Interview Date: Tuesday July 25, 2000
Interviewer: Tom Southwick
Interview location: WPSX studio, State College PA
Collection: Hauser Collection
SOUTHWICK: I’m Tom Southwick and this is part of The Cable Center and Museum’s Oral History Program. We’re at State College, Pennsylvania at the studios of WPSX and it is July 25 of the year 2000, and we’re with Marlowe Froke. Marlowe, I feel a little strange because you yourself have done a lot of oral histories and interviewed many of the leaders of the cable television business and I’ve read many of those oral histories and yet here you are in the hot seat, but I’ll learn from some of the histories that you did and begin, if I may, by asking you to talk a little bit about your upbringing and your parents – where were you born, some of the biographical information from your early life, if you would.
FROKE: Well, first of all, thank you, Tom, for inviting me to do the history with you and impose on other people the necessity of reading some of these things from time to time, or viewing them from time to time, but I do feel that it’s a very, very significant part not only of The Cable Center and Museum but also in terms of the academic scholarship that is necessary in any field in order to legitimize the field itself. So what you’re engaged in, I think, is terribly important. Not that your interviewing me is terribly important but the whole process of oral and video history is terribly important.
I’m a native of South Dakota, Tom. I grew up in a small town called Vianna, or ‘Vienna’ – when I got older I found out the correct pronunciation, but it was Vianna all of the time I was growing up. It’s near Naples and near Scotland and some of the other small communities with European names, reflecting their ancestries that were established back at the turn of the century as the railroad industry was moving westward. So the railroad entrepreneurs convinced Congress that they would have to find a way to motivate settlement west of the Mississippi if the railroad was going to be completed. With railroads spanning the entire country, small towns along the paths of the railroads were needed to service them. Congress responded with the Land-Grant Act that provided 160 acres to those who would settle and farm them. The small towns did result, each with wide roads whose need was learned from the experiences of the narrow roads in the eastern part of the country. Depots were built as the railroad stopping points; grain elevators went up to take care of the farmers who would bring their crops in for storage until they could get loaded on to the railroad cars. Every one of the small towns had aspirations for growing and perhaps becoming a city. Vianna with two railroads intersecting–the Great Northern and the Milwaukee–had a high level of aspiration. We had about 500 people in town when I was growing up and the town street, Main Street, was wide. Saturday night and Wednesday night were big times for Vienna, with shoppers coming from a 50-miles radius. There were band concerts by the Vienna Municipal Band.
Today there’s absolutely nothing left of the town to speak of, probably about 15 people. The residences have collapsed within their foundations, or the houses have been moved to another community. And the only stores, retail establishments, that are still there are the grain elevator to take care of the farmers’ crops, and a bar, which was a challenge when I was growing up as a youngster as to when I would have an opportunity to be admitted.
.SOUTHWICK: So to speak.
FROKE: And then the other Main Street building that is left is the post office. A small post office was integrated with a coffee shop. The rest of the town is dead. The school building has collapsed. It never was a large school; the maximum students in the high school was about 35. There were eight in my graduating class. The wife of the depot agent was the superintendent of schools – this was during the World War II days – so my background is South Dakota.
SOUTHWICK: When were you born – what date?
SOUTHWICK: Exact date?
FROKE: November 4.
SOUTHWICK: And what did your parents do?
FROKE: My father was a World War I veteran, he was a crippled veteran. He was injured in the war and he earned his living as a creamery buyer. The farmers would bring their sour cream in which would be weighed, placed in big cans and they would be collected from his creamery twice a week by the Beatrice Creamery out of Nebraska. They would come with their trucks and load up the big cans of cream to take back to Beatrice.
One of the excitements as a youngster below the teens was when my father would bring home a jar of sweet cream that somehow or other got mixed in and brought in from the farms as a gift to my father. This was before there was really good refrigeration. We did not have a refrigerator. We dropped things by rope and pail into a cistern and kept it cool there. When needed we pulled them out, usually with frogs in the pail. But we’d take that sweet cream and spread it over a couple slices of bread, scatter some sugar on it and it was the best dessert that you possibly could have. We always waited for Pa to come home from the creamery to see whether he had any sweet cream with him on that particular day. My mother, then, worked in the home in order to supplement the income. She made candy – fudge and divinity, and my brother Merle and I then would run around the town selling the candy for a penny. You could buy six pieces for only a nickel.
SOUTHWICK: Wow! You had the best of both worlds then, the sweet cream and the candy.
FROKE: The sweet cream and the candy. And then the hard times of the Depression years. There was no running water. A pail of water was pulled in the morning and sat with a single dipper that was used for drinking by all of us. An outdoor toilet took care of our toilet needs. We would tip it over, along with others in the town, at Halloween. Toilet paper was the latest Montgomery Ward catalog. What appear to be hardships now were not seen by us as such when we were growing up. My father’s health, however, was a critical factor. When my mother died the family could not be sustained. It broke up. Two of the sisters went to live with…
SOUTHWICK: How many siblings did you have?
FROKE: There were nine of us.
FROKE: Nine of us total, yeah. Size of family still reflected the needs of the farmer and his wife in taking care of all of the work.
SOUTHWICK: And you were what number?
FROKE: I was the last one. I was the baby in the family. I was also the last one in the weekly tub of bathing water. Order was based on age.
So the family scattered. Two of the sisters went to live with my mother’s sister and her husband and an older brother went to live with an uncle on a farm down by Howard, South Dakota and I went to live with some neighbors across the street, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Olmsted. He was the rural mail carrier for Vienna, covering about 200 country miles each day to deliver mail to the farmers. His salary, while not large, made it possible to have things that were far beyond what we had at home. They had running water from a cistern that stored the rain, indoor plumbing, central furnace heating….
SOUTHWICK: And you were how old?
FROKE: I was seven. My mother died when I was eight and I established permanent residence across the street. I had the best of both worlds; I had two families, sort of an informal foster family and then the blood family. So those were the early years.
SOUTHWICK: And you went to school in Vianna?
FROKE: In Vianna..
SOUTHWICK: And where to college?
FROKE: I was graduated from Vianna School in 1943. I was sixteen at the time.
SOUTHWICK: So did you go into the service?
FROKE: Yes, I went into a military program that was called the Army Specialized Training Reserve Program (ASTRP) where they would send you to college until you reached your 17th or 18th birthday and then you went off for military training. I went to South Dakota State for almost a year and then went to Fort Benning, Georgia for infantry training. I was in the military until the latter part of 1949, December ’49.
SOUTHWICK: Where did you serve?
FROKE: From Fort Benning we went to San Francisco and then we were scheduled to go to the Philippines. The war with Germany had ended in June, 1945. Now in the Pacific and aboard a troop ship, we saw the war end with Japan also. The ship was then rerouted to Yokosuka, Japan.
SOUTHWICK: So you were in mid-ocean when you heard the war was over?
FROKE: When the war was over – in mid-ocean, yes. That was good news, especially good news. I was in the 25th Infantry Division and we did military police duty in Osaka, Japan. We were shipped from Yokosuka by railroad to Osaka. As those servicemen who had seen heavy combat in the war began to go back to the United States as quickly as possible, the long-standing military units and the service units had a real need for personnel. Existing units in the Division used Divisional personnel records to find replacements. One of those from the Armed Forces Radio Network was going through my records and saw that I was the editor of our high school newspaper, a one-page mimeo publication. On an overnight basis I became the news director and sports director of the armed forces radio station in Osaka, Japan.
SOUTHWICK: Let me go back a little bit. How did you develop an interest in journalism?
FROKE: That was it.
SOUTHWICK: In high school?
FROKE: From high school.
SOUTHWICK: Did somebody inspire you to do that or was it just a natural affinity?
FROKE: No, I did well in English and somebody had to be editor of this once a semester one-page sheet that came out as the Vi High News. So I did it, but not with any specific interest in journalism as such. I think I had an appreciation of the weekly newspaper that existed in town, the Vianna Register. It obviously is gone like most of the small town weeklies are.
I earned my pennies candling eggs in a local grocery store–the Pinholt Grocery. The farmers brought in the eggs at the same time they brought in the cream. We candled them, looked at them through bright light to determine if they were fresh. If not, I threw them away. If so, I packed them in a big crate for sale and shipping to a distributor. They might end up in any part of the country. During the summer months and holidays when school was out, I worked on the small grain farms, milking the cows and swilling the pigs and that kind of thing.
SOUTHWICK: And in Japan, what were your duties in terms of the…?
