January 11, 2017

AETN: Broadcasting Culture and Education to Rural Arkansas

When my family moved to Stone County, Arkansas, I was 11 years old. We moved into a stone house on a dirt road intersection in the middle of Nowhere and Nowhere. My parents were thrilled. I suspected we might have fallen off the end of the earth.

We had to cross a low water bridge to access the highway. Guineas called from the woods. Up until this point, I’d grown up in a suburb with stop signs, traffic sounds, the occasional siren, and a McDonald’s less than a mile away.

To put it mildly, I was in shock.

But the greatest shock of all was finding out there was no cable television.

“No tv?” I asked in a “surely ye jest” tone only an 11-year-old burgeoning pre-teen girl can produce.

“Of course we have tv,” Dad responded, pointing to the roof where a large metal contraption perched near the chimney.

I gazed at the apparatus and decided it could only be one thing: a fork for a giant.

“It’s an antenna,” Dad said.

“How old is it?” I asked, because as far as I could tell, it had a certain moon-landing-esque quality.

As it turned out it was ancient, but it worked. Mom and Dad could have easily gotten satellite tv, but they were looking forward to some element of off-the-grid living.

We were able to pick up a very fuzzy station in Jonesboro and if the weather was perfect and the stars aligned, I was able to watch the Golden Girls. The other station that broadcast into our rural living room was perfect and clear as a bell.  AETN.

The Arkansas Education Television Network and I would become fast friends. They were my window into the modern world outside our valley farmhouse where coyotes howled at night and the original outhouse sat at the edge of our property, just in case any of us were feeling adventurous. Interestingly enough, my mother didn’t mind my watching AETN. I wasn’t rotting my brain. I was learning about, Exploring Arkansas or painting with Miss Polly, and the apex of my entire week was Saturday nights when The Good Times Picture Show aired.

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It was the beginning of my love affair with classic movies.

My mom made popcorn or we peeled oranges, and we watched classic Hollywood stream into our living room. We watched as Ray Nielson conducted interviews with the aging stars. Every week I was introduced to a movie star I didn’t know about, and the next week I would hurry to the library to find a book about them. I read about Joan Crawford and Vivian Leigh. I imagined what life would have been like in old Hollywood. I watched westerns with my father and laughed when we saw telephone lines in the background of an old west battle scene. I also fell a little bit in love with John Wayne, and that’s never gone away.

AETN made our rural home life feel connected and part of the rest of the world. In fact, it felt as if we had the best of all worlds. Nature was all around us, while culture and education streamed into our television set courtesy of that giant antenna.

AETN is a state network of PBS member television stations. It first signed on the air as the nation’s 124th educational television station on December 4, 1966. The broadcast signals of the six stations that are part of the public television network cover not only Arkansas, but also portions of Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana.

Luckily, for those of us living in Mountain View, the KEMV satellite was debuted there in November 1980. So, while other television station signals were spotty, fuzzy or unwatchable at best, AETN was always crystal clear and on air for Ozark residents.

Apart from purely entertaining programs, AETN is also an education resource for public schools and colleges through the use of instructional videos, teacher guides, and supplements for classrooms, college tele-courses, and GED education.

My love of public television lasted long after moving away from that farmhouse with an antenna built for communicating with Mars. I would also submit that my discovery of The Antique Roadshow programs during my sophomore year of college may have contributed my fall from the Dean’s list. I have zero regrets about that, as I can now tell you the difference between Roseville and McCoy Pottery (which has come in handy more often than my pocket book would like to admit).

In my adult years, I’ve watched Arkansas native P. Allen Smith and his beautiful gardens, while marathoning entire seasons of Downton Abby. I’ve moved from small city to big city. I got cable. Then I got a DVR. Then I got Netflix and constant streaming television shows from my computer to the tv screen in my living room. In short, I’ve come a long way from giant antennas on the roof of a rural farmhouse.

But in all of these television experiences, no other station has ever educated, inspired, or proved more valuable than AETN.

Liz Harrell

Arkansas Women Bloggers member Elizabeth Harrell is a native Arkansan, author, and freelance writer. Her book, My (not so) Storybook Life, was published in 2011. Her blog projects have been featured in At Home Arkansas, Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge, and Better Homes and Gardens. Visit her at https://elizabeth-harrell.com .