From its start, KVPT (Channel 18.1), known more familiarly as ValleyPBS, has always relied on the kindness of strangers. Some of those have been a little stranger than others during the station’s 40-year history.
In 1995, the local PBS station got a handwritten note from a viewer requesting a donation of “100 bucks” be sent to the Fresno station. That donation arrived via a money order from Corcoran State Prison inmate Charles Manson.
For a station that has survived on support from the donations of money, goods and services, every dollar is needed to continue the work to bring public television to local viewers. The efforts started more than 41 years ago when former Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Ernie Poore began the push for what would become the PBS station that has brought programming from “Sesame Street” to “Downton Abbey” to local TV watchers.
The station will mark its 40th anniversary on the air on Monday.
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It started small
KVPT went on the air on April 10, 1977, as KMTF, a name selected for the four major counties it served – Kings, Madera, Tulare and Fresno. The process started July 10, 1975 when the Fresno County Board of Education filed for a license to construct the station. It was granted a year later and construction began using a federal grant, contributions from the public and donations of equipment from the Fresno County Office of Education.
Under the guidance of the first general manager, Colin Dougherty, a team of five employees worked in the original offices at 733 L St., the former home of KFSN (Channel 30.1). The station moved to its current location at 1544 Van Ness Ave. on Oct. 1, 1990, the home for KSEE (Channel 24.1). The land cost $25,000 but the building was purchased for $1.
That same year, the call letters were changed to KVPT and the station became known as Valley Public Television, a moniker that better reflected the station’s broader reach than just to the four counties.
Who’s the boss
There have only been three general managers starting with Dougherty. After his appointment, Dougherty said, “This is something I’ve really looked forward to. It’s a tremendous challenge.”
He would later acknowledge that was an understatement.
“You know how high the cliff is but don’t know how deep the water is. It was something brand-new, “ Dougherty said in an interview with the Fresno Bee for the station’s 25th anniversary. “You assume some things and then reality comes into the whole works of what you are doing. It is still a challenge.”
That challenge was handed over to Paula Castadio in 2003. She started at ValleyPBS in 1994 after working four years at Valley Public Radio and had served on the national Public Broadcasting Service board of directors for six years. She left the position in 2014 to become vice president for university advancement at Fresno State.
Just before leaving KVPT, Castadio said, “One advantage to being here and loving what I do is that I’ve never been bored a single day.”
It was hard for her to get bored – she was in charge during the recession, a time when charitable donations dropped off dramatically. Because 80 percent of the station’s funding comes from supporters, she led efforts to make cuts and be smarter with what the station was doing.
“We got really focused about where we wanted to go, what we wanted to do. We returned to our roots in education. We say that we are your preschool, classroom, stage for the arts and lens for exploration,” Castadio says.
And the task of continuing that work fell to Phil Meyer who in 2015 became the third general manager. He approached keeping the public television going with a deep optimism.
“Our ratings have been incredibly stable over the past 20, 25 years, “ Meyer said soon after taking over. “The commercial broadcast networks ratings are declining. Cable channels have never had as large an audience as PBS.
“I also think these go in cycles and we are in a new Renaissance with PBS programming with Ken Burns being so prolific. That goes along with the success of ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Sherlock’ along with ‘Great Performances’ and ‘Nova.’ We have also had four or five of the top-rated kids shows – it’s quite an achievement with the budgets we have to work with.”
We interrupt programming
Fundraising through TV auctions have been a constant for KVPT. The first pledge drive in 1977 didn’t go so well as a power failure in downtown Fresno left the station in the dark.
The first “Great TV Auction” was held a year later and became a staple of fundraising for decades until giving way to an online version a few years ago. The in-studio fundraiser was the work of hundreds of volunteers selling everything from trips to baby goats.
One of those bidders that first year was Rita Crandall.
“I remember my husband bought a pneumatic hammer you could hold in your hand,” Crandall says.
The auction combined with her appreciation for the station’s programming motivated Crandall to become a volunteer the following year, a task she’s embraced ever since.
