July 29, 2011

Public Broadcasting Icon and University Professor Robert F. Shenkkan

A advocate of public broadcasting, Schenkkan helped to establish PBS and is remembered for writing the 1971 the paper "Public Broadcasting and Journalistic Integrity: A Policy Statement of Public Broadcasting Service.”

Robert F. Schenkkan, the renowned advocate of broadcasting who worked with the President Lyndon Johnson administration on the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act that gave federal aid to public stations, died on February 9, 2011, in Austin, Texas, from complications of dementia. He was 93.

Born in New York to Dutch immigrant parents, Schenkkan studied drama at the University of Virginia and earned a graduate degree from the University of North Carolina. As one of “the Six Pack” of the early public television station managers who helped establish PBS, Schenkkan was recruited by the University of Texas in 1955, where he was employed for over two decades as a professor and mentor. He entered the public media at WUNC-TV in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and helped found radio station KUT-FM in 1958 and KLRN television in San Antonio in 1962.

As a firm believer in the educational aspect of public broadcasting, Schenkkan protested the White House when then President Nixon threatened to stop money for public affairs programming. Another pivotal moment of his career came in January 1971, when he authored the paper "Public Broadcasting and Journalistic Integrity: A Policy Statement of Public Broadcasting Service.”

"He was the first to understand the immediate meaning and ultimate importance of public broadcasting,” remembered Jim Lehrer, author and editor of PBS NewsHour. “He really got it. It was 'educational' TV when he started, and he realized it could be so much more. He also believed very strongly that if public broadcast was going to deal with news and public affairs, it couldn't be seen as a political branch of government or special interest. He protected that from all who might have thought otherwise and did so stridently, eloquently and repeatedly."

“Only Bob could have persuaded LBJ to see that it was a good thing for Austin to have a non-commercial television station, even though it would compete with Johnson’s own KTBC,” added television journalist Bill Moyers. “But Bob was a visionary in his quiet-spoken way, and he had this talent for persuading people without any histrionics — because he made such sense, was so principled and sought nothing for himself from the outcome. I’ve never known anyone more dedicated to the community’s interest.”

Schenkkan is survived by his second wife of 22 years, Phyllis Rothgeb; four sons from his first marriage; two stepsons; and two grandchildren, including actor Benjamin McKenzie of The O.C. and Southland. His first wife, the former Jean McKenzie, died in 1985.

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