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Sept. 20, 1954: Channel 9 hits the airwaves in St. Louis

Sept. 20, 1954: Channel 9 hits the airwaves in St. Louis

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UNIVERSITY CITY • Eight men and a woman, all prominent residents, gathered on the temporary set at Washington University. As hot lights glared for the live camera, a voice told viewers, "You are watching KETC."

Public television made its debut in St. Louis at 9 p.m. Sept. 20, 1954, with a one-hour show. Seated among the introductory VIPs was Arthur Compton, chairman of the St. Louis Educational Television Commission, who called the station "a powerful means of education. It doesn't use books, it uses pictures and sound."

It had taken more than two years of planning and fund-raising to put KETC on the air.

Work began in earnest in April 1952, when the Federal Communications Commission announced it would take applications for 2,051 new TV stations across the country. Six were to be for St. Louis, including Channel 9, designated "non-commercial."

Back then, St. Louis had one station — KSD-TV (Channel 5), owned by the Post-Dispatch and on the air since 1947. A TV set cost a whopping $200, the equivalent of more than $1,600 today. For more perspective, women's cotton dresses were $4, chicken was 53 cents per pound and typists started at $160 per month.

St. Louis Mayor Joseph Darst pushed to form the local commission, led by Compton, the chancellor of Washington University. Other members included the Rev. Paul Reinert, president of St. Louis University, and city schools Superintendent Philip Hickey. The Ford Foundation and Arthur Baer, a local department store owner, made hefty donations, and 21 area school districts kicked in money. Call letters "KETC" stood for Educational Television Commission, although the group's first choice had been KNOW. The goal was to begin broadcasting in 1953.

That didn't happen, mainly because early cost estimates were optimistic. A door-to-door campaign in September 1953 raised $105,000 toward the $500,000 goal. The station set up offices and a studio in an old gymnasium in Washington University's McMillan Hall. The staff practiced with closed-circuit broadcasts to two public schools.

The inaugural broadcast included a walking tour of the studio. Sonny Fox, known as the "Finder," told viewers how he would travel the streets in a Corvette searching for youth-oriented features. He introduced Henry the Hummingbird, a puppet.

Station manager Martin Quigley promised robust discussion on local issues. "We draw the line only at profanity, obscenity, slander and sedition," Quigley told viewers.

KETC broadcast its first public-service program the following night with a panel discussion on plans to push Highway 40 through Richmond Heights. Two months later, a first panel of teenagers discussed juvenile delinquency, declaring that parents shared in the blame.

Two years later, the station had daytime educational shows for schoolchildren and evening issues-oriented programs, weeknights only. It wouldn't go to 24-hour broadcasting until 1991.

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