FROKE: Military police duty, initially. The most traumatic part was – this being right after the war – patrolling along the canals and then working with the Japanese to pull the suicides from the canals. Loss of the war was a major psychological event for the males. Every morning there were three and four on your particular beat that had gone into the canals. Each Saturday morning we guided the path of the 25th Infantry Division as it paraded down McArthur Boulevard as a reminder of the presence of the United States .But then after that I went to Armed Forces radio station, WVTQ, it was almost like being back in a civilian life… beyond all expectations. A Japanese boy made my bed each morning and prepared meals. We had our own motor pool and frequently checked out a jeep to drive around , around Osaka and Kobe, the port city next door.
Both had been leveled through U.S. bombing.
SOUTHWICK: And that was your first experience working in a radio station?
FROKE: It was, yes. I froze up when I first hit the microphone.
SOUTHWICK: Really? You were an announcer then, or reporter? What was the designation?
FROKE: We did not have any means of gathering news except by shortwave, so on a typewriter, manual typewriter, we would turn on the shortwave radio and then try to keep up with the readers of the shortwave news broadcasts. We didn’t get every word because of interference but we got enough to then go back and fashion a newscast for the programs that would be coming up on WVTQ..
And I did the play-by-play of sports events between the military units, 25th Division, 24th Division, I CORPS, 11th Airborne, so on. These, again, were first-time events for me because our high school did not have enough youngsters to field a football team. When I was in high school I listened to Bill Stern on the radio so I knew exactly what a play-by-play announcer should say. My first problem came on the first game that I did. Another staff member of WVTQ was doing color and obviously knew more about sports than I. At that first game, the kick-off was taken on the 30-yard line, I then followed him up to the 40, the 50, the 60, the 70 and the 80…. I still see the look from my colleague.
SOUTHWICK: This would not go over well at Penn State, I don’t think, if you were doing that commentary there.
FROKE: But I soon learned that you go the other way when you hit that 50-yard line. You start counting backward.
SOUTHWICK: Did you stay with the Armed Forces Radio, then, through your military service?
FROKE: I did.
SOUTHWICK: And where did you go after that? Did you serve in Korea? You got out in ’49, you said?
FROKE: Yes, before Korea. I was thinking about re-enlisting, as I had for one year earlier. I had a certain amount of fervor for being involved in Korea. And then Tom Parisi, who was the civilian manager of WVTQ, called me to his office and said, “Marlowe, you’ve got to be realistic one of these days.” So I decided not to enlist. I came back to the United States on another troop ship and enrolled at South Dakota State and finished up my baccalaureate degree in 1951. I got military credit and ASTRP credit, so I was able to finish up the baccalaureate degree very quickly.
SOUTHWICK: What degree did you get?
SOUTHWICK: So the bug had bitten you by then.
FROKE: I decided then to be a journalist. With another friend we organized a sports network at South Dakota State and we started doing the football and the basketball games, selling them to a local radio station in South Dakota. I found out how they made money. We did a little bit of work with the student newspaper and on weekends I would hike up to Watertown, South Dakota about 60 miles away and do the weekend stint, including a program with organ music in the background and I read poetry – words and music. But journalism was primary interest.
SOUTHWICK: And what did you do when you got out of college?
FROKE: I went to the station in Watertown on a full-time basis.
SOUTHWICK: Doing news?
FROKE: Doing news, yes. I was News and Sports Director there. I handled the local news for the early morning, noon and evening newscasts. We did baseball games and high school athletic events.
I had my first hassle on journalism standards when I was in Watertown. It was a silly little argument with the district attorney for Codington County who did not think that I was being fair in the political coverage for 1956 elections. He did not think that I counted the size of the audience correctly and did not adequately treat the quotations from speeches of political candidates who came to Watertown. So he wrote me and then he wrote the owners of the station who owned The Midland National Life Insurance Company, one of the largest in the Mid-West. And its president said, “Marlowe is the news director.” That was it.
SOUTHWICK: They backed you.
FROKE: Yes, without any trouble.
SOUTHWICK: Great. How long were you there?
FROKE: I was there for just less than a year and then I decided I’d go to Chicago to get on a bigger station, and to earn an advanced degree from Northwestern University. It has a widely known journalism program in the Medill School. But costs in Chicago were much greater than in South Dakota. I dropped out because of a lack of resources. After a year back at Watertown at KWAT, Northwestern called to offer a graduate assistantship and perhaps part-time employment at WGN. I got a graduate assistantship there. In addition to that, the director of the radio and television program at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern got me an overnight job at WGN in Chicago.
SOUTHWICK: That was a big station, wasn’t it?
FROKE: Yes. A clear channel station at 50,000 watts. It could be heard in most of the country. I wrote the overnight newscasts for Daddy O’Daley, a disc jockey. He was a great jazz scholar.
SOUTHWICK: And he would read your newscasts?
FROKE: I read my newscasts.
SOUTHWICK: Oh, you read them. You were on the air.
FROKE: Yes, I read them. Daddy O’Daley did all of his music intros in rhyme and every once in a while I would get sufficient courage…
SOUTHWICK: What rhymed with Froke.
FROKE: I don’t want to answer that! Every once in a while I’d get sufficient courage to write the newscast in rhyme and he would have a lot of fun with me on that.
As a part of my responsibilities I helped write and edit the early evening television news broadcast for WGN-TV. At that time, it was the Midwest anchor station for the Dumont Television Network. Dumont was selling television sets at that time and like RCA, which owned NBC, they wanted to stimulate sale of the sets by increasing the amount of programming that would be available. The Dumont Television Network tried to build a national television station network as a possible strategy to increase the public demand for television and hence the sale of television sets.
SOUTHWICK: They had an employee named Ralph Baruch who became a power in the cable industry.
FROKE: Right. And Les Nichols was the reader for the 8:00 morning news and was very good.
SOUTHWICK: Were you aware at that time of cable television? Had this kind of come on to your horizon?
FROKE: Not really, no. In fact, it probably was not until the early 1960s that I really became aware of it.
At WGN, I had pulled a district attorney type strategy, challenging the news director, Spencer Allen and a reporter by the name of Les Moneypenny on some of the coverage that they were doing about the then mayor Richard Daley. Les was a real good friend of mine and he taught me a lot going around on some of his reporting beats with him during the daytime hours when I did not have to be out at Northwestern to teach a graduate laboratory at Medill.. He created a series that ran as Lessons for Lohman. He was the Cook County sheriff, heavily influenced by Mr. Daley. I disagreed with Les’ strategy. I did not think that it was appropriate journalism and at the same time I disagreed with some of the things that were reported.
SOUTHWICK: Why? It was too pro-Daley or too anti-Daley?
FROKE: Too anti-Daley, and I thought that it was lacking in objectivity.
SOUTHWICK: It was a hatchet job, kind of? They were out to…?
FROKE: That is strong language, but I went in to talk to Spencer Allen and told him about my disagreement and I almost came close to using the terminology that you did, but instead I said I didn’t think that I would be able to stay with WGN unless something was done along this line. He said, “Well, if you’re going to leave, leave today.” That was my first introduction to management strategies.
SOUTHWICK: And principles and those kinds of issues.
FROKE: So I did. I left and I got in my little red Buick convertible and drove around the country for about six months and had a great time.
SOUTHWICK: You’d graduated from Northwestern then by that time?
FROKE: I’d graduated from Northwestern by that time, yes.
SOUTHWICK: Let me ask you another question before I forget about it and that is where and when did you first see television or become aware of it?
FROKE: Jim Palmer in State College, Pennsylvania, which goes to the early ’60s…
SOUTHWICK: Not cable television, the television set.
FROKE: Oh, a television set.
SOUTHWICK: Yes, when did you see a television set for the first time?
FROKE: Not in South Dakota! No, there wasn’t anything in South Dakota during all of that time period.
SOUTHWICK: In Chicago? Or maybe in the military?
FROKE: It was in Chicago and in Evanston, just North of Chicago, where I worked and taught and took courses. Color had come, but rather primitive. And we still worked in film for news. Videotape in smaller formats had not arrived. News coverage was done by 16 mm film. WGN-TV used Bell and Howell cameras. I shot film as well as wrote background copy for it, and radio and television newscasts. The reporters also did work on film. I remember my first film effort, a mobster story. Some bodies were found in the trunk of a car down by the University of Chicago, not deep Southside, but the University of Chicago, so I grabbed my camera and went down there and shot into the trunk and we had a lot of discussion then about whether…
SOUTHWICK: To show it or not?
FROKE: Whether to show it or not. Spencer Allen finally decided to go ahead and show it. That was my first encounter with bodies, and all of the issues that are raised when one is reporting that kind of story.
Similar issues arose with the Cook County Jail riot. I covered it with film and audio remotes, something that brought written praise from one of the Chicago Tribune’s officers/editors.
SOUTHWICK: So you drove around the country for awhile after quitting WGN?
