Q&A with PBS President Paula Kerger

With projects on hold, PBS hunts spendable cash, tweaks primetime schedule

Interviewed by Dru Sefton and Steve Behrens

When Kerger was a top manager at WNET, the station built its endowment up to $100 million, a good amount for a pubTV station. “Damn good,” she says. But WNET has been working on it for 40 years and PBS is just starting. (Photo: Steve Behrens, Current.)

Don’t tell the county fire marshal, but the president of PBS keeps working while her staff evacuates the building in deference to a fire alarm. Kerger travels, meets future donors, smiles dazzlingly at galas, and works some more with the determination of a distance runner, which she is.Here she tells readers:

  • PBS will propose hot-switching station breaks to help build audience flow, though the new practice would make it hard for stations to slide programs around the schedule,
  • The network needs to raise immediately spendable money, though she wants it to start accumulating an endowment,
  • Why PBS didn’t promise Bill Moyers a slot on Friday night in particular.

Kerger spoke with Current editors in her conference room at PBS headquarters in Arlington, Va. The transcript is edited.

Current Q&ACurrent: The proposed PBS budget for next year makes a point of concentrating attention on primetime. Why is that?

Kerger: As you know, over the last six years we have put a fair amount of focus on the kids’ schedule — how we can make the programs even more impactful for young kids. That is the big differentiator between us and everyone else in television. Since we are public-service media, if we are not making a difference, we should not be wasting energy and resources. Every project we bring in has a curriculum basis to it.

The first batch of programs we focused on were literacy, and the second batch has been really more on STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] subjects. We are still principally focused on preschool, but we have extended that a little bit with the Kids Go! block in the afternoon. So we are looking at young, elementary-school–aged children.

We have thought about broadcast and online together, and we have matrix teams that are looking at the content and developing the map both as television events as well as online opportunities. And we have developed some web-only material, so we just launched two new projects: Noah Comprende, which is Spanish-language, obviously, and Chuck Vanderchuck’s “Something Something” Explosion, which is not as obviously about the arts.

The work we are doing for kids is pretty much on a great path, and the audience is up. Online viewing is up significantly this past month. We hit a new record of 115 million streams for the month. We just got the results of the Department of Education research, so I feel that we are really in exactly the place we need to be: We have changed the content to have more academic rigor. We have new data that shows it is actually making a difference in kids’ lives, and we are bringing them in both through broadcast and online.

So how does that work inform the work we are doing in primetime? On the kids’ side, we are working for a specific purpose, which is “How do you make sure that kids enter school ready to learn?” For adults, we started working with Mike Quattrone [a programmer who has experience with Discovery Communications and public TV] last year to evaluate how we can be sure that we are connecting the content with our viewers.

Because we’re a variety service and because we do not have a huge promotional budget, it is sometimes hard for us to organize the schedule so people can find our content. How do we think about flow?

At the Round Robin meetings we mapped out a plan that Mike Quatronne termed “No shortcuts.” This means, “There is no single answer. There is a series of things we can do to deliver mission content in primetime to people who could benefit from watching or who would be interested in watching.”

So we are looking at the [hourly] clock in primetime, and where the breaks fall. If you look at our audiences, we have one audience at 8 o’clock, and it goes away when we hit the 9 o’clock break, and we try to build it up again, and then it goes away.

At 10 o’clock we have, in some respects, the softest hour. That is the reverse of every other broadcaster, whose audience builds through the night. We’re really thinking about how to keep an audience for the night rather than have it shift so significantly.  So we are looking at a whole series of options. One is moving the break.

We are also trying to make the content more topical and timely. The Nova on the tsunami is the latest example. Frontline is working very quickly this week after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

We are looking across various franchises to have topical material where it makes sense. Moving Nova to Wednesday night will build out a solid science night.

What we do with the arts will be very similar, Friday nights at 9. We’ll build out the night in a way that enables local stations to put some of their own content within the program. Creating it in a way so people will know where to come for the arts.

What happens when you uproot an established series?

