The Journey Above and Beyond
Can you imagine a childhood without Sesame Street? A commute around Houston without NPR, Houston Matters, or local interviews to keep you company? Or Sunday evenings without the Dowager Countess or Sherlock Holmes?
Would an election be as informed without Washington Week; Red, White and Blue; or Charlie Rose? For that matter, would your heart be as full without your favorite classical music or a conversation with innovative artists?
It’s spectacular to consider that all of these touchstones of daily life, the technologies that deliver them to you 24/7, and the organization behind them have all been created in a little more than 60 years.
The story of Houston Public Media is uniquely “Houston.” Set in a community known for energy, innovation, hard work and appreciation of self-expression, this remarkable narrative was written by people who dreamed big, worked hard, gave generously of what they had, and ensured that, when it came to excellence, all of Houston had a voice.
Signing on for Service
The journey began in 1950 when radio station KUHF went on the air at 91.3 on the FM dial. It was the nation’s first university licensed radio station,[i]manned by University of Houston students and broadcasted from an on-campus oil derrick provided by Hugh Roy Cullen. [ii]
KUHF aired weekdays at 1:00 p.m. and signed off at 10:00 p.m. Programs were primarily shows from the BBC, French Broadcasting, Radio Netherlands and the Armed Services Radio.[iii]
History was made again in 1953 when KUHT, VHF Channel 8 signed on as the first educational television station in the nation. [iv]
Manned by educators, Hollywood veterans, technical engineers and students, KUHT, Channel 8 delivered educational programming five days a week on a limited schedule.[v] Content included college courses, various instructional programs, and ‘enrichment’ programs that explored a variety of topics and formats. [vi]
One of the surprise “hits” was the monthly live broadcasts of the Houston Independent School Board meetings, which frequently turned quite contentious.[vii] Other notable shows included filmed documentaries, some of which were enjoyed by national audiences[viii], and a broadcast experiment with 3-D sound.[ix]
Standing Taller, Growing Stronger
In the late 50s and early 60s, both KUHF and KUHT demonstrated their ability to take advantage of circumstances that would secure their later success. Both moved to more spacious headquarters, which enabled them to be more ambitious in their programming and schedules.
At KUHF radio, students created their own shows in the afternoon and evenings and produced newscasts, updates and an evening wrap-up at the end of the day. Featured music included rock and roll, opera, and Broadway show tunes.[x]
August, 1964 marked a major turning point when Corinthian Broadcasting, owner of KHOU-TV, Channel 11, donated its 18 acre site and tower to KUHT. This boosted the signal to 80 miles, made the station a regional presence, and opened the doors to major opportunities.[xi]
In new, more spacious headquarters with updated kinescope and film equipment, KUHT, Channel 8 blossomed as never before.
Educational programming filled the morning broadcast hours; evenings featured more general interest shows, and the broadcasting schedule expanded to six days a week. [xii] There were interview shows and live town hall meetings with area artists and other notables; distinguished film specials aired with a Houston focus, such as The Heartmakers, featuring Houston surgeons Denton Cooley and Michael Debakey, and, by the end of the 1960s, some color[xiii] broadcasts and production appeared.[xiv]
Entering the National Stage
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, it was the birth of “public broadcasting” and a whole new era.[xv] The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created to receive and distribute government and private funds for local stations and production centers around the country.[xvi]
Production of shows was handled by a separate organization, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which distributed funds to local stations. Channel 8 audiences and other PBS member stations around the country began enjoying shows such as Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Masterpiece Theater, Great Performances, and the MacNeil/Leher Report.[xvii]
Here in Houston, funds from PBS were used to create the Association for Community Television (ACT), comprised of citizens throughout the community, which was empowered to allocate funds and offer advice and guidance. [xviii]
Empowered by ACT, Channel 8 purchased its first remote truck, which enabled new productions around the Gulf Coast. [xix]Thanks to ACT, Houston audiences took part in the first teleauction, which introduced the concept of membership and raised $107,000.[xx]
Radio station KUHF joined the National Educational Radio Network, the predecessor to National Public Radio (NPR), and began airing more national programs.[xxi] There were changes on the dial as well, as the FCC changed the frequency of the station to 88.7 so that it would not interfere with KUHT Channel 8.[xxii]
Growing in Strength
The next three decades were years of explosive growth for Houston, and KUHF and KUHT kept pace.