FROKE: I did. I headed South and Southwest; I was out in Los Angeles and San Francisco and Seattle.
SOUTHWICK: And that was your first time, I suppose, seeing a lot of that?
FROKE: It was. Along the way I tried to watch television news more closely, and I visited a few stations, not to apply for work but just to observe. When I got back to South Dakota to the Olmsted home six months later, there was a telephone message from the University of Illinois. The dean of the college of communications there wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming to Illinois to teach television journalism and start a news and public affairs program for their new non-commercial educational television station.
SOUTHWICK: Wow! How did that happen?
FROKE: He said that he had heard me on WGN radio occasionally, and then he said he’d also talked to a faculty member at Northwestern University who thought I might be a good academician.
SOUTHWICK: That was a nice thing to come home to, I would think.
FROKE: I said, well, I can try. And I started at the University of Illinois in 1955.
SOUTHWICK: And that’s where?
FROKE: Urbana-Champaign, about 120 miles south of Chicago, and I was there for three years. I taught the television journalism courses and the news film courses and then I did a half-hour news program every night on the educational station, WILL-TV. Occasionally I did some radio for WILL.. I had a lot of fun experimenting with some new formats, or at least they seemed new at the time. Rather than have 5 minutes of news by a separate advertiser and 5 minutes of weather by a separate advertiser and 15 minutes of general news by a separate advertiser and so on, which was the pattern at that time, why not integrate the whole works? So my daily half-hour was integrated: news, weather and sports. Depending on the flow of news, I would start sometimes with sports, sometimes with weather. And I would divide the segments with a sense of importance of each of the segments. I would also start the news program with major stories from the other two segments, a weather tornado, a World Series baseball game….. I suppose the closest thing to it today would be the Lehrer News Hour on public television, which relies heavily on interviews and conversations with specialists, although not sports and weather. For interviews, my specialists were from the faculty of the University of Illinois.
For every public station licensed to a University, its faculty are an unlimited resource for original background information. We also integrated the teaching of graduates and undergraduates with the public affairs program. The students did local coverage and participated in all aspects of the preparation of the daily program, including on-air presentations.
We did get some inquiries from two of the networks – NBC and CBS – about the half-hour format.
SOUTHWICK: They were doing 15 minutes at the time.
FROKE: Yes. Their half hour format did not come until l964 or so. So in grandiose moments, when I was almost ready to go to sleep at night, I’d say that I played a role in CBS and NBC deciding to expand into half-hour news formats. Their visits might have led to their decisions.
SOUTHWICK: You never know!
FROKE: You never know.
SOUTHWICK: What years were you there at Illinois?
FROKE: I was at Illinois from 1955 to 1959. Most of my career in journalism and education happened through coincidence. That continued when Gene Goodwin, a reporter with the Washington Star, who had been named the director of the school of journalism here at Penn State, was making the rounds of schools and colleges of communications to find out how they do things. He stopped at Illinois. The dean was tied up the first evening and was not able to meet with him for dinner, so the dean called and wanted to know if I would go out for dinner with Gene Goodwin and I said sure. At 2:00 a.m. and then 3:00, I was still drinking cocktails with him at the local bar. We had a lot of fun together.
When he got back to Penn State he wrote and inquired if I wanted to come to Penn State and teach. At first I said no, that I was too happy at Illinois. By the time a third letter came with still another jump in the offered salary, I said yes. I arrived at Penn State in the winter of 1959. As chance would have it, I ran into a heavy snow storm in Iowa that followed me East, all the way to State College. I was at Penn State for slightly more than 40 years, retiring in 1991. Moving to Penn State was preceded by my marriage to Marliene. She moved to State College a few weeks later.
SOUTHWICK: And the job in 1959 was to…?
FROKE: Establish what I had done at Illinois, a journalism teaching program in television, and assistance with others to the President who wanted to start a public television station.. Penn State was a little bit different in its teaching program than Illinois. They did not have a radio journalism program except for the teaching of an occasional course by an adjunct faculty member. So I put in place a curriculum for radio and television journalism and then broadened it to include a major in radio and television on a university-wide basis. The strength of other academic departments in radio and television – speech and theater (and business and agriculture, for that matter… they ran them from a marketing point of view)– was such that internal to the university it was not possible to get a consolidated television curriculum. That did come later, twenty years later. I was fortunate enough to be the chairman of the strategic planning committee for a new school of communications at Penn State which accomplished the consolidation of the communications field in what is now called the College of Communications.
SOUTHWICK: Going back to 1959, what were the facilities that they had here at that time? Did you have to put together all the equipment basically from scratch and the program as well?
FROKE: Yes and no. The programming we put together; the facilities were a spin-off of Penn State’s instructional television. Penn State was fortunate in the early days to have a psychology professor by the name of Ray Carpenter who developed as a primary interest learning theory as it pertains to the use of media. His research then led to the establishment of a very ambitious instructional media program – the actual teaching of courses using media. In fact a microwave had been put in place atop the water tower at Penn State to connect to a commercial station in Altoona.
FROKE: We would broadcast….
SOUTHWICK: So students could fall asleep in their chairs at home instead of having to fall asleep in the classroom.
FROKE: Now that’s not fair! (LAUGHTER)
SOUTHWICK: They could receive their instruction at home instead of in the class.
FROKE: I’ve never had a student fall asleep in one of my classes, so the generalization is an unfair generalization.
SOUTHWICK: I was recalling my own academic experience, I think.
FROKE: I think the same thing can be true of the methodologies and the strategies by which you teach in the classroom, or put instruction onto videotape, or whatever the media format might happen to be. It becomes a matter of knowing the technology as well as knowing the subject matter and then, as you know, there are certain things that one is able to do in journalism in order to make your stories more interesting. When it comes right down to it, I think a good teacher is really a story teller, and then within the context of telling the stories, really accomplishes the presentation of significant information, whether it be historical or scientific or mathematical, journalism, whatever. But the story, and there are stories all over the place that can be told and should be told, with people as the focus. People are interested in people.
SOUTHWICK: I think that’s true. When you came here in 1959, what were the elements that you felt needed to be put together in order to create a curriculum in journalism?
FROKE: I’m sorry, I did not finish the full answer to your earlier question. So there were in Sparks Building two closed-circuit television studios with Dage cameras, the old low-cost vidicon type of camera, certainly not the broadcast quality cameras that were common in broadcast stations at the time. In Deike Building there were one, two, three of these television studios, so we did not lack for that type of studio facility, and Mr. Goodwin was very, very generous in providing funds to buy 16-millimeter cameras for our news film gathering. So we bought a news wire, the national wire from The Associated Press and supplemented that with the radio news wires that the students would encounter at the stations that would hire them. The students became familiar with the raw material of the A wire as well as the edited news of the radio wires. So it was a matter of putting substantial resources together. And then we worked with the local government agencies to get clearance to come into the city council, to come into the board of education meetings. In fact, on the public television station we did cover for a period of time the school board meetings. They went so far as to come into the studio, holding their meetings in the studio.
SOUTHWICK: That’s convenient.
FROKE: At the same time I was doing some miscellaneous things with instruction. Fifty-minute classes ended up in conflict with the schedule of the commercial stations which was 15 minutes, half hour and one hour. I volunteered to do a daily ten-minute interview at the end of one of the classes taught by a faculty member. Through that program, I got to know the university real well, both the academic side as well as the administrative side, and that turned out to be useful. I also served on all sorts of committees, one of them being the committee that was studying the possibility of establishing a non-commercial educational station here.
SOUTHWICK: Television station?
FROKE: Yes, television. Channel 69 had been assigned to State College, which was not a bad UHF but it was not a particularly good UHF, and whenever you’re dealing with UHF at that time period – the early 1960s – this was before the all channel, so people bought VHF channel sets and–they could not see the UHF channels.
SOUTHWICK: You had to have a special antenna.
FROKE: That’s right. So there was a disadvantage with a U.
SOUTHWICK: Now was there a cable system here in State College?
FROKE: Um hmm. This was Jim Palmer. It was called Centre Video at the time and Jim then was very, very supportive of our work in television and he and his wife Barbara and Marliene and I got to be good friends. We did not have cable. We lived out in the country then and were about ¾ of a mile from his main route into Boalsburg, a town near State College Jim said, “Marlowe, you’ve got to have cable.” So he ran cable over that ¾ mile, covered it on the ground – at first he did not even bury it, he just ran it out – and connected it to our house. And we had cable then for free.
SOUTHWICK: Great. The perks of office.
FROKE: That was our first exposure to regular cable television service.
SOUTHWICK: Could people get off-the-air television in State College without cable?
