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Gift of $5 million from Montana couple completes Montana PBS campaign for a new public media center and programs

BOZEMAN — Thanks to a new $5 million donation, Montana PBS has reached a fundraising milestone that will see a major expansion of the station located at Montana State University, as well as increased investments in news and public affairs programming to reach across the state.

The recent gift from donors Patt and Terry Payne of Missoula pushed Montana PBS’s Building Possibilities campaign total to $19.4 million raised so far. The Paynes are well-known for their generous philanthropy in Montana. Terry Payne is the founder and longtime chairman of PayneWest Insurance, a Marsh McLennan Agency company.

“Patt and Terry’s generous gift will realize the first-ever expansion of Montana PBS on the MSU campus,” said Aaron Pruitt, general manager of Montana PBS. “The new facility will be a community hub where Montanans can participate in statewide dialogue, in person and virtually. It will be a focal point for news and journalism across the state, a homeroom for education and childhood development, and a creative nucleus for treasured Montana stories.”

Approximately $16 million of the money raised will fund a roughly 15,000-square-foot expansion of the MSU Visual Communications Building at the corner of South 11th Avenue and Grant Street, which is home to Montana PBS and MSU’s School of Film and Photography. The expansion will create a new Montana PBS Public Media Center, Pruitt said. The remaining funds will go toward increased staffing, increased local productions and new investments in news and public affairs programming. Montana PBS will continue fundraising to further bolster its programming.

“We are so thankful to Patt and Terry Payne for this transformational gift,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado. “Their generosity, along with the generosity of many others, will fund additional TV production space, including a studio that will double as the first-ever large classroom in the VCB.”

Montana PBS expects construction to begin in 2025.

“Patt and I are big fans of Montana PBS and watch their outstanding programs regularly,” said Terry Payne. “We are enthusiastic about seeing the expansion of Montana PBS’s facilities and services, which are a tremendous resource for Montanans of all ages.”

Since the Building Possibilities campaign began in 2019, many people from across the state have donated, Pruitt said. In addition to the Paynes’ recent gift, a large donation was from the late Joseph S. Sample, one of the station’s founders and a visionary commercial TV broadcaster who formed the Montana Television Network. Other key donations came from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, the Kendeda Fund and the Otto Bremer Trust, Pruitt said.

“We are humbled by the support that we’ve received that has made this opportunity become reality,” said Pat Doyle, chairman of the board of Montana PBS. “The Montana PBS Public Media Center will expand the capacity of Montana PBS and ensure that it continues to deliver essential, compelling and high-quality Montana-made content and have a lasting impact in the lives of Montanans.”

Montana PBS is approaching its 40th anniversary. The station started in the early 1980s with a quest to bring the popular television show “Sesame Street” to children in the Gallatin Valley, spearheaded by Nancy Thompson Flikkema, a 1973 graduate of MSU and lifelong resident of the area.

In 1981, with three small children and expensive, large-dish satellite TV being the only viewing option available at her rural home, Flikkema decided the Gallatin Valley needed access to quality children’s programming. She formed Montanans for Children’s Television, which for nearly two and a half years explored options for accessing programs like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “The Electric Company” before finally turning to MSU.

In 1984, the university arranged to rebroadcast a public television signal from Salt Lake City, and that relationship allowed for the creation of KUSM in Bozeman. During those first three years, KUSM built enough financial support to become a full-service station, with support from Flikkema’s Montanans for Childrens Television, which was later renamed the Friends of Montana PBS. In 1997, KUFM-TV at the University of Montana in Missoula joined with KUSM to bring local public television to western Montana communities. Montana PBS is now a collaborative service of MSU and UM, operating five channels and viewed by more than 300,000 Montanans every week.

It was viewer support, Pruitt noted, that helped Montana PBS grow into a statewide service, delivering award-winning programs and documentaries and educational services. At the same time, he said, growth and change are needed for greater public access.

“I find it especially moving that after 40 years, two of our station founders, Joe Sample and Nancy Flikkema, have been able to personally and generously support this new expansion, assuring Montana PBS will be there for future generations of viewers,” Pruitt said.

Jack Hyyppa, founding general manager of KUSM, said the Paynes’ donation is a wonderful gift to cap a campaign to expand the facility that Montana PBS has occupied since its inception.

“When we set out to provide public television to just the MSU campus and Gallatin Valley in 1984, all we had was raw space that included a studio, control rooms and existing offices for a small staff providing television services to the university,” Hyyppa said. “As natural growth occurred in station staffing, people had to be separated from the central location. Technology has totally changed from analog to digital, creating the need for a newly envisioned facility. This project will solve problems never imagined 40 years ago.”

“The campaign is about much more than a building,” said Ray Ekness, director of the Broadcast Media Center at UM. “Montana PBS is committed to being the leader in innovative public media and service to Montanans. To remain relevant and competitive, Montana PBS envisions a model of high-tech media collaboration, more original programming, enhancements to education and community involvement. Every citizen of Montana stands to benefit.”

A graduate of the University of Montana, Terry Payne started an insurance agency in 1972 that evolved into PayneWest Insurance, one of the largest privately owned insurance brokers in the western U.S. and one of the top 10 employee-owned insurance brokers in the country before it became part of the Marsh McLennan Agency LLC. Payne and his family have a long history of supporting projects throughout Montana. At MSU, and among other projects, they have given major gifts for MSU’s LIFE Scholars Program and American Indian Hall.

In 2019, Terry Payne received the MSU Presidential Medallion and in 2021 was named an Honorary Alumni of MSU, honoring his support for the university and the people of Montana.

More information about Montana PBS is available at montanapbs.org/.

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