In 1979, KUHF hired a full-time staff and became a National Public Radio (NPR) station. For the next several years the program format was jazz and NPR’s All Things Considered in the afternoon.[xxiii]
KUHT began broadcasting from a 2,000 foot tower in Missouri City, southwest of downtown Houston, increasing its signal strength to reach 100 miles of the area, and adding just under 100,000 viewers. [xxiv]
Channel 8 replaced all of its equipment, switched over to digital audio, and updated the computers, cameras and videotape machines. Thanks to these changes, the station was the first in the city to offer programs in high-fidelity stereo and the first local station to introduce closed captioning.[xxv]
Houston’s classical station, KLEF, changed its format in 1986 and donated its library of classical albums and CDs to KUHT. With this, the station changed its format to classical music and NPR broadcasts. It also began its broadcasting partnership with the Houston Symphony and production and distribution of their broadcasts on compact discs.[xxvi]
Moving into a New Century
The turn of the century marked a major milestone for both KUHT and KUHF when the sister stations moved into the new, state of the art, 65,000 square foot headquarters, the LeRoy and Lucille Melcher Center for Public Broadcasting.[xxvii] The new $12 million facilities ushered in all-digital programming and high definition broadcasts. The high quality studios enabled the radio and television stations to share resources and more fully collaborate, and there was ample space for community gatherings and outreach.[xxviii]
Furthermore, the new studios launched new, bold creative endeavors. Channel 8, for example, produced national programs in high definition such as Mary Lou’s Flip Flop Shop, The Houston Symphony: A Maestro’s Farewell, and Innerviews..[xxix]
KUHF also continued to innovate, making good use of its new 1,000 square-foot Performance Studio with live broadcasts, performances and recordings.[xxx]The radio station additionally broke new ground with community service as it partnered with Meals on Wheels and kept the area connected with continuous, live broadcasts during Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike. [xxxi]
The year 2011 brought another defining moment for radio broadcasting when the University of Houston purchased 91.7 FM from Rice University, and the call letters changed to KUHA. [xxxii] KUHA, Classical 91.7 became our community’s station devoted to classical music and the fine arts. On the air 24/7, Classical 91.7 brings to Houston audiences the best of national broadcasts and exciting local broadcasts such as interviews with artists, live broadcasts with the Houston Symphony, the Houston Grand Opera and local performing artists and groups.
KUHF, News 88.7 became Houston’s public radio news station, with programming devoted to NPR and shows focused on Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast. Five local news desks were established to cover business, education, health and science, transportation and energy, and the environment.
With two state of the art radio stations, the University of Houston was able to serve the community as never before.
Making History Once Again
We are currently writing the next chapter of our history, even as you read this.
In October, 2011, a decision was made by the Houston Public Media Board and the University of Houston Board of Regents to unite all of the broadcast stations and internet services together. This consolidation allows for even greater efficiency and richer content by creating production collaborations between TV, radio and the Internet. It also boosts our organizational and administration efforts to allow even more dollars to support the programs our audiences love.
Enter Houston Public Media, the new name of the organization formed when we brought together the Houston Public Broadcasting stations – KUHT Channel 8, News 88.7 FM and Classical 91.7 FM – and online platforms to provide even greater service to the community. Houston Public Media is now your single source for content that covers the many voices, viewpoints, and formats you can count on, with a focus on News and Information, Education, and Arts and Culture.
In addition, Houston Public Media is expanding our commitment to produce and present the best of local arts programming, cultural coverage and compelling human interest stories.
To better serve audiences, we are on the air, online, at home and everywhere, 24/7. Content is tailored for easy access and maximum enjoyment on any device – from tablet to computer to mobile devices. And there’s a single source for everything – houstonpublicmedia.org.
Above and Beyond
Looking back over the last six decades, it is astounding to consider how far we’ve come.
So much has changed from the days when a university radio station sent a signal from a tower made of an oil derrick, and TV shows were in black and white, hosted by coeds in gingham and pearls.
But much remains the same. Ever constant is what we hold dear: educating our children, informing our citizens, lifting the spirit, and celebrating artistic achievement.
Ever stronger is our commitment to service and going beyond.
We are Houston Public Media.
TV8 News 88.7 Classical 91.7 houstonpublicmedia.org
[i] “KUHT-TV: The University of Houston’s Second Great Vision”, James E. Fisher, page 30
[ii] Ibid., page 32.
[iii] Notes from The University of Houston Collection
[iv] Fisher, page 31
[v] Houston PBS History
[vi] Fisher, page 32.
[vii] Houston PBS History
[viii] Fisher, page 32.
[x] Notes from The University of Houston Collection
[xi] Fisher, page 33.
[xii] Houston PBS History
[xv] Fisher, page 33.
[xvi] Houston PBS History
[xx] Houston PBS History
[xxi] Radio Timeline
[xxiii] Fisher , page 33.
[xxiv] Houston PBS History
[xxvi] Radio Timeline
[xxvii] Houston PBS History
[xxix] Fisher, page34
[xxx] Radio Timeline
[xxxii] Radio Timeline