FROKE: Yes and no. Altoona is about 40 air miles away and with some consideration, meaning a fairly elaborate antenna, you’d be able to pick up Altoona. With a lot of straining you could pick up Johnstown which is another 20 air miles away, but that was about it. So it was a two-station type of town. Consequently cable was something that was very popular in central Pennsylvania, that part of the country, bringing in distant stations. It was Jim who really got me thinking about the capabilities of cable and the diversity that would be possible in programming. I was angry at the time that the commercial networks were beginning to downplay even some of their early morning instructional education programming – Sunrise Semester and so on. Commercial pressures and audience pressures were beginning to crowd those things off the air. We really needed a stable and dedicated television outlet in order to guarantee that the public would have access on a regular basis to educational programming and a richer diversity than is possible in a commercial setting. Cable struck me as something that had amazing potential on the long haul. I fooled around with it, just thinking about it and taking advantage of every opportunity that would come up. Jim was central to a lot of it in those early days, but then I was asked by Eric Walker, who was president of the university at the time, to be the manager of this new non-commercial educational television station for Penn State. I said yes and I began to think then how can we…
SOUTHWICK: And that was in what year?
FROKE: That would be in 1962, the latter part of 1962. I began to think then how can we find a different way to handle that UHF 69 problem. I happened to know the publisher of the Centre Daily Times who was also the publisher of the Clearfield Progress and in a cocktail conversation one night he told me about an effort that he had made at one time to get a channel 3 in what he referred to as the legal triangle north of Clearfield, Pennsylvania. The Federal Communications Commission in its allocation program for the stations had not put in a legal channel 3 north of Clearfield. They probably did it deliberately saying there are no people up there so why put a television station in there. The publisher of the Clearfield Progress and the Centre Daily Times said that he had done a study and was just on the verge of putting a station on the air and then changed his mind because of the lack of people. I began to think about relating that availability to cable and I began talking to some of the cable friends that Jim Palmer had introduced me to and they were very responsive to the possibility of carrying a non-commercial educational television station if it ever got on the air.
SOUTHWICK: These were other systems in the area?
FROKE: In the area, yes. So I went and visited with Dr. Walker and he said, “Well, give me a paper,” and I wrote up a couple pages and gave him the rationale for it, including what I felt even at that time was the potential for growth and development of the cable industry. I probably oversold the long-term future of cable at the time, but he bought it and said go ahead and see what you can do. So we petitioned first for a drop-in channel. We got it, and then we petitioned for separation of studio and transmitter. There was a regulation that they can’t be separated. We got a waiver on that. And then we filed for the channel itself, and except for the airport at Phillipsburg challenging us through the Federal Aviation Authority, we did not have any problem in getting it through very quickly. (Ironically I learned at about this time that two Penn State faculty and administration leaders, Arthur Hungerford and Les Greenhill, had learned about the channel 3 situation earlier and had even visited the site.
SOUTHWICK: This is FCC approval for this?
FROKE: Yes. By March of 1965 the station went on the air from the mountain site north of Clearfield.
SOUTHWICK: And this was all financed by Penn State?
FROKE: Yes and no. We got a grant from the State Department of Education to partially finance the station and we also got a small grant from the Ford Foundation that was involved in trying to stimulate the growth of non-commercial television at the time, and we also got a federal grant of $100,000 that was then matched by Penn State money.
SOUTHWICK: Roughly what was the overall cost of getting this up on the air?
FROKE: About $350,000, including the overrun that President Walker didn’t like but he paid it. So we went on the air out of the transmitter and then we got microwaved out from Sparks Building to Wagner Building, when the building that we’re in now was finished.
SOUTHWICK: And what was the programming?
FROKE: Programming was on film to start with and it included programming that had been put together by other stations. That created a mass of programming that could be used by the all of the stations. The country had been divided into about a half dozen different regions, each with a non-commercial network for the sharing of programming in the region. In the early days of non-commercial television this programming was a life saver..
SOUTHWICK: This was before the Public Broadcasting System had started?
FROKE: That’s right.
SOUTHWICK: So you would get film from the show that was produced by maybe the New York public station?
FROKE: That’s right. There was a sharing of programs from individual stations. And the Eastern Educational Network, the Central Educational Network, the Pacific Mountain Network, the West Coast – I don’t think they called it that – and there was one down in the South also, and the programs then were exchanged back and forth and that constituted a schedule that we were able to put it together. There was no denying the need for a national service, however. One that would provide live interconnection and fresh programs.
SOUTHWICK: People had begun to talk about it, I think, and it was enacted in ’67 or ’68, I think.
FROKE: That was the time period and at the national level. Then it ended up with the establishment of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and out of that emerged Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.
SOUTHWICK: Were you involved in promoting that in some way or helping to push it through?
FROKE: I was actually dragging my feet.
SOUTHWICK: Were you? Why?
FROKE: I kept thinking that education was the proper foundation for the stations and that the long time future was with education. So I drug my feet and wrote a few letters and the like, but the momentum was so strong…
SOUTHWICK: You were afraid that public television would be primarily geared towards entertainment?
FROKE: That it would override the educational function that I had a primary interest in. There were two arguments that were used at the national level – one was that to date, meaning that time period, non-commercial education had not been successful in getting substantial money from the federal government, and then the other was the bit about educators really don’t know what they’re doing.
SOUTHWICK: That always plays!
FROKE: That’s always around, regardless where you are. In fact, the current one that I hear is that you never appoint the educator to become chief executive of a major business. That popped up in a news story that I was reading the other day. So the educators really are a bunch of dummies. They don’t know how to do these things. So that story was playing around. I really got active, however, when the public television movement came to Pennsylvania. We had, in anticipation of the need for programming, entered into an agreement with the Department of Education to link WPSX with WITF in Hershey by microwave network. It would demonstrate what networking could do. The Department of Education accepted the concept of demonstration as the basis for beginning a state network. Going back to what was happening at the national level, some of the other Pennsylvania station managers feared, I think, that Penn State would take over a state network, so they became very, very active in putting together a commission to study a public television network for Pennsylvania. We became a part of the Commission through the university’s official representative to the Commission, Roy Wilkinson, who was the legal counsel for the university at the time and a very close friend of President Walker. Mr. Wilkinson and I would talk from time to time about what my personal views were and we put together a strategy that balanced the Department of Education interests with those of the new Pennsylvania Public Television Network Commission. The project finally did go through and it’s the basis for what goes on in Pennsylvania at the present time.
Microwave, obviously, has gone by the wayside for these kinds of applications and the distribution is now by satellite for the Pennsylvania Public Television Network. Finishing the cable bit, what I had projected played out very, very well and not a single cable system backed away from a commitment to carry WPSX, even though there were only three and five channel operations at that time and even though the signal coming over the mountain ridges of Central Pennsylvania was a little bit fuzzy. The signal that came out of Jim Palmer’s cable operation was good. So, cable was really the heart of the success of WPSX TV and the people who are working at the station at the present time and the new management of the station have really carried it to new levels of achievement. It’s doing very, very well.
SOUTHWICK: Just to give a rough size of your operation, how many people worked for the station, how many students did you have, and what was the size of the faculty?
FROKE: As the television station moved ahead, we had a tendency to get involved in other projects and then what we did was integrate WPSX TV with other activities. There was a correspondence study program, for instance, at the university where you teach by correspondence. Penn State and the University of Wisconsin were two of the universities that were first in this field. As you know, Irving Kahn took one of the Penn State correspondence courses.
SOUTHWICK: That’s right, on how to be a cable engineer while he was in prison.
FROKE: That’s right. At any rate, we then tied correspondence study to a renaming. We called it independent learning, on the basis that there were two methods–organized classroom and informal independent–by which you learn – organized systematic learning in a classroom environment, and then independent learning. You move from a dependency model of learning to an independent model. I decided that we would capitalize on that nice term, independent learning, and rename correspondence study to independent learning. And we integrated it within the overall administration of WPSX TV. Our graphics unit and our photography unit and our film production unit and the instructional television that I’d talked about earlier, were integrated also. Putting all those together we had a total of about 200-250 people at any time. Then we were also able to capitalize on student internships. We had several categories of student employment. One was volunteers, another was paid part-time student employee, another was intern where credit was earned by work experience within the television station or some other aspect of this media conglomerate. That’s been broke up, by the way, with my retirement. Each of the units now operate separately again. So the number of students in these various activities probably was slightly over 100-110 in the different categories that we had. On the teaching side of my involvement, the College of Communications at the present time (the year 2000) has 39 faculty. There were 9 faculty when I first came to Penn State in 1959. The College of Communications has now developed into a very strong program. In fact, it has the largest number of undergraduates of any academic unit in journalism or communications in the country. There are more than 3,000. The new Dean of the College, Douglas Anderson, is an exceptional academic leader, in all aspects of his work.
