In 1952, the Bay Area Educational Television Association (BAETA), a group led by Alameda County Schools Superintendent Vaughn Seidel, pressured the FCC to set aside 273 television stations for educational use. After the FCC gave in, the group learned that state law at that time did not allow schools to use television for instruction. Undaunted, BAETA began business in the back of a member's station wagon. Beverly Day, the wife of BAETA member Jim Day, thought of the call letters "KQED" from the Latin quod erat demonstrandum - "which was to be demonstrated". In 1954, KQED bought KPIX's old transmitter, using money raised in part from high school cake sales, and began broadcasting in earnest.

Their first live show was Shakespeare on TV. Mills College offered one unit of credit for watching, and the show quickly became a hit. In 1955, though, the studio ran into money trouble. To raise enough cash to keep operating, they held an on-air auction, thus beginning a long tradition of those annoying pledge drives. When the station moved to a new location, KQED engineers originated the cost-effective idea of using egg cartons for soundproofing, which has since been copied worldwide.

State law was finally changed to allow public schools to use instructional television in 1957. Nobel laureate Dr. Glenn Seaborg and mathematician Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer began teaching telecourses the same year. Nobel-winning biochemist Linus Pauling and H-bomb architect Edward Teller debated nuclear fallout and disarmament on an interview show. The debate was broadcast nationally, then internationally, and featured in magazines and newspapers. It is seen as an early milestone in public television.

KQED would go on to set many more milestones. In 1962, they broadcast The Rejected, the first television documentary about homosexuality. The show's guests included anthropologist Margaret Mead; Episcopal Bishop of California, Reverend James Pike; Dr. Evelyn Hooker, the first psychologist to prove that male homosexuals were no more likely to suffer from mental illness than heterosexual males; and several members of The Mattachine Society. Buzz Anderson's Where Is Jim Crow? series on Bay Area black culture debuted in 1964, and the highly acclaimed documentary Losing Just The Same, an in-depth portrait of East Oakland's black ghetto, aired in 1966. A sister radio station, KQED 88.5FM, was founded in 1969.

Nowadays, KQED can be found on Channel 9 in San Francisco and is the place to go if you're looking for Sesame Street, Nova, local independent film programming, a good documentary, or Jacques Pepin. 88.5FM is the local NPR affiliate and produces some interesting broadcasts of its own.

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