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South Carolina Public Radio Turns 50

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South Carolina Public Radio has served the state and the nation with quality programming for a half-century.

A half century ago, South Carolina ETV welcomed a new member to its broadcasting family: the South Carolina Educational Radio Network, now known as South Carolina Public Radio. when WEPR went on the air – not originally from Greenville, but from Clemson – Henry Cauthen, the original president of ETV, was there.

He recalled how the idea of a radio network came about when federal grants to construct public broadcast stations were announced. “We realized immediately that colleges and universities in the state would go after those things as quickly as they knew about it, and we realized that if they took two or three channels, there wouldn’t be enough channels to cover the state, and there would be no state network. So we started looking, ‘What can we do? Radio, can we do radio?’

“We felt that we could do the installation of the equipment, and we could operate it with the present staff. So it was time to call the commission (the ETV Commission). And we went in and explained everything to them. Finally they voted 9-0 to approve it. And,” laughed Cauthen, “we said ‘oh, my goodness. Now we’ve got to do it!’”

Both ETV and South Carolina Public Radio have contributed many quality programs to their national networks for viewers and listeners nationwide to enjoy. Music from the Spoleto Festival in Charleston was one of several national programs originating from the radio network in the early years. But the festival almost didn’t happen, according to Cauthen. The nervous organizing committee nearly voted to cancel the event, fearing failure if the festival didn’t get enough publicity. But committee chairman Ted Stern made one last appeal to Cauthen to see what could be done in that regard. Cauthen discussed it with his staff.

“We knew that the festival could be very important to the state, so we were stretching ourselves,” Cauthen said. “I called Ted and I said ‘Ted, here’s what we can do for you. We can give you some national coverage on PBS during the week. But we can give you everyday coverage on NPR.’ He said ‘you mean you can really do that?’ I said ‘yeah, we can do it.’ He said ‘WILL you do it?’ I said “yeah, you got my pledge we will do it.’

“He said ‘I’ll get back to you tonight after the meeting.’ It was about 12:30 when I got the call. And he said ‘We did it. They’ve agreed to do it. Radio did it for us.’ So that’s how the Spoleto Festival got started.”

Long-time public radio staffer Alfred Turner came to the network in the mid-1980s. Asked why he has stayed with South Carolina Public Radio for nearly four decades, his reply was simple. “Because I believe in it. That’s the short answer.”

Expanding on what drew him to the network and kept him here, Turner cited the new horizons the quality programming opened up for him. “I heard drama on the air. I heard Star Wars,” he still marvels. “I heard the Hobbit, dramatized with sound effects and music and really good actors. And then I heard classical music, which opened my ears quite a bit. I heard jazz on the radio. You couldn’t hear that anywhere else.

“And it was just a whole new world. I loved radio, but I fell in love with what public radio could do. That’s why I started, that’s why I stayed.”

Former radio head Shari Hutchinson produced the nationally-renowned program Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz for years, as well as Chamber Music from the Spoleto Festival. She has returned after her retirement to help produce more jazz programming. According to Hutchinson, the original programming is what makes South Carolina Public Radio so good.

“I think South Carolina Public Radio made its mark in national programming very early. It was one of the first stations to offer national programming. Dick Phipps launched American Popular Song with Alec Wilder, and that was one of the first national series to be station-based,” she said.

Public Radio is of tremendous value to its listeners, all agreed, and to its staff, but that’s not all. Osei Chandler has produced the reggae program “Roots Music Karamu” from Charleston every week for more than 40 years – as a volunteer. Why would he stick with it for so long?

“It’s just the honesty of public radio, NPR, that appeals to me,” he said. “I would listen to public radio even if I weren’t on public radio. That’s… my wakeup in the morning. NPR and what’s going on in the world,” Chandler said.

In addition, “it’s always been my goal to uplift my community…and through the Roots Music Karamu on South Carolina Public Radio, I’m still continuing that. It’s been fulfilling, I guess that’s the word I’m looking for.”

Chandler no doubt spoke for his fellow broadcasters – and, hopefully, for a statewide audience - when he said he considers South Carolina Public Radio to be “a gem in the jewel box of South Carolina.”

Here’s to the next 50 years!

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Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.