SOUTHWICK: Wow! And your title was?
FROKE: I was Director of the University Division of Media and Learning Resources and General Manager of WPSX TV, and during the organizational phase of the College of Communications, I was also the Associate Dean for instruction. That title ended, obviously, when I retired from the university. It was a title that I held only for about a year and a half.
SOUTHWICK: At what point did Penn State become involved with the Cable Pioneers and help establish The Cable Museum and Center? How did that come about?
FROKE: George Barco was fascinated by some of the conversations that I had with him about the university’s role in continuing education. Penn State through the years established a very prominent adult education program making it possible for people to earn credit away from campus and then going on to earn degrees. So it was in a leadership role in continuing education that brought Penn State to cable. I used to talk to George Barco about what Penn State was doing in this field.
SOUTHWICK: George Barco was the owner of the system in Meadville?
FROKE: That’s right.
SOUTHWICK: Which is very far from here?
FROKE: It’s on the other side of the state.
SOUTHWICK: And you had come into contact with him in what context?
FROKE: Through the Pennsylvania Cable Television Association. As a faculty member, I touched base with the different professional organizations in order to maintain contact with them and to introduce them to our students. So I was in the Pennsylvania Cable Television Association, Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association and so on. And it was in that context then that I got to know George Barco and I talked with him about Penn State. He was not involved personally, by the way, in the carriage of WPSX TV, because he was out of the signal range, but he was aware of it through side conversations that were going on. The first came about when I got a telephone call from the Department of Education. It had received a letter from the chairman of the education committee of the Pennsylvania Cable Television Association, who was Joe Gans – Joe was the first chairperson of that committee…
SOUTHWICK: A prominent cable operator here in Pennsylvania.
FROKE: That’s right, up in Northeastern Pennsylvania. And George Barco. So the two of them had worked on a very simple one-pager to the Department of Education saying that if it would cooperate with them they would establish a four-channel microwave network around the state in order to provide preschool and elementary, secondary, higher education, and adult education. So there’d be a separate channel devoted to each one of these levels. The inquiry that came to me from the Department of Education: would I look at the proposal and evaluate it. From my point of view, it was a great, great idea and a great proposal, so I went back to the Department of Education with that point of view. And then they asked if I would put together a management program for such a thing to take place. My answer was an enthusiastic yes. I pulled together a team from around the university that had done these kinds of organization things before. Professor Paul Welliver, one of the media faculty that I was instrumental in bringing to Penn State, agreed to be the leader of the team. In about four months we had a written evaluation of the Gans-Barco proposal, and an organizational plan for putting it in place. I sent it to the Department of Education and they liked it as did the cable people with whom they talked. Dr. Welliver and I went to Harrisburg and provided a verbal explanation of the plan and responded to questions. The Department of Education then set up a meeting with Governor Shapp. Milton Shapp was one of the cable pioneers.
SOUTHWICK: Founder of Jerrold Electronics and the largest cable operator in the country for a number of years, and later Governor of Pennsylvania.
FROKE: Right. At the meeting, Shapp and his advisors sat around for about an hour and a half while Paul Welliver and I repeated what we had put together.
SOUTHWICK: What year was this again?
FROKE: It would have been 1971. I felt the meeting went well. When we got home, we speculated that it would be three or four weeks before an answer would come. It did not. And three weeks later there was still no answer. We did not hear. And we did not hear. Finally George Barco gave us a telephone call – it must have been about six months later – and said that the Governor had decided against it. There’s no particular reason that I could think of for the Governor’s decision, other than to link it to the political environment. It’s entirely possible that he and his advisors decided that if they had put the power of the state behind the proposal, his cable background could become prominent and it would damage his political aspirations. .
SOUTHWICK: The broadcasters probably would not be happy with this anyway.
FROKE: At that time he was also beginning to talk about being a Presidential candidate for the Democratic nomination.
SOUTHWICK: Which he was in 1972.
FROKE: So my own personal feeling is that perhaps politics got mixed into it in some way, although I really do not know.
About three months later, I was with Joe Gans and we were traveling some place around the state, I forget where it was, and Joe said, “Well, we’re not going to get this off the ground.” Joe was still very committed; he was enthusiastic about it. He said, “Why do we have to start with a grand scheme? Why don’t we just start and let the thing build.” He said that he would be willing to put a 24-hour instructional educational channel on his systems in the Hazleton, Pennsylvania area if Penn State would make a commitment to it. I immediately began to think: well, we can translate this into it being a research project and it would establish then the research base from which we could then go on and grow the network. So without changing our direction too much, we headed off for Meadville.
SOUTHWICK: To go see George Barco.
FROKE: Yes, we had a meeting with George and George said, sure, if you can prove that Penn State can sustain this thing for a period of time then he would get behind putting the state network together on an ad hoc basis.
Joe and his colleagues later put in microwave between the University and the headend of his primary system. We started, however, by carrying video tapes back and forth once a week after they had been packaged as a four-hour instructional unit in the WPSX studios. The drive to Scranton with the tapes occasionally was by me. More frequently it was by Rick Wolfe and some of the people you saw today. They made the long drive to Scranton and delivered the tape to the director of the Scranton Campus Library. The director of the Scranton campus had agreed that he would convert an Appalachia grant into buying some equipment for the library so it could be the origination site for these video tapes. For a total of three years then we operated this way under the name of Pennarama..
SOUTHWICK: Is that what you called it at the time?
FROKE: We called it Pennarama at the time.
SOUTHWICK: Whose idea was that name?
FROKE: Our kids went to school at Panorama Village School. My wife was really the one who thought of it. She said Pennarama would link the original work to Pennsylvania.
SOUTHWICK: Pennarama instead of Panorama.
FROKE: No one said no, so it became Pennarama. After about a year and a half to two years, I think George was convinced that this could be sustained so he and his daughter, Yolanda, began working on some of the background to creating a nonprofit corporation called the Pennsylvania Educational Communications System. It was the mechanism by which money could be brought in from the cable operators in order to finance some of the costs. Penn State committed to programming. At the suggestion of the cable operators, we agreed to involve other colleges and universities-–the community colleges, the state college system, the state university system, the state-related universities, other private universities and so on. So that effort was made to get them involved. Initially Pennarama was on the air as we described it. Then Joe Gans and his colleagues began installing a microwave network. It was completed with links to all of the cable systems in the eastern part of the state. The origination point was here at University Park. We had a great big ceremony at the Nittany Lion Inn and then six months later the western leg was added.
SOUTHWICK: Did somebody tape that ceremony, I hope?
FROKE: It’s around here some place, yes. There’s also a publication with the transcribed speeches. The number of subscribers to the cable systems that carried Pennarama at the time was about 250,000. It built up to about 400,000-450,000 by the time that I retired, and now under another name and under another organizational arrangement as a separate nonprofit, independent corporation it’s out of Harrisburg and it’s got about 3 ½ million. It has almost the entire state covered.
SOUTHWICK: In terms of the Pioneers and their involvement with Penn State, how did that come about?
FROKE: All of these people were Pioneers…
SOUTHWICK: Which was an organization founded in the late ’60s by Stan Searle, I think originally, is that right?
SOUTHWICK: He was the publisher of a trade publication.
FROKE: That’s right, 1966. After Pennarama was well established, George called again to inquire whether Penn State might be interested in being the home of a museum for the cable industry. I called the president of the university at that time, Bryce Jordan, and we talked probably no more than five minutes. He said, yes, go ahead, and make sure that there’s a little bit of money to take care of the thing. So we had a series of meetings starting in late 1983 and running up to 1985. We then had an organizational meeting here at Penn State, and decisions were made that there would be 2 million dollars raised within the context of the Cable TV Pioneers and the museum would be an entity closely related to the Cable TV Pioneers. One million would be for a chair in the new School of Communication, another $500,000 would be the beginning of a building program, and another $500,000 would be the beginning of an operational endowment for the museum. In the early days then, there were two primary pioneer contributors. One was Bill Daniels out in Denver, $250,000; and the other was Irving Kahn, and over a period of time he gave about $370,000 total to the project. They were the big contributors. There were a few $100,000 gifts and then trailing off from there, but the goal was met. Daniels, before he gave the $250,000, had one condition. Again, he had this mind set related to educators, and he said, “I’ll give you the $250,000 if we have a cable operator who would be the primary fund raiser.” At that time, Richard Loftus had been doing very, very well with the lobby group that he was soliciting funds for, the Cable PAC. His name then was immediately on the lips of Bill Daniels, so we gave Dick Loftus a telephone call and he said yes that he would volunteer to do it if his expenses were covered, and Bill Daniels then agreed that he would cover expenses as well as give us $250,000. So Loftus then worked with George Barco and me in the fund
-raising initiative and the money came in.
