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WPBS noting 50th anniversary Public TV station evolves from using donated air time to entering the digital age

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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Fifty years ago this month, north country-based public television was launched with one hour of donated air time on WWNY- TV.


The station, which would grow to become WNPE-WNPI and today goes by WPBS, didn't have a studio, transmitter or other equipment. But looking to its community for inspiration is part of the formula that has made for a successful half century.


"They have a sense of purpose," said Donald R. Meissner, host of the station's locally produced "Rod & Reel Streamside," which ran from1985 to 2004.


Highlights in WPBS's 50-year history, with a look ahead, will be broadcast at 8 tonight when WPBS presents a one-hour film, "Turn on the Future."


Mr. Meissner recalled that he was working for a statewide fishing publication when he ran into William J. Saiff Jr., president and general manager of WNPE-WNPI, at a local outdoors store.


"He said, 'How'd you'd like to be on my show?'" Mr. Meissner said.


Mr. Saiff was host of the locally produced "Rod & Reel," which went national in 1985 after nine years of being shown locally. He retired from the show in 2001 when his son William J. III took over as host. The show ended in 2006.


Eventually, after guest appearances on "Rod & Reel," Mr. Meissner became host of "Rod & Reel Streamside." He said he jumped at the idea for the show that was suggested by Mr. Saiff.


"I did it without knowing the first thing about a camera or anything," he said. "It was all because of Bill Saiff giving me a chance."


In 1987, the station also was producing and distributing the shows "From a Country Garden" and "Discovering Pets."


Tonight's special will include live studio guests who helped shape the station. Lynn Brown, WPBS director of programming and development, said "Turn on the Future" mixes local station highlights with newsworthy national events of the past 50 years.


"We thought it would be kind of boring with just talking heads," said Mrs. Brown. "We think it turned out very well."


Other 50th anniversary events include an anniversary gala Aug. 8 at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton with special appearances by PBS President Paula A. Kerger and Clifford the Big Red Dog.


An "exclusive donor concert" is planned for Nov. 22 at the Clayton Opera House.


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In 1958, the St. Lawrence Valley Educational Television Council Inc. became the third organization in New York to be granted a charter by the state's Board of Regents to operate an educational television station.


Among those with a dream of a local educational station were Watertown educators Harold T. Wiley and W. Henry Case and Lewis County educator Emogene Talcott.


Richard A. Jones became the station's general manager in 1958 after graduating with a master's degree in radio and television from Syracuse University. The station has had just three general managers in its 50 years.


"I got the job because I said I could produce three shows," Mr. Jones said from his home in Hershey, Pa.


In one of the shows, Mr. Jones played a clown. "He didn't have a chance at education, so he visited a kindergarten teacher and the class after school," Mr. Jones said about the show's concept. The clown also was taught proper manners.


Mr. Jones said there were certain challenges in managing "a community-owned station in a small town."


"We managed to get enough funding from sources that were not typical," he said.


Today, WPBS has 8,000 members. Seventy percent of them are Canadian. The station's programming budget this year is $430,000, an increase of $50,000 in five years, Mrs. Brown said.


Mr. Jones left the station in 1980 to become deputy general manager for the Pennsylvania Public Television Network. He was replaced by Mr. Saiff, who came to the station in 1973 as operations manager. Mr. Saiff, who retired in 1996, now helps to run the family's fishing charter business based in Henderson Harbor. Thomas F. Hanley has been the station's general manager since 1996.


Mr. Saiff was a producer at WWNY before coming to WNPE, and when he came to the station, he said, he had a particular view of public broadcasting. "There wasn't anything for guys like myself that I call beer and hamburger guys," he said.

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