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Public TV station in rural Appleton, Minn., keeps up with the times

Jon Panzer, engineering director, from left, Les Heen, general manager, and Chelsea Young, communication coordinator, visit about the growth of Pioneer Public Television since its start 45 years ago. They are on the set for "Post Cards,'' a locally-produced program that features the people and communities in western Minnesota. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)1 / 2
A rural school house was moved to eight acres of donated land to launch Pioneer Television. It began broadcasting from the red schoolhouse on Feb. 7, 1966. It later moved into the former Appleton City Hall and Opera House building, and expanded the facility. A 400-foot tower used to broadcast its signal. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

In 1966 commercial television ruled the airwaves by premiering shows like "The Monkees,'' "Mission Impossible,'' "Batman,'' "Star Trek'' and the "Newlywed Game.''

On Feb. 7 of that year, a group of people flipped a switch and started broadcasting Educational Television from a 400-foot tower planted next to a rural school house holding all of its electronic gear.

If competing for viewers against the prime time line up of commercial TV wasn't audacious enough, then certainly the location for the new station was. Pioneer Public Television's location in Appleton, makes it to this day one of the few public television stations headquartered in a small, rural community.

It was one of the few educational stations to begin life independent of any large, educational or other institution able to take it under wing, according to Les Heen, general manager. A few years earlier, U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy had told his friend and Appleton legislator Martin McGowan that the Federal Communications Commission would be making available 262 broadcast licenses for educational television in the country. One would be available in the Appleton area.

It has come a long ways from when it served mainly to relay the signal of educational television from the Twin Cities.

Today, Pioneer Public Television beams its signal from atop a 1,200-foot tower. Relay towers give it an effective broadcast range covering the western half of Minnesota from the Iowa border to points north of U.S. Highway 10, and eastern South Dakota including Sioux Falls.

It reaches a potential audience of 750,000 people. Heen is working to make sure everyone in the region can enjoy its offerings. Among the station's priorities is to acquire the bandwidth needed so that it can be made a part of the dish and direct signals distributed from St. Paul to the area.

Pioneer Television has made the digital transition and now offers programming on four channels in place of one.

It's also reaching out through the Internet and social media, from Facebook to Twitter. It knows well that changes are still in the making, noted Chelsea Young, communication coordinator for the station.

Television has grown from a five-channel to 500-channel world, and "time shifting'' by viewers is now the norm, Young and Heen pointed out.

Without doubt, the educational TV station in Appleton benefited by the growth of the Public Broadcasting System. Sesame Street didn't arrive until 1969, but it has long outlived its commercial competition. Commercial-free programming and award-winning shows have helped make the Public Broadcasting System number one in public trust, said Heen.

Yet Appleton might still only be a relay in that system if not for station manager Ansel Doll. He championed the effort to produce local programming and give the station its own identity.

It was not an easy task for a rural station of modest resources. "It was a work-in-progress kind of thing,'' laughed Jonathan Hegland, production assistant, when describing some of the initial efforts in the 1980s.

Live, on-air auctions, local basketball games, and still-popular programs such as "Fun Time Polka'' were among the early programming produced locally.

Pioneer Television produces shows aimed directly at the area it serves, such as "Prairie Yard and Garden'' and "Prairie Sportsman.''

It also pioneered viewer interaction by launching shows such as "Your Legislators,'' "Legal Lines'' and "On Call for Health.''

At one point, Pioneer TV also worked with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to broadcast agricultural market information including activities of the Chicago Board of Trade. DTN.Com Progressive Farmer has now carved its own commercial niche in serving this market in rural America.

General Manager Heen points to its new, locally produced program "Post Cards'' as an example of its focus today.

The station remains committed to producing quality, local programming that is about the people and communities it serves. "That's what we really want to have set us apart,'' he said.

It's also the station's goal to continue to develop information that its viewers might not be getting in other places.

Heen credits the station's success in large part to the loyalty of its rural audience and sponsors.

Its rural heritage has certainly mattered in another way too. Hegland noted that its workers came with rural backgrounds. They just made things work, even if their equipment might have been rudimentary in those early years. "We just did it,'' he said.

The attitude was always "let's just pull if off,'' said Jon Panzer, engineering director and station manager.

It's a different story today: The station is well-equipped with all the latest in technology and expertise.

The challenge now is to keep ahead of the ever-changing technology and expectations of modern audiences, said Tim Bakken, production director. "You have to be thinking younger than you ever have,'' he said.

Pioneer TV will celebrate its 45th anniversary through the course of the year with community visits. It tells the story of its 45 years in pictures and narrative on its website:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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