and Jacque Cousteau, left his post of vice president of programming for KCET-TV in Los Angeles in 1980, he imported the concept of televising live medical operations. He broke new ground in 1983 when Phoenix heart doctor Ted Diethrich of the Arizona Heart Institute performed quadruple-bypass surgery on a Valley man. A satellite dish atop the hospital beamed it to the nation. It was carried live by 97 PBS stations in 33 states, and the BBC in England showed a taped version. "That was a huge contribution to public television, and it won a lot of awards and got terrific reviews all over the country," Allen said. Other medical operations were also televised.
KAET also had impact devoting 170 hours of live broadcasting of Gov. Evan Mecham's impeachment in 1988; covering the visit by Pope John Paul II in 1987; Sandra Day O'Connor's confirmation hearing to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980; and Sen. Barry Goldwater's funeral at Gammage Auditorium in 1998. Last fall, "Horizon," its nightly public affairs program, hosted the Clean Elections debates for state candidates.
Ellis said he endured controversies and efforts to prevent programs to be aired. One was "The Death of a Princess," about the stoning to death of a Saudi Arabian princess and her commoner lover. "People were afraid if we ran the program, the Saudis would embargo the oil again," he said. "I ran it, and they didn't (embargo)." In 1972, the John Birch Society and others sought to get the Arizona Board of Regents to rein in Channel 8 and Ellis for programs considered to be "left of the middle." Local bankers leaned on Ellis not to air "Banks and the Poor," a documentary on the challenges of minorities to get bank loans. "At times, it became so controversial, I had offered to resign," he said.
McCullough said KAET is aggressive in moving into new technology, including delivering broadcast signals to mobile devices and fully "embracing the multimedia universe." Besides its main Eight HD channel, KAET also has two other digital channels, Eight Create, with mostly lifestyle programs, and Eight World, covering current affairs and documentaries. Additionally, Eight Classical simulcasts music station KBAQ (89.5 FM).
"This is not your father's PBS station," Allen said. His goal is always adding more local programming, as funding allows. "When you look on the dial, there is no other channel that is delivering music performances and arts and culture programming like Arizona PBS does," he said.
From the nostalgia of the ageless "Lawrence Welk Show" on Saturday nights to the disturbing investigations of "Frontline," KAET has sought to provide distinct programs, Ellis said.
So the station has never given up finding the right slogan: "TV Worth Watching" (1980s), "The Station You Support" (1990s), or "Programs You Count On - Count on You" (until 2005). Today, it uses "Eight is a Service of Arizona State University Supported by Viewers Like You."
1958: Application filed for FCC license.
1961: Jan. 30 — First day of broadcasting.
1964: First Emmy award for KAET.
1967: Congress provides funding through Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
1968: Broadcasting in color begins.
1969: “Sesame Street” begins airing.
1973: Station relocates to Stauffer Communications Arts complex at ASU in Tempe.
1973: Viewer support and “Friends” appeals begin. Suggested membership donation: $15.
1973: Watergate hearings from Washington, D.C., aired in entirety.
1979: First of nine popular Channel 8 Great Fairs at Fountain Hills draws 19,000; 100,000 attend in 1987.
1981: “Horizon” public affairs program premiers with Michael Grant as host.
1983: “The Operation,” live open-heart surgery from St. Joseph’s Hospital, aired worldwide.
1986: Programs begin airing in stereo.
1987: Channel 8 broadcasts historic visit of Pope John Paul II with mass at Sun Devil Stadium.
1988: Impeachment of Gov. Evan Mecham aired live across 5 1/2 weeks and 170 hours.
1996: Presidential preference forum aired live from Gammage Auditorium on KAET.
2001: Digital signals 8.1, 8.2 and 8.3, including “Eight Create” and “Eight World” channels, begin.
2003: “Ready to Learn” designation spreads education across Arizona.
2003: “Horizonte,” news program from Hispanic perspective, launches.
2007: Ground broken for new Channel 8 home in downtown Phoenix, jointly with ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
2008: Ted Simons succeeds Michael Grant as host of “Horizon.”
2009: In December, station relocates to new downtown Phoenix site.