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Public Media and KCET Legend Bill Kobin Dies at 91

Bill Kobin - hero image
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William H. “Bill” Kobin, a public media icon who helped build PBS flagship station KCET into a Los Angeles powerhouse, airing news programs like the acclaimed “Life & Times” and helping to launch Huell Howser’s career, has died. He was 91.

Kobin, KCET's president from 1983-1996, died Friday in Los Angeles of Parkinson’s disease complications, said long-time friend and former colleague, Barbara Goen.

“He was a wonderful boss,” said Goen, who served as his senior vice president of communications. “He was sensitive, a good communicator. He had tremendous vision about the kind of television he wanted to see. He was very bold in the kinds of decisions he made — took chances.”

During a career spanning more than five decades, Kobin brought to PBS and KCET many of the popular programs that viewers enjoyed over the years, from dramas including “The Forsyte Saga” and “The Adams Chronicles” to public affairs programs including “Firing Line” with William F. Buckley Jr. and “This Week with Bill Moyers.”

At KCET, Kobin hired television personality Huell Howser, whose “California’s Gold,” “Visiting with Huell Howser” and other programs continue as mainstays in the station lineup, even after Howser’s death seven years ago. Kobin and his team are credited with helping to create community outreach programs that included “Life & Times,” “California Stories” and “KCET Journal.”

“Bill was the one who said, ‘Yes, we are going to put news and public affairs up there with other key programs,” said Val Zavala, a former KCET news director who co-hosted “Life & Times” with many other top Los Angeles journalists. “We couldn’t do it without him. He had such commitment and such integrity and yet he was one of these quiet strong leaders. I was just so fortunate to be there when he was there.

Born Feb. 26, 1929, in Indianapolis, Kobin graduated from UC Berkeley, began his career in television news with Dumont Broadcasting Company and moved on to ABC and CBS. An Emmy-nominated journalist, Kobin’s colleagues included some of the biggest names in the business, including Edward R. Murrow, Charles Collingwood, Walter Cronkite, Howard K. Smith, Harry Reasoner, Andy Rooney and Eric Sevareid.

“I worked with the best,” Kobin told Goen, who wrote an unpublished biography of Kobin for his family and friends. “I learned never to call a news program a ‘show’ – that was for those entertainment guys over there! The news division did serious programs, and we weren’t allowed to forget it.”

According to Goen’s biography, Kobin in 1963 joined National Education Television, a nonprofit television startup in New York that served as the precursor for the Public Broadcasting Service. As head of public affairs programming and vice president of programming, Kobin brought in the work of independent filmmakers to create a schedule of diverse programming during the politically turbulent era.

In 1967, he started “Black Journal,” the first regularly-scheduled network television show produced by African Americans. Kobin also enticed journalist Bill Moyers to public television, considering the move one of his greatest accomplishments, and helped create “An American Family,” a groundbreaking documentary chronicling the Loud family of Santa Barbara.

“That was a series that almost didn’t happen,” Kobin told Goen. “We could not find a so-called ‘typical’ American family to participate, until I happened to meet Bill and Pat Loud at a party one night in Santa Barbara. They agreed to be our American Family.”

Family photo of the Louds

Family photo of the Louds, who were the subject of a 12 part television documentary, "An American Family", that aired on PBS stations in 1973. Back, from left: Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Lance. Front, from left: Michele, Pat and Bill. | Public Domain

In 1972, Kobin took a job as vice president in charge of family and adult programming at Children's Television Workshop, the company behind “Sesame Street'' and other programs launched to educate children.

Five years later, he moved back to public media as president of Twin Cities Public Television, which operated stations KTCA and KTCI in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. There he upgraded the stations' outdated technical equipment and brought in new staff to improve the broadcast schedule, local programming, community partnerships and fundraising.

“I wanted to stop what I saw as public television’s snobbishness,” he told Goen. “I knew we wouldn’t be successful if we were to continue to be perceived as ‘high-brow.’ We needed to be more popular more often.”

KTCA/KTCI grew in viewership, donors and support from foundations, and became the United States’ third-ranked public television station, Goen wrote.

On Jan. 17, 1983, Kobin took over KCET, a station with severe financial and image problems that made headlines. Its finances were so bad, its Sunset Boulevard studios were for sale.

"I read the newspaper articles on an airplane coming west and almost jumped out of the plane,” Kobin said. “When I saw the financial statements, I thought, ‘Where are the real statements?’”

Bill Kobin was the second President of KCET from 1983 – 1996, and through his leadership, left an indelible mark on the station's legacy.
In Memoriam: Bill Kobin

Bill Kobin was the second President of KCET from 1983–1996, and through his leadership, left an indelible mark on the station's legacy. This footage was compiled for the station's 50th anniversary.

Kobin went to work to fix the station, hiring new management in programming and creating successful fundraising drives. A March 1983 fundraising effort helped to pull the studios off the real estate market.

