The three years leading up to Channel 9’s first broadcast were challenging, but the need for educational television had been recognized, and the community was determined. Among the influential founding members of the station’s organizing commission was Arthur Holly Compton, president of Washington University and a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Also on the committee were the Reverend Paul C. Reinert, president of St. Louis University, Arthur B. Baer, president of Stix Baer and Fuller, and Ray Wittcoff, a promising young businessman. Filmmaker Charles Guggenheim was appointed general manager, but by the time of Channel 9’s first broadcast, Martin Quigley had assumed the position.
Channel 9 received its KETC call letters from the FCC, but needed additional funds move forward. Support came from the community when PTA members from more than 100 school districts went door to door to raise the $100,000 Channel 9 needed. Schools were so eager for televised programs in classrooms that 25 school districts offered to pay Channel 9 for its services at $1 per student. By the fall of 1954, Channel 9 was ready for its first broadcast.
At 9:00 p.m. on September 20, 1954, Channel Number 9 went on the air in a black-and-white broadcast from a temporary studio in the women’s gymnasium of Washington University’s McMillan Hall. After a welcome from Martin Quigley, and the station’s board chairman, Arthur Holly Compton, Channel 9 broadcast its first program, “The Second Opportunity,” a play that dramatized the necessity of free thought in society.
Six months after Channel 9 went on the air, Powell B. McHaney, president of St. Louis Civic Progress, said: “KETC has become an important community institution. It has demonstrated its enormous potential value as a means of improving the quality of instruction in our schools, of providing our young people with helpful entertainment, and of bringing to a significant adult audience stimulating and unfettered discussions of public affairs and the elements of liberal education. It has made an excellent beginning.”
Only one year after its first broadcast, Channel 9 moved into its own building on the northwest edge of the Washington University campus. Funded by Arthur B. Baer and named in honor of his parents, the Julius and Freda Baer Memorial building
Financial trouble struck again in the late 1950s, and Channel 9 was forced to reduce staff, cancel evening programming, and go off the air during the summer. This time, when door-to-door collections failed to provide the necessary funds, Channel 9 began to solicit $10 memberships, and financial stability was ultimately restored. Membership became and remains Channel 9’s primary source of revenue.
In 1970 Channel 9 completed construction of a high-power color transmission center in South St. Louis County, and in 1971 began color transmission. In 1974, the station began broadcasting on Saturday mornings, then in 1976 added Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, and by 1977 Channel 9 was broadcasting from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. in non-school periods. In 1978 Channel 9 became one of the first PBS stations to receive programs via the Westar I Satellite.
The founders of Channel 9 were successful educators and business leaders who understood that progress in a new age would require relentless innovation. They did not know how it would be done, but they knew why it should be done. With a groundswell of support from the community, they created and sustained one of our nation’s first educational television stations, and 14 years later would witness its evolution into a public television station known for its innovative programs.
(From the KETC website)