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Behind the Scenes

Public Television

More than 80 years ago, in 1927, Philo Farnsworth transmitted the first television image. Perhaps prophetically, it was a dollar sign. Since that time, television has become basically a money-making media, controlled by commercial interests with the main concern being income generated.

That is why public television is so refreshing and important. Public television has traditionally focused on education and enlightenment, producing shows that provoke thought, that entertain, and that teach. Chicago is fortunate to be able to claim a public television pioneer: WTTW, broadcast on Channel 11. The call letters stand for “Window To The World,” indicating an early mission that the station would strive to introduce viewers to a larger, global experience not controlled by the bottom line.

WTTW began as the idea of Inland Steel executive Edward L. Ryerson. Encouraged by his friend Ralph Lowell, who had begun such a venture in Boston, Ryerson applied to the Federal Communications Commission for a broadcasting license for an educational station. Ryerson’s foresight was further proven by his pursuit of a young attorney named Newton Minow to chair the WTTW board. Minow would later become Chairman of the FCC under President Kennedy, labeling general television as a “vast wasteland.” In his position with WTTW, Minow pushed for the medium to pursue educational and enlightening broadcasting.

The first WTTW broadcast occurred on September 6, 1955 from its original home in the Bankers Building, covering a 60-mile radius of the Loop. As with other educational tations, public support was needed, and Chicagoans responded, allowing the station to move to larger quarters in the Museum of Science and Industry. Here it was set up as a working exhibit. The station began as a college of the air, the first of its kind, offering credit courses during 43 hours of broadcast time per week. At its 10-year mark, more than 80,000 people had enrolled in courses.

Children’s programming has always been a major focus of public television, and WTTW was no exception, offering such fare as the revolutionary Totem Club, which presented a different focus each day. The groundbreaking show also encouraged children to only watch those programs that interested them and to find other stimulating, non-television activities as well—an unusual idea for a TV station. As a member of the PBS system, the station pays dues and receives access to PBS broadcasts, but the scheduling of such shows is at the discretion of the local station.

From those humble beginnings and a staff of 54, the station grew to become a national presence. Public support was tremendous, and in the mid-1960s, the station was able to build its current home, a five-acre studio campus at 5400 North St. Louis Ave. According to Julia Maish, Manager of Media Relations, WTTW produces more local programming than any other public station in America—about a third of the total shows presented. National shows are fed from PBS. Maish says the most popular local show seems to be the local restaurant review show, Check, Please!, while Antiques Roadshow is the most-watched national program. Other locally-produced programs include documentaries, political forums, and various series that examine Chicago neighborhoods, sights, and lore.

The station, together with its sister radio station, WFMT, now employs around 215 full-time employees and 100 occasional and part-time employees. In addition, hundreds of volunteers help with quarterly pledge drives and special events—critical fundraisers that keep the station afloat. According to Maish, 48 percent of the station’s support comes either directly from members or from pledge drives, direct mail campaigns, and special events. Support also comes from large corporations and foundations that underwrite specific programs. The station also receives help from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), as well as American Public Television (APT).

Says Maish, “I don't think our funding sources have changed significantly over the past several years, although obviously in the current economic climate, it’s become more challenging and we’ve had to become more creative.”

She lauds the WTTW mission, saying, “In this increasingly crowded media environment, WTTW viewers seem to have a greater respect for what public broadcasting provides–substantive programming that inspires lifelong learning, from a point of view that is unbiased, credible, and trusted.”

Along those lines, WTTW has joined with other area stations and organizations to create Chicago Matters, a public affairs series that connects the groups through the exploration of a single theme. In 2008, the theme was Growing Forward, an examination of the environment and renewable resources, sponsored in part by the Chicago Community Trust Foundation.

With a keen eye to the future, WTTW has seen the shift away from stagnant viewing, toward the Internet and other interactive media. Its Web site allows viewers to explore its local and national programming even after shows have passed, with companion sites and extra information that allows the viewer unprecedented access. According to President and CEO Daniel J. Schmidt, “With today’s technology, we truly are the masters of our own media domain. We can get content when, where, and how we want it.”

It’s a trend that can only enhance the impact of public television. The station includes a national productions arm, WTTWN, that provides shows for other PBS stations. In 2008, WTTW launched its first national PBS children’s series, WorldWorld. In addition, the corporation was the first public station in America to add V-me, the Spanish-language channel. In fact, V-me is just one of three digital channels, including WTTWD and Create.

“The future is making extraordinary content portable and accessible,” says Maish. “WTTW and public stations nationwide are proactive and on board.”

And, always the pioneer, WTTW is growing with the trends, furthering its goal to blend education, enlightenment, and entertainment.

WBEZ

While WFMT is the sister station to WTTW, the Chicago National Public Radio station is WBEZ, located at 91.5 on the FM dial. The station was originally begun by the Chicago Board of Education in 1941, but joined the NPR network several years ago, focusing on talk and jazz. The station is located at 848 East Grand Ave., on Navy Pier, and transmits from the Hancock building. Like any public station, WBEZ is listener-supported. It fills a different niche than that of WFMT, and aside from several syndicated music programs, is more talk-oriented, offering shows on local, national, and international issues, as well as syndicated entertainment shows such as Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and the popular A Prairie Home Companion. It’s also the home for various syndicated news and human interest shows such as All Things Considered and This American Life. In addition, the station broadcasts a broad spectrum of BBC programs and radio theatre. The WBEZ Web site offers a live stream that allows anyone around the world to listen to the station in real time, along with a blog, podcasts, and RSS feeds. While presenting national news and features, WBEZ is very much involved in the Chicago area. The station strives to explore and present the city’s diverse cultural makeup through the broadcasting of thought-provoking, programs about and to Chicago, the nation, and the world. “As Chicago Public Radio continues to evolve, area residents will have more opportunities to participate, gather, and exchange ideas in order to better our community,” explains Cindy Hansen, Director of Communications at Chicago Public Radio. “It is celebrating this kind of engagement and commitment that gives those of us here at Chicago Public Radio great enthusiasm about our future.”

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