History of KET
Renewed Vision: The Ginni Fox Years
- Origins: O. Leonard Press and the Creation of KET
- The Digital Transition: Mac Wall
- The Next Generation: Executive Director Shae Hopkins
- The Story at a Glance: KET Milestones
O. Leonard Press stepped down as executive director of KET in September of 1991 and officially retired in June of 1992. But his legacy did not end with his retirement. Instead, it continued and grew seamlessly under the leadership of his successor, friend, and compatriot in the early days of educational television, Virginia G. (Ginni) Fox.
“What meant a lot to me—thanks to having been there at the beginning—I had the vision, the background, and the perspective to know what needed doing, thanks to Len,” said Fox. “And thanks to my experience nationally, I knew in deep ways how KET was special.”
In many ways, Fox and KET matured together. A school librarian when she joined the fledgling television network in 1968 (the month KET went on the air for the first time), Fox quickly grasped the potential of the medium, and by 1975 was KET’s deputy executive director, working hand in hand with Press.
Together, Press and Fox led the network to many successes. Their accomplishments included
- creating the GED ON TV series for adults without high school diplomas.
- expanding broadcasting from weekdays to seven days a week.
- introducing college-credit telecourses and nightly coverage of the Kentucky General Assembly.
- originating KET’s lineup of public affairs programming.
- overseeing other KET productions, many of which have been broadcast nationally.
When she assumed leadership of the network in 1991, Fox began to grow KET into a nationally known and recognized force in education. The seeds she and Press had planted blossomed under her watchful eye.
For example, Fox increased the number and quality of high school distance learning courses available to Kentucky students with revenues derived from sales of KET’s courses to students in 22 other states. She also more than doubled the number of satellite channels available to Kentucky schools by moving from analog to digital satellite delivery. And she partnered with the Kentucky Department of Education to provide exceptional professional development programs for Kentucky teachers on multiple platforms.
Fox assured KET’s continuation and expansion as the number one provider of video-based GED and adult education in the nation through collaboration with PBS and Pennsylvania State University by obtaining a $15 million grant to create LiteracyLink, which now includes GED Connection (the successor to GED ON TV) and Workplace Essential Skills, a series that teaches basic job skills. KET now manages the entire LiteracyLink project, including its web-based student tutorials.
During Fox’s tenure, KET also expanded its reach into the homes of every Kentuckian. She vastly increased the amount and variety of local, public, and instructional programs. Many of today’s favorite Kentucky programs—Kentucky Life, Kentucky Tonight, Jubilee, and more—were initiated under Fox’s leadership.
KET became the “go-to” place for election night coverage in Kentucky during her tenure. Kentucky also became one of the first states, if not the first state, to provide real-time coverage of legislative proceedings, then web-streamed legislative coverage.
“I never will forget when I found out that we could videostream our legislative coverage,” said Fox. With it, she learned, people outside the signal area or traveling would have instant access to government, wherever they were.
The Power of Partnering
Partnerships with other organizations provided the power for much of KET’s transformation from a small educational station to a national educational and cultural powerhouse.
Early on, Fox realized that the United States was going to quickly change from a media culture of scarcity (i.e., four national stations—NBC, ABC, CBS, and PBS) to one of plenty. She also realized that soon there would be more pathways to homes and schools than KET could ever amass the monies to produce or acquire programming for. So in her first public speech after becoming KET’s CEO, she announced that partnerships would be the mark of her tenure and asked that independent producers, educators, and civic and governmental agencies look to KET as a partner for production, distribution, and outreach. When Fox retired in December 2002, KET had more than 175 active partnerships.
Sometimes KET was the passive satellite distributor, as with college-credit courses administered by Kentucky’s universities. At other times, KET was one of many partners, as in the collaboration among the Kentucky Department of Education, the Speed Art Museum, the Kentucky Council for the Arts, and the Kentucky Center that resulted in the creation of the KET Arts Toolkits. These multidisciplinary arts education kits are in wide distribution throughout the state.
The partnership approach was always a balancing act. Fox knew that partnerships are never perfectly balanced and are fraught with potential conflict. But she understood that KET could not have developed multiple satellite, web, and digital services without them.
New Vision for a New Day
Behind the scenes, other struggles took place. The way in which stations purchase PBS programs changed dramatically in 2000, and Fox was faced with skyrocketing programming costs just as the state was facing enormous budget cuts. Those PBS programs were critical because PBS still had the best national arts, culture, and public affairs programs available, an important complement to KET’s Kentucky-based arts, culture, and public affairs programming.
Fox used a small loophole to save KET more than $500,000 that year, then grew the Commonwealth Fund for KET to absorb the increased costs. Although no one could have predicted that change from PBS, Fox had predicted the need for memberships and private gifts for many years and had created the Commonwealth Fund, with a prestigious board of Kentucky corporate and civic leaders, to fill that need. Today, this board stewards all fund-raising for KET: memberships, major gifts, special events, and program underwriting.
Fox also oversaw the acquisition of WKPC/Channel 15 in Louisville. “That was an extremely important step at that point in history: the most populous city in the state, and a huge economic engine,” she said. “And they’ve truly benefited from more programming.”
KET became KET1 and KET2, and digital technology expanded that to KET3 and KET4—and beyond. Today, each channel has its own unique mission, and together they provide room for the growth KET will need in the coming years.
Perhaps Fox’s biggest challenge—and ultimately her proudest achievement—was converting KET from analog to digital broadcasting a year ahead of the FCC-required schedule.
“The biggest challenge I faced was persuading policy makers to invest $22 million in digital conversion,” she said. “Most public television stations had one transmitter in one city to convert. KET had 16. Because our task was so daunting, and the technology so new, we had to blaze the trail ourselves. There were no models to emulate.”
But the effort was worth it. The conversion to digital assures that KET will be able to deliver multimedia products from any producer—audio, video, or computer software—to serve the learning needs of every citizen and institution in the state on the platform that user finds most effective. In short, it assures that KET will continue to fulfill founder O. Leonard Press’s dream of access.
Above all else, Fox believed that KET is access. “KET is access to the state legislature as it happens, to the arts, to public affairs, to education, to nonviolent children’s programming.”
And ultimately, it is the quality of its content that sets KET apart, Fox believes.
“Content is king—it hasn’t changed,” she said. “You’ve got a new carrier, but content is king.”
KET is a catalyst for the positive change that comes when people are educated and empowered. And “catalyst” is also the best word to describe Fox—educator, visionary, public servant, and KET’s second CEO.