CPTV Celebrates 50 Years: Present at the Creation
Courtesy of CPTV
In honor of CPTV’s 50th anniversary celebration, we decided to capture memories from some of the early participants. What follows are key excerpts from our interviews, in an expanded version of our April 2013 issue print feature. Read here about the birth and development of Connecticut Public Radio (WNPR) and the CPTV triumph that was UConn women's basketball.
Catching a Wave ( the 1950s-’60s )
On Oct. 1, 1962, at 9:40 a.m., the Connecticut TV audience—or, we should say, those viewers living in the Hartford area who’d thought to buy a television with a UHF receiver—were greeted with a new presence on the dial, WEDH Channel 24, the first full-power station in the Connecticut Educational Television Corporation (CETC) network (WEDN-53 in Norwich and WEDW-49 in Bridgeport became operational by the end of 1967, later to be joined by WEDY-65 in New Haven). At its inception, WEDH was one of only three educational television stations in New England, including Boston’s mighty WGBH Channel 2, and was the 68th station in the nascent National Educational Television (NET) network. Like WGBH and WNET Channel 13 in New York City, the CETC network differs from most other states’ educational stations in that it’s neither owned nor operated by Connecticut’s state department of education or university system, but is a private, community-based 501(c)3 nonprofit. WEDH set up shop on the campus of Trinity College, where it resided for 42 years.
Frank Donovan (CPTV host/producer, 1962-1990): Hartford’s WEDH Channel 24 debut was the climax of a 10-year effort. In 1952, the FCC had allotted the CETC three UHF channels for educational television. But very few people could pick up UHF broadcasts; if they wanted to, they had to pay an extra $100 for a receiver. By the time Channel 24 came on the air, there were only two commercial UHF channels operating in Connecticut, both doing very poorly: the NBC affiliate Channel 30 and Channel 18 in Hartford. It wasn’t till President John F. Kennedy signed the “All-Channel Receiver Bill” in 1962 that TV manufacturers were forced to include UHF receivers in their products.
David Carson (CPTV advisory board member, 1979-present): Initially, VHF Channel 3 was supposed to be allocated to Hartford’s public television station, much like Channel 2 was assigned to Boston. What happened was, the CETC didn’t have any money, or a television tower or anything like that, so a deal was made to reallocate Channel 3 to Traveler’s Insurance Co., for its commercial station WTIC. Traveler’s Broadcasting in turn guaranteed WEDH its own spot on a new broadcast tower being built for WTIC on Avon Mountain, and gave a grant of $30,000 to the CETC as startup funding.
Frank Donovan: In 1953, funds were requested from the state General Assembly for Connecticut educational television, but nothing happened. So, Gov. John Lodge set up a study group that made a report in 1954. One of the things they needed to decide was, “What constitutes educational television? Does it apply only to children, or adults as well?” They wound up going to the Connecticut attorney general and got a decision that it was a broad term that should be applied to both.
Anders Yocom (CPTV producer/director, 1962-1974): I started with WEDH the day it went on the air, actually a few days before Oct. 1. I was a senior at Trinity, so I worked as a camera operator and general crew member until I graduated in 1963. Then they hired me full-time as producer and director. The first day on the air was very exciting; I remember that we toured the facility and studio, and just talked a little bit about what educational television was and what the plans were for the station.
Frank Donovan: The first WEDH studios were located in the basement of the Trinity College library, and later in Boardman Hall, a science building on campus. The state of Connecticut proved quite generous in funding capital improvements needed by the CETC; it was a state grant along with a donation of land from Trinity that enabled the construction of a new studio building on the corner of Summit Street and New Britain Avenue in 1969. Certain private corporations made donations to help provide the technical equipment. But very little help came from the school system—getting that was always a real struggle.
Anders Yocum: Ben Huddleston was the original station manager. He had worked at WNBC-TV in New York. Another key early figure was Douglas Leonard, who Ben hired as the first program director—it was Doug who hired me. Paul Taff, who replaced Ben around 1970, had been head of children’s programming at WNET, where he produced “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Jack Kean (CPTV executive, 1968-2002): I worked as remote supervisor with WGBH Channel 2 in Boston for 10 years before being offered the position of chief engineer at WEDH in 1968. When I started, all three CETC stations—including WEDN-53 in Norwich and WEDW-49 in Bridgeport—were operational, but they weren’t interconnected in any way. On cold nights the Boardman Hall steam pipes would knock so loudly that at times, you couldn’t hear the broadcasts. During my first few weeks, my wife sat at home and cried, asking me, “Why did we ever come here?” I told her, “The worse it is, the better it’s going to be for me.”
Anders Yocom: What justified the development of public television in the early days was that the stations produced a lot of programming that could be used by teachers in school classrooms. At first, we did at least two “in-school” series, both hosted by Jane B. Cheney. She was the head of the Children’s Museum of Hartford. She was pretty knowledgeable about social studies and biology, so we did one social studies show and the other about native animals. The programs were 20 minutes long; Jane would prepare the subjects and bring things in from the museum to show. It was pretty primitive, I must say. We weren’t broadcasting in color, and we only had two cameras in the studio, so the pattern was wide shot/close-up, wide shot/close-up. For 20 full minutes.
Jack Kean: Doug Leonard and I started to work together on what was technically a very sloppy on-air operation. We let everyone know that one of us would always be watching during prime time, and things improved noticeably. One guy sort of threatened me—apparently some of the crew had had this nice deal where they’d start a tape and run out for coffee.
