When schools statewide suddenly shut their doors in March, Alabama Public Television (APT) was the shot in the arm many educators needed to keep students on track.
“We immediately saw that we had the tools to make a difference when schools closed: our broadcasts that could reach students around the state, and particularly those without computer or broadband access, and our already very rich online programs and resources for educators,” said Mike McKenzie, director of Programming and Public Information. “I have never seen a group of people work so hard and so fast as we shifted the schedule, reprogrammed the website and stepped in to help teachers, students and parents.”
Sixty-five years ago, Alabama was the first state with an educational television network as APT became a model for 26 states and several countries that copied its system. Television and education have dramatically changed since 1955, but McKenzie said recent revisions to meet pandemic demands don’t represent an expansion for APT but rather a realigning of resources. The largest segment of APT staff has always been in its education department.
“With classrooms closed, we became the classroom, and we shifted the daytime schedule to accommodate that,” said McKenzie, a familiar face to viewers during APT televised fundraising drives. “And we will continue to adapt to meet the state’s needs. Right now kids are getting a boost into the next school year with our online Summer Fun activities, and we’re working with the State Department of Education now to decide what resources will be needed to help students the most, however schools decide to move forward.”
Curriculum-based television has been proven to increase student literacy and social skills, as well as understanding of math and science, McKenzie said. APT has broadcast “Sesame Street” and similar shows for decades and now has a 24-hour children’s channel. Free livestreaming begins this fall for most APT channels.
When broadcasts began on Jan. 7, 1955, from the tower atop Mt. Cheaha, the objective was a statewide distribution system that could share instructional programs taught by master teachers. Eight other transmitters were soon added across Alabama to provide equal access to quality education for every child with access to a television set.
As viewership grew, so did the offerings of APT, which became a frequent award-winner for its original documentaries and programs. Honors have included many regional and national Emmys and Telly awards. In 2005, “Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend” was broadcast nationwide by the Public Broadcasting Service. “Mr. Dial Has Something to Say” was featured at the 2008 International Public Television Conference in South Africa. “Jeremiah,” about former Vietnam War hero and U.S. Sen. Jeremiah Denton, was the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Documentary in 2016.
“Stations like APT are what make PBS one of the most trusted institutions in America,” said Jim Dunford, PBS senior vice president, Station Services. “Our member stations not only provide entertaining and thought-provoking content, but they also provide essential services to their communities in the areas of education, public safety and civic leadership. We are proud of the work APT has done over the past 65 years, and we know it will continue to uphold its impactful legacy for years to come.”
The mission of APT is to enrich the lives of Alabamians by broadcasting not only the state’s superlative stories but the world’s best music, theater, dance and arts, said McKenzie. It is a statewide network to disseminate information in times of disaster but also to promote Alabama to the world as a unique community postured for business and growth.
It makes sense that APT’s longest-running homegrown feature is the award-winning educational series “Discovering Alabama,” hosted by Doug Phillips since the 1980s. The show captured a national Emmy in 2010, 2011 and 2019.
“No other state has a program quite like this – or one that appeals to so many people,” McKenzie said. “Of course, there aren’t many states than can boast the incredible natural diversity we have here in Alabama, and Phillips delights in sharing it. ‘Discovering Alabama’ is also extremely popular among Alabama educators, and some schools have even adopted a curriculum developed by Dr. Phillips to bring nature into the classroom.”
While economic hard times, shifting priorities and the expense of news reporting have led many newspapers and television stations to reduce staff or cancel productions, APT remains a leader in reporting statewide news. “Capitol Journal” anchored by veteran journalist Don Dailey, with reporters Randy Scott and Karen Goldsmith, continues as a key element of Alabama’s public television stations.
“I talk with legislators all the time and all of them tell me how much they like and watch the show – and of course I hear that from regular viewers as well,” McKenzie said. “We think it’s important to have a venue where citizens can hear their representatives talk about what’s going on in Montgomery and why. And during recent months, it’s also been important to provide weekly updates from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris about the pandemic in Alabama.”
APT had revenue and expenses of about $14.8 million in 2019. The income was from many sources, including state and federal grants, as well as from “a tremendous base” of viewers who donate small amounts each month, year or when the spirit hits them. McKenzie said the staff at the Birmingham headquarters years ago realized that as long as donations continue to come in, they will never run out of great stories to tell about Alabama.
“We definitely see that people are watching more television since the coronavirus hit, both our broadcasts and online, so people are thinking about us more,” he said. “People especially value the news programming as they try to keep track of the pandemic, and they see the importance of what we’re doing for students. We’re extremely grateful for the support, because it really makes a difference in the programs and the services we can provide.”
APT and public media partners make their educational content available free on PBS Learning Media. Educational resources are available through the APT app and on the website, as well as on the PBS KIDS app.
Students, families and educators may follow APT Education on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as visit aptv.org/education for the latest on educational resources that support distance learning.