Tom Eblen: At 90, KET's founder recalls public-television innovation

O. Leonard Press, founder of Kentucky Educational Television, at his home in Lexington
O. Leonard Press, founder of Kentucky Educational Television, at his home in Lexington

This is a month to celebrate two Kentucky media giants. Al Smith just published his memoir, Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism, and Leonard Press celebrated his 90th birthday.

Smith, 84, might be the better known of the two. That is because the former publisher of several small Kentucky newspapers spent more than three decades as the founding host of Comment on Kentucky, Kentucky Educational Television's weekly public affairs program.

But without Len Press, there might not be a Comment on Kentucky program — or a KET network.

KET is now known as one of the most innovative and admired public television networks, producing hundreds of hours of programming and other instructional materials that are used across the nation.

But Press recalled in an interview at his Lexington home last week that when he started lobbying state officials in 1958 to create a statewide educational TV network, "The whole idea was novel."

In the early 1950s, Kentucky was a disconnected state of isolated communities and some of the nation's poorest schools. Press and his wife, Lillian, were living in their native New England, where they had earned graduate degrees in communications from Boston University.

The Presses had never been to Kentucky, much less thought of moving here. But after intense recruiting by the head of the University of Kentucky's Radio Department, Press agreed to come to Lexington to teach for a year. One year.

After a few months, though, Press knew enough about the emerging technology of television to imagine what it could do to improve education in Kentucky. His vision became KET, and that one-year commitment will soon be 60 years long.

While Press was absorbed in building KET, Lillian Press created her own impressive record of service. She organized and directed several major state initiatives, including the Governor's Scholars Program for talented high school seniors, the Regional Mental Health Board and Comprehensive Care Centers. At age 87, she remains active in The Women's Network, which she started in 2000 to get more women involved in the political process.

It took Len Press more than a decade to raise the political and financial commitments to launch KET. But the network's value has been apparent since the day it went on the air in 1968. "So many people have told me how KET changed their lives," Press said.

Because educational television was a novel concept when KET began, the young staff Press assembled did a lot of experimenting. "What they didn't know, they made up for in enthusiasm," he said. "They made it happen, with a lot of help from our partners around the state."

Over the years, as many public TV stations began creating entertainment programming for national distribution, KET remained focused on education — and Kentucky.

KET now makes more instructional programming than any other state TV network. One course first created by KET's Sid Webb — to help people earn high school equivalency degrees — is in its fourth generation and is used across the nation and in several other countries, Press said.

KET has helped unite Kentuckians with shows about the state's arts, history and culture. Another major emphasis has been public affairs: covering General Assembly sessions, hosting election debates and producing widely watched programs such as Bill Goodman's Kentucky Tonight and Comment on Kentucky, now hosted by Ferrell Wellman.

Televising the General Assembly "did a great deal for their deportment and dress code," Press said. Comment on Kentucky has occasionally drawn the ire of powerful politicians, Press said, but the network has always been able to maintain its independence and credibility.

Press said he marvels at the progress KET has made under three succeeding directors since he retired in 1992. The network has been able to expand offerings through digital television and the Internet, despite budget and staff cutbacks.

Press said he is proud that KET has continued to be a force for educating Kentuckians and making them more knowledgeable participants in public affairs.

"The technology changes, but the premise of KET has not changed," said Press, whose vision and determination made it all possible. "Does it work for the teachers? Does it work for the students? Does it work for Kentucky?"