Montana State University

MontanaPBS enriches the lives of Montanans through media, fans say

December 13, 2010 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

What started out in the early 1980s as a quest to bring the popular television show "Sesame Street" to children in the Gallatin Valley has since expanded into MontanaPBS, a robust statewide public television service operating five channels. Today, MontanaPBS reaches more than 260,000 households in nearly 150 communities across Montana. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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What started out in the early 1980s as a quest to bring the popular television show "Sesame Street" to children in the Gallatin Valley has since expanded into MontanaPBS, a robust statewide public television service operating five channels and serving approximately two-thirds of Montana households.

But widespread access to public television hasn't always been the case in Montana. In fact, access has grown enormously since 1984, when viewers in the Gallatin Valley were able to use the first over-the-air signal in Montana to view PBS programs.

Many credit Nancy Thompson Flikkema, a 1973 MSU alumna and lifelong resident of the area, with bringing attention to the issue.

In 1981, with three small children and expensive large-dish satellite television being the only viewing option available in her rural area, Flikkema decided the Gallatin Valley needed access to quality children's programming.

"I saw no reason my kids couldn't have the same programming that others did," she said.

So, Flikkema helped form a group, Montanans for Children's Television, which advocated for public television. For nearly two and a half years, Flikkema and the other members of the group (numbering just about 15 people at its height) explored options for accessing programs such as "Sesame Street," "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "The Electric Company." Even though none of the options panned out, the group refused to stop working.

"It became a passion for me," Flikkema said. "I was the volunteer who just wouldn't give up."

Finally, Montanans for Children's Television turned to MSU, and it paid off.

Though there were no financial resources available in 1984 to operate a traditional public television station at MSU, the university arranged to rebroadcast a signal from Salt Lake City. The relationship with KUED in Salt Lake allowed for the creation of KUSM in Bozeman and its operation with minimal costs for its first three years. And, during that time, KUSM was able to develop enough financial support to become a full-service station. (It is now a collaborative service of MSU and the University of Montana, with KUSM in Bozeman and KUFM in Missoula.)

At long last, Flikkema's kids could watch "Sesame Street" in their own home.

"We were all thrilled," Flikkema said. "I was always one of those moms who wouldn't let my kids watch many of the regular cartoons. I felt like if they were going to watch television, I'd like them to be learning from it."

Today, MontanaPBS reaches more than 260,000 households in nearly 150 communities across Montana. It can be viewed over the air and on cable, satellite and dish networks. In communities where MontanaPBS is available over the air, viewers have access to five channels. The first is the standard channel, which airs the programs that most people are used to seeing on public television -- kids' programs, cooking and painting shows, news and special prime time programs. The other four channels are an educational kids' channel, a 'how-to' channel, a legislative channel and MontanaPBS World.

Providing quality educational programming is part of MontanaPBS' mission as an educational broadcaster, said Aaron Pruitt, programming director at MontanaPBS.

"We're there to present programs that give people a different way of looking at their community and world," he said.

MontanaPBS airs a number of programs that are popular nationally, such as "NOVA" and "Antiques Roadshow." But it also produces hours of local content, including the popular series "Backroads of Montana," "11th and Grant with Eric Funk" and "Montana Ag Live." In addition, a number of in-depth documentaries are produced by MontanaPBS, such as "Before There Were Parks: Yellowstone and Glacier through Native Eyes" and "Never Long Gone: The Mission Mountain Wood Bank Story," both recent Emmy Award winners.

The local programming is what makes MontanaPBS special, said Don Murdock, a Bozeman resident who previously served on the board of Friends of MontanaPBS, an organization devoted to fundraising for MontanaPBS.

"It covers what's happening in Montana," he said. "I like to watch all of the Montana-made productions."

The amount of local content the station produces is unique within the public broadcasting world, Pruitt said.

"We have a long history of offering high-quality local content," he said. "We do a lot of internal production and collaborate with independent producers. We are here to represent a variety of different views and allow for many voices, reflecting the community of Montana."

Jennifer Jeffries Thompson, the current chairwoman of the Friends of MontanaPBS board, attributes the phenomenal local content to two things: luck and a wealth of stories waiting to be told from across the state.

"I think the stories we have in Montana are wonderful," Jeffries Thompson said. "Our stories are compelling, and many of them haven't been told before. They're stories of life."

MontanaPBS' success is evidenced through the numerous awards it has received over the years.

At the most recent Northwest Regional Emmy Awards contest alone, filmmakers from MontanaPBS, along with student filmmakers from MSU and UM, racked up wins in 10 different categories.

"We're so proud of the body of work we produce," said Eric Hyyppa, director and general manager of KUSM/MontanaPBS in Bozeman. "The Emmys are a nice way to recognize that."

Just as importantly, the station's success is evidenced through feedback from its viewers.

Pruitt says it's not uncommon for MontanaPBS staff members to receive letters and e-mails from fans of public television.

"We're constantly interacting with our viewers," Pruitt said. "During our pledge drives, people will send in their pledge amounts and include an extra sheet of paper with long lists of all of their favorite programming. We definitely pay attention to that feedback."

Pruitt says the future is bright for MontanaPBS.

With new translators and transmitters going up around the state, MontanaPBS continues to expand. Free, over-the-air public television recently became available in Great Falls, and initial work is being done in the Kalispell area to bring over-the-air service to the northwest corner of the state. Viewers continue to praise the service, and locally produced content tells the diverse stories of people across the state. Perhaps most importantly, MontanaPBS continues to provide its viewers with access to ideas and places they might not be able to experience otherwise.

"MontanaPBS inspires viewers and spurs discussion about issues," Pruitt said. "It allows people to see things they never would have been able to travel to see."

And people can view it for free.

Since the mission of MontanaPBS is to enrich the lives of Montanans through media, everyone should be able to see it, said Lisa Titus, MontanaPBS' development director.

"Access to public television is needed," Titus said. "Everyone should have access regardless of their ability to pay."

Eric Hyyppa, (406) 994-6252 or