Southworth: And the original idea was to do what? Just to preserve some of the materials…?
FROKE: There were two or three parts of it. One was the museum function, and that had implications related to the archival material associated with the establishment of the industry, the papers, the technology, the programming. In addition to that the Cable Pioneers were aware that they would like their own personal involvement in the founding of this organization to become in some way or another a part of the museum, a part of the history, a part of what was put together. Ben Conroy was selected by George Barco as the chairman of what came to be called the advisory board of directors. Penn State, as with most colleges and universities, will not tolerate any outside organization making final decisions in order to preserve the integrity of the academic process. Colleges and universities that have strong reputations are very adamant about this kind of thing.
SOUTHWICK: Maintaining control.
FROKE: So there could not be a board in control; it had to be an advisory board of control. I’ll get back to that at a later time. So Ben Conroy, then, was the chairman of the advisory board of control as designated by George Barco, and Ben was one of the very, very popular people within the cable industry, just a warm, wonderful person. Ben had been in the Navy and had become familiar with the oral history project of the United States Navy and he said that the museum had to have an oral history project because that was the way in which you really could get the history of the industry pulled together. A commitment based on his recommendation was then made to the program for oral, and what later became, oral and video histories. The broadening of the function was the result of new low-cost taping technology and a gift of $250,000. The gift was later increased to $1 million.
The advisory board met once a quarter at Penn State beginning in 1985 and Ben was the chairperson. The gathering of historical materials was successful and the university designated space in Sparks Building on an interim basis. It was the lower basement of Sparks Building; not prime space, but it was dressed up to the point where it was reasonably acceptable.
SOUTHWICK: What had been in there before?
FROKE: Storage, but the entrance and the museum space was painted and carpeting was put on the floor. Special display cases were built, and library shelves were placed in space designated as a Reading Room. It is no secret, however, that when Bill Daniels came to visit the museum shortly after it “opened” in 1988, his first response to one of his colleagues to the question “What do you think, Bill?” was he was not impressed at all.
SOUTHWICK: Bill Daniels, whose motto was the best is good enough for me.
FROKE: So Bill was not impressed at all with what had been done up to that point. He was aware of how much money it cost to be the best and he was aware of the budget. I wasn’t terribly concerned.
SOUTHWICK: Now was there a full-time director of the museum at that time?
FROKE: No, I served as the director. One of the cable industry conditions was that it would hire a full-time director. At least two search committees were appointed. George Barco and I identified specifically in the bylaws of the museum that both he and I would serve on the board only one year and then we would leave the organization. This was a strategy to assure that the continuity of the new leadership would take place within the organization itself. It really did not play out that well. There were searches for a president but none was forthcoming who would be acceptable to both Penn State and to the advisory board. I volunteered that when I retired I would stay on and serve as the president, but they were not interested in that approach either. I had been too successful in selling the idea that George and I would not play major roles after one year. .
SOUTHWICK: “They” meaning Penn State or…?
FROKE: Penn State and the Advisory Board.. So the idea that there had to be new leadership, I think, was a sound idea to begin with and if you have a good idea to begin with, stay with it. But two or three things that came up as the museum moved along. With the name The National Cable Television Museum (and the name was a capital t on The) the level of aspiration within the organization began to grow. The cable people and some Penn State faculty began to see possibilities for it that had not been in their minds initially. We talked about how to broaden the base of this organization so it’s not just conceived of as a museum. I personally did not have a great problem with the term museum because museum’s directors these days, and those days, had spread out and had interpreted museum as meaning all sorts of outreach type activities so to speak.
SOUTHWICK: Not just a collection of stuff in a room.
FROKE: That’s right. So I was not too concerned about it, but there was an ongoing effort to change the name to something more than museum. The answer that came up was initiated by Yolanda: The National Cable Television Center and Museum. That name was adopted by the advisory board of directors and was adopted by Penn State. The next initiative that was taken by Cable TV Pioneers was to get more members on the Advisory Board who were active in the industry. The feeling that existed among them was that they had to get contemporary cable leadership involved in the board, otherwise the Center and Museum would go no place. The Center (which was approved as the short version of the full name) underwent rewriting of bylaws and the rewriting of the Articles of Incorporation. In 1988 those were changed. The change brought in some new people including Bill Bresnan from Bresnan Communications and Frank Drendel from CommScope Corporation, and about a half dozen others who were leaders in the industry at that particular time. The Cable TV Pioneers were great and I think the Cable TV Pioneers still constitute the foundation of financial support and organizational support for the Center and Museum, but having contemporary leadership from the cable industry, I think, is a critical need. The first thing that happened after these new people came on board for a meeting at University Park was their encountering travel problems: lack of convenient air transportation, Interstate, just one, not reaching State College directly, and other transportation problems. This was in the 1980s and the airport was not what it is today. There was only limited electronic control. At certain seasons of the year, fog has a tendency to be laying in the valley for extended periods. Some of the new members spoke effectively about the inconvenience. “You’re never going to get any people to come to this museum!” My position was this is a cable and telecommunications entity and you can be anyplace, it really doesn’t make any difference. The program of The Cable Television Center and Museum will be world-wide by telecommunications. Uh-huh, they said..
SOUTHWICK: They didn’t quite buy it, huh?
FROKE: There were a couple of other things that came up. The new people who came on the board did not care for the idea of advice only. They wanted control, and they were very firm in saying so. Penn State was not ready to make any changes on that point.. The next thing probably was the trigger to a move. It had no real substantive significance. And it was a fun type of thing for an observer, such as I had become. The person who was selected to become the Dean of the College of Communications was Brian Winston, who was a charismatic, exciting talker.. He was from England initially, had come to Canada, and then had gone to New York University and had been chairman of the Tisch School of Film at NYU. He came to Penn State as the Dean of the new College of Communications with a great level of anticipation by everybody. During his recruiting he figuratively rolled over all faculty and administrators in terms of what they concluded would be a wonderful leader for the College. He did have major credentials as a scholar, He recently had written a book called “Misunderstanding the Media”. It was published by Harvard University. Unfortunately the book included such words as – and this is not an accurate quotation, so I’d better qualify it as a paraphrase: the United States would be much better off from the point of view of telecommunications policy and implementation if telecommunications were to be turned over to the telephone people and then cable would be regulated out of existence. Those are not the exact words, but I think it’s a fair paraphrase.
SOUTHWICK: That’s the way the cable operators viewed his point of view.
FROKE: You know and I know how sensitive the cable people are, or were at that time, to the competition that was there. Some of the cable people were terribly upset, and we did line up a special meeting of the board of directors at which Dean Winston addressed the board about what prompted…
SOUTHWICK: This was…?
FROKE: This would have been 1990. But I don’t think they considered him effective. George Barco had died in 1988 and he obviously, as you can sense, had warm feelings towards Penn State. And I retired in 1991. Mr. Barco’s death and my retirement opened a door for those who wanted to make change. That’s exactly what happened.
SOUTHWICK: Meaning moving out of Penn State. How did that process go forward? Where did you begin to play a role in terms of president of the operations?
FROKE: Bill Bresnan, who was the chairman of the advisory board, wrote a letter to the president of Penn State simply saying that the cable industry was going to move The Center. His letter was very much to the point.
In 1992, I gave Bill a telephone call and said I was afraid that The Center idea was going to die because there did not seem to be any initiative coming from Penn State and there did not seem to be any initiative coming from the members of the advisory board. I said, “Is there anything I can do to try to keep this idea alive because I think it’s a real good idea?” Bill and Frank got on the telephone with me and I volunteered to try to put together some kind of a program that might assure the future of The Cable Center. Each of the members of the advisory board were contacted and with the exception of one they all agreed to serve on an interim board of directors for the new organization.
As part of the strategy that was put in place I proposed to do a survey of all of the Cable TV Pioneers to get their response to a move of The Cable Center. With the exception of one person they all said yes, it would be a good idea to move. We had a couple of organizational meetings in White Plains, which is the town of Bresnan Communications. They were informal types of discussions – what do we need to do, where are we going to get the money, and so on. Initially then, the members of the advisory board said that they would put up a few dollars. A total of $17,000 was collected from them. Michael Rigas of Adelphia agreed to be the treasurer of this interim group, so the money was turned over to him. It was used primarily for postage, mailing, my travel, and the like. And I began working on new draft Articles of Incorporation. A decision was made by the interim board that it would continue as a freestanding, independent organization incorporated in Pennsylvania. Later the change was made for the corporation to move legally to Colorado. So the current corporation has Colorado papers rather than Pennsylvania papers. New bylaws were accepted. Mike and John Rigas agreed that their general counsel could work on putting these things together in legal terms.. These were then adopted by the interim board in 1995. We had a meeting of the Interim Board in Denver in June of 1995, and it reconstituted itself as the Board of Directors. It began adding some additional members to the Board. I continued as a volunteer, handling the paper work of the Board and spending more time in Denver. My expenses were reimbursed, travel expenses and so on. We met with University of Denver people…
SOUTHWICK: Was this with Chancellor Ritchie?
