Last week’s news that the new owner of Lawrence’s cable television operation plans to close the local news portion of Channel 6 was sad and unfortunate but brings back many memories of the beginning and development of Sunflower Cablevision….Lawrence’s first cable television system.
The first idea of a cable system for Lawrence started in the early 1960’s when this writer attended an American Newspaper Publishers Association meeting in New York. A speaker at that gathering told of building a high tower in a hilly portion of Pennsylvania where residents had a difficult time getting reasonably clear, or any TV signals. He captured distant signals on the tall tower and then fed these far better pictures by cable to nearby residences.
This was early cable television!
This writer returned to Lawrence thinking about the possibility of the Journal-World building a cable system. One of the early pioneers in developing cable systems was Bill Daniels of Denver, Colorado. He was invited to come to Lawrence to study the possibility of a partnership with the Journal-World and its parent company, The World Company, in building and co-owning a cable system. He and a group of his associates toured the city checking the quality of Kansas City and Topeka television signals in various parts of the town, east and west of Mt. Oread, and the number and size of rooftop TV antennas.
Based on this study, Daniels said he didn’t think a cable TV operation in Lawrence would be a viable venture in Lawrence.
This writer told other Journal-World/World Company leaders that even though Daniels was not encouraging, he thought it would be wise to proceed and enter the cable business.
Lawrence City Commissioners, meeting in their offices at the former Watkins Bank building, heard the cable television story and proposal and after a number of meetings and discussions, granted a franchise to The World Company to build and operate the system. This was in the mid-1960’s.
John Malone, who today is one of the country’s largest and most successful cable owners, at that time headed a company that designed, engineered and built cable systems. He agreed to build the Lawrence plant that was engineered to carry a maximum of 13 off-air signals from Kansas City and Topeka. At that time there were no distant or satellite signals that could be captured for local distribution.
Sunflower Cablevision opened for business the last few days of 1971 at Seventh and New Hampshire Streets without a single subscriber or advertiser. In addition to merely offering better television reception, Sunflower also had a complete, fully staffed television station ready to offer news, sports, weather and advertising services and also unlimited ability to cover local programming.
This cable operation with a complete commercial television station was unique.
Channel 6 covered city commission meetings, Lawrence High School football games, KU football games, local events, charitable fundraising organizations and even had a call-in music request program.
The first manager was Max Falkenstien who had been with Topeka radio station WREN.
The number of subscribers and advertisers enjoyed steady growth and new technology made it possible to add an ever-increasing number of traditional network television channels as well as a wide variety of sports networks and other stations with special interest programming.
These distant signals were relayed to Lawrence through satellite signals captured by a 10-meter earth receive dish located at the far end of East 15th Street, as was the station’s master tower. The engineering and programming was led by Home Box Office officials and the Lawrence installation was the first west of the Mississippi River.
Sunflower and Sunflower Broadband developments over the years included:
- Local and long distance telephone service
- More than 300 channels
- High speed cable modem internet access
- All digital service
- Two highly competitive newsrooms, although owned by the same company, to provide a broad 24-hour news coverage of Lawrence. Eventually, Sunflower and Journal-World news and advertising departments merged into a joint operation that attracted national attention and produced a more complete and thorough service. The system won many national awards for its news, advertising, community service, technical advances and sports coverage. In 2010 Sunflower Broadband was identified as System of the Year by Cablefax.
In the original appearances before Lawrence City Commissioners, World Company officials pledged to provide the best possible cable service for a community the size of Lawrence and in subsequent meetings they continued to stress this pledge.
The mission and commitment was accomplished by a group of individuals who provided their expertise, vision, hard work and desire to be a part of something special, a true leader in the cable and information business with news services and techniques for the mutual benefit of Lawrence residents and the company.
Sunflower Cable had a work force of more than 200, all highly trained and committed to provide quick professional service to the customers. At the end of this report are the names of many of those who played a truly significant role in developing, nurturing and expanding Sunflower Cable. Special mention should be made of Ralph Gage, Dan Simons, Dave Clark and Patrick Knorr.
Times change, technology changes, methods in the distribution of information changes, television viewing habits change and there are constant changes everywhere…some good and some not so good.
It is unfortunate the new owners of the cable system think it is best to discontinue the hard news portion of their local operation. They are recognized as good owners-operators and are well aware of the constantly changing market and competition for cable television. Hopefully, they will adjust their operation from time to time in ways beneficial for their customers and for the city.
Building and developing an excellent cable system was an enjoyable and challenging 40-year experience for The World Company, Journal-World and Sunflower Cablevision employees. A lot of good memories with a lot of good people, many of whom followed their careers in Lawrence with highly successful careers in television, cablevision and information services throughout the country.
In this writer’s opinion, Sunflower provided enjoyment, education and a much wider scope of TV and broadband services. Through its programming, Sunflower encouraged Lawrence area residents to learn more about their community, their country and the world, become involved in their community and become more active in their community.
The following are the names of many who helped make Sunflower a true national leader in the cable fraternity:
Ann Niccum, Judy Eldridge, Dave Severance, Neil Rasmussen, Steve Jones, Scott Holeman, John Croman, Lindsey Slater, Lori Carson, Cathy Hamilton, Janet Reid, Krista Klaus, Scott Klaus, Linda Simons deMenocal, Bill Woody, Mark Boyle, Jennifer Schack, Mike Zimmerman, James Risner, James Sido, Kevin Romary, Dennis Knipfer, Dana Knorr, Kevin Hoehns, John Rinkenbaugh, Jesse Fray, Chris Ronan, Gary Amble, Cody Howard, Jim Jewell, Brian Powell, David Hartzler, Misty Jensen, Mark Kern, Patrick Rea, Mike Kitzsteiner, Pam A. Simons, Jan McNish, Jim Bracciano, Matt Elwell, Andrew Baker, Ben Riggin, Theresa Freed, Mark Randall, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, Barb Jordan, John Dennis, Mike Pandzik, Leonard Clark, Ching Wang, Shane Woodard, Karin Woodard, Joe Ryan, Dolph Simons III, Roger Bain, Randy Mason, Don Mayberger, Gregg Gehlbach, Bob Oderkirk, Christina Phelps, Diane Yeamans, Frank Wiles, Greg Hurd, Jandi Smith, James Breitenbach, John Fiore, Kevin Lashley, Matt Sayers, Mike Klingler, Norma Davis, Judy Eldridge, Paul Espinosa, Richard Parnell, Rod Kutemeier, Shaun Douglas, Stephen Schneider, Tiffany Cody, Tim Norris, Debbie Schmidt, Josh Garber, Craig Bowlin, Monique Sido, Stephanie Fisher, Barb Wells, Dave Wood, Russell Spencer, Aaron Hale, Bonnie Wohler and the Fearless Football Forecasters: Rich Bailey, Chuck Woodling and Charlie Crabtree.