Help us catalog WGBH “firsts” in national public media

Dear WGBH Alumni:

PBS is putting together a list of significant national “firsts” for PBS and public media. We already have a timeline covering WGBH from 1946 to 1978, and many entries include national innovations. Now, we’re looking for your recommendations and verifications for more!

Please remember, the following are not yet verified, so add your recommendations, corrections, and confirmations in the comments box at the bottom of this post.

Recommendations (to be verified)

  • 1958: WGBH acquired  an  VR-1000A and became the first NET member to use videotape recording techniques. (More.)
  • 1960: WGBH produced A.R. Gurney’s first TV drama, Love Letters. The only recording was destroyed in the fire.
  • 1963: WGBH received its first Academy Award for Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World Fred Barzyk reports that it was the first and only Academy Award to ever be given to an educational television station.
  • 1966: Julia Child was the first educational television personality to receive an Emmy Award.
  • 1968: Martin Luther King’s death almost caused a city wide riot, except for WGBH and city government broadcasting a James Brown concert. Watch the video here: James Brown in the Boston Garden – April 5th, 1968
  • 1968: WGBH produced the first double-channel TV show, What’s Happening Mr. Silver? Viewers were asked to put two TVs six feet apart, tune one to Ch. 2 and the other Ch. 44. Six months after the first broadcast, WNET WNDT (Ch. 13) and a commercial station (Ch. 9) were the only other stations to do the same thing.
  • 1972: PBS pioneers the development of captioning, making television programs accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.
  • 1972: Nam June Paik, renowned video artist, creates the worlds first video synthesizer. During the broadcast of one of his works, Paik blew out the WGBH transmitter. It is now on display in a German Museum.
  • 1974: NOVA, the first weekly science documentary series, joined the PBS lineup.
  • The Chicken that Ate Columbus
  • 1980: WGBH Workshop and QUBE, the largest interactive service in the country, produced a live interactive drama, The Chicken that Ate Columbus.” From David Atwood: QUBE was launched in 1977, I joined them as Manager of Production and Operations in the fall of 1980 in time (as I remember) to be there for “The Chicken that Ate Columbus.”
  • 1980: This Old House, the first home-improvement program on U.S. television, tackled its first fixer-upper
  • 1987: Created the first digital audio broadcast.
  • 1990: PBS makes television accessible to blind and visually impaired audiences through the launch of the Descriptive Video Service (DVS).
  • 1994-95: Created the first audio streaming server (featured Frontline Waco: The Inside Story) and the concept of the web as the companion to the TV program.
  • 1998: PBS Digital Week features the first national broadcast of a high-definition and enhanced digital program, Ken Burns’s Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • 1998: PBS becomes the first national broadcaster to distribute high-definition (HD) programming to member stations for broadcast.
  • 1999: Created the first live radio and television streams and established a presence on Apple’s QuickTime TV.

Undated recommendations

  • Henry Morgenthau’s Negro and the American Promise is first to have an all black discussion on race in America. Featuring James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Dr. King, the interview made the front page of the New York Times when broadcast, and was later made into a book.
  • Catch 44 was WGBH’s first public access series.  Although only broadcast locally, it made the front page of the WSJ and the BBC emulated it, calling their series “Open Night.”
  • The first environmental documentary was Austin Hoyt’s “Multiply and Subdue the Earth” on PBL.
  • Vietnam, a Television History, was the first long-form doc coverage of the Vietnam War.
  • The first coverage of tennis on TV was WGBH’s coverage of Longwood.
  • ZOOM was the first show created by kids (they supplied the content), for kids (who sent up to 30,000 letters per week).
  • Did Al Potter and Greg Harney do the first trans-atlantic broadcast for ETV?
  • The Victory Garden was the first series to follow the planting and growing of a garden in real time.
  • This Old House was the inspiration for the commercial sitcom Home Improvement.
  • WGBH was the first broadcast station to air stereo sound on their FM station which was in sync with he BSO concert on Ch. 2. This engineering feat was then taught to other PBS stations by our engineers.
  • Was NOVA the first PBS station to produce an IMAX film?