Well, Nova was on Tuesday night forever, so the idea of moving it to Wednesday night [in January] actually was terrifying to some people: “Oh my goodness, will the audience find it?” Well, they did. And so it does give us an opportunity to really build out a solid Wednesday night.

You are going to have what the commercial networks call a “hot switch?”

Yeah, that is exactly what we are to starting to build.

The idea is to put content up against content. So you end one show, start a new one and put the break a little while into the body of the show.

We try to do a lot of important business during those breaks, including underwriting credits and promotions.

Will you still have enough time for all of that?

We are looking at the time, because it might shift a little bit. If we have to reduce the time, we would carve a little bit off national, a little bit off local, but not too much because we want to be able to give the stations the opportunity to bring in local underwriters and do all their station business. Later this year, we probably will test it one night a week.

These things are complicated. This change will mean stations will have to agree to carry programs in sequence. That is why I think it is going to be important to experiment and do some hard research as to whether it brings in new audience.

Is 10 p.m. soft because you’ve scheduled all of the stronger material earlier in the evening?

There are two reasons. First, we have mostly focused between 8 and 10 p.m., because that has been the common carriage period. So we would like to suggest to stations: Let us experiment on some nights, putting some really strong stuff in at 10 and see how that works for us. I think building up to 10 p.m. would not be a bad thing.

Second, I think we should be looking at same-week repeats of the strongest stuff. That is what the cable guys do. We put such an investment in producing programs. Ken Burns’s programs usually have a same-week repeat.

We will share a number of plans at the Annual Meeting and get feedback. But don’t expect the curtain to go up and “This is the new primetime.” It is going to be very much an iterative process.

We emailed some station people to ask what they’d like to ask you, and a couple of them suggested: Why did PBS turn down Bill Moyers this spring when he proposed to come back with a new weekly program?

Well, we really did not turn him down. What we said to him was: As part of our re-examination of prime time, we are taking a look at Friday nights. [Possibly a hint: After this interview, the network announced a PBS Arts Fall Festival on Friday nights. Story below.]

And we could not commit to yet another program on Friday night until we worked through what we are doing with the schedule, but I said, “We will definitely take the program and feed it.”

And, frankly, with a soft feed to stations, he probably would end up with a bigger audience. There are stations that would put on his show in the weekend public-affairs blocks or other times during the week. But if we designated it for common carriage, stations would have to either broadcast it Friday night or exempt out of it.

That made him nervous because underwriters want carriage, so he decided to step back for a while. But we are still in discussion with him about other projects.

He needed to know that the new program would be on Friday nights to assure his underwriters?

He needed us to guarantee that we could give him another common-carriage position on Friday night, and we can’t quite do that yet.

I certainly want Bill Moyers on public broadcasting, for sure.

What will PBS be able to do to expand news and public affairs when funding is so tight?

On the national level, we are focusing our resources on Frontline and the NewsHour, our two biggest investments, and on Washington Week and Need to Know.

In our online spending, rather than roll out a big national initiative that is not properly funded, we decided to focus our news and public affairs money on resources to help stations really increase their local reporting. A lot of stations say they want to do more journalism than they do now. So we are building tools and widgets, trying to establish some best practices that stations can use for that.

What programs up ahead do you expect to give extra promotion to?

For this season it was Tenth Inning and Circus. For the spring we put some promotional money behind [American Experience’s] “FreedomRiders.” Ken Burns’s Prohibition will be one of the tent poles for the fall. For Masterpiece, we will be reupping Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, and we’ll want to promote them.

We are looking at continuing to identify a handful of programs each season that clearly will pop — including some that are not part of an icon series — that we can promote. We hope to bring in viewers who will find other things in the schedule that interest them.

We’ve also been making more and more use of social media to get the word out, so that people will find out about projects as they happen.

For example, in the bus trip retracing the route of the 1961 Freedom Riders, arranged in conjunction with the “Freedom Riders” program on American Experience, most of the kids selected to go along are heavy users of social media. It was not that we were picking them so they could help promote the show; the objective was to extend the conversation around the show.

One reader told us consensus is emerging outside of Washington that public TV has too many stations, especially overlapping ones, and the issue is becoming more pressing. What can PBS do to resolve this issue, especially because a lot of member stations don’t see the situation that way?