FROKE: Yes, Chancellor Ritchie.
SOUTHWICK: Who had been involved in the cable television business.
FROKE: That’s right. And I guess I had better go back and say there had been inquiries made by the advisory board and myself to a few other cities – Atlanta, New York City, Boston. And there was conversation with the Broadcasting Museum, Washington D.C…
SOUTHWICK: To universities there or to the cities themselves?
FROKE: To the cities themselves, and to the cable people and relevant universities. With the exception of the offer that came from Denver which was delivered by Bill Daniels and Dan Ritchie, the Chancellor of the University of Denver, there was really no money behind the expressions of interest that had come from other places.
SOUTHWICK: Dan Ritchie had been president of Westinghouse Broadcasting when it owned cable systems and was one of the major cable operators in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
FROKE: And was a personal friend of Bill Bresnan. Bill had worked with Westinghouse, too.
SOUTHWICK: That’s right. They had bought TelePrompTer. Bill Bresnan had been president of TelePrompTer and came with the company and stayed with it for awhile.
FROKE: Cable people are all intertwined.
SOUTHWICK: And Dan Ritchie, just as an aside, had moved to Colorado where he had a ranch in Grambling and had become Chancellor of the University of Denver after leaving the cable industry.
FROKE: Yes. Ritchie and Daniels made the offer to Bill Bresnan that if The Cable Center would come to Denver, Dan would provide on the University of Denver campus a site and Bill Daniels would provide 1 million dollars. So a Site Committee, including myself, was appointed to go Denver. I don’t think that I’ve ever been welcomed quite as warmly as by the city of Denver, the University of Denver, Colorado Legislature. They were all turned out at Bill Daniels’ home and it was an absolutely spectacular event with a welcome by the lieutenant governor on behalf of the governor and a speaker of the house, about a half dozen legislators were there from the U. S. House of Representatives. With the Colorado legislators, I don’t know how many were there other than to say many. Business interests of Denver and Colorado, cable people were there, and they made it known that they wanted us to be in Denver. The Site Committee voted unanimously to recommend Denver. So the Board of Directors then voted and said, “Yes, we’ll come to Denver,” and that’s the way it played out.
SOUTHWICK: And the move took place when?
FROKE: Let’s see. It would have had to be in 1995.
SOUTHWICK: And you were still a volunteer at that point?
FROKE: I was still a volunteer. Efforts were made then to find a president, not only within the context of when The Center and Museum was at Penn State, but also then as the organization was moving toward reality in Denver. An offer was made finally to a person who was the director of Cable in the Classroom and everyone was wildly enthusiastic with this person…
Cable in the Classroom was an initiative by the cable industry to further the view that cable had unique capabilities in furthering the use of cable in the classroom, especially at the elementary level. The strategy included activity by the individual cable companies in their communities.
SOUTHWICK: This was Bobbi Camille?
FROKE: This was Bobbi Camille, and she accepted. She attended the first meeting of the Board, following her appointment and did a marvelous job in stating her enthusiasm for The Center. Less than a month later, however, she got in touch with Bill and she said an opportunity…
SOUTHWICK: Bill Bresnan?
FROKE: Bill Bresnan. And said an opportunity had come up with the movie producer Spielberg who was then involved in a new project in which telecommunications would be used to assist in the rehabilitation of physically handicapped and mentally handicapped youngsters. They would be connected by telecommunications within their hospital room or within their room at the home. This would make it possible for them to have access to all sorts of resources. Bobbi Camille said because of her interest in children and the use of the technology, this was a project she just could not stay away from. So she resigned and moved to California… from where she called me less than a month later. She had resigned, she said. She told me that apparently Mr. Spielberg had failed to tell other members of the Board of his organization that he had hired her to be president. In other words, there was no consultation in hiring Bobbi Camille; Bobbi then found her relationship with the Board to be intolerable because of this situation. At least one of the Board members had the support of the Board for the President’s position. Her only alternative, she told me, was to leave. She left. So The Cable Center Board of Directors was without a president and the search was continued. I volunteered then to be the new president. Sometime you reach an age when better judgment should prevail. They thought about it, however, and made me a formal offer. Yolanda Barco drew up the formal offer. It had two major caveats: if I didn’t feel well I would tell the board and if the board thought that I didn’t feel well they would tell me. At the time I was 70 years old, and had had at least two hearts attacks, by-pass surgery, and a few other things, including growths on my lower aorta.. I accepted the caveats and started as president on a pay basis in January of 1997.
SOUTHWICK: And you helped supervise the transfer of all the materials and so forth from Penn State to Denver?
FROKE: Yes. Penn State maintained that the $1 million endowment for a faculty member would remain at Penn State. The endowment for operations would be transferred to Denver and everything else would go. . The Cable Center Board accepted the Penn State’s position as did the Cable TV Pioneers. I wrote a separate paper that The Cable Center would work with Penn State for the conduct of cable programs in Pennsylvania using the funds that had been given by The Cable TV Pioneers. This was also accepted by The Cable Center and The Cable Pioneers.
SOUTHWICK: And as The Center grew, talk a little bit about that. It became much more than a museum. Who were some of the initial financial backers? How did it reach the next level?
FROKE: Cab Childress is, or was – he’s now retired – the architect for the University of Denver. He was very helpful in those early days. At one point when I was visiting with him, I said, “How are we going to choose an architectural firm that will design the building?” And he talked then about the processes that were used by the University of Denver and who some of the players were in the architectural field in Colorado. We arrived then at a program for architectural selection that led to a proposal to the Board of Directors committee, and they approved it. An architectural committee was appointed. They came out to Denver. With Cab Childress I had screened about 15 architectural firms to be considered. Of these, we chose five organizations in Denver that would be finalists with the architectural committee. Each of the architectural firms made a presentation in their offices to the architectural committee which unanimously selected R&L, a widely known Denver firm with offices in several other cities.
I then talked with Cab Childress about my lack of a technical or an engineering background as such and I said, “How do you solve the need for communication with the Board of Directors. He said, “Usually what we do is have an organizational representative who has an engineering background and that person then becomes the representative between the Board of Directors, the staff of the organization, and anybody else who is involved in the building process.” He recommended then that we go through the same process of hiring what he called then a representative. So again we put together a committee and we had seven different organizations that were identified for this role. When we went through it we were unanimous in selecting a recommendation to the board, John Rossini. He is a strong engineer and had Cab Childress’s confidence and went on to do a good job for The Cable Center, although occasionally he and I had disagreement on the pace at which we were moving. I was reluctant to commit The Center to any financial obligations without having money in the bank. Mr. Rossini was only aware of the success of the fund raising efforts which produced pledges but not necessarily cash. At one time, Mr. Rossini took a disagreement to the executive committee, which supported him.
SOUTHWICK: How did you go about raising the funds for this?
