AN ENDURING COMPLAINT about public television—in Texas and elsewhere—is that local stations are reluctant to fund and air anything innovative and aggressive (unless, of course, you count those annoying pledge breaks). Given the ossified nature of the news and the happy talk and haircuts that continue to define public-affairs programming on the commercial stations, you’d think PBS stations like KERA in Dallas, KUHT in Houston, KLRU in Austin, and KLRN in San Antonio would be rushing in to fill the void. But, inexplicably, they aren’t, even though public broadcasting is desperately casting about for an identity on the ever-burgeoning channel band.
It’s not that there’s anything terribly wrong with the programs on these stations, such as KUHT’s nightly Weeknight Edition, a kind of local Today Show with author interviews, recipes, and the like; or KLRU’s weekly Austin at Issue, whose panel discussions and short documentaries focus on state and local politics; or KERA’s weekly On the Record, a recently minted mix of interviews, roundtable gab, and locally produced features and news reports. These shows are well-intentioned and competently produced, as are the stations’ election specials, and they certainly have more of a right to a place on the spectrum than, say, Jenny Jones. The problem is they’re only as good as their limited ambitions, which seem to be to get on and off the air without being noticed.
Station executives cite predictable reasons for their caution in experimenting with more-ambitious programming: money and competition. Budgets at PBS stations tend to be small indeed. The price of a Frontline documentary or a package of Jacques Pepin cooking shows consumes most of what’s available, and if there’s anything left, it’s not enough to bankroll a nightly local news program. “To mount a nightly news program that could compete with the commercial affiliates would be prohibitively expensive,” says Jonnie England, KERA’s former vice president of corporate communications.
Maybe so. But public broadcasting has always had money problems, and its game—when successfully played—has never been to vie directly with commercial TV; it augments, provides an alternative. And, anyway, there’s a precedent in Texas for producing local public-affairs programming on the cheap. The evidence is sitting right there in KERA’s videotape library. The show was called Newsroom, and for a six-year stretch in the seventies it managed to do on a shoestring precisely what isn’t being done today. I say this not merely as a fan of the show but as a former staffer. I was one of its on-air political correspondents for more than a year, from August 1972 to October 1973.
Created in 1970 by Jim Lehrer (then a former city editor at the Dallas Times Herald, now the anchor of PBS’s nightly Newshour With Jim Lehrer ) and funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, Newsroom was loosely based on a show of the same name on KQED, San Francisco’s public broadcasting affiliate. Like that show, Lehrer’s Newsroom was a kind of anti-newscast—an almost self-consciously unpolished and contraconventional nightly roundtable of information and opinion from a motley crew of six to ten reporters, only some of whom were journalists. At various points there was Lee Cullum, the daughter of supermarket mogul Charles Cullum, who is now a columnist for the Dallas Morning News and a regular commentator on Lehrer’s Newshour; Bob Ray Sanders, then a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, now a columnist at the same paper; Bill Porterfield, an award-winning writer who had worked for papers in Chicago and Detroit and later wrote a column for the Austin American-Statesman; A. C. Greene, then a former editorial-page editor at the Times Herald, now a revered Texas author; and Martin Frost, then a local attorney, now a U.S. congressman from Dallas. The Newsroom team was multiethnic, multicultural, and multigenerational long before any of that was chic, and there wasn’t a blow-dried strand of hair or a well-modulated vocal timbre in the place.
The show’s name was not an affectation. Newsroom looked very much like one: The original set was a collection of haphazardly shoved-together desks strewn with papers, files, and typewriters from which reporters delivered their stories in a conversational style. Lehrer, the moderator, would frequently interrupt to ask that a fact be clarified or amplified. If a reporter didn’t know the answer to one of Lehrer’s questions, he was politely—or, at times, not so politely—asked to fill in the blank the next night. If one of us made a mistake in a story, it too was promptly corrected. Lehrer’s conceit, he said, was to create a “newspaper of the airwaves,” so we avoided sensationalism as a matter of policy, preferring instead to risk boring our viewers with important, if difficult-to-digest, details. We didn’t do auto wrecks and we didn’t do weather. We were guided by the facts, though we were encouraged to offer our opinions as well.
We worked the typical beats—city hall, the courthouse, the school district, the state Capitol—as well as new ones, such as the environment and consumer affairs. And we worked them in the most traditional way: day in, day out. After exploring our beats, we arrived each afternoon for an editorial meeting at which we tossed out what we thought was newsworthy and crafted a program on the spot. “The key to the show was its spontaneity,” recalls Lee Cullum, who took over as the show’s moderator in 1972 after Lehrer took a job with PBS in Washington, D.C. “No one, including the staff, really knew what was going to happen next. Some people may have seen it as amateurish, but it’s what made the show lively, and it’s why people trusted us. They really were looking at the gathering of news in process.” This nightly beat reporting was supplemented by a variety of features that filled the remainder of the hour. Guests were brought in for a fifteen- to twenty-minute grilling: Generally they were local political types, though as the program gained notoriety, Newsroom welcomed well-known guests from Lloyd Bentsen to—believe it or not—Muhammad