SALT LAKE CITY — With a donated transmitter and a hard-won grant, KUED first went on air from an unlikely spot in the basement of Libby Gardner Hall in 1958 — a renovated cafeteria. Boyer Jarvis, one of the founding members of KUED’s original staff, remembers the station’s humble beginning.
“The part that was used by KUED had been the place that had served as the dining area,” he said. “I don't know what became of the kitchen, but the dining area became the studio space.”
With KUED now in its 60th year, Jarvis reflected on the quality and community of the station’s extensive coverage of the Beehive State, especially through its drive to create award-winning local productions in an environment where stations have continuously given up producing their own content in favor of PBS programming.
For Jarvis, the station’s influence on PBS and television as a whole is interesting to note with respect to the person who he deems its hero: A. Ray Olpin.
Olpin was elected the seventh president of the University of Utah in 1946, and his love for television was clear from having previously worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories, where he continued the foundational efforts in television led by Utah-born Philo T. Farnsworth.
It was during his presidency that the Federal Communications Division allocated television channels around the country and set aside Channel 7 in Salt Lake City to be a non-commercial station. Allen Bateman, who was then the state superintendent of public construction, appreciated the idea.
“(He) persuaded the Utah State Legislature,” Jarvis said, “to appropriate what was then in the early 1940s a huge sum — $225,000 — to put Channel 7 on the air.”
But Bracken Lee, the then-governor of Utah, shot down the appropriation. However, not all hope was lost for the station, as the Ford Motor Company was offering a $100,000 grant for community organizations that could match their money.
Thanks to Olpin, the grant was matched, and included among the assets (the grant wasn’t all cash) were used television cameras from Channel 5, space for a transmitter on the mountainside and studio space on campus. Olpin also managed — with help from the Legislature — to get an extra $60,000 to meet expenses at first, according to Jarvis.
Including engineers, a program chief and KSL-broadcaster Rex Campbell as announcer, KUED reach the airwaves from a tiny cafeteria in January 1958.
KUED has expanded its influence since those humble days, now serving the largest geographical area of any public TV station except Alaska.
“It used to, when I was running it, cover all of Montana,” said Fred C. Esplin, KUED's former — and longest-serving — general manager. “Montana did not have a public TV station, Wyoming did not have a public TV station and we were their public TV service. … We actually helped them create their systems, (and) … helped them get up and going.”
Esplin was recruited to KUED in 1979 as director of marketing and fundraising and became general manager just two years later, taking over for his predecessor who went on to work as president for PBS.
In fact, the relationship between PBS and KUED has always been more pronounced than a simple membership. PBS is governed by a board consisting mostly of public TV station representatives. Esplin pointed to Ted Capener, former University of Utah vice president, and Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as examples of local figures who have served at PBS.
“Utah really since the beginning has been seen as a really strong public television market,” Esplin added. “Its strength and influence is disproportionate to its market size.”3 comments on this story
With regards to local productions, Esplin believes KUED has won every award there is to be won, ranging from Emmys to Columbia DuPonts. And with the recent addition of the DIY channel Create, which KUED picked up after KBYU-TV announced it is discontinuing its affiliation with PBS, the station now has four channels offering both the full PBS schedule and locally produced TV shows and documentaries.
“The wonderful thing about public TV — and this has been true since its inception — is that whether you live in Paragona or Tremonton or Salt Lake City, you can see great performances,” Esplin said. “You can watch documentary series on the history of the Vietnam War (or) the two-hour documentary on Teddy Roosevelt's trip down the Amazon. … Public television provides access to culture, education, history and science in a way that would not otherwise be available to most people.”