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KUHT to move to new studios

Nation's first public educational TV station will continue work in state-of-the-art facility

By Reagan Graham
Daily Cougar Staff

Before most Houston families even had a television set, America's first public educational television station was in the making at UH.

Since KUHT went on the air June 8, 1953, it has extended its programming to Columbus, Huntsville and Brenham, reaching more than 1 million viewers. However, the station has also outgrown its 1950s-era facilities on the south end of the UH campus.

Travis Howell/The Daily Cougar

Crews continue work in the lobby of the new Melcher Center for Public Broadcasting, which will house state-of-the-art studios for KUHT when the center opens in April.

In a few months, however, a move of the KUHT studios into the new Melcher Center for Public Broadcasting on Elgin Street will take Houston public television into the future with digital programming and new instructional possibilities far beyond the University's original dreams.

The new facility has been the result of decades of hard work and slow progress, but the results have made it all worthwhile, KUHT Chief Executive Officer and General Manager Jeff Clarke said. "The most exciting thing is seeing it all come together," Clarke said, who has seen the construction progress on a daily basis.

He said the new facilities will offer a new view to all audiences. "The new facility is designed to interact with the public," Clarke said. "Visitors can see all that is going on without interrupting the work. There is a greater potential for students to spend time in the building."

The new facility will include a studio and a control room as well as space for upper-level production students to get hands-on experience.

High ceilings and windows facing the Houston skyline and artwork made of old broadcast equipment will make a more attractive environment. Another attractive feature will be its accessibility to disabled and young visitors.

Aside from being more interactive, the new studios will also be more efficient, with rooms and structural considerations that help pave the way for digital programming, which Clarke said makes KUHT's possibilities seem endless. The station could offer a vast variety of continuing education courses for professionals and students as well as repeated programming and 24-hour access to interactive credit courses.

KUHT hopes to be broadcasting digitally by the end of the summer and offering its first televised educational course digitally by early 2001.

The cost of the new facilities was just under $12 million. Clarke said careful planning and good timing -- the bids were taken in late 1998, during a construction boom -- played key factors in making it happen.

Raising money and getting ideas on paper took a lot of work from a large number of people, including employees, architects, artists and contractors, to name a few. Clarke, who has been with the station for 10 years this May, said that it was definitely a team effort.

Timing and team strategy also set the stage for KUHT in the early 1950s, when people across the country were just beginning to tune in to television broadcasts.

"Television in 1952 was just beginning to move across the country," communication professor William Hawes said. "At the end of World War II, only a few stations (existed)."

The early 1950s also found America with a great desire for education, Hawes said.

"After World War II, a huge influx of young people needed education right away," he said. "The problem was to educate people as quickly as possible, and one of those ways was distance learning, or 'instructional TV.'"

Then-UH president W.W. Kemmerer and Radio and Television Director John C. Schwarzwalder, along with a small staff, decided to convert the radio station on the fifth floor of the Ezekiel W. Cullen Building into a television station.

UH became the first university in the nation to create a noncommercial educational station that survived. Hawes attributed that to the general "can-do" spirit of Houston.

The spirit seemed contagious. UH students learning about radio and television could step into the studio and actually man a television station themselves. It was pure hands-on training.

The station had to go off the air briefly when it made the move to its current property in July 1964, but Clarke said that will not be necessary in this year's move. The station will simply sign off as it normally does for brief periods on Monday mornings while equipment is changed. The gradual move to the new building should be complete by May.

Parts of the current facility could be demolished, but the tower, downlink dishes and antennas will remain in use due to licensing issues.

"The history in programming has transpired in the memory of folks and the people who watched Channel 8 and in library archives," Clarke said. "The building itself served different purposes. It's just a physical space."

KUHT will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2003, and Hawes, author of Public Television, America's First Station, a history of KUHT, is already hoping to celebrate its years of progress by recognizing the location of the original Ezekiel W. Cullen studios as a state and national historic site.

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