Birth of a Television Station: KCTS

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The year was 1954. Ike was President. The original Dick's Drive-In restaurant opened in the Wallingford district in Seattle. And on Tuesday, December 7, KCTS Channel 9 went on the air as the eighth non-commercial TV station in the U.S.footnote 1

[In the studio of KCTS]
  In the studio of KCTS. Photo courtesy of the Special Collections Division, UW Libraries

The station's call letters stand for Community Television Service, with K signifying a television station west of the Mississippi. It came about when citizens in the Pacific Northwest decided that Seattle should have a station to serve educational and community needs. A major focus of the new station was to provide instructional television for Seattle and King County schools.

It was an experiment in how new communication technologies could serve a community's educational goals. KCTS was founded by means of a gift from Mrs. Dorothy Bullitt, president of King Broadcasting Company, and subsequent grants from the Emerson Corporation and Ford's Fund for the Advancement of Adult Education. The station's license was held in trust for the community by the University of Washington Board of Regents. Space for the station was provided by the University, while its first transmitter was set up at the Edison Technical School on Howell Street and Howard Avenue in Seattle.

Jack Armstrong, who served for many years as Assistant Director of UW Video and TV Technologies, was a senior undergraduate student in the School of Communications when KCTS was established. "It was a big adventure for us, because we were just finishing up as students. We had been involved with KUOW radio and then along came this thing called television. Of course, everybody knew that this was going to be the future, so we could hardly wait to get our hands on the cameras," exclaims Armstrong. "The University's role in the station was an experiment. These stations were funded in different ways around the country; some of them went to universities, some were funded by local non-profit groups, some of them joined together in networks," he notes.

At the time, KIRO TV had yet to be founded; KING and KOMO were still ABC and NBC affiliates, respectively; they had yet to switch over to their present-day affiliations. And Channel 11 was the CBS station at that time.

Channel 9's first broadcast that day in December of 1954 was almost delayed, due to a fire that had damaged the station's studios at N.E. 41st and University Way about three weeks before. But it turned out to be no ill omen, as the station has grown over the past 40 years into a thriving enterprise and a vital part of the Pacific Northwest. Today, the station ranks seventh among Public Broadcasting Stations in total audience, reaching nearly 2 million viewers in the U.S. and Canada.footnote 1

In the early days of KCTS, "there was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm among the people working with the new station," says Armstrong. "It really brought a little extra spirit and step to the campus when it started out. Nobody really knew exactly where it was going, and we could say, my goodness, here we are making television pictures!"

The technology was new and unpredictable. "There were lots of failures technically in those days--you never really knew what was going to happen when you turned your systems on--if they were going to work or not, if the picture was going to be too dark or too bright," says Armstrong. "There was always a great mystery--and it was very hard, it took a lot of care and feeding to make those systems work," he stresses.

In 1955, KCTS/9 began broadcasting twenty hours per week, including Here's How Its Done, a series on hobbies and handicrafts; News in Brief; and Buttons and His Buddies, a children's show lasting 17 years--one of the longest-running, locally produced programs in television history.

The UW Board of Regents approved a $540,000 drama-television building in 1955, allowing the station to move into the new campus building in 1956. In 1959, the National Educational Television and Radio Center awarded a $60,000 videotape machine to KCTS/9, a major advance in technical capability for the station.

Armstrong explains: "Everything was monochrome when we first started out. All black and white. Our first days were not even with videotape. We did it with what they call kinescope recording which was making a 16 millimeter recording off the face of a monitor--so you had a film, and they would play back these kinescope recordings." The advent of videotape soon followed, as the technology continued to evolve.

Students were involved in running the facility on campus in a variety of ways. "We manned all the positions for production--producing, some directing, running the cameras, running audio, announcing, and Edison Vocational Tech was heavily involved in supporting the effort," Armstrong points out.

New transmitter facilities at 18th and East Madison Street in Seattle began operating in 1965, boosting the station's power from 30,000 to 300,000 watts and extending the station's tower from 600 feet to 1,000 feet above sea level. KCTS/9 could reach more homes and produce a clearer picture than ever before. The UW continues to own these facilities, which are used by KCTS/9, KUOW, and other organizations.

Armstrong, after graduating from the UW and entering the military, worked for KIRO when it first went on the air. Those who grew up in the Pacific Northwest may remember him as Ketchican the Animal Man and Sturdly the Bookworm on the classic children's television program, J.P. Patches. Armstrong was producer and director of the show in addition to playing those characters. He returned to KCTS in 1966 where he worked for many years.

KCTS participated in one of the most significant developments in the history of public television by presenting a special live telecast of President Johnson's State of the Union Address in 1966. In addition to being the first such broadcast on educational television, it ushered in the era of interconnected television--using telephone lines to transmit educational programs. Until that time, programs had to wait to be aired until shipped by boat, train, or plane. In 1967, the station installed equipment to carry live color telecasts. And KCTS/9 became part of the newly established Public Broadcasting Service following congressional approval of Warren G. Magnuson's Public Broadcasting Act.

In 1972, KCTS/9 became a membership station. After a major fundraising drive in the mid-1980s, KCTS ended its official relationship with the UW and took occupancy of its new broadcast facility near the Seattle Center in October of 1986.

  1. "KCTS/9 celebrates 40 years of community partnership in the Pacific Northwest," Bob Silver, The Silver Company, and Michelle Barry, KCTS/9.
  2. "40 Years of KCTS," Commemorative history of Channel 9, chronicling the station's growth and development since its inception, KCTS/9.

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