Her first job was to round up donated items to be auctioned off. All of those items had to be stored at the station until winning bidders could come by the station. That was easier in the first facility because there was a warehouse available, but after the move all of Studio B was used for the donations.
Crandall recalls one of the strangest donations was a bag of beans.
The on-air auctions were so popular that Oscar Speace, who has been a director and producer at the station for more than 35 years, suggested a birds-eye seat to watch the proceedings being auctioned off. That vantage point attracted a $2,000 winning bid.
They got to see the controlled chaos of items being auctioned off to callers. Later on, more social media-friendly ways – such as texts and emails – became more of the norm.
Local programming has been a part of the station from the start, including “Studio 18,” “Focus Women,” “Close Up with Jerry Krieg,” “Arts Alley (with Dan Pessano and Roger Rocka),” “Timeline with Leigh Hess,” “The Mary Parker Show,” “Arts Beat,” “Video Café,” “Crime, the Impact,” “Mike Tate’s Film Fan Club,” “Valley Business and Ag Report,” “Ask the Mayor,” “The Music Room; A Conversation With,” “Law Quiz,” “Open Forum with Bill Rice” and “High Tone Aerobics with Bernie (Bardsley).”
Putting the shows together has meant using equipment that was either donated or purchased. When the station began, there were two color cameras donated by Channel 47, then known as KJEO, plus equipment from the Fresno County Office of Education’s ITV system.
Speace says the early equipment was a little bulky if it had to be used outside the studio. And all of the editing had to be done on three-quarter-inch tape.
KVPT eventually went digital, but it took 10 years to raise the necessary money to make the switch. The station switched from an analog to a digital signal in 2009. This caused problems for many viewers who didn’t have digital TVs.
The station reaches 99 percent of the local viewing market with almost half watching via an antenna. The station worked with viewers to help them make the changes – including hooking up free digital converter boxes needed to continue watching the station.
Do we need public television?
Through the decades, KVPT has not only been a source of quality entertainment but also has become a major educational source for both young and old.
More than 82 percent of local children have no access to preschool either because of a lack programs in their area or family hardships that make it impossible to attend. That number is twice the national average.
And, it’s not just youngsters who learn their basic math and reading skills through the station’s programming.
“We have two board members now who say they learned English by watching public television,” Meyer says.
Meyer goes on to say that when he’s visited local prisons, inmates thank him for all of the programming KVPT provides. They don’t have access to cable, and KVPT gives them access to entertainment, educational and news programming.
This is done through multiple digital channels. Along with the main programming from PBS mixed with local productions, the station also broadcasts programming aimed at youngsters on Channel 18.2. There is also Valley PBS Create, a mix of “how to” programs and travel shows on Channel 18.3, and Valley PBS World, presenting news and public affairs productions on Channel 18.4.
When the argument is made that PBS is a dinosaur because similar programming can be found on cable channels, Meyer points to the schedules of many of those content providers. Education shows have been replaced with reality programs, from “Pawn Stars” to “My 600-lb Life.”
The sun will come out tomorrow
KVPT is facing one of the most uncertain times in its history with President Donald Trump’s promise to cut funding that would include all financial support to public television. At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission will announce this week which low-power TV stations will go off the air when their broadcast bands are sold to cell phone providers.
This could end KVPT’s repeat broadcast in Bakersfield.
Despite the impending setbacks, those who have devoted so much of their lives to the local station and public television remain optimistic there will be a way to survive and thrive.
Phyllis Brotherton, the station’s chief financial officer, is certain the station is in an innovation mode that will continue to make the station viable no matter the future.
Elizabeth Laval, senior vice president for content and development, points out that the station will be able to continue even if funding is cut because of its 11,000 supporters. All they need is 1,000 more to make up the difference in funding, she says.
That support has allowed KVPT to become a reflection of the community, not only through programming but also through a long list of workshops and events that bring information directly to the community.
“We reflect the heartbeat of the community. We know what members want,” Laval says. “By trying to be reactive to what the community really wants, we have been able to offer, even during hard financial times, the kind of interactive programs we have been providing.”