Well, go to any of our meetings and so many of the conversations — no matter what the topic — will come back to the whole question of overlap. And we certainly have heard some concern by some people on the Hill: “Do you really need all those stations? What does it mean to have markets where multiple stations are competing with each other?”

Part of our interest in working closely with the stations in Los Angeles is to look at the possibility of new models for stations in different collaborations. To me, if a market can justify multiple stations focused on different pieces of the mission, it is good public service.

Stations just competing against each other — that is more complicated. We are a membership organization. I can’t force stations to come together  — I can’t force stations to do anything. But we can look at policies that may have unintended consequences. Our Board’s Station Services Committee is looking at whether we have policies that are not helpful.

The most important thing that we can do is to really encourage collaborations. That is where the policy question comes in. If stations want to collaborate, we should give them incentives to do it.

Could KCET come back as a member station if it became part of one of those collaborations?

I think at this point, no, because I think that the stations remaining have organized themselves. Once a station drops out, you know, they are out. But I think there is a real opportunity for a different kind of service in Los Angeles that is going to be quite interesting to watch.

In New York, the idea that the stations in the state would come together to share a joint master control in Syracuse is really significant. A lot of stations want to control all aspects of their operation, so to cede that control to a collaboration is a leap, but if the goal is to put as much resources into the content, I think that is the right leap.

The situations that led KCET in Los Angeles and WMFE in Orlando to leave PBS were very different, but both were aggravated by competition among stations serving the same geography with many of the same programs. Are you watching for other stations in this situation to avoid losing more members?

We are watching all of the stations, not so much because of overlap, but because of the tough financial times. We obviously are looking to do whatever we can do to help stations that are having economic challenges.

You are right, L.A. and Orlando are very different. In Orlando, WMFE made the determination that their radio business was very robust, and I think they felt someone else could provide the television service.

The community really could pull together a quite strong service. WMFE’s fundraising was almost exclusively on-air, and there is a lot of opportunity for corporate underwriting and other revenue. I think a service could certainly be built there.

Do you see a way that other Florida stations can replace WMFE?

There are lots of options in Florida. There are two overlap stations in the Orlando market, in Daytona and in Cocoa Beach, and they are thinking about whether they can step up, as KOCE did in Los Angeles, either individually or even with a third party. And other stations in Florida have said they’re interested. I cannot tell you what the solution will look like. The Florida stations have a state association, get state funding and share a Florida channel, so they are accustomed to talking together. That was also the reason the New York state stations had a mechanism to collaborate on their master control.

And WMFE goes off the air this summer.

July 1. By then there has to be some service, so it is entirely possible that there could be a temporary service while the partners figure out the right long-term solution.

The incumbent stations had been paying pretty high program fees to PBS, and reportedly the new ones are paying less. Is that true in the case of KOCE?

Well, they are paying less than KCET did, but they are paying more than when they were a [partial-schedule Program Differentiation Plan] station.

As you know, there was a financial study done of the L.A. market, when KCET was one of four stations looking at forming a collaborative. The analysis was that significantly more money could be raised in L.A. If you take KCET out of the equation, the remaining stations have the potential of raising more. It is just that it will take a few years for them to ramp up to it.

So with KCET and WMFE leaving, and smaller ones coming in, are you expecting millions of dollars less revenue?

In the proposed budget for next fiscal year, PBS is absorbing the differential for KCET. So yes, we will take a loss of a couple million dollars in money that would have gone into the NPS.

In the case of Florida, there would be some differential, but it would not be so huge.

I can’t tell you what the final answer will be. In the case of Orlando, because the station license is going away, their community service grant for television would go away. That would then be reapportioned to the rest of the system.

As far as dues go, are stations asking for deferred dues? Have more stations asked for deferrals this year than last?

Well, we are not at the point in the year yet when stations will be asking for deferrals, but we actually are ahead in terms of station payments compared with last year. So I think that is really a good sign. A lot of stations had really strong March drives, which is another good sign. I think part of that is because the programming was good, but I think the other part of it is that stations were talking about mission because they were talking about the federal funding cuts. And so I think that there is just a greater awareness in communities now about the vulnerability of stations unless people step up and make philanthropic contributions.

And I think what happens on the TV side is that there are a lot of people who get their television through cable, and they assume that somehow we are getting a piece of that cable bill. And so I think that by having stations on the air really talking about where their funding comes from and the fact of what was happening on the federal side, it made a lot of people step up.

We also just had this experience on Reddit. Someone had contacted our Interactive department about a problem with our video player, and he was so happy with the way his question was handled that he posted a piece on Reddit, and it became viral. And we believe more than 30,000 people clicked the link to donate to their local station.

And we said, “We’ve noticed and thank you,” and “Hey, if you want to donate, here is a link.” The link took people directly to stations to make a donation. It was one of those great spur-of-the-moment opportunities. A lot of the people who were writing were younger and they said, “Oh, I loved Sesame Street when I was a kid” and “I’ve always wanted to donate and this is the first time.”

Which is why we were interested in an online giving initiative. I think there are a lot of people who would give if we just approached them.

When does the online fundraising begin?

[Online chief] Jason Seiken just sent out a revised plan and asked for feedback from the system. We started planning last year. We asked for feedback. We got more. We sent out a new version. More people gave us feedback. We asked for more. So there is no lack of feedback.

So I think we have the outline of a plan that will allow us to test some things and give some stations comfort that we won’t cannibalize their philanthropy. And not only bring in revenue for the stations but, more importantly, names of prospects.

The big challenge is getting enough new names iand new donors into the system. When people are online and they feel the impulse to make a contribution, it’s simple for them to do it, and we can immediately send the name and the revenue to the station.

Is planning taking so long because you have to keep going back for more feedback and tweaking the plans?

Yes, we keep tweaking. I understand. Look, I was a fundraiser for a lot of years. I understand why people are worried, particularly in these financial times. But I think now the station people recognize that this is not some push by PBS to create a development operation for itself. This is an effort to build an operation with enough scale that it will really bring in resources and names.

PBS’s program budget hit a plateau several years ago. Is it still on the plateau?

Yes, our program budget is pretty flat. We haven’t raised our dues in three years.

We have brought in some extra spendable money through the Foundation and some of the ancillary revenue raised through DVD sales. But the reality is that we have no investment going into our National Program Service.

A year ago you were warning the Board that PBS’s ability to move forward could be compromised without more funding. Are you encouraged by any specific developments since then? Or are plans in the works that you could move forward?

Certainly in terms of revenue coming from the stations, we are still looking at flat funding. We are pretty much done with most of the production negotiations on our icon series and, you know, these were hard discussions this year because we do not have a lot of extra resources. And we are continuing to try to at least keep a little money aside so that we can try to launch some new things.

If you look at the budget, you know we will not launch a new kid series this year — the first time in five years that we won’t. We now have four of the top 10 kid shows — Curious George and Cat in the Hat, which usually run neck and neck, and Dinosaur Train and Sid the Science Kid.

So we can acquire new episodes for those programs. It costs so much more to promote and launch a new series. So we will launch a new kids’ show next year.

The budget mentioned something about a possible companion program for Antiques Roadshow?

Yes, but we haven’t found it yet (chuckle). We are looking. That’s part of the “No Shortcuts” plan. Most broadcasters, when they have something as successful as Antiques Roadshow, usually try to produce something similar to go with it. So Mike Quattrone said, “Hello?”

One of our readers said she’d prefer pledge programming to be similar to mission-oriented programs. She said, why don’t you have PBS personalities like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Charlie Rose hosting pledge and maybe a Nova crew going behind the scenes at Nova? 

I agree.

What about David Pogue, the terrific technology writer who hosted Nova recently?

Yes, and a wild man. He is coming to the Annual Meeting, and we are in discussions with him about doing another block of programs.

I think people like David Pogue and Neil deGrasse Tyson have really great personality, and both of them really bring science to life. So I am really interested in developing more personalities like that.

