From church basement bake sales to technology leader

Pioneer Public Television is settling into its new studio, one of the most modern in the Public Broadcasting System. The generosity of Diane and Ron Fagen of Granite Falls made possible the new, modern digs, but the station stands too on the shoulders of church basement ladies and the cooperative spirit of those who built western Minnesota

Station Manager and Interim General Manager Jon Panzer shows how the studio control room operates March 13 at the recently updated Pioneer PBS television station building in Granite Falls. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

GRANITE FALLS — Never underestimate the power of church basement ladies holding bake sales or the western Minnesota spirit of cooperation.

They are part of the heritage that has made possible Pioneer Public Television.

And thanks to the generosity of Diane and Ron Fagen of Fagen Engineering, Pioneer Public Television is now one of the most modern of the 360 public television stations in the country. It operates in an 18,500 square foot, state of the art studio and production facility that rivals any other.

Although based in the second smallest of the communities in the PBS network, Pioneer Public TV is aggressive in producing local programming for its rural viewership. Pioneer Public Television produces seven of its own signature programs. In the last seven years, it has been recognized with 12 Emmys for its works.

“We’re definitely punching above our weight right now,” said Jon Panzer, interim general manager and engineer for the local public television station. He spoke last month while joined by Patrick Moore, communications director, and Tracy Hanson, marketing director, as they prepared for what they had expected to be busy times hosting visitors to the new facility in Granite Falls.


Until the COVID-19 pandemic upended everything, the station’s staff had been planning to host tours of its new facility in April and May for the public.

There has been a lot of interest by the public in seeing the new digs and the technology, Hanson said.

Pioneer Public Television began moving its operations to its new studio in Granite Falls in February 2018. Much of the past year has been devoted to the complex task of moving from one facility to another without allowing so much as a blink in broadcasting. Moore described it as being like switching from one canoe to another in the middle of a stream without falling in. “It’s a tricky operation,” he said.

Soon, the transition will be complete. All that is waiting to be completed is the erection of two towers — one by the station and another near Watson — to provide a line of sight relay between the studio in the Minnesota River Valley and its nearly 1,300 feet tall tower on the prairie near Appleton.

The Swift County community has been home for Pioneer Public TV since it began broadcasting on February 7, 1966.

U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy had called the City of Appleton in the late 1950’s and asked: “How would you like a TV station in your town?” The federal government was developing the Educational Television network. By virtue of its location, Appleton was the right site for a microwave tower for the Midwest portion of the broadcast network, according to Moore.

The senator’s offer came with a catch. The community needed to raise $30,000. That is where the church basement ladies literally came to the rescue. The bake sales they held were a big part of the rural community’s ability to raise the funds, said Moore.

Local business and elected leaders in the community helped form the nonprofit West Central Education Television Corporation in 1958.


Moore said the cooperation was very similar in spirit to the cooperative movement that built much of our farm-to-market network and brought electricity to the rural landscape.

A local farmer donated six acres of land and a one-room schoolhouse to the new venture. The city’s turn-of-the-century opera house became the station’s home.

Unfortunately, it was becoming increasingly apparent in more recent years that the Appleton facilities — most of which had been adapted for use by the station over a half-century ago — were no longer able to meet the demands of today’s technology. Pioneer Public Television was in the midst of seeking legislative funding for new equipment and a capital campaign for new facilities when Diane and Ron Fagen offered to donate land and build a new station.

“The Fagens did a really good job,” said Panzer of the result. “They really listened to us.”

The company’s engineers worked with Pioneer Public TV staff, its architects and acoustic engineers with experience in the television industry to design and build the station.

To provide soundproofing, doors are made of lead, there are double walls and three-layer thick ceilings. The floor of the production studio floats on Styrofoam blocks.

The station continues to get inquiries and visits from engineers interested in its chilled beam heating and cooling system. It silently keeps the interior at a constant temperature with a flow of hot and cold water.

Step inside the building, and a visitor’s eyes will be drawn to the central, glass-walled meeting room. With high-tech video conferencing equipment, the room is offered for use by a wide range of organizations from throughout southwest Minnesota. Connecting with the greater community and supporting civil discourse has been part of the station’s mission from the start, and that is why this room became central to the new building’s design, explained Panzer.


Outside, the building’s exterior was designed to fit “quietly” into its natural setting directly across from a Scientific and Natural Area known as the Blue Devil Valley. A native prairie landscape surrounds the facility.

Pioneer Public Television serves a viewership that includes all of southwestern Minnesota and extends into northwestern Iowa and eastern South Dakota and reaches north to Fargo, N.D. Towers in Appleton, Chandler and Fergus Falls broadcast its signals. Programming is also available through satellite and internet streaming services as well as cable, giving the station a reach that includes the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin.

Its new home in Granite Falls is part of the historic land of the Dakota people, and makes it a neighbor to the Upper Sioux Community. The station values its relationship with the community, and has dedicated itself to helping tell the modern-day story of the vibrant community, said Moore.

And as always, the station remains committed to telling the stories of the rural area it serves. “We are member-supported,” said Panzer. “That’s how things get supported here. Ultimately, we are a locally-supported organization, and locally controlled.”


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