Department of Telecommunications

Department History

The telecommunications program at Penn State started in the mid-1970s to accommodate growing interest in cable television. First housed in the Department of Speech Communications in the College of Liberal Arts, it began as an offshoot of radio-television studies, a program launched years earlier under the leadership of Arthur Hungerford, a network television pioneer and later an influential figure in the development of broadcasting at Penn State. In its first years, the program focused on production courses, mainly shooting and editing, targeting students interested in careers in television and radio.

In 1984, former President Bryce Jordan appointed a communications study group, which recommended that Penn State strive to achieve national prominence in communications studies. Jordan proposed to the Board of Trustees establishing an independent school of communications that would incorporate into what was then the School of Journalism both the telecommunications program and the film program. Although a relatively large number of students were enrolled in the major at the time, the telecommunications program had just a handful of faculty members.

Approved by the Board of Trustees, the new School of Communications began operating on July 1, 1985, with R. Dean Mills serving as acting dean. An immediate result was that telecommunications faculty grew to include several professors who had moved over from the department of speech and communications, among them Dick Barton, and several from the journalism and broadcasting program, among them John Nichols and Patrick Parsons.

When the school was first established, one of the first challenges it faced was that the telecommunications and film programs had been offering their students many similar courses.  Ultimately, it was decided to maintain both programs, but in order to prevent overlap and redundancies, the telecommunications program was redesigned in order to provide it with its own identity and distinguish it from film. This redesign took the form of adding to the major more courses in business and policy.

After the telecommunication program became part of the new School of Communications, Nichols and Parsons collaborated on developing COMM 180 Survey of Electronic media and Telecommunications, an introductory, freshman-level course in telecommunications that covers social, economic, legal and historical aspects of radio, television, telephony, and more recently -- the Internet.
Industry expertise

Initially, because there was not much faculty expertise in business management at the School of Communications, students in the telecommunications department took their required accounting and management courses at the College of Business. This arrangement lasted until the early 1990s, when the School of Communications began hiring faculty whose expertise was in economics and management. The program underwent another overhaul at this point, when these core courses began to be offered in-house.

Among the new faculty hires were prominent names from the industry, among them E. Stratford “Strat” Smith, a successful communications attorney in Washington D.C., the founder and partner in what was then the well-known firm of Smith & Pepper.  He had already retired to Key West, Fla., when he was called out of retirement to come to Penn State in 1989 to help set up the National Cable Television Center and Museum, which he ran at Penn State for several years. It subsequently moved to Denver. Another faculty hire from the industry was Richard Taylor, who had served as vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Warner Cable Communications.

Around that time, faculty at the program decided that telecommunications was not a good name for the major because it sounded too outdated, “too much about telephones,” as Parsons recalls. Hence, a decision was taken to change its name to the more attractive-sounding “broadcast and cable.”  But by the late 1990s, when the term “telecommunications” once again became vogue, faculty submitted another request to change the department name, this time back to what it was.  The Penn State provost agreed, provided that this was the last name change.

In 1995, the School of Communications was upgraded to the College of Communications -– a significant change in clarifying its independent status within Penn State. In fall 2000, under the leadership of Dean Douglas Anderson, the college departmentalized, with each department head reporting to the dean. Telecommunications was one of the four departments established at the time.

The telecommunications curriculum at Penn State includes courses in a wide variety of electronic media, including radio, television, cable, satellite, the Internet, wire line and mobile telephones.  Like other top programs in the country – such as those at Indiana University and Michigan State  -- it puts a strong emphasis on business and policy studies and is not exclusively focused on production.

Enrollment in the department increased dramatically in the first few years following its inception. The past 10 years, however, have seen a decline in enrollment, the number of students in the major totaling 271 in fall 2010. However, the number of students across the university enrolled in general education courses offered by the department has nearly doubled over the past decade.

