History of KET

Origins: O. Leonard Press
and the Creation of KET

In the 1950s, when television itself was taking its first tentative steps, an idea was formed in Kentucky: Use the medium to overcome geographic barriers and educate young people.

While that precept might seem self-evident by now, KET’s founder and first executive director had to camp out on a governor’s doorstep and travel the back roads of Kentucky to make the idea a reality.

And the story of how that idea became Kentucky Educational Television is the story of O. Leonard Press.

New York or Kentucky

A native of Lowell, MA, Press began his career in Boston. From 1948 to 1950, he conceived of and produced some of the first educational programs in the nation. As a consultant to the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, he originated the weekly broadcast from the National Press Club, which is still running on National Public Radio three decades later.

In the early 1950s, Press made plans to move from Boston to New York to work for a public relations firm. His wife, Lillian, recalls being stunned to learn that her husband instead had accepted a teaching position at the University of Kentucky—for ”only one year.”

Press arrived at UK in 1952. His work there gave him insight into the state’s educational needs and reinforced a conviction he had gained as a graduate student in Boston: It is the responsibility of the media to serve education.

Overcoming Barriers

Press confesses he did not start out to be an educational broadcaster; he was more interested in public affairs. But a trip to the mountain community of Cordia and Lotts Creek Community School during his first year in Kentucky was a turning point in his career.

”I fell in love with the people,” he says. Their need for an educational delivery system that could overcome geographic barriers and economic limitations made him a ”convert” to the idea of using television as that system.

In the mid-1950s, while still at UK, Press began taping a popular anthropology course taught by Dr. Charles Snow. He played his tapes on monitors in dormitories, at students’ homes—”wherever there was a television set,” he says. In three or four years, the number of students taking the course via TV had grown so large that the final examination had to be given in Memorial Hall.

It was then that Press and UK colleagues Ron Stewart and Elizabeth Ellis Taylor began to talk seriously about starting an educational television station at the university.

”We couldn’t get the money, so we thought bigger and came up with the idea of a statewide network,” laughs Press.

‘Give Him 10 Minutes’

The first public attention to the group’s plan came in 1959 when Ken Hart of the Frankfort Rotary Club asked Press to address his group. Courier-Journal reporter Ann Pardue was in the audience, and a story appeared in the statewide paper the next day.

Press next approached UK Arts and Sciences Dean Martin White and President Frank Dickey, who promised their support for the statewide network. Then he landed an interview with newly elected Gov. Bert T. Combs to discuss the idea.

Combs recalled the 1960 meeting in a speech given before the KET Advisory Committee:

”Stall him as long as you can,” Combs remembered telling his assistant, ”then give him 10 minutes.”

The brief visit turned into a long one, and ”the next thing I knew I was promising to sponsor legislation,” Combs said. (The idea of educational television was not a new one to Combs, who had been impressed with an earlier experiment in the Jefferson County school system, later to become Channel 15.)

During the next legislative session in 1962, statutes were written to create the Kentucky Authority for Educational Television, and in 1963 Press was named executive director (a position he would hold until September of 1991). Even then, real progress toward an educational television network remained elusive.

Hitting the Road

Over the next five years, Press traveled the byways of Kentucky to generate support for the network among educators. Other educational projects had died because the education community didn’t know what they were and wasn’t prepared for them, warned Lyman Ginger, former superintendent of public instruction. Press pledged not to make the same mistake. To sell his brainchild, he would go ”any place where I could get three people.”

It was a discouraging time, Lillian remembers. Even though her husband was always on the road, the project made little progress. It seemed mired in a morass of bureaucratic red tape.

Then, in 1965, the fledgling network got its first big break when Paul Blazer of Ashland Oil donated funds from the Stuart Blazer Foundation, established in memory of his son, who was killed in Korea. The money—and the loan of a real estate expert—allowed KET to secure or negotiate the purchase of the initial 13 transmitter sites around the state.

Once transmitter sites had been located and plans drawn up for acquiring them, the project took on new life. Gov. Edward T. Breathitt initiated an $8.6 million bond sale in 1966 toward construction, and KET received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and a $1.1 million matching grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

In 1968, Gov. Louie B. Nunn provided KET its first operating budget, and the network hit the airwaves. Since then, KET has experienced tremendous change and growth.

Not all of the changes in public broadcasting over the years have been to Press’ liking. He speaks convincingly of KET’s need to remain true to its educational mission and to resist creating a schedule overly concerned with entertainment and large audience numbers. But his enthusiasm remains high for the continuing potential of educational television, and for KET’s initiatives in distance learning.

”There is not one child in the state of Kentucky—no matter how poor or remote the school district, no matter how lacking in teachers—who cannot have high school Latin, German, physics, and a whole range of courses via KET’s Star Channels,” he says. ”KET is a great leveler.”

Although Press stepped down as executive director in September of 1991 and officially retired in June of 1992, his legacy continues, says his successor as executive director, Virginia G. Fox.

”No one who ever worked for Len Press will ever feel the same about public service,” she says. ”He is the quintessential public servant.”