FROKE: It came about partly through another of Cab’s suggestions. I had recommended that we enter into a strategic planning process. I had become familiar with strategic planning back at Penn State when Bryce Jordan identified that as a strategy he wanted to use within Penn State. I went to a person who had been designated as the leader of the strategic planning initiative at Penn State and said, “John (Coyle), you’re going to have a real good opportunity here if you name the School of Communications for experimental development in strategic planning at Penn State.” He took the idea to Bryce Jordan and Bryce approved it. So strategic planning was the strategy by which we were able to put together the School of Communications. But drawing on that experience I had recommended that we have strategic planning for The Cable Center and Museum and Cab and I were talking about it and he said, “My son, who works in Boston, feels very, very strongly about a firm that’s called White Oaks Associates. Why don’t you consider them?” So I called up Cab Childress’s son and visited with him over the telephone and he recommended that we pick up White Oaks Associates. The president came in for a presentation to the board and the board then approved a contract with White Oaks to do the strategic planning. But then in that process, another contract that White Oaks had out in Wichita, Kansas involved a fundraiser from Wichita, Kansas that White Oaks felt very good about. So we then did the same thing on fundraising. We made a recommendation that we would hire a fundraising outside group to study the feasibility of raising x number of dollars from the cable industry and we then commissioned Robert Hartsook and Associates to do the study on fundraising and they put together a plan for fundraising that was the basis for the overall fundraising effort. Then we hired a lady that you probably know, Lynn Blair, on a part-time basis and she was the first of the fundraisers that was in The Cable Center and Museum and she helped us get started on assessment of how much money we were going to raise from individuals and what the strategies would be, and the files were assembled, hard copy files, putting in place a database on the computer working within The Cable Center and the university. So Lynn Blair then was very, very helpful in those early years. So we had then a strategic planning group that provided the guideline, a strong interaction with the board, back and forth, back and forth, and the same thing true of the fundraising campaign back and forth. Going to the specific amount of money, the real breakthrough… there were two stories really. The first one was Bill Bresnan and Frank Drendel. Bill was the chairperson of the board of directors and Frank Drendel was the vice-chair, and it was clear then that they had to give their money first because you can’t very well go to ask for other board member’s unless the chairman and the vice-chairman had given money. They hesitated, probably because they didn’t know how much money to give. In other words, what was going to be the standard. There was a delay and a delay, and I was getting frustrated and some of the people around the University of Denver – not Chancellor Ritchie – but some of the others were beginning to wonder whether it was really going to happen because time was passing. I went over to Dan Ritchie and talked with him and said, “Dan, you know and I know that until Bill Bresnan and Frank Drendel give this fundraising campaign is going no place.” He said, “I know that. They’ve got to give.” I said, “Well, could you give them a telephone call?” He said, “Yes, I’ll give Bill a call.” Bill then must have had conversations with Frank Drendel, back and forth, I don’t know, but all of the sudden $500,000 became the standard. Bill then raised his pledge to $1 million, adding another $500,000. The rest of the campaign began to fall into place fairly easily. As anticipated, the first question asked by the other Board members, “How much did Bill give?”.
The other major event came with a call from Bill Bresnan in which he asked me to come to White Plains and then follow-up with a call to Liberty, New York, the home of Alan Gerry. Alan had just gotten through selling his cable properties to Time Warner and had a substantial amount of money. We went to their corporate headquarters, which is an absolutely spectacular building, as you know. It is beautifully done. The exterior is Black Hills Marble, by the way, so we immediately had an opening for conversation – South Dakota, Black Hills, South Dakota being my birth place.. Bill and I then met with Alan in his second-floor office and made a presentation at his conference table. On the way over from White Plains, I had reviewed with Bill two presentations. One was put together partly by a new development person who had been recently hired, a very polished presentation. The other was a more low profile presentation.. Bill said that the flashy one was not going to work, that Alan is not that kind of a person. So we set that aside and went in with the low profile presentation..
SOUTHWICK: The homespun version.
FROKE: The homespun version. We talked quite a bit and when we got through, Alan seemed to be warm and pleasant but he did not make a commitment.. He then said let me give you a tour of the building, so we went through the building in detail and realized again how very, very proud Alan is of the building. Most of the design was by him.
SOUTHWICK: We conducted his oral history there, so we have some of that on tape.
FROKE: We then headed for the parking lot and as we got to the parking lot, Bill motioned me to come over for a little side conversation and he said, “Marlowe, Alan wants to talk to me privately,” and I said, “Well, this is a big parking lot.” So I drifted over to look at some of the flowers and some of the shrubbery and Alan and Bill then had a private conversation off to the side. I kept looking over my shoulder and pretty soon I realized that I would be welcome again, so I went back and joined the other two. Alan said goodbye and was very, very warm and very, very pleasant. As we were driving out of the parking lot, Bill said, “I’m sworn to confidence. Don’t try to get anything out of me, Marlowe.” And then the news that he had I’m sure was so good that he could not restrain himself, and I’m was sure that before we got out of Liberty he would tell me.
SOUTHWICK: And what was the news?
FROKE: Alan said he would not give 13 million, which was the estimate we gave him for construction of the building. He said he would give 10 million.
FROKE: So that was really another of the two major incidents that made the success of the fund raising campaign (I guess you would call it) preordained..
SOUTHWICK: And that’s why the building is named the Alan Gerry building.
FROKE: That’s right.
SOUTHWICK: Tell me a little bit about how…
FROKE: He did not, by the way, ask that the building be named for him. He did not make that request.
SOUTHWICK: The board of directors decided that?
FROKE: They proposed it, yes. Alan and I then visited about a name and we decided The Alan Gerry Telecommunications Center. Both of us were sure that over time The Center would become the primary professional organization about communications and telecommunications.
SOUTHWICK: Tell me a little bit about how The Center came to find other missions besides just preserving the history of the cable industry. I assume some of that came in the course of conversation with people who wanted to give money but didn’t want to just give to a museum, wanted to give to something… What were some of the developments that were key in that respect?
FROKE: Part of it was with the strategic planning, which ended up then with four functional areas for The Cable Center and Museum. One was the library, another one was the museum, a third one was the demonstration academy, and I’d better find the fourth one…
SOUTHWICK: The Magness Institute, or what became the Magness Institute?
FROKE: The Institute, yes. So those were the four functional areas. The institute was education, training and research; the library was the aggregation of historical materials and then whatever other role it would play over a period of time, including the oral and video history; the museum was the presentation to the public and to the cable industry itself of the industry; and then the demonstration academy was to identify to the cable industry and to the public the various applications of cable telecommunications technology. So it would be a demonstration site for the cable industry as well as for the general public, and built into the demonstration academy then was an executive briefing room that would bring opinion leaders from government and education and the cable industry into Denver for national types of conferences by telecommunications or worldwide conferences. Now then, in addition to the Denver site, which we referred to them as a physical setting, the Denver location, the strategic planning process emphasized that we would also have a worldwide view, meaning that by telecommunications The Cable Center and Museum would be worldwide global in its perspectives. Part of that is being carried out as a result of the website, but for the most part the initiatives worldwide are in the infancy stage. There are two parts of it: one we went to Rick Michaels, the cable broker down in Tampa, Florida.
SOUTHWICK: Communications Equity Associates.
FROKE: And he bought the idea because of his international ties, that he would make a gift to The Center and Museum from which the income would be used for an annual international conference. The gift itself needs to be augmented because it’s not large enough really to generate enough income to hold that kind of a conference. Then John Sie and Michelle Sie, as a result of their ventures into digital communications and their background from China, they obviously had worldwide global perspectives on what they are doing and they see the long-term future of Encore, one of their cable programming services ( I’m just speculating.) as an international type of facility. So when we met with Michelle and her husband-to-be – they would have been married last September, I believe – both of them are both very, very strong on international programming and Michelle said that she would like her father’s gift of 1 million dollars to be used in the international programming field and especially she would like to see it used with some ventures with mainland China. So out of this came two ideas. One of them was to bring to Denver a group of telecommunications specialists from China for an executive management type of program that would be at Denver, but then the people would go around the country to other telecommunications facilities. And then, in addition to that, she wanted some immediate return by The Cable Center and Museum participating in a Chinese American program conference that would be held in China, and that was held. The current director of the institute was the representative who went there. I’m reasonably positive that one of the goals of that was to begin to establish a market for some of the Encore programming as well as programming from other cable systems and then vice-versa that it would introduce some of the Chinese programming into the United States in some way. So those beginnings, infant types of organizational developments are being made, and I think there is some real potential there.
SOUTHWICK: What would you guess The Cable Center would look like in… pick a number… fifty years?
FROKE: There are two or three things – one, I have written to the executive committee and talked to the board about the problems that could be anticipated if they maintain the name National Cable Television Center and Museum. The national probably is limiting and at some point somebody should deal with that term. Similarly, cable is one technology, but there are other technologies and all of them are moving toward consolidation. Other people have said this same thing but said it in different ways, and some of them with large amounts of money have moved in that direction already. But my thought in talking to the executive committee and talking to the board was that eventually The Cable Center and Museum will evolve into the first all electronic communications type of entity and then move into full-blown communications and it would become the primary communications institution outside of formal educational establishments. So that is one thing. I think that it will convert toward communications technology in general, as compared to a specific technology. Timing is critical as to when these kinds of things take place. My own personal background is such that I would also like to see The Cable Center and Museum become much more active in independent learning and distance learning. One of the last things that I did before completing my term (and again, it was not too popular with some of the people) was set up a relationship with what I regard as a forerunner in this field,
the Denver-based distance learning operation in cable.
SOUTHWICK: You mean Knowledge TV, Glenn Jones operation?
FROKE: Knowledge TV is one aspect of it, but I’m thinking of the cable training program that is headed by a longtime cable pioneer.
SOUTHWICK: Oh, the cable technology center… what is it?
FROKE: You know what I’m talking about…
SOUTHWICK: Yes, I do. We can add it in the printed version if we can’t think of it here in the next minute or two. Cable Television Institute.
FROKE: There it is, yes. Cable Television Institute. They have taken a very, very practical approach to independent learning, to distance learning.
July 3, 2005