Anders Yocom: Early on there was no Corporation for Public Broadcasting, no PBS. We shared programs with other stations through a system called “bicycling”: Shows would arrive through the mail, either on 16-millimeter film or two-inch videotape. We would have the right to air them for about a week; then we’d have to ship them somewhere else. Quite a few documentaries we broadcast came through this way, as well as something called “World Perspectives on the News.” Later WEDH made some attempts to do live interconnects with other stations, but they were done by the stations taking shows from one another off the air and retransmitting them; Norwich would pick up the signal from Boston, Hartford from Norwich and so on. Atmospheric conditions would sometimes cause the whole process to shut down. But at least the Boardman Hall studio gave us space to do a lot more of our own programs. We started a four-night-a-week news program, which Pat Sheehan hosted for a while before going on to become news anchor at WTIC-3. I anchored that program briefly as well, with Irving Kravsow, who at the time was managing editor of the Hartford Courant.
Jack Kean: The technical equipment of the time was incredibly bulky and primitive. But we did design, I guess, the first handheld camera ever built in the U.S. We took an RCA color camera, removed the parts and repackaged it in such a way that the cameraman just held the tubes and the lens. The electronic part of it went into a backpack that another man wore.
Anders Yocom: In 1967, we got our first three-camera remote truck. That opened up all kinds of possibilities, enabling us to travel all over the state. But even before that, we got “single-system film capability”—a 16-millimeter Auricon camera with sound, the first technical advancement that allowed us to get out of the studio and into the community. I was the principal guy on that camera; that was how I learned 16-millimeter shooting and editing.
Jack Kean: We began color-broadcasting film and tape in 1968. I became a vice president of CPTV in 1971, overseeing an engineering department of 23 people once we moved into our Summit Street studios.
Anders Yocom: The establishment of PBS in 1970 brought big improvements. Stations were finally interconnected nationally, and we started to air programs like “Masterpiece Theatre” and “NOVA,” which put us on the map.
Frank Donovan: Cable television, which was introduced in Connecticut in 1972, had a big impact on the reach of CPTV. Cable was what first made it at all possible for parts of Connecticut to receive UHF television, particularly the southwest, which had been dominated by VHF channels from New York.
Playing Politics (the 1980s)
From the beginning, CPTV saw politics and public affairs programming as a critical part of its educational mandate. “The Fourth Estate,” a weekly mainstay of the network’s schedule for more than 25 years, debuted in 1964 and soon introduced longtime host Joseph Steinberg, a West Hartford attorney, leading a panel discussion on the burning issues of the day. CPTV also began hosting on-air political debates and inaugurated coverage of the state General Assembly in session in 1964, which by the 1970s—thanks to enthusiastic CEO Paul Taff—had grown to include regular live broadcasts of almost every significant political event in Connecticut.
Bob Douglas (CPTV legislative/political reporter, 1978-1995): During the 1980s, I covered the legislature, state government and Connecticut politics full-time. We did all of the state political conventions. In those days, CPTV broadcast such events gavel-to-gavel, as well as the major elections. I anchored virtually every major U.S. senate and gubernatorial debate. It was a great time, particularly for a political junkie reporter like me, who later became press secretary for the state house Democrats.
Patty McQueen (CPTV intern/producer, 1980-1985): We had a pretty robust public-affairs department. At one point, we aired “The Fourth Estate” back-to-back Thursday nights with “The People’s Caucus,” a live, hour-long interview and call-in show hosted by Bob Douglas. Everyone on the “Fourth Estate” panel picked a topic for each week, and they would talk about whatever was in the news: someone’s re-election chances, whatever the budget was going to be, a particular piece of legislation.
Steve Kotchko (CPTV host/political commentator, 1980s-present): Joe Steinberg was very into the media and freedom-of-information issues; I think that was his background. He primarily had newspaper editors on his panel, people like Chris Powell of the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Sherman London from the Waterbury Republican-American, a couple of people from the New London Day, as well as James Cutie, who was a state capitol reporter. I don’t remember how I got involved; I think they wanted to get a few younger people into the mix. Once I became a regular, I guess people at CPTV figured I understood the most in the group about broadcasting. Because Joe could get pretty busy with his legal activities, at least once a month I’d get a call from CPTV in the afternoon saying, “You weren’t supposed to be on this week, but Joe just called from the courthouse, and he’s stuck there and can’t make the show. Can you fill in as host?” So I started alternating between host and panelist. Ultimately, what happened with Joe was, he decided he wanted to become a Superior Court judge, and that’s when I became full-time host.
Patty McQueen: Bob Douglas would invite whoever he deemed interesting that week to guest on “Caucus.” We had people like Dick Bozzuto and Gerry Labriola when they were both running for governor, Bill O’Neill, Toby Moffett. Bob was the master of the smooth interview, even when someone seemed antagonistic. The place could be on fire, and Bob would wink at somebody in the off-camera and all would be okay. He knew everything about these guys, and even with somebody he may not have particularly liked, he’d just schmooze his way through and get what he needed.
Bob Douglas: In the fall of the 1982 U.S. Senate race, we did a series of six debates with Lowell Weicker and Toby Moffett in each of the state’s congressional districts, which were a great deal of fun. I don’t think the two men particularly liked each other at the time—they were both aggressive, opinionated people. I thought there was nobody better to cover than Lowell Weicker. He had strong opinions on issues; he wasn’t afraid, and he enjoyed the give-and-take of debating.
