In 1957, television meant a grainy black-and-white picture, three national networks, and nightly fare like “Gunsmoke,” “The $64,000 Question,” and “Lassie.”
But a young professor at the University of Kentucky had a different idea for TV, one that took the still relatively young medium beyond the realm of cowboy shoot-‘em-ups, kitschy comedies, and cigarette commercials. Why not use television, he thought, to educate and enlighten, to provide quality instruction to those who had limited access to public schooling, to lift up those who might otherwise be left behind?
That was the vision of O. Leonard Press, then a recent Yankee transplant to the commonwealth, and the head of the radio and television department at UK. At a time when only a handful of stations operated in the state, Press envisioned a new, 15-station network that would that would deliver educational programming to every county and school district.
“This was dream stuff,” Press admits.
How that dream became reality is the subject of The KET Story, a documentary that explores the origins of Kentucky Educational Television and its 50 years of service to the commonwealth.
A Dream Takes Shape
UK lured Press to Kentucky in the 1950s after the young Boston University staffer gained national notoriety for producing college telecourses on a local commercial station. Press and his wife, Lillian, arrived in the commonwealth knowing little about the state.
“I was impressed with the way people talked down here,” says Press. “It was a gentler, kinder kind of atmosphere and I was very attracted to that.”
“Len was a Kentuckian, I think, the day he landed,” Lillian Press says.
Press was hired to direct UK’s radio station – then known as WBKY – to launch a television operation, and to teach classes in both mediums. But the school had no TV equipment yet, so his students honed their camera skills using a cardboard box mounted on a tripod. Tennis ball canisters inserted into the front of the box served as the lens.
Press partnered with Lexington station WLEX-TV to broadcast anthropology lectures by a popular UK professor. The course initially had about a dozen students, but it soon grew so popular that hundreds of young people showed up at Memorial Hall to take exams for the class.
Another early assignment for Press was to help Louisville’s WHAS-TV produce a program called “Christmas in the Mountains.” There, in the narrow hollers of Knott County, Press experienced the dramatic shortcomings of public education in rural Kentucky.
Winchester native and Commonwealth Fund for KET Chair Nick Nicholson says mountain children weren’t the only young Kentuckians lacking educational opportunities.
“There were pockets of Kentucky that were so isolated that the children going to the first grade were so far behind already because they didn’t have the opportunity to be exposed to the kinds of things that other children did,” Nicholson says.
Based on what he saw in eastern Kentucky, Press realized that an educational TV service could have impacts far beyond college telecourses in Lexington. He envisioned programming that could serve students of all ages in every corner of the commonwealth. With the help of a broadcast engineer at UK, Press devised a plan to create a network of 15 transmitters that could beam educational programs simultaneously to every school district in the state.
While a number of American cities had stand-alone educational TV stations, no one had yet created a network that covered an entire state in the way Press proposed. He started pitching his idea in 1957, first to his bosses at UK and later to lawmakers in Frankfort.
“We were trying to work our wiles with the legislature and the governor,” Press admits. “We didn’t really know how to do that. I certainly didn’t.”
The Search for Funding
It would take until 1962 before the General Assembly passed legislation to create the Kentucky Authority for Educational Television, the governing body that would oversee the proposed network. But lawmakers failed to allocate any funding for studios, broadcast equipment, or transmitter sites.
So Press spent the next four years on the road, crisscrossing the state, pitching his idea to anyone who would listen.
“This was no performance of ‘Aida’ and I was no Pavarotti,” says Press. “So getting them to come out to hear a lecture on [educational] TV was not easy.”
“He was gone on the all time,” Lillian Press recalls. “If there were three ladies in a little town in western Kentucky way up the road, he went to meet them in their living room if they would talk about KET.”
Much of the fundraising effort hinged on securing money to purchase transmitter sites. Without them, Press couldn’t apply to the federal government for broadcast licenses or matching funds to buy equipment.
Fortunately, Paul Blazer came to the rescue. The founder of Ashland Oil and long-time education advocate donated the money needed to secure the 15 transmitter sites.
“I think it’s safe to say that without Paul Blazer’s intercession it would’ve taken a lot longer,” says Press, “if indeed politics and the turn of events would not have prevented it entirely.”
It would take another two years to complete construction of the transmitters and the network headquarters in Lexington. Finally on Sept. 23, 1968, then Gov. Louie B. Nunn pushed the button that put KET on the air. It was the second largest land-based network of television stations in the world at that time.
Educating Kentuckians and the Nation
Initially, KET only broadcast on weekdays during school hours, but as more programming became available, the network expanded its broadcast schedule to offer shows in the evening as well. Along with instructional programs came shows that fostered child development, including “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“Our mission is education, not entertainment,” says Virginia Fox, one of KET’s first employees and executive director of the network from 1991 to 2002. “[But] we want to be educating in an entertaining way.”
“We start with ‘What is it we think that Kentucky needs?’” says Press. “If we can acquire it and it fits the bill, we do that. But if we can’t acquire it and it is important, we produce it.”
