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Prairie Public celebrates 50 years of sharing stories

FARGO - Bob Dambach can share many stories from his three decades at Prairie Public, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and he has a good one about Fred Rogers, better known as Mr. Rogers. The bottom line? Mr. Rogers was real. D...

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Prairie Public's Director of Radio Bill Thomas, left, and Skip Wood, producer of the radio show "Main Street," in the main control room of Prairie Public's radio facilities in Fargo. Dave Olson/The Forum


FARGO – Bob Dambach can share many stories from his three decades at Prairie Public, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and he has a good one about Fred Rogers, better known as Mr. Rogers.

The bottom line?

Mr. Rogers was real.


Dambach, now director of television at Prairie Public, said that in the late 1980s David Newell, the actor who played Mr. McFeely, the delivery man on Rogers’ long-running PBS show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” was in the area to give a commencement address at a local high school.

During his stay, Newell visited Prairie Public.

At the time, Rogers had just become a grandfather, so the Prairie Public staff asked Newell to deliver a congratulatory card to Rogers, which he did.

About eight years later, Dambach was attending a PBS conference when he encountered Rogers in a convention center hallway.

Dambach said the TV host known for his soft-spoken and kind nature noticed his name tag and where he was from.

“He (Rogers) breaks away from the people he was with and he comes over and he had to thank me personally for the card we sent,” Dambach said.

Rogers later gave the keynote address at the conference and when he was done, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, Dambach said.

“He made you feel so special about what you were doing working in public broadcasting and how important that was and how he really believed that.


“And all of us believed it after that,” Dambach said.

Recapping Prairie Public’s first half-century, Dambach said the first 20 or so years were a struggle for survival, particularly in the 1970s when taxpayer-supported funding for public broadcasting was shrinking.

Locally, the crisis led to the birth of the pledge drive, which today is a standard fundraising technique used by public TV and radio stations across the country.

In the 1970s, fund drives were still a novelty when Dennis Falk, then the CEO of Prairie Public, was told by his board of directors that KFME-TV, Fargo’s public television station, would have to shut down because of funding issues.

Dambach said Falk’s answer was: “Well, let me go on the air and if we can raise $40,000, can we stay on the air?”

“And that’s what he did in about 1973, right after he got here,” said Dambach, who added that in the decades that followed Falk continued to secure funding via appeals to corporate sponsors, the public, and state and federal governments.

The result was a more stable funding platform that helped lead to what today Dambach calls a golden period for Prairie Public.

“I would say that, for sure,” Dambach said.


Togetherness pays off

Prairie Public is many things, including a network of television and radio stations that covers most of North Dakota and parts of Minnesota and Canada.

It produces educational programs, documentaries and entertainment shows, and it serves as a public forum for important issues of the day.

Since the late 1990s, the job of fine-tuning the radio piece of that picture has fallen to Bill Thomas, director of radio for Prairie Public.

Thomas joined Prairie Public about the time it was combining its radio operations with those of college radio stations at North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota.

Thomas said all three entities were experiencing difficulties of one kind or another that threatened their ability to remain on the air.

“That pushed the (consolidation) idea forward,” Thomas said. When formation of the statewide radio network was complete, Prairie Public and its component radio stations were able to do things they likely could not have done on their own, he said.


Expanded news gathering capability is one positive, Thomas said, citing Prairie Public’s ability to station a reporter in North Dakota’s oilfields in order to monitor and gauge the impact that activity is having on local communities and the state.

With about 30,000 listeners a week, Thomas said Prairie Public’s radio audience is strong. He said the same generally holds true for public radio across the country.

“For the past several years, the audience for over-the-air commercial broadcasting has been going down and the audience for public radio has been going up,” Thomas said. He attributed it to a number of factors, including the many options people have today when it comes to Internet and satellite radio stations.

Emphasis on learning

What today is called Prairie Public began taking shape in the late 1950s, when a Fargo radiologist named Ted Donat formed the North Central Educational Television Association to further his dream of a local public TV station that would broadcast educational programming.

The association still exists under a slightly different name and it continues to work with Prairie Public on the education facet of Prairie Public’s mission.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the association was instrumental in securing a transmitter tower and TV station in south Fargo. The station’s call letters became KFME-TV and it broadcast on Channel 13.


KFME-TV is an acronym for Fargo-Moorhead Education Television, said Barbara Gravel, production manager for Prairie Public.

She said after the station went on the air on Jan. 19, 1964, it broadcast 5½ hours of programming five days a week.

The next big step for the young station was becoming part of PBS in 1967, Gravel said.

“That opened up a lot of programming,” she said. Another big leap came in the mid-1980s when Prairie Public moved into its current location in downtown Fargo.

That was followed by a financial windfall in the form of agricultural grants from state and local governments, which Prairie Public used to hire more people, buy more equipment and produce more local shows.

The shows included a Spanish instructional program that taught Spanish to high school students across the country.

Dambach stressed that everything that happens at Prairie Public begins with sponsors and members, whose dollars make up more than a third of the budget and provide the basis for matching dollars from state and federal governments.

“Membership dollars are what we need so we can buy all the great shows you see on Prairie Public from national to local services,” Dambach said.


He said public broadcasting is big among young people just starting to learn, as well as adults interested in continued learning.

Teenagers are not that interested, he said.

“They (the public) use us to learn the alphabet and then as they get older they definitely come back for lifelong learning opportunities,” he said.

Key dates in Prarie Public’s history

1959: The North Central Educational Television Association is incorporated by Ted Donat, a Fargo physician. The association is instrumental in setting up KFME-TV, the first educational television station in North Dakota.

1961: The North Dakota Legislature approves $50,000 for educational television. Half of the money is used by public instruction to hire a consultant; the balance is used in 1963 to pay for KFME’s first antenna in south Fargo. A collection of trailers at the base of the antenna provide office space.

1964: KFME-TV (the call letters form an acronym for Fargo-Moorhead Educational Television) goes on the air. Nearly two dozen school systems participate.

1967: President Lyndon Johnson signs the Public Broadcasting Act, creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. PBS is established in 1969.

1971: National Public Radio, today known as NPR, was established and the expansion into public radio was approved locally.

1974: Cable technology begins delivering Prairie Public’s signal to Winnipeg. Also, the name Prairie Public Television is given to the local public television enterprise.

1970s: Prairie Public’s television network grows in the 1970s with the addition of stations in Grand Forks and Bismarck.

In the 1980s, stations in Minot, Dickinson and Williston join the network, and in 1992 an Ellendale station signs on, completing the network.

1980: A major capital campaign is planned to accomplish a number of things, including the establishment of an endowment fund. Capital campaign monies are also used to purchase Prairie Public’s current building in downtown Fargo in 1983.

Early 1980s: Prairie Public Television’s corporate name is changed to Prairie Public Broadcasting.

1993: The North Dakota Education Association names Prairie Public a “Friend of Education,” acknowledging contributions as a provider of education and lifelong learning.

The following year, the Red River Valley Heritage Society awards Prairie Public its “Excellence in Life in the Valley” award.

2006: Prairie Public becomes the brand name used to refer to the public television and public radio aspects of the nonprofit organization, whose legal name remains Prairie Public Broadcasting.




I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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