Patty McQueen: I believe those debates were the only ones Weicker and Moffett did that campaign. They were very high-profile. I remember that the debate in Fairfield drew David Broder, from The Washington Post, and a number of other national political reporters from all over the place. We did one in Farmington at the UConn Medical School, and when we went out to dinner, the union folks who supported Moffett got into the room and filled up all the seats. The Weicker people couldn’t find any, and they were pissed. So we had this battle going on, and we had to go live at 8 p.m. At one point, the fire marshal came out to our mobile truck and said, “Until you clear out some of these people, you can’t go on the air.” After a couple of minutes of yelling at each other, we just went live and decided to sort it out with the fire marshal later. He continued to try to get us off the air, but there was a CPTV executive in the audience—it might have been Paul Taff—who said, “Don’t stop.”
Bob Douglas: Paul Taff was old school. He was a very strong supporter of CPTV covering the state government, no question about it.
Patty McQueen: The first political convention I ever went to was as a floor producer doing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Connecticut Democratic state convention for CPTV. In 1982, Lewis Rome was running for governor, and we did these “roll-in” segments on him—when you’re doing gavel-to-gavel you have a lot of time to fill. So we filmed these five-minute segments about, “This is where Lew comes from” and included little interviews with him. One day we did a site survey at his house, and there was this great little office full of books and knickknacks, just the perfect spot to do an interview. So we told him, “Okay, we’re going to come back, this is how we’re going to do this.” I show up with a crew some days later, we walk into this room and there’s nothing there. It looks like they’re moving out. I guess they thought, “If they’re going to do it here, we need to clean it up.” And the director, Jay Whitsett, looked at me and said, “What the hell happened? What made you think this was a good room?” I don’t remember what we finally did; I think we just found another location. I mainly remember that Jay wanted to kill me.
Steve Kotchko: When CPTV was in its heyday of covering political conventions and campaigns, it was the only network doing that, for the most part. The commercial TV stations sometimes made an attempt to cover the Democratic and Republican state conventions, but they didn’t air them on a regular basis. And when it came to debates—if there’s a hot U.S. Senate or gubernatorial race, the news directors want a piece of the action, but they’re not going to cover every congressional district. Whereas CPTV made a point of airing at least one debate in each district, sometimes more. They also did a lot of so-called “town halls” on a variety of issues, long before it became a presidential campaign strategy.
Bob Douglas: I consider that period the golden age of Connecticut Public Television, because it had such a strong local focus. When I was there, we had full-time public affairs producers and cultural affairs producers. The sad thing is I watch public television less today, because its local character has changed. I feel very fortunate that I was working in public television at that time.
Finding a Voice (the 1970s-’90s)
Once WEDH’s cameras went mobile, its local programming possibilities grew in sophistication. The station had always been ambitious, presenting documentaries like “Older than the Nation” (a salute to the Hartford Courant’s 200th anniversary) and the series “Metropolis: Hartford,” a local look at the effects of urbanization (and a companion piece to WNET’s nationally focused “Metropolis: Creator or Destroyer?”) in 1964. The ’60s also featured such in-studio shows as the local talk show “Point of View” and “Variations,” a literary series hosted by Trinity professor John Dando. By 1971, the CETC network had adopted a new moniker—Connecticut Public Television (CPTV)—and moved into new headquarters. It would complete the decade with a handful of local programming awards and regional Emmy nominations, particularly for “Mundo Real,” the first TV series to star a Puerto Rican family (and the first to broadcast in both Spanish and English). In the decades that followed, spurred on by the 1985 arrival of new CPTV President-CEO Jerry Franklin, CPTV aired a variety of highly regarded documentaries (some presented nationally through the PBS network), as well as series like Faith Middleton’s “Sunday Drive” (produced at WEDY in New Haven) and “Scientific American Frontiers,” that raised the network’s Emmy count and paved the way for greater successes to come. And its statewide viewership would receive a boost from a surprising, yet totally appropriate, partner.
Jay Whitsett (CPTV executive, 1974-2009): I arrived at CPTV right out of Syracuse University and got a job as production associate, doing both technical and creative work. Before long, I started to feel like I wanted more. So I applied for a minority training grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which stipulated that I had to produce and direct, and at the end of the grant period, CPTV had the right to decide to keep me on. So, around that time, I helped develop a show called “Lookin’ Better.” The point was to show how minorities overcame obstacles to get where they are, and to feature women of all color. Our first guest was Rachel Robinson. We also had Wilma Rudolph and the first female cadet at the Coast Guard Academy. The show turned out to be the most popular I’ve ever done in television.
Andrea Hanson (CPTV executive, 1977-2002): I was in charge of the program schedule, which meant integrating the national programs that came from PBS with our local programs, and then acquiring other shows from independent producers and American Public Television in Boston. The Connecticut audience was pretty traditional in that they really loved the national series, like “Masterpiece Theatre,” so if you wanted a local program to shine, you scheduled it near one of those shows. Any program that had to do with Connecticut history was a big draw. I worked closely with a local producer named Rich Hanley, who’s now a professor at Quinnipiac University—he created a show called “Remember When,” all about things in Connecticut that aren’t there any more. CPTV ran and reran it because people just loved it.
Peter Kelley (CPTV advisory board, 1971-present): In the 1970s, CPTV produced a phenomenal drama series called “Mundo Real,” which was the everyday story of a Puerto Rican family. And it completely failed, for the simple reason that Hartford’s Puerto Rican community was scattered all over the place at the time; the audience just wasn’t there. But I remember we were very proud of it. We were way ahead of ourselves.