22 thoughts on “Help us catalog WGBH “firsts” in national public media

  1. 1. WGBH launched Martha Stewart’s broadcast career in 1976 with the one hour special “Thanksgiving With Martha Stewart”, shot in various field locations including her Westport, Connecticut estate.

    2. In an agreement with Avid Technology, I believe WGBH was the first broadcast entity to field test the prototype Avid Digital Editing System before marketing and release for broader commercial use.

      • You’re so right Bernadette. For those of you who may not recognize Bernadette by her name, she was one of the Second Season Zoomers way back in 1972-73. Later she “grew up” and joined the team that produced the Martha Stewart Special. We had great fun doing that show the summer of ’86. Bernadette…I promise I’ll dig out the cast photo from the shoot and send you a copy when I return home in the fall.

  2. Martha Stewart’s television career was started at WGBH in 1976 with the broadcast of the one hour special, “Thanksgiving With Martha Stewart”, shot entirely in field locations and at her estate in Westport, Connecticut.

  3. I believe we were the first – at least in the educational network – to have a 2″ videotape machine. I seem to think that we may even have had the first machine off Ampex’ assembly line. Don’t know how you would check on this since so many of the engineers of that era are gone. John LaBounty would have known. Is Jack Kean still around? Or Larry Messenger?

  4. You might also check out the dance experiments that were the signature pieces for the WGBH Dance/ Television Workshop. I see these experiments as the origin of the “Dance for Camera” movement. Nancy Mason-Hauser produced and made the experiments happen, aided and abetted by Fred Barzyk and friends. Many of these pieces are historically important—Remy Charlip, the great illustrator/choreographer, just passed away. Remy’s “Meditation” was shown at the close of the Memorial Service in LA this past Sunday. A beautiful work.

    Been thinking about two others, part of a wave of experimentation back in the 60s-70s that also included a What’s Happening, Mr. Silver  event, I think:

    ‘GBH was at the forefront of experiments in broadcast television, often breaking the mold of accustomed ways of viewing/receiving entertainment.  Two remarkable examples, still startling today:

    CITY/Motion/Space/Game, a two-screen (WGBH/WGBY) television broadcast in color and stereo, a stunning example of the aleatory choreography of modern dancer gus solomons jr (NOTE: no caps, no periods). The program garnered a CPB Award for Excellence in Local Programming. Favorite anecdote: panicked call to Rose, our WGBH Receptionist during broadcast:”It’s wonderful! It’s fantastic! But my mother and I were watching and you said to turn up the speakers, so we did—and now they have blown up! What do we do?!”  John Morris did the really aggressive Sound Score, with a Word Score by Mary Feldhaus-Weber based on 16 hours of taped urban noise and 14 hours of recorded interviews with Gus in various urban locations. Peter Downey helped assemble the pieces, Nat Johnson gallantly lived through the sound editing.

    ROYAL FLESH, a two-screen TV black-&-white stereo drama based on the Oedipal Myth by Mary Feldhaus-Weber. The TV viewer at home sat below and in between the two TV sets, like a powerless baby, while the Oedipus father-figure breast-stroked his way across space, snarling and chortling, moving from screen-to-screen like some sort of ominous whale.  An improvisation taped in Studio B, based on Mary’s script.

    Cheers!

  5. In 1984, WGBH Radio, with the support of dbx, Inc. of Newton, produced the first single-point-to-multi-point digital radio broadcast, a live performance of L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande from Kresge Auditorium at MIT. The broadcast utilized digitally encoded audio distributed via video circuits on the PBS satellite to other joint radio and TV licensees in San Francisco (KQED), Pittsburgh (WQED), Rochester, NY (WXXI), and Washington, DC (WETA). The digitally encoded video signal was translated to analogue audio and broadcast locally by each station.

