A Brief History of the Station

The Duluth-Superior Area Educational Television Corporation has faithfully served the people of northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin for more than five decades. As the Region’s Storytellers, PBS North has provided relevant, educational and entertaining shows about both who we are as a region, while also sharing national and global history and events with the people of our region.

The Beginning

In 1952 the Federal Communication Commission reserved 162 channels on the newly assigned UHF band and 80 channels on the VHF band for nationwide non-commercial, educational television. By the end of that year, Minnesota had 11 channels assigned for educational television, including Channel 8 in Duluth, Channel 10 in Hibbing and Channel 2 in the Twin Cities.

The Beck Years

On March 18, 1953, George A. Beck, then principal of Duluth Central High School, and about a dozen interested Duluthians met to form the Duluth Citizens Committee for Educational TV. Beck was elected chairman. Unfortunately, educational television failed to raise much interest outside of the committee, and so they disbanded a year later.

In the summer of 1956, the issue of educational television became more critical. Several investment groups petitioned the FCC to reassign VHF Channel 8 for commercial use since it was supposed that it would never be used for educational purposes. The FCC agreed and proposed to reassign UHF Channel 32 to Duluth-Superior for educational television. Beck and the committee from 1953 mobilized to keep Channel 8 for educational television, marshaling support from some 75 community organizations. In November 1956, Beck’s committee filed comments with the FCC, which ruled early in 1957 that Channel 8 would remain dedicated to educational television.

With new enthusiasm, Beck reactivated the educational television committee as the Duluth-Superior Educational Television Corporation in June 1957. Although initial fundraising efforts failed, the group persevered, and in 1963 applied for an FCC broadcast license for VHF Channel 8. In that same year, WDSE qualified for a facilities grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. After nearly a decade of struggle and disappointment, northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin finally had an educational television channel of their own.

On September 13th, 1964, WDSE sent out its first broadcast with a full day and evening of programming.

From 1964 to 1966, the station’s offices were located in one room on the fourth floor of the Bradley Building in downtown Duluth. For several years in the mid-1960s, the station also leased production studios in Superior. In 1968, WDSE moved to the former KDAL television studio space on the second floor of the Bradley Building.

In early 1967, the Carnegie Commission issued its landmark report, “Public Television: A Plan for Action.” Later that year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, which in 1968 led to the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and National Educational Television (NET). A year later, CPB and the nation’s public television stations decided to change NET’s title, forming the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting created a funding mechanism to develop innovative cultural, children’s, and documentary programming, launching signature PBS series, and earning a reputation for providing high-quality programs. Meanwhile, WDSE pioneered local public affairs programming. Two regular shows were Know Your Government and A Report to the People: public affairs programs that explored issues dealing with area city councils, county boards, and school boards. WDSE also produced regular “Meet Your Candidate” programs prior to elections.

Save Channel 8!

In 1972 the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced plans to condemn the Bradley Building in order to make way for the extension of Interstate 35 through downtown Duluth. When Dr. Raymond Darland, then chancellor of the University of Minnesota Duluth offered the station a site on campus for a new building, the board gave their approval to make plans for a new facility.

Fundraising began in late 1975 spearheaded by the chairs of the building committee, Dr. Arthur C. Josephs and his wife, Adrienne. To kick off the effort, Dr. Milton Sax, a prominent Duluth physician, made a $200,000 bequest in memory of his late brothers. Construction began in April of 1976.

Leading the “Save Channel 8” campaign, Arthur and Adrienne Josephs raised just over $400,000 between October 1977 and January 1978. By the time the Sax Brothers Memorial Communications Center was finished and furnished in the summer of 1978, more than 10,000 persons, businesses, organizations, and government agencies had contributed to the effort to ensure the future of WDSE-TV.

With 170,000 viewers spread out across northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin, WDSE-TV entered the 1980s with a renewed commitment to serving the community. A $2 million investment in upgrading the transmitter system during 1981-1982 strengthened the Channel 8 signal throughout the viewing area.

Local funding has always made up fully fifty percent of the station’s annual operating budget. In March of 1976, PBS and WDSE began on-air pledge drives using station resources to reach the widest possible audience in order to request community support. In 1983, Channel 8 added an additional week of on-air pledging in December. At first, Channel 8 Boosters manned the phones in the studio during pledge drives. But increasingly, teams from Duluth businesses, churches, community, and civic groups and government agencies vied to answer the phones in the studio.