Andrea Hanson: Back in the day, we did episodes of “Theater in America” and “American Playhouse,” which were WNET series, but a lot of the shows were actually produced at the CPTV studios in Hartford—it was cheaper to do them here because of all the union considerations in New York. We had some big stars come through, like Meryl Streep, when she was very young, in “Uncommon Women and Others,” and Richard Thomas, Swoosie Kurtz and Jeff Daniels in “Fifth of July.” It was a wonderful experience for the staff, because these New York directors would come in and our cameramen and production assistants got to work with them.
Sharon Blair (CPTV executive, 1978-2000): I think for the first few years of presenting national programming, we made it possible for independent producers who were not involved with PBS to get aired nationally—thanks to companies like United Technologies (UTC), who already had arrangements with these producers. One was a guy named David Hoffman, who had a company named Varied Directions in Camden, Maine. I think the first thing David produced with UTC money that went on to PBS was called “Eisenstadt: Germany.” We developed a relationship with David that led to programs that ranged greatly in content; they were incredibly interesting documentaries.
David Hoffman (Varied Directions, youtube.com/allinaday): UTC’s chairman and CEO at the time, Harry Gray, had a vision for how to communicate with the corporation’s target customers, the biggest ones being the military, the U.S. government and the governments of Germany and Japan. He used me as a documentary filmmaker to tell stories that UTC believed would reach this target audience through public television. I came up with the idea of approaching CPTV—it was small and local—rather than going directly to PBS. So I went in and met with Sharon Blair and Paul Taff. They were very excited. They said, “What do you need from us?” I said, “What I really need is for you to introduce the programs to the national system, and to publicize them.” Which they did. CPTV was not known at the time as a producing station, like New York, Washington or Boston. But they learned the national system and became part of it; we worked over a six-year period doing 13 or 14 films for PBS.
Larry Rifkin (CPTV executive, 1982-2009): Our first major national producing project was a show Sharon and Jerry bid for in 1985, called “Tennesee Ernie Ford’s America.” We went down to Nashville, and we had Marilyn McCoo and the Gatlin Brothers and Shirley Jones. That was big.
Arthur Diedrick (Current chair, CPTV advisory board, 2002-present): As chairman of Connecticut Magazine in the ’80s, I was very actively involved with having the CPTV Guide inserted in the magazine. I thinked it worked very well, because Connecticut Public Broadcasting still did not have a lot of member-supporters in the Fairfield County area, and they had a tremendous amount of support up in the Hartford area. The opposite was true for the magazine. So it resulted in a mutually beneficial relationship—through its pledge drives, CPTV delivered about 40,000 of the 90,000 circulation the magazine currently enjoys, and we delivered the guide to those people who had previously not been aware of CPTV. It’s been a good marriage.
Jay Whitsett: Larry Rifkin became vice president of programming, and made me senior producer-director. He said, “I want to bring in fresh talent. I want to bring in new writers and see if they can be TV producers.” This was what we called our “grand experiment.” One day, in came Andrew Philemon Jones, the guy who tried to start a movement for the secession of Boston’s African-American neighborhoods from the city. He was a very smart guy who had worked for ABC News, but hadn’t done anything long-form. And he pitches this idea to Larry: He wants to hitchhike from Mass Avenue in Boston to San Francisco, and call it “Thumbs Across America: A Black Man’s Odyssey.” If it wasn’t for me, he would have given up in Oregon. He came back, and I sat in on every one of his editing sessions. We argued a lot. I felt sorry for him—he’d go into the studio and play his violin with the lights out.
Larry Rifkin: I had started at CPTV in public relations. Then Jerry Franklin became president and CEO and said to me, “Gee, you seem to know a lot about Connecticut. I need someone to jump-start our local programming efforts.” I think the culmination of our push for original programming came in 1989, when we went to Boston for the regional Emmys and stunned the Boston community by winning five Emmys, the most of anyone that night, including one for “Thumbs Across America.”
Faith Middleton (CPTV program host): I did three different series for CPTV, starting in 1989. “Sunday Drive” was meant, in a Charles Kuralt-y way, to illustrate the character and creativity of Connecticut people, in cities and rural towns. My favorite show featured a dog in Madison named Boomer. He was a golden retriever who had developed a habit of running from the top of his house down a slope in the back yard—his family lived on a lake—running across the dock and leaping into the water at full speed. Then he’d swim out to an inner tube, splashing like a kid, climb on, and when he was comfortable, fall asleep and just float. He did it over and over again. Of all the pieces I did for the series, nothing got as much reaction.
John Angier (Chedd-Angier Productions): The way “Scientific American Frontiers” happened in 1990 was really by chance. GTE, headquartered in Stamford, became the corporate underwriter for the series. Because they were Connecticut-based, they were interested in working with a local TV network. So we made arrangements for the show to be channeled through CPTV on its way to national broadcast by PBS. Getting Alan Alda as host was a total piece of luck. We just wrote him a letter. And it turned out he was a very keen science guy and had been all his life. He wanted to be more actively involved than the average celebrity host, so we said “Okay, let’s see how that goes.” Somewhat to his surprise and ours, he was great at it. He started coming to the location shoots and brought along his sense of humor, which was very sharp and impressive.
Jerry Franklin (President-CEO of Connecticut Public Broadcasting, 1985-present): Alda devoted 10 years of his life to the show, and we paid him practically nothing. He said, “This is so important, what you’re doing; we must use television to teach science.” The physicists, astronomers and doctors with whom he’d talk were amazed at the depth of his knowledge. He could actually engage with the greatest scientific minds, and it was amazing to watch that work.
Radio, Radio (1978-present)
Spurred on by a series of unexpected developments, CPB finally joined the National Public Radio network 35 years ago with WNPR.