“I was at KCET when Bill got there,” Goen said in an interview. “The station had been going through quite a bit of trauma and challenges and financial difficulties. Bill walked into a very challenging situation and he was just a superb leader.”

A year later, Kobin was at the helm when KCET celebrated its 20th anniversary, broadcasting shows from its past, including “Cosmos,” “Hollywood Television Theater” and “KCET Journal.”

Kobin then steered the station to airing more than the PBS national schedule, starting production on local programs and those that focused on the issues of the day.

“It was just a very exciting time to be part of the station,” Goen said.

Shows included "El Salvador: The Road to Peace,” a live debate produced in 1984 with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Kobin held a town hall that discussed the beating of Rodney King and the riots resulting from this event, and established “Life & Times,” which began in 1991.

Hugh Hewitt, Ruben Martinez, and Patt Morrison

"Life & Times" hosts Hugh Hewitt, Ruben Martinez, and Patt Morrison during an 'Election Night Party' edition of the program in November 1992.

“He definitely got that off the ground,” Zavala said. “His commitment to local news and public affairs was so crucial to making KCET’s news and public affairs successful for so long. You cannot do that without true commitment from the top because you have to raise money.”

By KCET's 25th anniversary, the station had increased its subscribers by more than half and their contributions had doubled. KCET won 34 Emmy awards during Kobin’s first five years.

Working with the Regional Education Television Advisory Council, Kobin’s team established programs that provided class instruction for nearly 500,000 children during the morning and early afternoon, and courses for college students during the day, Goen wrote.

Kobin was not without controversy. In 1991, Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony called on Catholics to boycott KCET when Kobin chose to air "Stop the Church," a half-hour documentary about an AIDS activist protest in New York. His board of directors divided on whether to air the program, but put it on, following it with a live panel discussion that included representatives from the Los Angeles Archdiocese and local AIDS activists.

"It was the worst experience I’ve ever had in broadcasting, being called a bigot and anti-Catholic," Kobin told Goen. "That was the hardest moment of my career, but ultimately airing the film was the correct decision journalistically.”

During the 1990s, when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich threatened to cut funding for public television, which Gingrich considered “for elitists," Kobin's team started a letter-writing campaign to Washington lawmakers, touting PBS' service to children, its outreach efforts and other programs that make public television unique. Kobin appeared in on-air messages to urge viewers to contact elected officials. He also led a fight to keep cable television companies from moving KCET from a low channel number in their lineups to a number in the hundreds or completely dropping the station.

In his desire for quality programming, Kobin aired national productions of “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Long Shadows.” The William H. Keck Foundation provided a $5 million grant to fund the national science series, “The Astronomers.” Other shows included “Spy Machines,” “Secret Intelligence,” “Human Quest” and "The Great War, which won a Peabody Award.

Focusing on children, Kobin secured funding for the acclaimed shows, “Storytime” and “The Puzzle Place.” Believing in the power of local programming, Kobin and his team launched Howser's legendary career; and another show — "By the Year 2000,” hosted by Zavala and Los Angeles television news pioneer Joseph Benti.

Mara and Kino from Storytime

"Storytime" characters Kino (left) and Mara (right) read a book in their popular children's series focusing on reading and family literacy. | Photo: Mitzi Trumbo

Kobin was not without controversy. In 1991, Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony called on Catholics to boycott KCET when Kobin chose to air "Stop the Church," a half-hour documentary about an AIDS activist protest in New York. His board of directors divided on whether to air the program, but put it on, following it with a live panel discussion that included representatives from the Los Angeles Archdiocese and local AIDS activists.

"It was the worst experience I’ve ever had in broadcasting, being called a bigot and anti-Catholic," Kobin told Goen. "That was the hardest moment of my career, but ultimately airing the film was the correct decision journalistically.”

During the 1990s, when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich threatened to cut funding for public television, which Gingrich considered “for elitists," Kobin's team started a letter-writing campaign to Washington lawmakers, touting PBS' service to children, its outreach efforts and other programs that make public television unique. Kobin appeared in on-air messages to urge viewers to contact elected officials. He also led a fight to keep cable television companies from moving KCET from a low channel number in their lineups to a number in the hundreds or completely dropping the station.

In his desire for quality programming, Kobin aired national productions of “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Long Shadows.” The William H. Keck Foundation provided a $5 million grant to fund the national science series, “The Astronomers.” Other shows included “Spy Machines,” “Secret Intelligence,” “Human Quest” and "The Great War, which won a Peabody Award.

Focusing on children, Kobin secured funding for the acclaimed shows, “Storytime” and “The Puzzle Place.” Believing in the power of local programming, Kobin and his team launched Howser's legendary career; and another show — "By the Year 2000,” hosted by Zavala and Los Angeles television news pioneer Joseph Benti.

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