WJCT marks its golden anniversary

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by Max Marbut

Staff Writer

Fifty years ago today, WJCT-TV went on the air for the first time. From the humblest of beginnings, much has been accomplished in that half-century.

Actually, the story begins six years before the station’s first broadcast when a local podiatrist, Dr. Heywood Dowling, learned the federal government had reserved 242 local television channels for educational use. It was required that the channels be noncommercial. One of those stations was Ch. 7 in Jacksonville.

While most of the channels got on the air fairly quickly by aligning themselves with colleges and universities, Dowling had a different idea. He envisioned a station that would be owned and operated by the community.

Dowling convinced civic leaders to get behind the effort and soon the Duval County Committee for Educational Television was formed. It was later incorporated as Educational Television, Inc. of Jacksonville.

The first publicity the effort received was through a parade in February 1954 for students in grades 6-8 followed by a coin drive in the schools. That set in motion a series of events that led to the Federal Communications Commission on March 1, 1957 issuing a permit to operate Ch. 7.

The airwaves above North Florida were much less crowded 50 years ago than today. In fact, when viewers were first able to tune their television to Ch. 7, the number of station choices that were available in Jacksonville in creased by 50 percent.

The market’s newest television station had a very close relationship with those other two broadcasters, Ch. 4 and Ch. 12. In those days, Ch. 7 “borrowed” their production facilities, having only a transmitter and antenna of its own.

On Sept. 10, 1958, Ch. 7 broadcast its first show, a report on educational television from Gov. LeRoy Collins. It was just the second educational television station in Florida, following Miami. It would be several weeks before WUFT in Gainesville and WEDU in Tampa went on the air.

In its first month, Ch. 7 offered only “national educational television” programs from NET, which later became the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and in 1969 the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Over the years, PBS programming aimed at children, like“Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” became a mainstay of public television. Other benchmark programs for the older age groups were also on Ch. 7, including “Masterpiece Theatre,” “Wall Street Week,” “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” “Nova,” “This Old House” and many others.

The national network specialized in programming the arts, science and public affairs and Ch. 7 soon followed suit, producing over the years an inventory of groundbreaking local programs.

In October 1966, Ch. 7 televised the Duval County budget hearing – a year before Florida enacted its Government in the Sunshine laws. It was the first time most Jacksonville citizens had seen their government in action.

Now, 42 years later, all regular City Council and School Board meetings are televised live on cable with production facilities provided by and repeat broadcasts during the following week on Ch. 7.

Ch. 7 received a Ford Foundation grant in 1968 to produce what was called in the grant application a “newsmagazine treatment of local and state affairs.” Four months later, “Feedback” went on the air live five days a week at 7 p.m. It offered viewers the opportunity to phone in questions to local public officials and other newsmakers and soon became the most copied program format in public television.

The Florida House and Senate selected Ch. 7 to produce nightly reports on their annual sessions beginning in 1973. The program was broadcast on Florida’s eight public stations and on cable television throughout the state with weekly summaries available in sign language and Spanish.

By 1977, Ch. 7 offered 12 hours of local programming each week in addition to the City Council and School Board meetings. One of the programs of that era was “The Black Family,” which focused on family relationships in the African-American community. Others included the “Out the Door with Monroe Campbell” fishing show and “Down to Earth with Jim Watson,” which focused on gardening.

The 1970s was a decade that saw Ch. 7 collaborate with Duval County Schools to produce a variety of instructional television for the classroom. The school system provided the curriculum and Ch. 7 provided production and distribution. By 1974, it was known as one of the strongest instructional television units in the nation and the kindergarten series — “Take a Giant Step” — was included in the U.S. Office of Education booklet on outstanding programs in the country.

Public radio was added to WJCT’s lineup in 1972 when “Stereo 90” went on the air. Having radio gave public broadcasting in Jacksonville another dimension, as was evidenced a year later when Ch. 7 and Stereo 90 presented their first live simulcast, broadcasting a performance of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.

The 1980s and ‘90s were also a time of growth and evolution for Ch. 7. In 1982, Ch. 7 partnered with the City to produce “Mayport and All That Jazz,” which later became Jacksonville’s annual Jazz Festival. On its 25th anniversary in 1983, Ch. 7 began broadcasting from its new home at Metropolitan Park.

In 1993, Ch. 7 entered the professional development market and became one of 13 stations selected by PBS to present National Teacher Training Institutes to help science and math teachers use television in the classroom.

The 21st century launched WJCT into the digital age with a new President and CEO, Michael Boylan. One of his first tasks was to mount a capital campaign that would finance the station’s conversion from analog to digital and HD (high-definition) broadcasting for both television and radio. The stations began broadcasting from their new transmitters in 2003 and by 2005, both television and radio offered multiple digital program streams.

When the FCC-mandated switch to all-digital broadcasting goes into effect five months from now, Ch. 7 will operate six digital television channels and five radio channels.

“The technology allows us to provide more diverse services to the community,” said Boylan. “The picture and sound aren’t just brighter and sharper, people today want more content and new and unique programming.”

He also said of Ch. 7’s next 50 years, “One of our challenges will be to maintain technical proficiency, but no matter what the delivery system, our role in the community won’t change.”

While there have been gains on the technology side of public broadcasting, it’s like most businesses in that costs are continuously rising. Unlike other broadcast outlets, the programming available on Ch. 7 and Stereo 90 does not include advertising like on the commercial networks.

Public broadcasting relies on other sources of support to cover the cost of doing business. In 1960, Ch. 7 had receipts totaling $41,000; it will take $7 million to cover the 2008 operating budget.

This year’s major revenue streams for WJCT include $975,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, $680,000 from the State of Florida, $443,000 from the City and the School Board for location production costs for their meetings and a $330,000 grant from the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.

“There has been no decline in the cost of operating the business or subscription costs from PBS, NPR (National Public Radio) or PRI (Public Radio International),” said Boylan. “We’re seeing a general decline in funding from government sources. Individual donors support about 25 percent of our budget and the rest is made up by everything from corporate support to renting spaces in our parking lot for special events.”

WJCT CFO Jocelyn Enriquez said special events help generate needed extra funding.

“We make about $100,000 a year from renting those parking spaces,” said Enriquez. “We love those special events.”

Boylan said one project for the early part of WJCT’s next 50 years will be to develop additional endowments that can support the stations even if the other sources of revenue continue to decline. Enriquez agreed and added, “Endowments are important now and they will be even more important in the future.”

Like most things, public broadcasting in Jacksonville has seen its phases over the past 50 years. When it debuted, Ch. 7 relied exclusively on programming from national educational television, then the station gained a reputation for award-winning local programming in the decades between 1970 and the 1990s. Since then the trend has moved back toward national programming.

Boylan won’t be surprised if there’s a another change in programming philosophy at WJCT.

“If we’re going to build the kind of financial security we want, we realize we’ll have to take some risks, specifically local programming, but we’re recognizing localism is the key to success,” he said. “It seems we’ve gone full-circle.”

photo by Max Marbut

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