Among those who have been associated with the program since its inception and who have played a major role in its development is Parsons, who served as the first head of the department and is currently the Don Davis Professor in Ethics in the department.
Public broadcasting pioneer

Another individual influential in shaping the program, although he never served on its faculty, was Marlowe Froke, who passed away in 2010. After joining the Penn State faculty in 1959 as an associate professor of journalism, he developed the school’s first broadcast journalism curriculum. In 1964, he established WPSX-TV (now WPSU-TV) at Penn State. He took the lead in the early days of cable and public television to establish networks of connection among Pennsylvania stations and cable operators that preceded today’s Public Broadcasting System.

In 1971, he was named director and general manager of what became the university's Division of Media and Learning Resources, which included WPSX and other groups. Working with Pennsylvania's cable television operators, he established in 1976 a 24-hour statewide education and public affairs network of cable systems then called PENNARAMA, now the Pennsylvania Cable Network. He later served as chairman of the strategic planning committee whose report led to the establishment of what eventually became the College of Communications. Both before and after his retirement in 1992, Froke worked with cable industry pioneers to establish the cable television museum that was initially housed at Penn State.

Teaching has always at the heart of the department's mission. With more than 170 years of combined teaching experience and more than 80 years of combined industry experience, the telecommunications department has one of the strongest faculties anywhere in the world. The following are some of the positions previously held by faculty: producer, WGBH-TV; deputy director for international relations, Motorola Satellite Communications Inc.; general manager, TCI Cable; research officer, Indian Ministry of Information & Broadcasting; general manager, Magnum Broadcasting; vice president and general counsel, Warner Cable; vice president for regulatory affairs, Cellcom Israel; and general counsel, Israeli Public Broadcasting Authority. Combined, the telecommunications faculty have published more than 15 books and well over 200 articles and book chapters. Faculty also hold key positions in prestigious research organizations and present their scholarship at leading conferences all over the world. They have testified before Congress and have had their work cited by the Federal Communications Commission and the courts.

The undergraduate curriculum, which draws upon the extensive industry experience of the faculty, is designed to prepare students for careers and leadership positions in the television, radio, cable TV, satellite, Internet and telephone industries. Students also study the latest developments in electronic commerce, electronic publishing and simulations/virtual worlds/videogames. The curriculum has been carefully crafted and refined to provide students with the essential information needed to excel in this rapidly changing field that stands at the frontier of business, technology and culture.
From radio to video games

The undergraduate curriculum is also designed to provide students with an in-depth understanding of the crucial role that telecommunications plays in the economy, politics, and culture. Students can choose an emphasis in programming and production, promotion and sales, management, law and policy, international telecommunications, or telecommunications and society.

Telecommunications classes at Penn State also provide students with an opportunity to develop and hone their critical thinking, research, and communication skills to prepare them for their careers.  Students learn about programming, marketing, audio and video production, advertising, sales, promotion, entrepreneurship, industry structures, new technologies, economics, finance, management, competition, law and regulation, ethics and global markets.

They also acquire knowledge about the social, cultural and political “landscape” within which the media industries function. The roles of electronic media in democracy and citizenship are explored. Students learn both fundamental theory and current industry practices, with an emphasis on developing the skills necessary to become future industry leaders. The department works closely with the Schreyer Honors College, where students have the opportunity to work with a telecommunications faculty member to write an Honors thesis on pressing telecommunications issues.

In 2006, COMM 180 became the fifth service course offered to the university by the College of Communications. The course was seen as a logical addition to the university’s general education offerings as the so-called “information society” expands to encompass every aspect of life.

The telecommunications curriculum is continuously revised to meet the ever-changing needs of the telecommunications industries. A new production sequence was launched in 2010, which included the new introductory course, COMM 282 – a course that focuses entirely on single-camera field production and digital editing.  COMM 283W, the second course in the sequence, features both field and studio production.  A new requirement for all telecommunications students will be COMM 160, a one-credit online course that focuses on basic grammar and punctuation designed to help prepare students for the writing assignments in their advanced courses.

