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EXCELLENCE ON THE AIR
Montana Public Radio and PBS Enrich Montanans
by Patia Stephens
“In the public interest.” That simple phrase is to the Public Broadcasting Act what the phrase “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is to the Declaration of Independence, and what “We the people” is to the U.S. Constitution.
“In the public interest” is the heart and soul of the Public Broadcasting Act, a landmark federal document now celebrating its 35th anniversary. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act on Nov. 7, 1967, establishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, he dedicated “a part of the airwaves — which belong to all the people — ... for the enlightenment of all the people.”
The act, Johnson said, “announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material wealth; our nation wants more than a ‘chicken in every pot.’ We in America have an appetite for excellence, too.
“While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man’s spirit,” he said. “That is the purpose of this act.”
public commons under the Big Sky
In Montana, that mission is carried out to a large extent by Montana PBS and Montana Public Radio, which reach across the state’s airwaves to enlighten and enrich the public with news and cultural programming. Montana PBS reaches television viewers via a broadcast signal shared by two stations — KUFM-TV in Missoula and KUSM-TV in Bozeman — while Montana Public Radio serves western and central Montana through a network of FM stations.
KUFM-TV and Montana Public Radio are a public service of The University of Montana- Missoula. UM also is home to the Broadcast Media Center, where programs for Montana PBS and Montana Public Radio are produced by employees and students. These programs range from the TV documentaries “Backroads of Montana” and “Sun River Homestead” to radio offerings like “Montana Evening Edition” and “The Pea Green Boat.”
TV in the Last Best Place
“I think the fact that it’s a cooperative effort between the two universities says a lot about the fact that we took a sensible approach to public television,” says William Marcus, director of the Broadcast Media Center and general manager of KUFM television and radio. “You have two universities and two station staffs working together to produce one very wonderful television service.”
Montana PBS reaches about 560,000 television viewers, roughly 30 percent of whom tune in at least once a week. As a local affiliate of the Public Broadcasting Service, Montana PBS exposes viewers to top national shows like “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” “Nova” and “Sesame Street.” MSU’s production unit contributes issues-oriented discussions such as “Montana Profiles” — a recent episode was titled “Mouse in the House: Hantavirus” — and live-performance broadcasts, including the “Montana Summer Symphony.” KUSM-TV also handles the technical end of delivering the Montana PBS signal, freeing up KUFM-TV employees to focus more on production.
made in Montana
Perennial favorite “Backroads of Montana, ” which highlights the state’s interesting people and places, collected its fourth Program of the Year Award from the Montana Broadcasters Association for the 16th program in the series, produced by Twiggs, Marcus and Gus Chambers. Another Chambers program, “The Bicycle Corps: America’s Black Army on Wheels,” won a Rocky Mountain Emmy Award for its tale of the 25th Infantry’s 1897 bicycle journey from Missoula to St. Louis.
Both “The Bicycle Corps” and “Sun River Homestead” have aired on PBS stations nationwide, while UM producer Daniel Dauterive’s “Making Frontier House” and “Silence and Solitude: Yellowstone’s Winter Wilderness” also were distributed nationally.
Other award-winning programs produced at the Broadcast Media Center include “Remembering the Columbia Gardens,” a look at the longtime Butte landmark by Ekness, and Twiggs’ “How the West is Fun” series, a program for middle-schoolers. Twiggs just wrapped up another production for kids: “The Really, Really Big Floods,” about Glacial Lake Missoula.
In addition, budding broadcast journalists get their start in the Broadcast Media Center, which serves as the lab for students in UM’s Department of Radio-Television. The recent student documentary, “Montana Gambling: Hold It or Fold It?” shot on location around the state, exposed Montana PBS viewers to different perspectives on the contentious issue of gambling. The documentary was produced entirely by students under the direction of R-TV Chair Bill Knowles, who called it a cutting-edge production on a cutting-edge Montana issue.
Director Marcus aims to make Montana PBS even edgier with the creation of a new position for a producer of public affairs programming. He envisions “sort of a Montana ‘Frontline.’”
“While I think we’re very adept at presenting programs like ‘Backroads’ and historical documentaries,” Marcus says, “there are a lot of present-day issues in Montana that need in-depth examination. Watching ‘Backroads,’ you get the feeling that everyone’s happy and friendly and all of Montana is beautiful. And that’s not always the case.
“I see this new position as filling out that part of what we should be doing to serve the people in the state,” he says.