KET’s first homegrown instruction program was “Kentucky Is My Land,” which launched in 1969. In 1976, the network produced the science series “Universe and I,” which garnered national distribution and acclaim.
“Our first productions really exceeded our ability to do,” says Sidney Webb, an early production director for KET. “But we were young and didn’t know we couldn’t do it, so we set about doing it anyway.”
Within a decade, KET added more instructional programs, including college-credit courses and a series designed to help dropouts get their high school equivalency diploma. The GED on TV series put KET on the path to being a nationally and internationally recognized leader in GED programming.
“It’s tremendously gratifying to participate in graduation ceremonies in New York City with people who had gotten their GED because of material that was developed here in Kentucky and then shared with the rest of the country,” says PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger.
In 2014, KET evolved its GED programming into an online service called Fast Forward to give students of any age greater flexibility in studying for the GED or other high school equivalency exam. To date, tens of thousands of people have been able to get a diploma thanks to programming and resources created by KET.
Connecting Kentuckians with Each Other and the World
As KET grew, the network branched out into cultural programming and public affairs productions. While many shows like “Masterpiece Theatre,” “The French Chef,” and “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report” came through the new Public Broadcasting Service formed in 1969, KET devoted critical resources to create its own programs in order to highlight Kentucky people, places and traditions.
“[Public] stations saw themselves more and more as alternative entertainment media… alternative to commercial broadcasting,” Press says. “I never saw KET as alternative to commercial broadcasting. I saw it as an alternative to museums, libraries, public schools, universities and that sort of thing.”
Productions like “The Lonesome Pine Specials,” “Kentucky Muse”, “Jubilee,” and “Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story” focused on the rich diversity of musical talent that emanates from the commonwealth. Documentaries have told the stories of important Kentuckians, including President Abraham Lincoln and Sen. John Sherman Cooper, Lexington golf prodigy Marion Miley, the 1950s vocal group The Hilltoppers, and men and women who served in World War II as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
“If we don’t tell Kentucky’s stories, who is?” says Nick Nicholson of the Commonwealth Fund for KET. “The answer is, no one is, and they’re going to be lost.”
KET’s first foray into to public affairs programming came in the early 1970s with the nightly magazine show “Kentucky Now.” “Comment on Kentucky” followed in 1974.
“The program was a risky adventure,” says founding host Al Smith.
The risk centered around this question: how would Kentucky politicians react to having their actions examined each week on a state-owned television network that their appropriations helped to fund? Smith and Press devised a solution.
“The idea behind that was to get professional journalists who wouldn’t be on our staff, who would be above suspicion as being lackeys of the government,” Press says. “Also, they would be un-fireable by the government.”
The idea worked, and “Comment on Kentucky” is now KET’s longest running program. Other public affairs productions followed: gubernatorial candidate debates started in 1975; General Assembly coverage in 1978; “Kentucky Tonight” in 1994; and “Connections with Renee Shaw” in 2005.
“Every Kentuckian has a chance to participate in their government and be informed about what their government is doing for them because of KET,” says Rusty Cheuvront of the Kentucky Authority for Educational Television. “Our commonwealth is a lot better off because of that.”
Founding Values That Inform the Future
Fifty years on, KET is still an organization committed to education, public service, and innovation. The network now comprises 16 transmitters broadcasting high-definition, digital programming to 5.5 million viewers across Kentucky and into seven surrounding states. KET’s transmitters also provide crucial communication links for law enforcement agencies, first responders, and weather forecasters.
“When I came to KET in January of 1986, KET had one channel that ended every day at midnight,” says Shae Hopkins, the current executive director of KET. “Now we have four channels broadcasting 24-7. We have a robust website that features streaming of most of the programs, and an app for legislative coverage… It’s a different world.”
With its instructional programming for students of every age, academic interest, and skill level, KET continues to fulfill its mission to educate and uplift Kentuckians.
“We can break the chains of poverty, and I think KET is the first step in doing that.” says Ashley Judd, a first grade teacher in rural Jackson County who uses KET digital media resources with her students. “I feel like if I get them prepared to use this technology, then they’re going to go out into the world and they’re going to be prepared to succeed.”
Even after some six decades in the commonwealth, KET founder O. Leonard Press still has a voice that is tinged with the accent of his native Massachusetts. The young man who came to Lexington to teach television at a college that had no cameras or studios is now nearing his 97th birthday. His original vision for KET remains an inspiration to legions of public television employees past and present.
“Len Press is really one of those people who, not only for Kentucky but for the whole country really, had this idea that public television could be something quite extraordinary,” says PBS President Paula Kerger.
Press hopes those same ideals will carry KET into the next 50 years of service.
“Don’t ever fear imagining. Don’t ever fear doing what you think is bigger than you should,” Press says. “Know that almost anything is possible… if you put your heart and soul into it.”
“You don’t have to be smart,” Press adds. “You have to be determined.”