Arthur Diedrick: People tend to talk all the time about Connecticut Public Broadcasting in terms of television, without putting enough emphasis on radio. I think what we do with radio is absolutely terrific in terms of programming. We're always among the Top 10-rated stations in Connecticut.
John Berky (WNPR concert and music producer, 1977-2002): I got involved with Connecticut Public Radio (WNPR) before it even signed on the air. I was in touch with the management when the announcements were made back in 1977. When they went on the air in 1978, I signed on as a board operator. We did some practice runs, made sure we knew how everything worked before the transmitter was turned on. Very early on, I took on the role of being concert producer, because CTPR decided to present local concerts. In 1984, Paul Taff named me director of radio, and I stayed there till 2002.
John Berky: One of the reasons WNPR got going was because WTIC-AM, a classical station, decided to change its format to pop in the 1970s, and we got its library of recordings. That was one of the impetuses for Connecticut Public Broadcasting to get into radio. I believe the WTIC management gave us their library and some funding as well.
John Berky: Connecticut was one of the last states to inaugurate a public radio station. There was an issue about frequencies. Certain frequencies have to be certain distances from each other on the dial; otherwise, they interfere with each other. In the public radio spectrum, which is below 92 on the FM dial, it got pretty tight, because in Connecticut there were a lot of small 10-watt stations. So to fit another frequency in for Connecticut was really tough, because they were all taken up. There was WFCR in Amherst, Mass., which was broadcasting pretty nicely into the Hartford area—but there was nothing in New Haven, where there was a group there who really wanted to hear some public radio. So they set up a translator, which is a funny little one-watt thing that can pick up a signal and just rebroadcast it. They got hold of the frequency 90.5, and used a high tower to grab the WFCR signal from Hartford and broadcast it into New Haven. They called themselves The Friends of WFCR. 90.5 was the only viable frequency in the state, so Connecticut Public Broadcasting went to the Friends and negotiated to take over the frequency and spread it to a wider area. Over time, other stations were added in Norwich, Stamford and Bridgeport.
John Berky: One of the stipulations the Friends made in handing over the frequency to Connecticut Public Broadcasting was that the studio be established in New Haven. That was one of the reasons that Faith Middleton was hired, to manage that studio, and she's done a bang-up job ever since. She came on the scene with "The Faith Middleton Show," and she's won two George Foster Peabody Awards, which is just about the most prestigious award you can get in broadcasting. One was for a retrospective on the Shubert Theater, "The Shubert Theater: 75 Years of Memories."
John Berky: Another stipulation the Friends made was that they wanted to listen to Morning pro musica, which ran from 7 a.m. to noon every day on National Public Radio. Robert J. Lurtsema was the host. He was quirky, but very knowledgeable. So we kept that on; we had more classical music in the afternoon, and we had National Public Radio news at 5, followed by jazz in the evening. It was kind of a mixed bag of things, a typical public radio format.
John Dankowski (WNPR radio host and news director, 1994-present): I came to WNPR in August, 1994. I was essentially hired to be the first new news employee after a little bit of restructuring. We didn't really have a news department at that point, so I was hired to be the new "Morning Edition" host and a reporter, and I was essentially a newsroom of one until we started rebuilding. I did "Morning Edition" for the first couple of years, and then as we started to grow and add some reporters and other show hosts, I became news director. We grew pretty steadily until 2006, when we made the decision to drop classical music altogether and go to an all news and information format.
John Berky: Around the late '90s, we decided we had to do something about Morning pro musica. It was getting too esoteric and egg-headed for the average listener. And "Morning Edition" had then come along, which we were broadcasting 6 to 7 a.m., because we had to air the full Morning pro musica show. That was becoming a problem because it wasn't our program; it was coming from WGBH in Boston and they dictated the terms. It's the morning drive time that establishes who you are as a radio station, and at morning drive we were WGBH. So we decided we had to get out of this. The show had a lot of loyal support, and we were concerned that if we took it off, our donations could go down. But we finally pulled the plug, and it was pandemonium for awhile. We had to program our own classical music from the end of "Morning Edition" to 3 or 4 p.m., when Faith Middleton came on.
John Dankowski: 9/11 changed a lot for everyone. After 9/11, we saw that many other stations—and our listeners, too—were beginning to clamor for a larger view of the world. They wanted more news. We found ourselves breaking into the classical music for news bulletins when something was happening in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the world. It became clear that we'd essentially developed two different types of audiences: one that listened to the news shows and shows like Faith Middleton's, which appealed to the listeners who wanted to engage, and those who listened to classical music and used it as a retreat. Eventually, we realized that it was unsustainable to have two such varied listener bases. Being a service that was going to play records for people wasn't as important to the state as being one that could bring news and information to them on a full-time-basis.
John Berky: Back in the classical music days, we did a show called "Connecticut Concert Hall," for which we attempted to go around and record all these local concerts, and we didn't have to air them blow-by-blow—we told the music organizations that it might be more useful if we play one segment, then we use that to promote your next concert, then we move on to something else. This way we got more mileage out of the recordings we collected. So that became the structue for this program, which aired right after "All Things Considered." I remember when we did the first program it went very well, and the program director came into my office and I congratulated him—and he said, "Thanks, but now I've got to do this every day." He had kind of built himself a monster. We had one engineer who would go out—with these incredible $10,000 Swiss recorders—and record all these concerts. Certain organizations, like the Yale School of Music, would record their own concerts and send us copies. We acquired quite a library of in-concert performances. The tricky thing was if you had an orchestra whose upcoming show you wanted to promote, you had to find a performance of theirs that could fit in a one-hour program, along with a couple of other pieces. We did do a couple of live broadcasts, including one after Yale discovered a number of Bach choral preludes that had never been performed before. The world premiere took place at Battell Chapel, and we decided to air it live nationwide. I think 100 stations across the country picked it up.
