Established in 1953, Alabama Public Television (APT) was the first educational television network in the United States and has served Alabama for more than five decades. Headquartered in Birmingham, the organization pioneered the use of microwave towers to transmit its signals and was the first television station in the state to begin broadcasting a high-definition digital signal. Today, with approximately 85 employees, APT offers three separate digital channels: APT HD, providing PBS network and local programming; APT Create, a how-to channel devoted to cooking, travel, arts & crafts and gardening; and APT IQ, which offers educational programming aimed at children. Nearly 50 percent of its annual operating budget comes from corporate and individual donations in the state, with the remainder of the budget coming from grants from national agencies and funding from the state of Alabama.
Seeing an educational television network as a cost-effective solution to the varying regional disparities in educational quality in the state, Gov. Gordon Persons encouraged the Alabama State Legislature to pass legislation to establish APT. The network was to broadcast statewide quality educational programming developed by state universities and other educational systems in the state. In 1953, the Alabama Educational Television Commission (AETC), a six-member board representing education and each congressional district of the state, was formed to guide the network’s creation. No funding for the enterprise was included in the legislation, but the Alabama State Docks donated $50,000 to support the commission’s initial work. Birmingham educator Raymond Hurlbert, a principal in the Birmingham city school system, was chosen by Persons to lead the commission in its work. Hurlbert had served as president of the Birmingham Teachers’ Association and the Alabama Principals Association and was appointed public relations director for the Birmingham City Board of Education. The longest-serving executive director of APT, Hurlbert led the agency into the early 1970s.
On January 7, 1955, Alabama Educational Television, as it was known at the time, initiated its first broadcast from a transmitter atop Mount Cheaha, Alabama’s highest point. The entity became an actual network just three months later when, on April 28, a second station transmitter in Birmingham began emitting a signal. The addition of other transmitters—eventually numbering nine—made it possible to reach 98 percent of the state. Each transmitter was given a set of call letters that all end in “IQ,” standing for “intelligence quotient,” a reference to the network’s education mission.
APT’s first on-air content included the inauguration of Gov. Jim Folsom and taped instructional materials from teachers at Auburn University, the University of Alabama, and the public school systems in Jefferson County. The videotaped materials were bused to various APT broadcasting facilities within the state or rebroadcast from another APT station’s signal.
Among the early children’s programs broadcast in the 1950s by Alabama Educational Television was Cabbages and Kings, written and produced by Jay Sanders, the first film and mass communications professor at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University). The children’s show, created by Sanders’s students, aired on Wednesday evenings. Sanders worked on several other shows for the network, including Anthology and Mosaic. Other early programs include Let’s Learn More, which offered instruction in the areas of vocabulary, science, health and safety, handwriting, arithmetic, and music. Produced by Jefferson County Schools for elementary students, the popular series aired for 16 years. Music for Listening, targeted to fifth and sixth graders and also produced by Auburn University, was accompanied by Music for Teaching, a companion telecourse for teachers that introduced new materials and suggested ways to better use television for classroom instruction.
Alabama Educational Television became part of the new Public Broadcasting System (PBS) upon the latter’s creation in 1969. The affiliation brought new programming opportunities to APT, although the network continued to air programs provided by Alabama educational organizations as well. Wishing to expand its network, APT was faced with the task of constructing 2,000 miles of two-way microwave circuits to broadcast over roughly 52,423 square miles, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. APT engineers therefore studied the Australian postal system, which had developed microwave technology to communicate across the Australian outback. APT engineers then adapted that system for broadcasting, setting up the first microwave tower-to-tower connection—known as a hop—across Alabama. The new system was completed in 1981 and, when launched, it served as a model for more than 20 other states; broadcasters from other countries also visited Alabama to study APT’s system.
In 1988, the network changed its name to Alabama Public Television and soon became popularly known as APT around the state. Dependent on support from public, corporate, and state funding, APT’s on-air programming was generally limited to PBS network programming during the evening and four hours of primarily local content during school hours. APT’s educational services expanded in the mid-1990s with increased funding from the state legislature and other sources, such as the annual PBS Ready to Learn grant (starting in 1996), which made 11.5 hours of daily children’s programming possible.
APT soon added programs for K-12 teachers to use in classrooms and college course and other adult educational programming, purchased or leased from outside sources, to the evening hours following prime-time PBS shows. By 2000, APT was broadcasting 24 hours a day. In 2003, APT launched an online digital service called APTPLUS, which offers instructional on-demand video correlated to state educational standards and is supplemented by additional instructional materials for educators. By 2009, teachers in every school system in the state were using the service.
In 2005, APT took the lead in a 10-state partnership of television stations and state departments of education to provide online courses for professional development for K-12 teachers. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the resulting “e-Learning for Educators” service allows teachers to fulfill continuing education requirements when and where it is convenient for them.
APT added a digital stream to its technology in 2002, allowing the network to be the first in the state to broadcast in high definition (HD) and offer additional channels (multicasting) and begin broadcasting data over the air (datacasting). By early 2007, the network had debuted two new digital channels, APT Create and APT IQ, and, in 2008, the network switched exclusively to digital broadcasting.
APT established a documentary division and produced its first documentary in 2005. Several of APT’s productions have received regional Emmy and Telly awards, including The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Justice without Violence: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, Mr. Dial Has Something to Say, Thornton Dial and WWII: Alabama Remembers.