    In 1985, WGBH Radio co-produced with Rundfunk der DDR the first live orchestral broadcast from “behind the Iron Curtain,” broadcasting Bach’s St. Matthew Passion from East Germany’s Leipzig Gewandhaus on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth. The broadcast was distributed to BBC Radio 3, to the CBC, and to over 300 public radio stations across America.

    In 1987, WGBH Radio co-produced with Tokyo FM (a commercial radio broadcaster) the first transpacific digital broadcast, a live performance from Tokyo by the New Japan Philharmonic conducted by Seiji Ozawa.

  6. Jay, we should add the note of This Old House inspired a commercial sit com. Home Improvement>
    I believe that was a first.

  7. In 1984, Susan Dowling and I were awarded the first BESSIE (a New York Dance & Performance Award honoring “outstanding creative achievement”) in Video for “having the courage to give choreographers control of the camera at WGBH.” Widely celebrated by the dance community; I don’t know how elated the directors at ‘GBH were (only kidding! In my experience the three I worked with — Fred Barzyk, David Atwood and Rick Hauser, bent over backwards to realize the choreographer’s dreams.)

    • Nancy Mason Hauser gave me my first taste of public television production — a summer internship during college working with her on these experimental, local dance productions. I learned about videography and editing (1/2 inch, as I recall, on very large machines situated in what became the executive ‘strip’ in 125 Western Ave), and was inspired by the idea of combining art and television. I picked up so much from a community of pioneers, happy to include an eager student. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity, which ultimately sparked a career interest.

  8. You might also check out the dance experiments that were the signature pieces for the WGBH Dance/ Television Workshop. I see these experiments as the origin of the “Dance for Camera” movement. Nancy Mason-Hauser produced and made the experiments happen, aided and abetted by Fred Barzyk and friends. Many of these pieces are historically important — Remy Charlip, the great illustrator/choreographer, just passed away. Remy’s “Meditation” was shown at the close of the Memorial Service in LA this past Sunday. A beautiful work.

    Been thinking about two others, part of a wave of experimentation back in the 60s-70s that also included a What’s Happening, Mr. Silver event, I think:

    ‘GBH was at the forefront of experiments in broadcast television, often breaking the mold of accustomed ways of viewing/receiving entertainment. Two remarkable examples, still startling today:

    CITY/Motion/Space/Game, a two-screen (WGBH/WGBY) television broadcast in color and stereo, a stunning example of the aleatory choreography of modern dancer gus solomons jr (sic). The program garnered a CPB Award for Excellence in Local Programming. Favorite anecdote: panicked call to Rose, our WGBH Receptionist during broadcast: “It’s wonderful! It’s fantastic! But my mother and I were watching and you said to turn up the speakers, so we did—and now they have blown up! What do we do?!” John Morris did the really aggressive Sound Score, with a Word Score by Mary Feldhaus-Weber based on 16 hours of taped urban noise and 14 hours of recorded interviews with Gus in various urban locations. Peter Downey helped assemble the pieces, Nat Johnson gallantly lived through the sound editing.

    ROYAL FLESH, a two-screen TV black-&-white stereo drama based on the Oedipal Myth by Mary Feldhaus-Weber. The TV viewer at home sat below and in between the two TV sets, like a powerless baby, while the Oedipus father-figure breast-stroked his way across space, snarling and chortling, moving from screen-to-screen like some sort of ominous whale. An improvisation taped in Studio B, based on Mary’s script.

    • I remember Mary and Michael Rice, both best friends in school, describing this event. In our home town the AM station i worked for tried a modified stereo sound with AM being one channel. This was in about 1958. I have lost touch with Mary, and her last email address bounces messages. Hope someone can connect us. SVeenker@aol.com.

  9. Wil and I are on vacation with limited access to email, but we wanted you to note that Wil was the engineer who first pioneered stereo radio.

