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John Witherspoon, Public Broadcasting Pioneer, First General Manager Of KPBS, Dies At 88

From left to right, Hall of Fame Inductees Paul Marshall, Paul Steen and John...

Credit: KPBS

Above: From left to right, Hall of Fame Inductees Paul Marshall, Paul Steen and John Witherspoon at the 2010 Hall of Fame ceremony, September 2010.

John Witherspoon, who helped create the Public Broadcasting Act 50 years ago and was KPBS’s first general manager, died of natural causes Wednesday at his home in Coronado. He was 88.

As the first general manager of KPBS, which was then called KEBS, Witherspoon was part of a team of public television general managers in 1967 that helped create the Public Broadcasting Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago next month.

That act established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and later the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.

Attending the White House ceremony where President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill, he heard LBJ voice what might have been Witherspoon's own hopes for the new agency. "The Corporation will assist stations and producers who aim for the best in broadcasting good music," he said, "in broadcasting exciting plays, and in broadcasting reports on the whole fascinating range of human activity. It will try to prove that what educates can also be exciting."

And, Johnson declared, although it will be partially funded by the government, "... it will be carefully guarded from Government or from party control. It will be free, and it will be independent — and it will belong to all of our people."

Witherspoon was soon tapped to serve as the founding chairman of National Public Radio’s board of directors, where he strongly urged the fledgling radio network to produce its own programming to distribute to stations.

Others wanted individual stations to produce their own programs. Out of Witherspoon's advocacy came NPR's first national program, "All Things Considered."

“John was bigger than life,” said KPBS General Manager Tom Karlo, who knew Witherspoon well. “He was a man who was a pioneer of public broadcasting.”

Karlo said when Witherspoon was KPBS’s general manager, he envisioned the station, both the radio and television sides, as robustly committed to local programming.

“And his vision was public affairs and arts and culture programing,” Karlo said. “And here we are 50 years later and the backbone and foundation of our commitment to San Diego is public affairs; high-quality, trusted journalism; and arts and culture and history programming.

"So the vision that John had in 1967 is really the vision we have today, and it will be the vision as we go forward into the future.”

Witherspoon was also a professor of communications at San Diego State University, where Karlo also served as an adjunct professor.

“I started to spend more time with him in the 1990s when I was aspiring to be a general manager — just like he was — and he was always reminding me of the role public broadcasting plays as a non-commercial, programming service to the community,” Karlo said.

Witherspoon was an avid sailor and served as commodore of the Coronado Yacht Club.

He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Mercedes, daughters Leslie Adams and Lynn Witherspoon, son-in-law Jacob Adams, grandsons Jordan Benudiz and Nate Adams, granddaughter-in-law Elizabeth Copland and great-grandson William Adams.

“For all who knew him, what shines through most is his immense kindness, thoughtfulness, and care for others,” said his daughters Leslie Adams and Lynn Witherspoon in a statement. “He will, in every way, be missed.”

John Witherspoon, who helped create the Public Broadcasting Act 50 years ago, was KPBS’s first general manager and the first president of the board of National Public Radio, has died.

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