Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act #PubMedia50 @amarchivepub: Iowa’s First Educational Television Station

Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) have joined the American Archive of Public Broadcasting’s month-long celebration of the Public Broadcasting Act’s 50th Anniversary by posting content throughout the month to celebrate the history and preservation of public broadcasting! This is our fourth post commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 and this week we’re focusing on Iowa’s first educational television station, WOI-TV, to showcase the variety of public broadcasting programs we are preserving.

This photograph shows Exhibit Hall at Iowa State University in 1953. The signal tower is in the background. A sign on the door says: WOI-TV Studios. A women is walking to the door. Snow is on the ground.

Exhibit Hall. The signal tower is in the background. A sign on the door says: WOI-TV Studios. (University Photographs, RS 4/8/I).

WOI-TV first aired in central Iowa in February 1950. The station was owned and operated by Iowa State University (at the time known as Iowa State College) until it was sold to a private company in 1994. WOI-TV has the distinction of being the first commercial television station owned by a public institution of higher learning and it is thought to be the first television station in the nation dedicated to educational programming.

During the 1950s, WOI-TV developed a diverse schedule of local programming. It was one of the first television stations to broadcast college-level courses. It also developed children’s programming, including The Magic Window, which would become one of the longest-running programs in the history of television. WOI-TV provided viewers an opportunity to explore the state’s history through a series called Landmarks in Iowa History starring Herb Hake, a professor from the University of Northern Iowa. It brought the citizens of Iowa into some of Iowa’s state institutions, such as the prison system and the mental health facilities, in the award-winning series In Our Care. Viewers could learn from Iowa State faculty as they presented programs on entry-level German in Eins Zwei Drei or beginning chemistry in Chemistry 101. The station also broadcast programs on current affairs and, this being Iowa, on agriculture.

Black-and-white photograph of woman with ahir in updo, wearing dark dress, holding a puppet on her left hand (Betty Lou [McVay] Varnum) on the set of The Magic Window on WOI-TV in 1957. Betty Lou is standing next to a desk and there is another puppet on the desk.

Betty Lou (McVay) Varnum on the set of The Magic Window on WOI-TV, 1957 (University Photographs, RS 5/6).

One of the more successful early programs resulted from a $260,000 grant from the Ford Foundation’s Fund for Adult Education. The resulting project was a series of public affairs programs called The Whole Town’s Talking. The programs, directed by Charles Guggenheim, aired in 1952 and illustrated some of the challenges rural Iowa communities were facing, including school consolidation, juvenile delinquency, and paying for community infrastructure projects. The programs centered around town hall meetings featuring members of the community discussing possible solutions to their community’s needs.

WOI-TV also produced a number of programs sponsored by National Educational Television (NET), the predecessor to PBS. These programs included some mentioned previously aimed at children and college-level instruction (The Magic Window, Eins Zwei Drei), but also other programs focused on international affairs, history, and literature. The Long Voyage brought classical literature to the small screen, Heritage of the Land discussed U.S. land usage and the environment, and Of Men and Ideas dealt with topics of a more abstract nature such as imagination, ethics, and governance.

By 1960, WOI-TV became the ABC affiliate of central Iowa and educational programming became less of a priority. Fortunately, many of these earlier programs survived on 16mm film and were eventually transferred to the ISU Library Special Collections and University Archives. Some of these programs have been digitized and made available online through the department’s YouTube channel. It’s interesting to look back and see how television has changed since those early shows were produced.

 

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