Obituary: Lloyd Kaiser / Renaissance man led WQED for more than 2 decades
Aug. 1, 1927 - Jan. 18, 2016
January 19, 2016 2:50 PM
Lloyd Kaiser, former president of WQED communications, 1989.
In 1983, WQED, then headed by Lloyd Kaiser, won acclaim after producing "The Chemical People," a mini-series hosted by first lady Nancy Reagan that tackled the social epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse among the nation's youth.
By Maria Sciullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Lloyd Kaiser was, according to his longtime colleague Dick Lutz, “more optimistic than any man I ever met. To him, happy thinking meant healthy thinking, that there was always another horizon past the next horizon.”
This attitude helped Mr. Kaiser create one public television station and lead another — Pittsburgh’s WQED — to national prominence. Mr. Kaiser was 88 and living in Oakmont when he died Monday after a heart attack.
“He was a Renaissance man in every possible respect, a visionary,” Mr. Lutz said. “He felt very strongly that modern media should be used to enlighten and uplift people and their communities.
“And very early on, he recognized the value of television as an instructional and educational medium, and felt very strongly in using entertainment in that medium.”
Mr. Kaiser guided WQED Communications as it rose to national prominence. But he also experienced leaner times: After a $7.4 million annual loss in revenue, the company laid off 31 employees in 1993, the year he retired.
Mr. Lutz, who was no longer at WQED at the time, said “when you create something really massive and great, you become subject to the vagaries of the economy and marketplace ... so when you go to that leading edge of possibility, you run the risk of having what you created cut back due to circumstance.”
But former colleagues were adamant that Mr. Kaiser will be best remembered as a man who put WQED in the national spotlight. He was president and CEO from 1971-1993, when the company comprised WQED and WQEX as well as WQED-FM and Pittsburgh Magazine.
“He was one of the most creative leaders in public television,” said Jay Rayvid, then one of the company’s top officers. “He had a knack for assembling creative people and keeping them from destroying each other.”
Mr. Kaiser was behind the founding of WITF-Hershey, which is now in Harrisburg. He helped establish what was known as the Pennsylvania Public Television Network. Following his tenure in Hershey, he moved to Oakmont to head WQED.
There, he began networking. WQED worked on a National Geographic project about the U.S. bicentennial, which led to the station producing the National Geographic TV specials. Other programs such as “WonderWorks” and “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” were produced, and the station served as home base for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” when Fred Rogers began his iconic children’s series.
His daughter, Kristina Kaiser-Hipp, said Mr. Kaiser was always moving, thinking, planning: “Every vacation we went on, he was always stopping at phone booths to call the office. As soon as they had car phones, the station put one in his car.”
Under Mr. Kaiser, programs addressed more mature subjects such as drug addiction and sex education. In 1983, WQED produced “The Chemical People,” a miniseries hosted by first lady Nancy Reagan. The New York Times praised it for giving alcohol and drugs equal weight in examining growing use among young people.
“Dad wanted to make a difference,” Ms. Kaiser-Hipp said. “He wasn’t one to sit around talking about a problem; he would say ’what can we do about it?’ He saw television and radio as a way to reach people.
“ ‘The Chemical People’ was a perfect example of that.”
Mr. Kaiser was born and raised on a beef and dairy farm in Alpena, Mich. (“When you watch the weather on TV, it’s always that cold place they list,” said his daughter.) He walked a few miles every day to a one-room schoolhouse until high school.
He began college at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, then transferred to the University of Michigan. Earning a bachelor’s and master’s in communications, he taught English and communications at a military academy, then Lehigh University.
While teaching speech at the State University of New York-Fredonia he began dating a fellow professor, future wife Barbara Wieand. They moved on to Rochester, where he established a model for public television, and then to Hershey.
“He was a man with appetites to learn and experience everything, which led us into the national arena,” Mr. Rayvid said.
He also was a hands-on administrator, said Nancy Polinsky Johnson, who has worked at the station for almost 30 years.
“We used to have these screening sessions where we looked at a show that was in production. When the first rough cut was done, we all got together in the conference room to screen it. ‘Kai’ was always there, listening with everybody else, asking questions. I always appreciated that.”
Mr. Kaiser is survived by Ms. Kaiser-Hipp of Oakmont, son Tim Kaiser of Hampton, son-in-law Douglas Hipp and daughter-in-law Kristin Kaiser, as well as six grandchildren. A memorial is scheduled for Saturday at Oakmont Presbyterian Church. Visitation is at 10 a.m., followed by a service at 11.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to Oakmont Presbyterian Church, 415 Pennsylvania Ave., Oakmont, PA 15139.
Maria Sciullo: email@example.com or 412-263-1478.