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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Architect

For most of the nearly ten years that I spent in front of a camera at

Idaho Public Television in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Peter Morrill was behind the camera making me look as good as was humanly possible. (That’s Peter nearby upstaging Big Bird). That he didn’t always succeed in making me look good reminds me of the old joke about some of us having a face well suited for radio, but Peter always tried.

By the time I left television for good late in 1985 in order to tip my toe in the churning water of politics, the guy I always counted on to get the broadcast on the air had honed his television skills to the point where he could literally do it all. He shot the film – later the video – edited and polished the script, adjusted the lights, tinkered with the graphics, everything it seemed including jawing with the engineers about tweaking the transmitter. Peter had become through sheer design and love for the box with wires and lights a complete television talent who understood the business from the perspective of the kid carrying the tripod in the field to the state legislator wrestling over the public TV budget in the Statehouse. It was a natural progression for him to become General Manager of Idaho’s system and the guy who would lead Idaho’s only true statewide media organization to great accomplishments while serving an ever larger audience.

Morrill has been rightly praised over the last couple of weeks – the legislature passed a proclamation – following the announcement of his retirement that will come later this year. Typical Peter, he’s staying around until his successor is on the job and I use that word – successor – intentionally. Someone will follow him. He’s not going to be replaced.

During his 34 years at Idaho Public Television Peter Morrill and his team have won a bucket full of impressive awards, including an Emmy and a Murrow award, somehow found the money to upgrade the entire statewide system to a digital platform and made the Idaho system the most watched per capita in the nation. All the while Morrill has had to reach more and more Idahoans who are willing to pledge a few bucks a month to support not just Big Bird and Masterpiece, but truly outstanding, high quality local productions. In the public service space, Morrill and IPTV have been leaders with live coverage of the state legislature and the courts and in offering the most serious public affairs programming available on the tube in Idaho. It’s all been done with steadily diminishing resources from the state.

At the same time Peter has been an outspoken even courageous voice in defending the public television mission as  one of the few places in the current vast wasteland of cable where serious and occasionally controversial programming can be seen. This in fact may be his greatest legacy.

Obviously, I’m a friend and admirer and far from objective. Together in the old days we made some modestly important television – a trip to the then-Soviet Union that resulted in a couple of documentaries, some pioneering statewide public affairs programming produced with minimal modern technology and important political debates, including Church and Symms in 1980. We certainly had more fun and independence than our age and experience warranted and those years produced the kind of television war stories that remain cherished memories for life. We once shut down and partially flooded the Ram Bar in Sun Valley (during the day) when a portable light got a little too close to the ceiling sprinkler system. That video still exists, I think, as do about 20 bad takes of yours truly in a Dan Rather-style trench coat trying to complete a on-camera stand-up that came close to getting the better of me and had my camera guy, the impressive Mr. Morrill, bent over in laughter.

We once put the late, great environmental writer Edward Abbey on the air in Moscow (Idaho) for a half hour interview even after the author of The Monkey Wrench Gang insisted that he be allowed to continue smoking his big cigar during the broadcast. That was, of course, in violation of any number of rules, but the show must go on. Peter walked into a Russian Orthodox church service in Moscow (Russia) with a 16 mm film camera on his shoulder after assuring our KGB-like minder that of course we wouldn’t film anything inside the church. He did, mostly without having to look through the view finder.  The less said the better about that night on the town in the capital of “the evil empire.” Certain amounts of vodka were consumed. The good news – we weren’t sent to Siberia. We interviewed then-presidential candidate and future Secretary of State Alexander Haig in the bridal suite of an Idaho Falls hotel complete with a statue – very romantic – of Venus d’ Milo over the general’s shoulder. And, we once attempted election night coverage with a couple of interesting and opinionated on-set analysts – former Governors Bob Smylie and Cecil Andrus. The fun made up for the salaries.

Critics frequently contend that public television isn’t really all that necessary in an age when any cable or satellite subscriber can locate a couple of hundred channels from the comfort of the living room couch. The truth is just the opposite. If all you want to watch is the Real Wives of.…fill in the blank, or your idea is news is O’Reilly or Maddow then you don’t need public television. However, if an occasional documentary, serious drama or music program or a political talking head that does need to shout to be heard strikes your fancy then the public channel is often your best and only bet.

Peter Morrill did what very few people in his industry do. He went from the guy who actually makes programs to the guy who actually figures out how to put and keep them on the air. He mastered the details of every aspect of the business and in the process became a nationally respected and locally effective salesman for the very idea of public television. Not a bad career. Idaho is damn lucky he made the state his home and gave so much of himself to build and sustain one of Idaho’s greatest public assets.

It was my good fortunate to be along for some of the early ride and some of the best days I’ve ever had in what some would call work. Announcing his retirement, the State Board of Education called Morrill “an exceptional leader.” That’s it. Exceptional people, with real talent and commitment often become exceptional leaders of important organizations. Peter Morrill did just that and all the thanks he receives will be less than he deserves.

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