In fall 2011, the telecommunications department will begin offering a new general education course to the university: COMM 190 Gaming and Interactive Media.

An introduction to the business aspects of the video game/serious games/virtual reality sector, it will be the first such regularly offered course on this topic at Penn State. The addition of this course to the curriculum reflects the department’s commitment to staying in tune with developments in the industry. Indeed, as Taylor, who devised the course, notes, the revenues of the video game industry today surpass those of the movie and record industries. A new course developed by Matt Jackson, the current department head, and Parsons and pending approval by the faculty senate is “Telecommunications Ethics.”

Each course in the telecommunications major provides a balance of theoretical and applied knowledge to prepare students for their day-to-day job responsibilities and to give them the analytical and critical-thinking skills needed to lead their companies into the future. The faculty instruct students in the practical skills, theoretical concepts and philosophical ideals needed for a successful career. This includes professional competency in written, visual and oral communication; critical thinking and analytical ability; social, professional and ethical responsibility; an appreciation of the key role that communications professionals play in the political and cultural life of the community; an ability to apply theory in its various forms; and a sensitivity to the increasingly cross-cultural and international context of electronic media.

The major is designed to prepare graduates not just for entry-level positions but for the leadership roles they will command later in their careers. The telecommunications major allows students to choose 21 of 33 credits from a list of 28 professional and “social aspects” courses. Altogether, students must complete 120 credits in order to graduate.
A multitude of career options

In addition to instruction from the leading faculty in the field, students are also provided with multiple opportunities to gain important experience outside of the classroom. Extracurricular opportunities and internships play an important role in the telecommunications program. The College of Communications has its own Internet radio station, ComRadio, where students can perfect their skills.

Students can also get involved with PSN-TV, a student-run television network that produces its own programs,  and The Lion (WKPS-FM, 93.7), a student-run radio station. Students in the department also produce live webcasts each year of major events, such as the Penn State Dance Marathon (THON) and Homecoming, which are viewed around the world. They are strongly encouraged to take advantage of internships at local radio, television, cable, and Internet companies to gain valuable hands-on experience. Students may even earn up to three credits toward their degree through these internships.

Career paths include sales, marketing, audio and video production, programming, research, management, operations and policy. Alumni have gone on to work for companies such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Disney, Google, ESPN, NBC, CBS, Fox, Universal Movie Group, HBO, Viacom, TBA, MTV, VH1, Cartoon Network, USA, A&E, NFL Network, Fox Sports, Time Warner, Arbitron, Discovery Networks, Clear Channel, Katz Media, Sinclair Broadcasting and T-Mobile, as well as local radio and TV stations and other media-related firms.

At the graduate level, the department participates in the College of Communications' master's degree and Ph.D. programs, which prepare graduate students for research careers in academia, industry and government. In 1993, the master’s degree in telecommunications studies was created, one of three graduate programs in the College of Communications. The program has a professional-oriented mission of advancing a systematic understanding of the business, law and policy of telecommunications and issues of globalization and convergence of information technologies.

The telecommunications department is closely connected to Penn State’s Institute for Information Policy (IIP), which conducts research on the social implications of information technology, with an emphasis on the potential of information technologies for improving democratic discourse, social responsibility, and quality of life. The department and IIP have received research grants from industry firms and public interest groups such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, the Media Access Project and the Ford Foundation.

The department of telecommunications works with external constituencies, policymakers and the public to study the social, economic, legal and political effects of existing and emerging forms of electronic media. Through teaching, research and outreach, the department addresses pressing questions associated with the global communication system. The department is committed to enhancing the potential of communication technologies to promote democracy, diversity and social equity.

Recent research projects have included recommendations for improving universal service, narrowing the digital divide, maintaining a robust and democratic Internet, developing a new set of information metrics, a comprehensive social history of the U.S. cable industry, reforming copyright law, and Hispanic adoption of new communications technologies.

-- Judy Maltz

Page last updated: September 9, 2012