The network comprises five stations — flagship KUSM-TV channel 9 in Bozeman; full-power satellites KUFM-TV channel 11 in Missoula, KBGS-TV channel 16 in Billings, KUGF, channel 21 in Great Falls and KUKL-TV channel 46 in Kalispell — and a network of 60 low-powered repeaters in Montana. KUSM is licensed to MSU, KUFM to UM, and KBGS and KUGF to The Board of Regents of the Montana University System.
KUSM signed on for the first time on October 1, 1984, making Montana the last state to have its own PBS station, 14 years after Mississippi became the last state east of the Mississippi River with a PBS station within its borders. The transmitter was donated by Montana broadcasting pioneer Joe Sample. MSU didn't have enough funding at the time to support a public television station, and the Gallatin Valley didn't have nearly enough people at the time for viewer-supported public television. Station engineers switched to and from the signal of KUED in Salt Lake City for most PBS programming until 1987. Prior to 1984, Montana viewers had to rely on cable for PBS programming. Depending on the location, cable systems in western Montana piped in KSPS-TV in Spokane or KRMA-TV in Denver, while cable systems in eastern Montana piped in Prairie Public Television in North Dakota or KUED. KSPS and Rocky Mountain PBS (formerly KRMA) still operate translators in Montana. Additionally, some commercial stations in Montana, including KTVQ in Billings and KFBB in Great Falls, carried Sesame Street and may have carried other PBS programs besides.
Also in 1987, KUSM was added to TCI's cable systems in central and eastern Montana, completely replacing KUED in that part of the state by 1990.
UM had won a construction permit for KUFM-TV in 1992, but had trouble getting on the air until 1996. UM and MSU joined forces to form Montana PBS, which broadcast for the first time as a network on New Year's Day 1997.
Montana PBS's third full-powered station, KBGS-TV in Billings, signed on in late-2009. The fourth full-powered satellite, KUGF, digital channel 21, signed on in fall 2010. KUKL in Kalispell followed in 2011. The network has expanded rather slowly, relying mainly on cable and satellite coverage for its viewership. This didn't pose as much of a problem as it may seem at first glance, as cable and satellite are all but essential for acceptable television in most of Montana.
On July 1 2015, Gray Television announced that it would donate the license assets of Helena CW affiliate KMTF to Montana State University for integration into the Montana PBS system (the station's CW Plus programming will continute to be carried on a subchannel of NBC affiliate KTVH, which Gray sold to Cordillera Communications in correlation to the deal). The donation marks the first time full-power PBS service will be available in Montana's state capital.
Most of the local programs such as Backroads of Montana, 11th and Grant, and Montana Ag Live, as well as Montana historical documentaries and current event programs, are created by independent producers for Montana PBS. Due to a strong program for journalism and radio/television at UM and for documentary filmmaking at MSU, many of the network's local programs are produced by students.
Some of the Montana-made programming is also available on-line.
Montana PBS' stations shut down their analog signals on June 12, 2009, the official date in which full-power television station's in the United States transitioned from analog to digital broadcasts under federal mandate. The station's digital channel allocations post-transition are as follows:
KUSM-TV shut down its analog signal, over VHF channel 9; the station's digital signal remained on its pre-transition VHF channel 8. Through the use of PSIP, digital television receivers display the station's virtual channel as its former VHF analog channel 9.
KUFM-TV shut down its analog signal, over VHF channel 11; the station's digital signal relocated from its pre-transition UHF channel 27 to VHF channel 11.