John Berky: I think the shift to news was a very justified maneuver, because there had been a gradual shift in the way news was presented by commercial radio stations. In many ways, the commercial stations were handing the news to us. They were doing fewer and fewer news broadcasts and nothing in the way of in-depth reporting. That work was coming our way, as was legislative coverage. As a result of taking that on, we received boxes of Associated Press Awards, and for three or four years straight, the Mark Twain Award for overall station excellence.
John Dankowski: Now the broadcast day begins with "Morning Edition," the NPR national magazine, from 5 to 9 a.m. daily, into which we insert local newscasts and reports. We added my talk show, "Where We Live," in 2006 when we went all news and information, that runs from 9 to 10. Then we have other national NPR shows, followed by Colin McEnroe's "The Nose," from 1 to 2. Then "The Faith Middleton Show," which has been a staple for more than 30 years, from 3 to 4. Then we pick up with "All Things Considered," which is the afternoon newsmagazine show out of Washington, D.C., that we also insert local segments into.
John Dankowski: What we try to do with "Where We Live" is have long-form conversations with a wide variety of people from around the world about subjects that are important to people here in the state. We don't want to be a strictly local show that just deals with issues that are happening at the local town council or state capitol. We want to cover those when we can, but we understand that our listeners have a broader view of the world, so we want to cover new research in science or developments in transportation that connect Connecticut to the rest of the region. We talk an awful lot about education and the environment. One of the things we have going for us is great local resources; the countless national and international experts who live here because of our proximity to New York and the great universities here. So we can have a thoughtful conversation about a whole range of things every day, while really making it a Connecticut conversation at the same time.
John Dankowski: When the show started in 2006, you'll remember that we were in the middle of that really contentious Senate race between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman. That wasn't the only important race; there was a race for governor at the same time. We made a pledge to have as many candidates for the important offices of the state in the studio for long-form, sit-down interviews. Almost without exception, we were able to get those candidates to talk at length and answer questions from our audience. We really feel strongly that one of the things we can do is put elected officials—or those seeking elective office—on the record, in front of a large audience, and tease out some of their ideas and thought processes. I'm proud that those shows have been used by other reporters, editorial writers and talk shows to fuel further discussion and coverage.
Bob Douglas: I think Connecticut Public Radio gets better all the time. I think they deserve a pat on the back; they provide good news work and public affairs coverage. I think John Dankowski has become the best radio news interviewer in the market. Public radio has now filled a huge void because AM commercial radio is so godawful.
John Dankowski: We need to get out of the studio more often, get on the road and go out to talk to people where they live. We need to find a way to get at more of the small stories in towns and cities, rather than just the ones that impact the entire state. We need to talk to more citizen reporters and citizens who have important stories to tell. We also want to make sure we're doing a good job of covering Connecticut's art and culture. We sometimes get so tied up in what's happening with the state budget that we don't sit down and find out who's the hot new band in New Haven, or what's happening with the jazz scene in Fairfield County.
John Dankowski: We currently get about eight percent of our funding from the federal government through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and another 30 percent from sponsors—corporations, foundations and local organizations that want to support us directly. But more than 60 percent of our funding comes directly from listeners. The reason our model is more sustainable than that of commercial radio is, commercial radio is tied to its advertisers. We're not beholden to any big interests. Federal government funding may go away at some point, but as long as our listeners like what we do, they've proven that they'll give us enough money to allow us to continue.
The ‘Elvis Years’ (the ’90s-’00s)
Once Jerry Franklin and Larry Rifkin demonstrated they could up the ante successfully on local programming, it was time to tackle the national market. Little did they know they’d have a phenom on their hands, one that would conquer the world . . . in a purple dinosaur suit. Two years later, even he would be eclipsed—by a team of extraordinary college women in basketball uniforms, who enjoyed a phenomenal 18-year love affair with Connecticut, and yes, the entire world of sports fans.
Larry Rifkin: There was a certain amount of temerity in thinking that we had any business trying to be national producers, because we had no money and couldn’t risk a lot of money. There were many stations—in Pittsburgh in particular—that had gone broke trying to be a national player. But I knew that PBS was looking for children’s programming beyond Fred Rogers and “Sesame Street.” And they encouraged us to come up with ideas.
Jerry Franklin: We sit here in Connecticut, on this little piece of geography between two giants of the industry: WGBH, which we lovingly refer to as “the mother church,” and WNET in New York. At the time, those two produced nearly 80 percent of national PBS programming. But then we got the opportunity to work with a couple of McKinsey & Co. consultants, who came to our little building for three or four months and studied how we might get into the national market. One of the things they said was, “Be smart and strategic. You don’t have the resources to develop a national project from the ground up. You need to find a project that’s already halfway up the food chain.” So that’s what we did.
Larry Rifkin: On Super Bowl Sunday in 1991, I went to a Blockbuster Video across the street with my daughter, Leora, who was 3 or 4 at the time, and she picked up this video, “Barney and the Backyard Gang.” And she watched it incessantly. I thought, “What is this?” I could see it had elements—for one, a lead character that wasn’t as neurotic as Big Bird—that I thought could be developed, though it wasn’t as well-produced as it might have been.
