The birth of WQLN in 1967 will be formally celebrated on Oct. 12.
Fifty years ago Sunday, Erie residents who tuned their Zenith color consoles and RCA Victors to channel 54 saw only gray-scale bars, and heard a brief message, “WQLN-TV, educational television for Northwest Pennsylvania.” A few short animated clips followed.
That was it, but the moment had been years in the making and would finally give Northwestern Pennsylvania its first public-broadcast television station.
“The thing about WQLN is how ridiculous it was that we came into existence in the first place,” said Tom New, president and CEO of WQLN Public Media, which includes WQLN-TV and WQLN Radio. “There’s a word, audacious, and by that I mean the folks who began WQLN started it with this notion that everyday Joes and Janets could start a TV station. That’s anything but the case.”
The birth of WQLN in 1967 will be formally celebrated on Oct. 12, but New has been speaking throughout the community about WQLN’s history, as both a television and radio station. It’s given him a chance to measure the station’s growth, take stock of its success and look forward to what’s next.
Two major events are on the horizon.
One involves portioning 1 Mb of broadband for first-responder communications. In 2016, America’s Public Television Stations, a nonprofit that represents most of the public television licensees in the United States, agreed to allocate the space for FirstNet, a $7 billion federal initiative to place emergency communications on a nationwide network.
“If there is a fire near 12th and State streets, for example, and the fire department has to go in, instead of their bandwidth being jammed up from people doing selfies and movies, they’ll have their own bandwidth on their own devices,” New said.
The other change will impact commercial and public television stations alike. That’s the transition to ATSC 3.0. Think of it as the next step in the evolution of television viewing. Those crisp 720p- and 1080i-resolution pictures projected by your big screen will eventually get even better. The next step is 4K resolution and a host of other upgrades.
To accommodate the transition to ATSC 3.0, WQLN will receive $1.3 million from the Federal Communications Commission’s 2016 spectrum auction for a new antenna, transmitter and other infrastructure. WQLN will be “repackaged and moved,” in 2019, meaning it will broadcast from channel 27. (It currently broadcasts from channel 50, but can still be viewed on channel 54). What does it mean exactly?
“We’re going to be able to broadcast to whatever screen is in front of you, whether it’s a phone or a tablet, a laptop or a TV set,” New said. “That’s going to be huge.”
While those are among the exciting changes ahead, public television and public radio face unique challenges, too.
Tracy Ferrier, director of core strategies for PBS, works with stations like WQLN on diversifying revenue streams and developing audiences. One of the challenges for public media specifically is engaging audiences, “where they want to be engaged and how they want to be engaged,” she said.
“We’ll see a higher level of content being distributed through broadband — just as much as we see through broadcast,” she said. “It will be a different audience. It will require us to communicate and engage in different ways. It’s an exciting challenge and opportunity.”
Funding is also an obstacle. Within three years of its launch, WQLN was a $3 million operation — or about $7 million today when adjusted for inflation. Now, it operates with an annual budget of about $1 million. State funding cuts in 2009 forced New to slash about 10 jobs. And he’s now renting out portions of the station in the space those employees once occupied.
Despite the sea change in the media landscape over the last 50 years, Bob Chitester believes public television remains critical in a country that’s politically polarized.
Chitester played a pivotal role in the formation of WQLN and served as its general manager and later as its president and CEO, from 1966 to 1982. Public broadcasting fulfills a “societal need,” he said.
“Although there are a gazillion channels of video available to the average person, intellectual diversity is still not prevalent,” he said. ” … You get all kinds of political opinion, but that is not serving the citizenry well.”
It’s about ‘community’
When he pitched the concept of WQLN and the need for a “true alternative” to commercial TV to business leaders in the early 1960s, some asked him why programming couldn’t be piped in from Pittsburgh’s WQED.
“You do that, and you don’t have local programming,” he told them.
That’s what has always fascinated New: Most PBS and NPR content is produced by their affiliates.
Shows like “Our Town,” “Sounds Around Town,” and “Perspective” on the TV side, and “Classics with Brian Hannah” and “Live From Studio Q” on the radio side will continue to drive the station’s success and define its place in the community, he said. Sunday’s “Jump Back to School Expo” at Penn State Behrend is an example. The event is closely tied to a show called “Families.” It will feature interactive educational exhibits, meet-and-greets with Daniel Tiger and Clifford the Big Red Dog and free eye and dental exams.
WQLN programming creates “outreach,” he noted, whether it be through fundraisers, expos or political debates.
It’s also created opportunity.
Hundreds of community members have contributed content to WQLN through the years, while others like Ferrier have launched their careers there.
The Erie native volunteered for her first WQLN Auction at age 13. She was hired as the station’s membership chairman at age 27, a post she left after three years. In 1998, she returned as vice president of development. Her experience there eventually led her to PBS. Today she’s thankful for the station and the community that’s supported it.
“It’s something I even talk about now at PBS,” Ferrier said. “People (in Erie) refer to the station as WQLN. Rarely did I ever hear ‘PBS’ or ‘NPR’. It’s always been WQLN. It’s been such a part of their community in so many positive ways. Erie supports WQLN. They always have and always will.”
Matthew Rink can be reached at 870-1884 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNrink.