w9wi discusses that the FCC did allocate some channels for non-commercial use, but I'm not sure how that process worked. We know the FCC allocated the FM dial below 92 for non-commercial stations. But in the early days of TV, only a few cities developed non-commercial VHF stations. In some cases, a university decided to get involved in TV and got a VHF station on the air before the available channels were all used up by commercial broadcasters. Did the FCC allocate some non-commercial channels in some markets? Or was it left up to local non-commercial groups to find a frequency and build a station on their own?
Beginning at some point not long after the TV freeze was lifted in 1952, the FCC's table of allocations included channels in some markets that were designated specifically for noncommercial use. In most cities, these were UHF channels believed to be of little or no value; in larger markets with more than three channels allotted to them, they were sometimes Vs that had been dropped in when allocations were shuffled at the end of the freeze. (For instance, Pittsburgh's channel 13 noncommercial allocation was made possible by the shift of Johnstown's WJAC from 13 tp 6.) In a few cities such as Boston, VHF channels that hadn't yet been activated by commercial operators were changed to noncommercial status.
In most of the communities where VHF noncommercial channels were allocated, community groups or local educational institutions came together fairly quickly to fill them, creating the early ETV boom of the mid-1950s. Stations such as WGBH, KQED, WQED, WTTW and WMVS all trace their histories to this era.
In cities that didn't get VHF noncommercial channels, there were still sometimes local ETV groups trying to make something happen. Here in Rochester, for instance, the Rochester Area Educational Television Association (RAETA) was founded in 1958, spending its first few years producing shows that aired on local commercial stations during non-prime hours and lobbying to try to get channel 13 when that channel was designated for Rochester as part of the 1962 allocations shuffle in upstate NY.
RAETA didn't get channel 13 outright, but it ended up as one of the many (nine, IIRC) competing licensees who banded together to form an interim joint licensee so 13 could get on the air in 1962 instead of being tied up for years of comparative hearings. Those hearings were still going on in 1966 when RAETA pulled out of the joint licensee to launch its own signal on channel 21.
That's another thread of the history of ETV in New York State: in the late 1950s, SUNY applied for licenses for each of the UHF channels that had been reserved for noncommercial use around the state. SUNY was granted CPs for a slew of channels - 23 Buffalo, 21 Rochester, 14 Ithaca, 46 Binghamton, 43 Syracuse (shifted to 24 when WTVE 24 Elmira went away), 29 Albany and, if memory serves, 25 New York City. SUNY never activated any of those CPs itself, but transferred most of them to local groups like RAETA when they were ready to launch. 14 Ithaca was never built, 23 Buffalo was abandoned when the local ETV group there got an existing commercial station, WBUF-TV 17, donated to it, and 29 Albany was shifted to 17 somewhere along the way.
Most of New York's ETV stations were activated in the 1960s or very early 1970s. I think the two up north, WNPE/WNPI from Watertown and WCFE from Plattsburgh, were the last in the early 1970s; they were new CPs that hadn't been part of SUNY's never-built network.