  10. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Thalassa Cruso and Maggie Lettvin joined Julia Child as audience-builders for nascent public television stations. Their “how-to” shows — Thalassa’s Making Things Grow and Maggie and the Beautiful Machine — helped to define the genre, offering idiosyncratic and authoritative guidance for the bewildered horticulturalist and out-of-shape couch potato.

    In 1973, Godspell Goes to Plimoth Plantation for Thanksgiving with Henry Steele Commager became the first TV entertainment special to be shot entirely on-location using the (for then) extremely portable PCP-90 video camera.

    In 1979, WGBH mounted the four-part mini-series, THE SCARLET LETTER — America’s first challenge to BBC supremacy in TV drama. Notable for its collaboration among Hollywood production staff and WGBH regulars, the series was shot entirely on location (Fort Adams, Newport, Rhode Island) and on videotape, using film techniques. For years, it remained among PBS’s most highly-rated cultural specials.

  11. I was one of several engineers involved with syncing the audio of recorded BSO concerts for transmission in stereo on WGBH-FM and in mono on Channel 2.

    This involved syncing of a 2-inch (quadruplex) video machine in TV with an MM-1000 16-track audio playback deck (carrying the concert audio) that also employed one dedicated channel (a sync track) to “read’ and coordinate a pulsed signal from the quad machine. Audio “tie-lines” carried the concert to FM and TV. We used internal control room intercoms and phone links with FM master control to try and keep everyone coordinated. At the heart of everything was a small, black-box reader that linked the machines electronically and kept them “in sync.”

    One night, I was pretty much on my own and after a false cue, darn near missed the sync up at intermission. Tom Keller, Chief of Engineering, was the brains behind the mission and always got a chuckle out of our “tales of horror.” Yet, somehow, it always managed to come together (whew)!

  12. As host of CITY MAKERS Dr Kenneth Clark was the first African American MC of a show that was not exclusively black, i.e., Say Brother. The show featured mayors and urban experts of all shades. Of course Dr Clark is remembered primarily as MC of THE NEGRO AND THE AMERICAN PROMISE, which Fred and I created together.

  13. “In March 1969, “The Medium Is The Medium” aired nationally featuring six artists, Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, Otto Piene, James Seawright, Thomas Tadlock and Aldo Tambellini. Each of them made a short video using WGBH equipment.” George Fifield That collection of pieces is generally regarded as the first time artists were given access to broadcast TV.

    • A slight correction to David’s post regarding Medium is the Medium – it was the first time Video Art was broadcast nationally. Artists had previous been given access to broadcast equipment at WGBH in creating Jazz Images in 1961.

  14. WGHBH Morning Stories — October. 2004. Public Radio’s first podcast. One of the first twenty podcasts distributed and featured on iTunes.

    Created and produced by Tony Kahn. Hosted by Tony Kahn and Gary Mott, Ass. Producer.

  15. RE: The first trans-Atlantic broadcast. I believe this refers to “Man and His World” which was the first LIVE, ROUND-THE-WORLD television broadcast, using the then-new TV satellite technology. It was done in 1967 or 1968, and the WGBH portion was produced by Dave Davis. We were set up in the Boston Public Garden 2 days before the scheduled event, planning to shoot the Swan Boats, but got a call that evening to shift everything to Glassboro, New Jersey, where President LBJ was to meet with USSR Premier Alexi Kosygin for a rare Summit meeting between the US and USSR. We flew to Philadelphia, drove to Glassboro and set up the next day, and the broadcast aired less than 24 hours later. It was in black-and-white, and our segment originated from the old remote “bus.” There are many, many great stories from that shoot!

  16. Under Recommendations 1968, you mention WNET (ch13). WNET was created in 1970, I believe, after PBS was started. WNDT licensed in NJ was the NYC station until WNET was created. I was part of the first staff at WNET in 1970.

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