The original incorporation documents of the West Central Minnesota Educational Television Company were filed in 1959 as part of a plan for a six-state educational television network to serve the Upper Midwest through a series of linked microwave towers. Appleton Minnesota was identified by the FCC as a logical location for a new link in this network because the station could bring television to this under served rural region and act as a relay point to carry educational television programming via microwave signal to other stations in the network.
After several years of fundraising, the station raised enough federal, state and foundation support to get started. $22,000 of this support was contributed locally by individuals, businesses, clubs, associations, and churches from Appleton and dozens of surrounding communities. Many of these gifts were $1, $2, and $5 donations from individual families offering what they could afford. The Alvin Lia family donated 8 acres of farmland to serve as the tower site. School District 2202 donated its old one-room schoolhouse to hold the television equipment and controls. A 500-foot tower was erected at the transmission site and on February 7, 1966, KWCM-TV broadcast its first educational program.
Early plans called for the station to collect $30,000 a year in operational funds from area schools. By 1969 however, only 41 schools were paying membership fees. It was clear that a more sustainable funding model needed to be created. In 1975, KWCM premiered its first locally developed program. In 1976, PBS and CPB selected Appleton as a site for a satellite receiving ground terminal, giving the station access to a larger selection of programs. In 1980 the board and management advanced a vision to become more responsive to local people through programs that featured the family farms and small towns of the region. In March 1980, KWCM broadcast its first membership drive. In a few short years, membership and revenues doubled and soon KWCM had a new home in Appleton's Old City Hall, which was constructed in 1895 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1983, the City of Appleton received a grant to construct a conjoined building for additional KWCM offices and studios. At that time the station was rebranded to be called Pioneer Public Television and in 1985, a new 1,200-foot tower was installed at the transmission site. In October 1996, a second tower tower and transmitter building was constructed in Chandler, Minnesota and a new sister station, KSMN, began broadcasting. In February 1999, another new Pioneer low power TV signal, K49FA, began broadcasting from Fergus Falls, completing Pioneer’s broadcast signal expansion.
In 1996, a new local program, “Funtime Polka,” premiered. The 1990s also saw the debut of “Prairie Sportsman.” In 2000, Pioneer produced “Country Spires,” a documentary about rural churches in the Midwest that was broadcast on public television stations across the country.
In 2009 Pioneer began producing “Postcards,” a weekly magazine program exploring the arts, history and cultural heritage of western Minnesota. In 2013, Pioneer’s first Upper Midwest Regional Emmy was awarded to “Caroline Smith: My Way Back Home.” In 2014 Pioneer was awarded an Upper Midwest Emmy for Haiti Love.
As a result of the conversion to digital TV, which was completed in 2010, Pioneer now broadcasts four digital channels to a viewing area that reaches from Detroit Lakes, MN to Rock Rapids, IA. Through Dish Network and DirecTV, Pioneer’s signal can be viewed from western Wisconsin to the Missouri River. In 2011, Pioneer launched its website www.pioneer.org for online streaming of local programs and PBS content.
Pioneer is currently advancing plans to construct a new studio, performance space, and office space for the station. Working in concert with the City of Appleton, the proposal is to relocate the City’s currently cramped public library to Pioneer’s existing 1983 office building. In addition, plans call for a restoration of the historic Opera House so it can once again serve as an active performance venue and community hub. Finally, the proposal calls for the construction of a new Pioneer production and office facility (adjacent to the Old Opera House) that would allow the station to meet the growing need for meaningful content and digital communications infrastructure in the region.
From the “Little Red TV Schoolhouse” to www.pioneer.org, the West Central Educational Television Company has continued to educate and sustain rural communities through communications services that reflect and uphold local values. Pioneer Public Television is a rare example of how democratic greater-good principles and small town cooperative values have been applied to the sophisticated world of broadcast communications.