Historical Markers
Station WQED Historical Marker
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Station WQED

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
4802 5th Ave., Oakland, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
August 20, 1964

Behind the Marker

Test pattern post card.
WQED test pattern postcard, 1954.
Emerging from a long experimental period, television came of age after the end of World War II. When the competition for airspace created interference and other technical problems, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1948 froze station licenses, limiting them to 108 stations serving established "television cities," including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Production restrictions during the Korean War extended the freeze from an initial six months until 1952. Consumer demand, however, soared nationwide. In the Allentown area, for example, Pennsylvania Power and Light Televisions reported no televisions in 1946 but 35,415 by 1950.

People stand in line waiting to enter a building.
WQED building, Pittsburgh, PA, 1963.
Begun as a public enterprise in Great Britain, Europe, and Canada, television in the United States, from its start was a private enterprise funded by commercial sponsors who shaped the programming to sell their products. Led by Frieda Hennock, the FCC's first woman commissioner, champions of educational television soon mounted a campaign for reserved educational channels.

In 1951, the Ford Foundation funded "monitoring studies" that documented alarming amounts of violence on commercial broadcasts, and backed an effective lobby for reform. After the FCC reserved 242 stations for educational use in April 1952, prospective educational stations rushed to get on air, hoping to snap up both the FCC licenses and $10,000 grants offered to the first ten stations by Emerson Radio and Phonographic Company.

Just a week after the FCC announcement, markerPenn State hosted the first national conference on educational television. Among the participants was Paul Martin, the director of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Conference, who with the assistance of markerMayor David Lawrence and markerPittsburgh Plate Glass vice president Leland Hazard determined to bring a station to Pittsburgh.

Head shot of Rogers and Josie Carey
Screenshot of Fred Rogers and Josie Carey on The Children's Corner, WQED, Pittsburgh,...
Funded in part by two-dollar donations from some 60,000 residents and grants from Emerson and several local foundations, WQED Pittsburgh, the nation's fourth operating educational station and first community-owned station, went on the air on April 1, 1954. During the inaugural broadcast, Hazard proclaimed that the station would demonstrate "whether it is necessary for someone to get killed to entertain young folks" and "to be trivial in order to entertain." Starting modestly with less than 20 hours on air per week, WQED's weekly broadcasts exceeded 60 hours by late 1955.

One of its early shows was "The Children's Corner," devised by Fred Rogers, a puppeteer and composer, and Josie Carey, the on-screen host, which would go on to become one of the most successful and celebrated programs in the history of public television. Other early programs included televised classes, a political talk show entitled "It's Your Politics," high school football games, and broadcasts of the Pittsburgh Symphony. I

n 1955, drawing on grants from the Ford Foundation, WQED teamed with professors from Chatham College to conduct the "Fifth Grade Experiment," which evaluated the effectiveness of instructional television and televised college courses. In September 1959, WQED became the first educational station to operate a secondary channel, WQEX, initially devoted to in-school instruction.

A young, native child looks through the lens of a television camera.
BAKA, People of the Forest, a National Geographic Special, on WQED, 1989.
Responding to rising public demand for television free from corporate sponsorship and control, Congress in 1967 passed the Public Broadcasting Act, which provided federal funding for "public television." The next year, the newly formed Pennsylvania Public Television Network linked Pennsylvania's seven independent public stations, including WQED with those in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, University Park, Allentown, Scranton, and Erie.

WQED quickly became a national production center distributing "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" in 1968 and producing the "National Geographic Specials" between 1975 and 1988. Local programming innovations included "Black Horizons," the longest running local African-American series on television, which began in 1968, and the "Pittsburgh History Series," which debuted in the late 1980s.

Despite its auspicious beginnings, the station soon came under fire for reflecting corporate interests and sacrificing local needs for national agendas. In 1962, WQED provoked a public outcry when it canceled an appearance by folk singer Pete Seeger, who had refused to answer questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In a facetious letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Simon Girty praised the "Pittsburgh renaissance" for protecting "us against subversive activities like when the Pittsburgh Symphony was asked to play that Russian fellow's piece, and now when Pete Seeger comes along."
Exterior of the WQED building
WQED headquarters, Pittsburgh, PA, circa 2004.

In 1983, WQED again received harsh criticism when it produced "The Chemical People," hosted by First Lady Nancy Reagan, which promoted her anti-drug crusade as a private rather than a governmental initiative. In Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting (2001), professor Jerold Starr would grumble, "By 1993, PBS on WQED had become little more than insects mating, British people talking, sauces simmering, beltway pundits barking, and corporations hawking."

During the 1990s, like many public-television stations across the nation, was plagued by financial problems as corporate underwriting and governmental support declined and financial scandals haunted the directors. To pay its debts, the station attempted to pass WQEX on to an evangelical Christian organization. Blocked by FCC rulings, they reduced it to a simulcast of WQED. In 2002, the station became the first owner of an original educational license to be de-reserved without replacement.

After another deal to sell WQEX fell through, WQED brokered much of its airtime to America's Store, a home shopping channel, which was succeeded by ShopNBC in 2007. Some argue that this has set a dangerous precedent, marring the station's path-breaking reputation.
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