LINCOLN — There are people who live interesting lives, people who know interesting people, and people who are just plain interesting.
Ron Hull, a passionate pioneer of public television who’s worked in Lincoln, Washington, D.C., and Saigon, is all three.
So it stands to reason that his adventurous life would produce an interesting book.
“Backstage: Stories of My Life in Public Television” starts with his birth in 1930 in a brothel in Rapid City, S.D., Diddlin’ Dora’s, and charts his life as an adoptee hoping to prove himself.
There’s plenty of insider tales about his five decades of work at the Nebraska Educational Television Network, and his politically charged days running the program fund for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington, D.C.
That latter post put Hull in charge of funding new programs for the nation’s public television stations, which included helping launch “American Experience,” and providing initial funding for a project that became Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.”
In D.C., he rubbed elbows with the likes of historian David McCullough and newsman Bill Moyers. In Nebraska, Hull befriended some of the state’s greatest writers and personalities, including Mari Sandoz, John Neihardt, talk-show host Dick Cavett and actress Sandy Dennis.
He brought the writings of Sandoz and Neihardt to life via programs he initiated at NETV, and “Backstage” provides some interesting insights about the two famous writers.
Sandoz, Hull wrote, was so excruciatingly honest in her writings about the characters of the High Plains (including her father, “Old Jules”) that publishers urged her to soften her words to avoid lawsuits from those back home.
Neihardt, at age 81 and after a stop at a Lincoln pub for lunch and a beer, recited a 26-minute narrative from “Black Elk Speaks” by memory for an NETV program, “with no flaws, in one take.”
When told that was remarkable for an 81-year-old, Neihardt remarked, “That’s just two numbers. Turn them around, and I’m 18.”
Hull’s book takes us on a nostalgic ride through the founding days of public television, when most programs were shot live and NETV was able — through some visual tricks — to broadcast a show teaching beginning swimming without a swimming pool.
His nationally recognized work led to an assignment with the Foreign Service in 1966 to launch a TV network in war-torn Vietnam to help win the “hearts and minds” of the people.
The network — which initially was broadcast via airplane-born transmitters that circled above the country — didn’t win over the people but did bring cultural programming to the country.
Hull, who cut his broadcasting teeth in the Army, wrote that he went to Vietnam feeling that he was doing a valuable service for his country, but left disillusioned, thinking that the U.S. involvement was a massive foreign policy blunder.
There’s some great stories, including one about how the new NETV building in Lincoln, which opened in 1971, was named after the late State Sen. “Terrible Terry” Carpenter.
Later, Hull was able to get the building renamed for another icon at NETV, Jack McBride.
We get a behind-the-scenes look at the David-and-Goliath battle between NETV and NBC in 1976, after the commercial network inadvertently unveiled a new “N” logo that was identical to NETV’s. The trademark clash made nationwide news and ended with NETV getting a handsome compliment of new equipment and $50,000 in cash to settle the squabble.
Throughout “Backstage,” you feel the passion for public TV, the thirst for quality programming and the boundless curiosity in creative people that typify Hull.
He’s a true believer in the power of television and the power of great storytelling. And, he’s quite a storyteller himself.
His 260-page book is a quick and enjoyable read.
In the end, Hull laments that politics is eroding the ability of public television in the U.S. to equal similar networks in Britain and Japan.
But he’s ever the optimist.
“Even so,” he writes, “public broadcasting in America is today more important to the country than it ever was.”
“Look at the TV listings in the newspaper, and a judicious eye will quickly note that the public broadcasting schedule continues to offer, night after night, more substance, greater intellectual and artistic diversity, and better viewing pleasure than any other broadcasting service in America.”
Though officially retired, Hull — who doesn’t like to reveal his age — still maintains a full-time schedule with NETV as a senior adviser.
He also is a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“I wish I had 50 more years,” are the final words in his book.
Contact the writer: