It was 50 years ago this month that Nashville Public Television, then WDCN, signed on the air. Plenty has happened since, including a shift from channel 2 to 8 in 1973—with a little help from Morgan Freeman and Big Bird—and a rebranding of the station as NPT at the beginning of the new millennium. Middle Tennesseans who grew up watching WDCN will remember national kids’ productions like Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Electric Company, and Reading Rainbow. But they will also remember locally produced shows like Mrs. Cabboble’s Caboose and Music FunFactory, hosted by the estimable Fran Powell.
Kids and adults alike will remember Tennessee Outdoorsman, which premiered in 1971. And who can forget Action Auction, an on-air auction to raise funds for WDCN that became a yearly event until 2001. In the late ’70s, WDCN and WSM worked together to bring Live from the Grand Ole Opry to households across the country. The program still ranks as one of PBS’ most-watched programs in its history. In 1980, WDCN was the first Nashville station to bring closed-captioning for the hearing impaired.
NPT has always been dedicated to broadcasting quality arts programming, both by bringing the art world into the lives of Nashvillians and by bringing Nashville to the world. Over the years, through programs such as Great Performances, American Masters, Live from Lincoln Center, Simon Schama’s Power of Art, Masterpiece Theatre, the Newport Jazz Festival, Art 21: Art in the 21st Century, Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips, How Art Made the World, Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Hyman: Eternal Wonder, John Baeder: Pleasant Journeys, and The Gift, NPT has served more arts patrons on a yearly basis than any other arts organization in the area. Local productions of Christmas at Belmont and the Nashville Symphony’s Opening Gala at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center showed the nation what Nashville is capable of.
NPT’s history is full of interesting shows and curious anecdotes. Among the more notable was the night WDCN broadcast VD Blues, a one-hour PBS special of the week about the dangers of VD. Aimed at younger viewers, it sparked over 225,000 telephone calls throughout the nation from viewers seeking VD information. It won an Emmy for “Special Classification of Outstanding Program Achievements,” and the Saturday Review declared it “one of the most significant events in the history of television as a medium for education, enlightenment and raised consciousness.” NPT held its own phone bank program before and afterwards hosted by then Miss Black Tennessee Oprah Winfrey—her name incorrectly spelled Winfree in the press release—where people could call in and talk with doctors and professionals. It was called VD Blues: Nashville Sound. Admittedly, not one of the best titles.
Also vying for “Most Unfortunate Title” is the late 1960s cooking show for men, The Gent’s a Gourmet, in which men watched episodes on “Stag Dinners,” “Bachelors and Benedicts” and “Fisherman’s Fiasco.”
Better titles would come along, some that you know well, like Tennessee Crossroads, this year celebrating its 25th Anniversary, Volunteer Gardener, and A Word on Words, all shows still going strong and some of the most-watched locally-produced programs in the country.
NPT has come a long way in 50 years, and so has the community it serves. Who would have thought back then that Nashville would have one the nation’s largest Kurdish populations, and a diverse, thriving community made up of new arrivals from Somalia, Bhutan, Egypt, Mexico, South America, and Sudan? NPT profiled them all on its Emmy-award winning Next Door Neighbors series, with the same respect it’s reserved for celebrating the region’s more-established cultural connections to country music, bluegrass, and the natural beauty of the state. Celebrate a half-century of broadcasting and growth with the station this month with NPT: The First 50 Years, airing Thursday, September 13, at 8 p.m. Rare program clips and interviews with NPT favorites like Powell and John Seigenthaler will make for an entertaining trip down memory lane. It’s a trip made possible by you and for you.