Jerry Franklin: Larry, who was head of programming at that point, brought the video in the next day and said, “Why don’t you take this home and have your son Alex look at it?” And my son was mesmerized by it. Ultimately, we circulated it to all the CPTV employees with preschoolers. The reaction was pretty much unanimous: Adults didn’t like the show, but kids loved it. On the back of the video box there was a phone number for producer Sheryl Leach in Plano, Texas—she was operating out of her home. We got her on the phone, and said we’d love to talk to you about bringing Barney to television. We knew the program needed to be dressed up, so we borrowed $350,000 and sent some cameras to her home in Texas.
Sheryl Leach (co-producer of “Barney and Friends”): Larry’s first words to me were, “Have you ever considered PBS?” I remember I said, “How does one do that?” It happened to be that particular year that PBS decided to boost their children’s programming block—they wanted to fund and test three programs, and they would pick the top two. The others were “Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop” and “Shining Time Station.” So representatives from PBS in Washington, D.C., came to Texas, to look at our facility and see what we had done. By that time, our videos had gone platinum and we were featured in programs on the Disney Channel. PBS decided to order 40 shows. And from the day of our debut, which I think was April 2, 1992, we were No. 1 in the ratings.
Larry Rifkin: Within weeks, PBS told us they were discontinuing our funding.
Sheryl Leach: We found out during our big wrap party, after everyone had given 150 percent. So we did a letter-writing campaign to all the affiliates and said, “Did you know that Barney is being defunded?”
Larry Rifkin: I really went on a campaign, like a politician trying to win votes. We raised $50,000 in pledge contributions just by bringing Barney into the studio live one morning. We brought him to the Hartford Civic Center; it was like Beatlemania.
Donna Collins (CPTV executive, 1987-2000): We invited families to a meet-and-greet with Barney. It was supposd to be a casual thing, like visiting Santa in a store at Christmastime. But by the time we left to go to the Civic Center, there was a traffic jam in downtown Hartford. There was a line outside the Civic Center and around the block. We were blown away. And the line kept coming. We had crowd-control issues—we just weren’t prepared. Barney said, “We’re not leaving until everyone gets a photo,” because the idea was you get your picture taken with him. His costume at that point wasn’t ventilated very well; we kept having to take him to the men’s room to start fanning him.
Sheryl Leach: This all took place a month or so before June, when PBS had its annual affiliates meeting. And they arrived furious, because Barney was their No. 1 show.
Larry Rifkin: For the first time, PBS had a designated chief programming officer that they sent to the meeting. She heard, loud and clear, that this decision would not stand. It was like an insurrection. By the end of the meeting, she said, “I will renegotiate with CPTV.” That was remarkable; nothing like it has happened since.
Larry Rifkin: UConn women's basketball was really, in many ways, the biggest thing we ever did. I don't think there's ever been a franchise in the history of public television that was as successful for as long as that was, on so many levels, in redefining a television station in relationship to its audience.
Arthur Diedrick: When we decided to broadcast UConn women's basketball, in 1994, at first people did ask why: "Who's going to watch that?"
Jerry Franklin: We were the first public TV channel to broadcast women's tennis, long before there was any sports channel. It was Fred Jelsey, late Democratic state representative from Enfield and chairman of the state legislature's bonding committee, who got us to consider basketball. I'd been courting Fred because we'd received some state bonding funds over the years. One day, Larry and I were in his office, and Fred said, "Jerry, have you ever seen the UConn girls play basketball?" I said, "No, I haven't." And he kind of challenged us to pay attention. I think Larry was the first to check them out, and he came back saying, "Let's put them on air." He hired some people and put together a broadcast team, and we went to Bob Fiondella, CEO at Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance in Hartford, because we needed some money. We needed a remote truck—you can't just cover a basketball game with a couple of stationary cameras. I knew Bob had identified the women's market as one of Phoenix's most desired. So they invested $25,000 that first season, which gave us the funding to rent a truck. That became the most popular program on any public television station. The ratings were just phenomenal. For 18 years, that was a wonderful love affair we had with UConn.
Larry Rifkin: Fred Jelsey said to Jerry, "There's this phenomenon building." There was this Rebecca Lobo; everybody had heard about her, but no one had seen her other than in a minute-long clip here and there. I told Jerry, "I've been following this a little bit; I think he's right." But sports wasn't really CPTV's milieu, even though we'd aired broadcasts in the past. So we got together with UConn and decided to try it out. All of a sudden, the phones started ringing and they never stopped, through 2012. It was a journey like no other.
Donna Collins: I got a call on a Thursday morning in my office from Jerry and Larry, who said, "We just got an opportunity to pick up a game from New England Sports Network, a UConn Women's basketball game. You know, they're in the Sweet 16." I had no idea what they were talking about, but I was handed the ball and told to run with it. I said, "When's the game?" They said, "Tomorrow night." I got the sales team together, and we had to jump on the phone and call people. And they were great. Bob Fiondella at Phoenix was the first person we called, because he was a fan. On Saturday, all the media could talk about was being able to see that game. Monday morning I went to work, and there was the red flashing light on my phone from Jerry. No we needed to raise more money because UConn was going into the Big 8. So we did these drives three times; then they went on to the Big East.
Jay Whitsett: I was one of the first people who put together a technical crew for women's basketball. I had all these public television people, and I really needed sports people. I needed camera experts; I needed people who knew how to do sports audio. Everyone who had done sports programming for CPTV in the past had moved on. Now, all I had was "artistes." So, we leased a truck and brought in freelancers, and put together a crew using them. Our producer and director were freelance, as were the people who did replays and the main audio.
