Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Hartford Gunn, Public Radio & Television Pioneer

Hartford Gunn was the founding president of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), but he was most proud of his success in putting into place the system that connected the PBS network by domestic satellite.

A pioneer in educational television, Gunn (1927-1986) was responsible for getting WGBH radio on the air in Boston in 1951, followed by WGBH-TV in 1955. The station flourished during the 1960s, and Gunn was chosen to head the new Public Broadcasting Service in 1970. Gunn had come to WGBH fresh out of Harvard Business School, at the age of 25, following military service. It was his first civilian full-time job.

Gunn (photo at right) as a new hire at WGBH Boston.

In the dozen years he led the Boston station, Gunn moved it into the front ranks of public broadcasting, positioning it to be one of the nation’s top two public stations. In the course of those years, Gunn created the first interconnected regional network (Eastern Educational Television Network, 1960) while working to assist communities in activating their public broadcasting licenses. He goaded National Educational Television (1954-1970) into adopting higher technical standards, including a major shift into color television.

While at PBS he led the planning for the satellite distribution system that is in place today. While others concentrated on programming, Gunn pushed for more sophisticated technical expertise to bring public television into the living rooms of every American.

Gunn  laboriously testified before state legislatures and the U.S. congress to get a public television network off the ground. During his presidency of PBS, he survived some acrimonious confrontations with the Nixon administration. The hiring of Sander Vanocur and Robert MacNeil* as principal correspondents for NPACT (National Public Affairs Center for Television) greatly disturbed President Nixon, who saw it as "the last straw" and demanded that all funds for public television be cut immediately. It was Gunn and the folks at PBS who prevailed. Note: The influential “MacNeil/Lehrer Report” aired until MacNeil retired in 1995; it lives on as the PBS NewsHour, and MacNeil is still one of the primary producers.

Gunn was a true “techie” and a serious audiophile, indulging his lifelong interest in classical music. While serving as senior vice-president and general manager of KCET in Los Angeles, he kept a 42-ft. Westsail (the twin of a sail boat owned by his colleague Walter Cronkite) at Marina Del Ray, CA. It was my great fortune to spend extended time on this boat, listening to Gunn as he regaled me with stories of the early days of public broadcasting. Note: the sound system on that boat could have filled a movie palace! A lifelong bachelor, Hartford lived a quiet, discrete homosexual private life.

Gunn went on to serve as vice-president of program development for COMSAT, based in Washington, DC. During that time he moved to nearby Annapolis, MD, where he built a waterfront home with a dock for his sailboat. The equipment to supply the media for his home in Annapolis occupied an entire room, an extravagant indulgence in the early 1980s. At COMSAT, he was largely responsible for setting up the first national satellite-to-home television network in the United States.

Unfortunately, it was discovered that he suffered from a rare form of thyroid cancer, which was treated by radiation, chemotherapy and unsuccessful surgery. He died in Boston at the age of 59, on January 2, 1986. His legacy was carried on by the Hartford Gunn Institute, first based in Illinois, which assisted in developing fundamental plans for building the second generation of public telecommunications.
The 21" Classroom goes on the air at WGBH-TV:

From left – Hartford Gunn, Michael Ambrosino, Bill Kiernan (the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education), Gene Gray (everybody's favorite science teacher on TV), and Norman Harris (Science Director, Boston Museum of  Science). The 21-inch Classroom (the name referenced the measurement of a TV screen) first aired in 1958, with programs on the French language, music, literature, social studies and science.

*Robert MacNeil, who has a gay son, famously took part in a panel discussion of news anchors for the 1993 convention of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. MacNeil, who was once an aspiring actor and playwright, enjoys following the career of his son Ian (born 1960), a set designer who recently won a 2009 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Musical for Billy Elliot: The Musical. In a 1994 episode of The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, father and son openly discussed their relationship.

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