Before broadcaster Robert Mott founded NPR, he helped bring Washington State’s communication education into the television era.
National Public Radio cofounder and former Washington State professor Robert Mott briefly appeared on a large projection screen before the video image froze and then disappeared. Again.
Mott waited patiently in his San Diego home as some of his former broadcast students, now in their 60s and 70s, double-checked the video chat settings from the Yakima conference room where they’d gathered. He wasn’t too worried.
Their bond, after all, had been forged in an era of technological innovation, though that was a half century earlier when many problems could be fixed by simply adjusting an antenna or verifying a connection. Wireless routers, IP addresses, and dynamic host configuration protocols had yet to be invented.
“We’ve decided…that this technology of young people doesn’t work as well as reel-to-reel tape,” says Carl Highland ’62, drawing a long-distance chuckle from Mott and from the roomful of fellow graduates of the speech, radio, and television program, which would later become the Murrow College of Communication.
Mott, now 95, still commands almost legendary respect among former students, many of whom went on to help shape the Pacific Northwest’s television news industry as household names or network executives.
The former students—some call them “The Mott Squad”—were among the earliest graduates of one of the first communications programs to recognize the influence television would have on broadcast news. They use periodic gatherings like the one in Yakima to reconnect, reminisce, and promote their mentor’s contributions.
“I worry that a lot of people don’t realize how big of an impact he’s had,” says Bill Brubaker ’61, who spent 25 years with KOMO TV in Seattle before serving as a Snohomish County council member and as the state’s aviation chief. Mott’s influence extended beyond journalistic training: “He taught us about leadership, citizenship and honor.”
The college already was considered a broadcasting pioneer, having launched one of the nation’s first campus radio stations, and became one of the first to develop its own TV station as well. Mott, who spent 12 years at Washington State, oversaw creation of the KWSC TV studio, which began broadcasting in 1962.
The hands-on educational opportunities put students at the forefront of what would become a major shift. Television news originally was considered a simple public service. But the influence and popularity of TV news grew so rapidly during the 1960s and 1970s it became a programming staple.
“We had a special opportunity…to not only participate in the changes but to be leaders,” says Gary Justice ’65, who was a longtime reporter and anchor at KING TV in Seattle.
He and others point to Mott’s insistence that while broadcasters should fully understand the technology they use, the greatest focus should remain on journalism’s fundamentals.
A World War II paratrooper who survived Europe’s bloody Battle of the Bulge, Mott turned to broadcasting and teaching when he returned home to the United States.
At Washington State, he primarily taught broadcast journalism courses and for nine years produced a weekly “Science in the News” radio program that was carried by more than 50 stations and the Voice of America radio network.
Following the war, Mott continued to serve as an Army Reserve officer and carried into the classroom an expectation of discipline and attention to detail that his students believe helped them build good work habits.
“He told me to clean my desk and keep it clean,” recalls John Sandifer ’61, whose broadcast journalism career included lengthy stints at KOMO and KING in Seattle. “I just said, ‘Yes, colonel.’ He insisted that the only thing you have on your desk is what you are working on right now.”
Several of Sandifer’s colleagues nod in agreement. The former students say they pushed themselves to live up to Mott’s expectations. “The one thing you didn’t want to do was disappoint ‘the colonel,’” explains Bob Brunkow ’68.
Mott left WSU in 1968 to become executive director of National Educational Radio in Washington, D.C., and it was during that time he helped develop NPR. He later joined the newly-formed Public Broadcasting Service and also served in various capacities with the Public Service Satellite Consortium.
Over the past few years, Mott’s students have sought to spotlight his WSU accomplishments and bring greater attention to their mentor’s influence in the Pacific Northwest.
Bob McConnell ’62 created a scholarship in Mott’s honor and several students gather periodically to reconnect and get updates on the program’s progress.
That’s why so many were in Yakima one weekend in October, lining up for a chance to visit again with “the colonel,” even if only by video.
“You were the gold standard by all accounts,” Tom Hunt ’64 tells him, taking his turn at the front of the room to visit with Mott.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Mott replies, turning the video conversation with the former students around by thanking them for taking their education into the emerging TV era and laying a solid foundation for its growth.
“The students are my legacy,” Mott tells them. “You are my legacy.”