The day of Kentucky Educational Television’s unveiling flickers on the screen, and there is the late Gov. Louie Nunn (1924-2004) speaking in 1969 at the dedication ceremony of the network.
He refers to television as a “space-age communication device.”
In its 50th anniversary celebratory documentary, “The KET Story,” Nunn is touting the statewide network that New England transplant O. Leonard Press — a man who had taught broadcasting at the University of Kentucky using “cameras” made of beer boxes using cans as “lenses” — envisioned and fought for.
Eventually Press, who said he saw and sold KET as an “educational equalizer” and a “novel notion” would be the statewide educational television’s first director.
Nunn is also featured in one of the documentary’s most lively moments. The segment shows a 1979 paper-tossing discussion in the gubernatorial campaign between candidates John Y. Brown and Nunn about who has the lower character. It’s a classic moment in politics, with Brown pouncing on Nunn, and Nunn responding that Brown would never pay a bill he could escape.
Brown won the race, although today he may be better known as the father of CNN reporter Pamela Brown.
The moment is funny in retrospective, yet seems innocent in the more brutal political climate of today.
State politics is just one of the many aspects of KET programming that is focused on in the nearly hour-long documentary, “The Kentucky Story,” produced by Beth Kirchner.
The documentary explains how Press and his wife Lillian moved to Kentucky in 1952, not knowing much about the state. It was a time before the education reform movement that would dominate state politics in the 1980s, but Press was intent on closing the educational gap between children in remote areas of the state and their city counterparts with a “novel notion” of educational television.
He saw an educational broadcasting network as a way to give them the museums, art and musical performances they were missing. Later it would also become a way to give back the mountain heritage to the cities, in programming featuring folk artists such as Jean Ritchie.
“Len Press is really one of the statesmen in the whole of public broadcasting,” Al Smith says in the documentary. Smith defined spirited public affairs reflection for decades on KET, as the host of “Comment on Kentucky.”
Establishment of KET was never a slam dunk, particularly given Len Press’ insistence on a statewide network rather than one or two stations . A turning point was the willingness of Ashland Oil founder Paul Blazer to donate funds for 16 broadcast transmitters around the state.
This was not the four-channel, digitally savvy KET of today, the one with an app just for coverage of the legislature.
In Kentucky’s earliest single-channel incarnation, specialists were dispatched to schools across the state to show teachers how to integrate educational television into their curriculum. In the first days of KET, having a broadcast in the schoolroom was an event: A teacher would roll the TV into the classroom, then spend minutes fiddling with the dial to find the KET broadcast signal.
In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson would sign the Public Broadcasting Act; in 1969, PBS was established.
With PBS programming, KET was able to present prestige shows such as the 1990 series “The Civil War,” and, in 2011, the virally popular British series “Downtown Abbey.”
But Press was particularly pleased with the GED programming on KET, which helped high school dropouts in Kentucky attain their General Equivalency Diplomas, calling it “one of the things I’m proudest of.”
In 1969 KET produced its first program, “Kentucky Is My Land.” “Comment on Kentucky,” with journalist Smith as host, began in 1974. “Kentucky Tonight” would follow in 1994; Bill Goodman, now with the Kentucky Humanities Council, was with that program for 20 years.
Dave Shuffett served as host of the outdoors program “Kentucky Life” for 15 years and and Renee Shaw has hosted a variety of KET programs and specials for more than two decades.
The 50th anniversary documentary began broadcasting on KET on Sept. 23. Schedules are available on the KET website. KET reaches about a million people a week, according to Nielsen ratings and the station’s own measurement of internet use.
Shae Hopkins, KET’s current director, said the future may bring different technologies and platforms, but the need will remain.
“Education has always been and always will be at the heart of KET’s mission. No matter how technology changes platforms and delivery methods over the next 50 years and beyond, the need for quality content will remain constant. And KET will be there as an essential resource for that content, in both homes and schools, as we continue finding new and innovative ways to address the educational needs of our state.”