BY JANET MANDELSTAM
When it began broadcasting on March 3, 1969, Indiana University television station WTIU had three employees, began its day with the national anthem, and signed off in the evening with the IU alma mater. It was on the air just 29 hours a week.
Fifty years later, WTIU has 80 full-time employees and is on the air 24 hours a day. The station broadcasts on five digital channels and reaches more than 1.5 million viewers in 29 counties.
A lot has changed since IU, with the support of then-President Herman B Wells, applied for a television broadcasting license from the Federal Communications Commission.
“The station began as educational TV first, then added programs from PBS (the national Public Broadcasting System),” says Perry Metz, general manager of WTIU and WFIU-FM radio. “Programs evolved as PBS evolved.”
It wasn’t long before the station began developing programs of its own. Barrie Zimmerman, 77, who retired in 2005 after nearly 35 years at WTIU as director of operations and engineering, is writing a book about the station’s history. He notes the parallel advancements in programming and technology.
Among the highlights:
• WTIU and the School of Music co-produced Myshkin, an opera by IU composer John Eaton that aired on PBS in 1973 and won a Peabody Award, the highest honor in broadcast journalism.
• The station acquired its first color studio cameras in 1974 and added its first video mini-cams in 1977.
• For two years beginning in 1977, a group of IU students produced a live, 15-minute wrap-up of high school football scores on Friday night. “It gave them the experience to kickstart their careers in broadcasting,” Zimmerman says.
• In the early 1980s, WTIU acquired its first color production truck. The truck went to the Monroe County Fair, soccer games at Bill Armstrong Stadium, and numerous public hearings.
• With the conversion to digital broadcasting completed in 2009, the station began offering programs on multiple channel streams.
For the past 15 years, Metz says, “We’ve focused on southern Indiana art, history, and culture.” The station produces four or five documentaries a year. He cites Treasures in Your Own Backyard, a history of Indiana state parks that ran as a companion piece to the PBS program on national parks, and a series on “the giants of Indiana history, like poet James Whitcomb Riley.”
The Friday Zone, one of three weekly series, is “one of the last local kids’ programs in the country,” Metz says. “It’s tied to the state curriculum; we’re very proud of that.”
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary, general manager Metz pays tribute to his predecessors. “Bill Kroll really enhanced the infrastructure that made everything else possible,” Metz says. “And Don Agostino solidified the station’s relationship with IU academic departments so that we now employ about 80 students a year for pay; others either volunteer or work for credit.”
As for the future, Metz says WTIU, in concert with WFIU, will be expanding into more local news. “As newspapers decline, we believe public media have an opportunity to step into the breach.”