The Jauss Era

George Beck’s vision of public television for the Northland came to full fruition and he retired in 1981, handing the reins to George Jauss, a former teacher, and longtime station assistant general manager. In 1982, Adrienne and Arthur Josephs worked to create the Beck Foundation and directed its development for nearly two decades.

With support from the Beck Foundation, WDSE-TV has stayed true to its mission, providing a venue for national and local educational, cultural and public affairs programming. Channel 8’s longest-running and the most popular locally produced show went on the air on October 1, 1981. Venture North premiered as a half-hour magazine-style program designed to acquaint Northland viewers with the unique people and places of the Lake Superior basin. WDSE-TV followed this success by introducing Doctors on Call in 1982, creating a medical call-in show, featuring physicians from Duluth and surrounding communities. Eventually, in response to community needs, WDSE added more shows, including Minnesota Legislative Report, Album, Lawyers on the Line, Family Focus, Almanac North, Iron Country, Waasa Inaabidaa, Native Report, and other various specials and documentaries.

Community Partner for a New Era

WDSE-TV has been a good neighbor. When a storm in March of 1991 toppled WDIO-TV’s (ABC) 850-foot tower, Channel 8’s management offered Channel 10 space on WDSE’s tower. WDIO broadcasted from Channel 8’s tower until it could erect a new tower later that spring. When KBJR-TV’s (NBC) downtown Duluth studios were destroyed by fire in November 1997, their crews, engineers and studio personnel were invited to share studio space with the staff of WDSE-TV.

Al Harmon and the Digital Transition

With the retirement of General Manager George Jauss in June of 1995, former PBS North Board Chair Allen Harmon became the third general manager in the station’s history. Harmon had been an executive at Duluth-based Minnesota Power before taking the leadership role at PBS North. Trained as an electrical engineer, Harmon was ideally suited to lead the station through the transition to a new generation of broadcast technology. Together with Chief Engineer Rex Greenwell, he set in motion a plan to transition to the new high-definition digital broadcast service as mandated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

A multi-million-dollar investment was necessary to upgrade PBS North’s signal for the digital age. $2-miilion dollars was raised through federal, state, and local sources to fund an addition to the station’s transmitter building and purchase state-of-the-art DTV transmitters. To assure continued service to the Iron Range, the station’s transmitter in Hibbing was also upgraded to the new digital service. The station’s Master Control was completely upgraded to the new digital standard, and ultimately everything in the production chain was updated to complete the transition.  On April 28, 2003, PBS North switched on its digital transmitter for the first time. As it has many times over its 60-years of broadcasting, PBS North was a leader in employing a new technology in its digital broadcasts. “Multi-Stage Depressed Collector Constant Efficiency Amplifier” technology was used in the transmitter, allowing it to operate much more efficiently and at lower energy costs than other digital transmitters.

PBS North broadcast programming on four digital channels during the transition to full HDTV transmission. Local “early adopters” of digital television received those channels using a set top box that converted the signal for their analog television. Eventually, new flat panel monitors with digital tuners built-in were available to consumers. In February of 2009, the old analog transmitters were shut down for the final time by order of the FCC, making the transition to digital-only broadcasts complete. Today, viewers benefit from the digital service with high-definition images and multiple channels of Public Television Programming to entertain and educate. It has all been made possible by support from our members and the underwriters and donors who value what Public Television brings to the region.

PBS North Technology Highlights

  • First Duluth-Superior station to utilize superior quality one-inch VTR equipment – Nov 1981
  • First Minnesota TV station to broadcast with a circularly polarized antenna – Nov 1982
  • First Duluth-Superior station to utilize computer editing facilities – July 1983
  • First Duluth-Superior station to utilize high quality field production camcorders featuring broadcast grade CCD imaging devices and advanced metal particle tape – Aug 1985
  • First Minnesota TV station to begin regular broadcast service utilizing stereo audio – May 1985
  • First TV station in the US to utilize full size CCD studio cameras – Jan 1991
  • First TV station in the world to broadcast utilizing energy efficient, MSDC transmission equipment – April 2003
  • First MN TV station to roll out a program channel devoted to High Definition broadcasting, 8.2 PBS HD, May 2003
  • Added the PBS KIDS Channel over the air in January 2020
  • Began live streaming PBS North and the PBS KIDS Channel, both for free and through YouTube TV in 2020
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