Larry Rifkin: The next year was UConn's 35-0 season. We had no contract, we just aired 11 games, and we ended up in a parade at the end of the year, getting adulation that no local station or local broadcaster has ever gotten. Jerry and I were like, "This is amazing. This is what you work your whole career to feel, like you've really made a difference in people's lives."
Jerry Franklin: People said, "Gee, why isn't it Channel 3?" because they have this huge sports department. But it wasn't; it was us. I think it goes back to the opportunistic nature of who we are—we love to follow our hunches. Larry Rifkin led us down the Barney trail, and I thought he would be a good choice to lead us into women's basketball. Believe me, the other local stations started watching. Many of the general managers of those stations had never been to Storrs. After they saw what was going on, they all wanted to partner with us. The first year, we didn't have to pay UConn. But the next year, they recognized how hot this property was, and told us, "You're going to have to pay for the broadcast rights." So we thought we'd need a commercial partner to help, because we didn't know if we could raise enough membership income or corporate income.
Larry Rifkin: In 1996, UConn put out an RFP. Jerry thought they wanted us to partner with a commercial station. I went to talk to all those guys, came back and said, "If we don't do this alone, it will lose all it's pledge and membership value. Because even if these guys broadcast three games and we're doing 30, it'll look like we're doing three and they're doing 30. It will cease being unique to CPTV." And Jerry agreed to go it alone.
Jerry Franklin: We had partnership bids from Channel 3, Channel 8 and Channel 30—they all wanted to partner with us. But Larry and I made a gutsy call not to partner with any of them. Then we realized we would have to compete with these guys; they would put in their own bids. And some did, but they couldn't do what we said we'd do, which was broadcast every single game. We would interrupt our schedule to accommodate them; we would not tape delay. We knew the others couldn't do that. We could, but we took some flak. You interrupt "Masterpiece Theatre" for basketball, and whoa—that was a big deal. I didn't know whether I could survive that.
Donna Collins: Now we needed to raise a significant amount of money, to be able to cover the rights fees and production costs. There were huge production costs—we need to raise $1 million for that. So we went back to the logical corporate partners, and they really stepped up, particularly Bob Fiondella. We were looking for "Team Partners," and when we went to him, he offered to be a "Team Captain." CPTV put the UConn women's team on the map, and the team put CPTV on the map. It was the finest example of win-win. And the corporate community found a marketplace that was unique, through which they could express their corporate responsibility and commitment to the community, while the people of Connecticut got to watch and came to love these athlete-scholars. So it really was a win-win-win-win.
Coleman Levy: In reality, the commercial stations couldn't have covered women's basketball. If you're playing a game on Thursday night at 9 and "Seinfeld" is supposed to be on, you can't preempt "Seinfeld." So in many ways, the networks couldn't accommodate the schedule—the ones who could were the cable networks, like ESPN. So over time, the deal changed because all of the national broadcasts featuring UConn preempted CPTV. If the game was on CBS on Saturday afternoon, it wasn't going to be one CPTV. If it was a Big East game on ESPN, it wouldn't be on CPTV. And that's part of the contract CPTV was aware of—it became less exclusive once women's basketball started to rise. But in the beginning, no one understood women's basketball. And if UConn hadn't won that first game CPTV aired, it would have been nonexistent.
Donna Collins: The UConn Women were the only collegiate women's team to have a TV schedule. And the partnership went beyond basketball. We also created and ran interstitial programming about UConn, so it was an integrated presentation. Many have said that that really paved the way for the success of the university's UConn 2000 fund-raising initiative. Ultimately, the visibility and popularity of the games also paved the way for the formation of the WNBA. And basketball was a very big driver of CPTV membership—both basketball and Barney helped us build our own fan base apart from PBS.
Sharon Blair: I was very proud of UConn Women's Basketball for no other reason than my past as a high school basketball player in Arkansas. That made a huge name for CPTV in Connecticut. And in a professional sense, outside of Connecticut—I can guarantee that a lot of people who moved on have it on their résumé. It was an incredibly important thing to the visibility and financial support of CPTV over the last 10 or 12 years. I mourn the loss of that on behalf of the network.
Frank Donovan: I believe that UConn did a terrible disservice to CPTV, and also its fans, by not staying with the network—or even letting them have a second shot at meeting the winning bid. After 18 years! No one gave a darn about UConn or the women's basketball team until it was on CPTV. I think the school did itself a disservice, too—I don't watch the games any more.
Donna Collins: I think CPTV's loss of the UConn basketball contract was like losing a best friend, or breaking up a family. Was it the right or wrong decision for UConn? I really can't say. I think that the new packaging is pretty dynamic, but watching it on SNY, it doesn't quite look like my UConn women anymore. From the perspective of the UConn sports program, it was probably a good way to broaden their exposure. From a local point of view, I think that there's something missing for all of us. I think Connecticut was broken by it.
Arthur Diedrick: Losing the basketball franchise has been a blow, but not a fatal blow. I think we're all disappointed, because we felt so close to UConn and worked so well with them. The good news is that we're going to be working with UConn on other sports activities—whether baseball, field hockey or lacrosse—with our new cable network, CPTV Sports. CPTV Sports also broadcasts high school football from around the state, which has a good following, and we're going to be working with the U.S. Army on sports broadcasting. It's going to take a few more years to really establish the franchise.
Want more? We'll be posting an even bigger expansion of CPTV's oral history in June, to herald the network's 50th anniversary gala June 8 at the Hartford Marriott. Stay tuned . . .CPTV Celebrates 50 Years: Present at the Creation