In an article on WETA in last Thursday's editions of The Washington Post, the channel for which Paul Anthony works was indicated incorrectly. Anthony works for Channel 9.
It was Oct. 2, 1961, and the tiny staff of WETA was gathered in the building they shared with the Girl Scouts at Vermont and L for their debut on the airwaves.
Elizabeth Campbell, WETA's founder, recalls:
"We stood there at 6 o'clock, when our program was to come on the air. We had invited representatives of all the commercial stations. Only one came. That was the representative of Channel 5. Mr. Willard Kiplinger Sr. was standing by me and on the other side was FCC commissioner Robert E. Lee. When 6 o'clock came and the screen lighted up and we saw the beginning of the program, the commissioner said, 'It's clear.' I said, 'Oh, commissioner, didn't you think it would be?' And he laughed."
That wasn't the last time they laughed, but in the years to come there was often more reason to cry than laugh. Now, with WETA to be 20 tomorrow, things are only beginning, at long last, to stabilize.
Ward Chamberlin, who became president and general manager when Donald Taverner resigned in 1975, is putting together a sequence of weekend festivities -- including a picnic on the Mall Saturday -- to celebrate with WETA's viewing audience, particularly those 100,000 in the area who have put their money on the line for WETA.
Chamberlin thinks there is much to celebrate about because, he says, the station's financial affairs are in good order for the first time. "What I've tried to do has been to take a station that was on a very rocky course and almost bankrupt and turn it into something respected in the community. This is the first fall since I've been at WETA that I can say for sure that nine months ahead we'll be in the black."
The present budget is $15 million, and WETA is the third most productive contributor to Public Broadcasting Service schedules, behind stations in New York and Boston. Things were not always so bounteous.
Until just a little more than 20 years ago, the headquarters of WETA was Elizabeth Campbell's Arlington living room. She had been involved in public television -- then it was referred to as educational television -- since 1956, and, as the only female member of the Arlington school board, her paramount interest was in getting the television screen into the classroom.
There was a fight with the D.C. school board over who would get the franchise, and Campbell won.
"I had no money but many friends," she recalled yesterday in her modest office, where she continues her work as vice president for community affairs. She has always served without pay, and in the early years it was a blessing because there was nothing to pay her with.
Since you can't broadcast without an antenna and other equipment, Campbell became a fund raiser, something she had never tried before. The contributions that helped get the station off the ground and on the air were a $50,000 grant from the Old Dominion Foundation and $25,000 from the Meyer Foundation.
"Since we couldn't apply for a license until we had a tower," she said, "we rented one on 19th Road in Arlington. Then we got the license on June 15, 1961. Then we had to get our act together and leave my house, and that was when we moved in with the Girl Scouts."
And the landmark broadcast came the following fall. A message from President Kennedy was read. He was still thinking in terms of educational television himself. "In this era of opportunity and crisis," he declared, "education of the young American will shape the future and will make a stronger nation and a better life for us all. Use of television to educate is an important step toward this end."
There were also statements by D.C. Commissioner Walter Tobriner and FCC Chairman Newton Minow, who had encouraged Campbell to apply swiftly and to seek a UHF signal instead of a VHF one. "He wanted to use us as an experiment in UHF, which very few stations used then, except the military. And then most people couldn't get it because they didn't have converters. So he watched us very closely," she recalls.
There was also a program on the first night called "The American Presidency" and there were two hours of programming by National Educational Television, which was the predecessor of PBS. There was no systemwide transmission in those days. "We used tapes that were sent mainly by air," said Campbell.
WETA was the 51st such station and preceded even New York's WNET, which was able to purchase a commercial VHF channel. In the ensuing years, however, WETA did not flourish as WNET did.
But if it was lacking in funds and sophistication during those early years, WETA was brimming with idealistic enthusiasm. Paul Anthony, who now works for Channel 7 but still helps WETA with its membership drives, got his first job there in 1964. "One of the good things about that station was that you got to do everything . . . The overall feeling was one of a lot of folks who honestly weren't making a lot of money but had a desire to make that baby work."
One important production from the '60s remains a source of pride for the station -- "Washington Week in Review," which PBS president Larry Grossman calls "the single most popular and influential weekly public affairs series" that has "shaped the direction of TV news."
One of the original, and most popular, members of the WWR team was the late Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News. It was he who got off one of the most famous WWR lines. One night someone asked, "How do you compare Ron Ziegler with Ron Nessen?" referring to the two former White House press secretaries, and Lisagor snapped, "Two Rons don't make a right."
National public affairs programming has been a principal aim of WETA for most of its history -- at least since the success of its coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. Chamberlin regards those broadcasts as the turning point that changed the focus of WETA from education to public affairs. "PBS relies on WETA for its federal coverage," says Grossman. "In that respect, they're our flagship station."
Not all of WETA's public-affairs programming has been as successful. One of its projects, during the station's uncertain years under William J. McCarter, was an ambitious local-affairs program called "Newsroom," modeled after similar, successful shows in San Francisco and Dallas. Some of the best journalists participated and the budget was $1.5 million, but the show never caught hold and was killed in 1971 after only one year.
"It was 10 years ahead of its time," Chamberlin said of "Newsroom." "Now there's a burgeoning interest in news," which contributes to the success of "Washington Week in Review" and the more recent "MacNeil/Lehrer Report." But back then, he continued, "no one really knew about WETA." The "MacNeil/Lehrer Report," which is coproduced with WNET, has had great impact on network news. ABC acknowledges that it helped spawn "Nightline."
Another area that WETA has handled with less success than public affairs is the arts. "I would love to put the National Symphony Orchestra on PBS, and they would love it," said Chamberlin. "But fund-raising for the Washington orchestra is not the same as in Pittsburgh or Boston or Cleveland, because there's no industry here that you can go to that can afford the $1 1/2 million that this would take. But I'm still working on it."
Among Chamberlin's future plans for the station are a series of White House concerts, a foreign-affairs show, a political series with Ben Wattenberg (which debuts tomorrow night) and development of its Teletext information service.
WETA has had problems with some ambitious projects. In July 1976, WETA attempted the first televised state dinner, when Queen Elizabeth II was visiting the United States. The program was a "fiasco," admits Chamberlin, who considers it the worst moment in his time at WETA. "The cameras and all communications went out. We couldn't find MacNeil, our anchor. It was torture.
"We were sitting at the Hay-Adams, with a couple of TVs set up. We ended up having one drink after another. I don't know how I got home that evening," Chamberlin recalls.
"The next morning Fred Friendly the former CBS executive called me up and said, 'Don't worry. It could happen to anybody.' "