Robert Wilson, who brought Jim Lehrer and Monty Python to American television audiences while leading KERA during its early years, died today after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 75.
Bob Wilson was just 26 years old when his mentor and boss, Ralph Rogers, gave him the reins at KERA. In 1968, KERA was a fledgling educational station – not exactly innovative – at times, it broadcast people teaching, literally writing on blackboards. Wilson told KERA’s Lee Cullum in 2011 that he and Rogers set out to change that.
"He said let’s go to work. And so we began, and started thinking about it,” Wilson said.
Wilson helped take the station from black and white to color, from film to video tape. He launched KERA FM, bringing public radio to the region. Wilson also coaxed a then-lesser-known Dallas newspaperman named Jim Lehrer to KERA to run the station’s news unit. Lehrer went on to host the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS. Lehrer recalled those early days in a documentary.
"Bobby Wilson, who I still call him Bobby, called me and asked me if I would become a consultant to News and Public Affairs. I said, 'well great, do you all do any news on in public affairs?' He said, 'no, but we wanted to do something,'” Lehrer said.
Bob Ray Sanders says the news team didn’t pull punches – and Wilson approved of that. After Sanders reported a story skewering the downtown Fort Worth business elite, Sanders says he expected to get chewed out – after all, Wilson was trying to fundraise from those same business elites.
"I saw him coming toward my desk and I thought 'oh lord, what have I done?' And he just came back to me and said 'great job, Bob Ray.' And that’s when I knew we had this bond. That we were going to be able to do some things that Dallas had not seen before, Fort Worth had not seen before, and that’s what we did."
Under Wilson, KERA also became the first U.S. station to air "Monty Python’s Flying Circus" in 1974, after the BBC program concluded across the pond. The surreal sketch comedy show was ahead of its time and created a model for comedy in the coming years.
Wilson was the station manager until 1975.
Though his work at KERA changed the public media landscape, Laura Wilson says her husband didn’t see himself as a visionary – he had big ideas but he was always modest. She’s an acclaimed photographer, and their sons Andrew, Owen and Luke Wilson are famous in the film industry.
"He really sacrificed in a way his life for the creative freedom that each of us were able to experience," she told KERA. "And that’s unusual because he himself was very creative."
Watch the KERA documentary about Wilson
For our 50th anniversary in 2011, KERA premiered this half-hour documentary special, "Bob Wilson and the Early Years of KERA." The first clip is a tribute made for KERA's 50th anniversary. The second video is the 30-minute special on Wilson.