One of the reasons we were so excited about Les Miserables is that it worked extremely well as a pledge show and it feels very much like mission. When we roll out the Arts Initiative in the fall, it will end seamlessly with a pledge show.

Having worked in a station that produces programming, I can tell you it is hard to produce part of a mission series that that will work for pledge.

There is something that really prompts people to pick up the phone that is a different from an ongoing program that they value. But some programs that have worked very well over the years are really hard mission. At WNET we raised a lot of money off of the NewsHour. And that was pure mission. The program is important and people got it.

The stations are getting back to basics and really focusing on the things that always worked for pledge. Over the years stations tried to be economical and relied more and more on virtual pledge breaks. You end up talking about the DVD.

WGBH has established what they call a “trust” to bring in major donors to help Masterpiece, but many programs in the past have relied for years on individual major donors, such as Great Performances — and you probably had a hand in that fundraising when you worked at WNET. What is new about these trusts?

The new part about the trust is that ’GBH is working with other stations to bring in major donors who support the national productions as well as the local stations. They are going outside their market and trying to identify people working with the stations who are passionate about Masterpiece, for example, and then they are sharing the philanthropy. A piece of the donation will stay at the station and another piece will go into the next season of Masterpiece.

Do you find it is easier to motivate funders of specific programs ­— who are totally in love with symphonies or physics or environmental topics — rather than to pay into a general program budget?

For the most part this is my experience in New York, and it is here. There are also a lot of people who just love public television and will make a contribution.

But most major donors are really interested in supporting specific kinds of programming. So fundraisers have to figure out where we can make the best case to get resources.

How is the PBS Foundation doing?

Over the past year, they have brought in a little more than $3 million. We have a new associate director of the Foundation, Karen Avery, who came to us from the Smithsonian and has a lot of experience working with foundations. We have started to bring in significant amounts of money. I think over the next couple of years it is going to become an increasingly important source for program revenue in particular. I expect it may help us with some of the work we are doing in interactive and certainly the work we are doing around kids and schools.

The Foundation has focused mostly on PBS Arts online and the PBS Arts Fall Festival. All of the work on the Arts Initiative has been funded through the foundation.

People tend to think of foundations investing all of their money while they spend only what they earn from the investments. But most of the money raised by the PBS Foundation is grant money that comes in and goes right back out and is spent within a few months.

Yeah, some of it has seeded projects, some has gone back to stations, and some is for broadcast projects. Right now, the Foundation is mostly raising spendable money. But as we, collectively as a system, start to raise more planned gifts, that is where I am hoping we can actually start to build an endowment both at stations and at PBS.

You were going to ask if I have one great audacious goal. My big audacious goal would be to build an endowment for PBS that is of such a scale that it really would help us to be insulated from the Hill debates and the economy.

That is what I tried to do when I was at ’NET — to have money to complete projects as they came along, and to give incentives for collaborations.

We have had such a need for spendable money, I haven’t been able to really focus on how we could build an endowment of that size.

I am proud of a lot of the work here. I am really proud of all the work that we have done in multimedia — the fact that we have the No. 1 site for kids, for video online. We’re competing against companies with really deep pockets.

As we build out these applications we are giving stations the capacity to work in this new media space. The next iteration of the PBS iPad player, for instance, will be able to play local content.

I am always disappointed when really great people come to us with ideas that we can’t pursue because we don’t have the money.

If I am able to at least put in place the makings of a significant endowment, I would feel like I have really done my job.

You were a leader in raising $70 million in WNET’s big campaign?

Yes, when I left ’NET, we had over $100 million in the endowment.

That was very good.

That was damn good, yeah (laugh).

Is it impossible for PBS to do that because you don’t really own a territory where you are free to raise funds?

It is not impossible. My short-term to medium-term goal would be to create an endowment the size of this organization’s operating budget. When I came here, we had no donors to PBS. All of our stations have built up donors over the years. ’NET had 40 years of relationships with individuals —

God bless Rosalind P. Walter [generous WNET donor].

And God bless Rosalind P. Walter. She is the most wonderful woman in the world. The second part of the challenge is that this organization doesn’t have a history of raising money. So, you know, we really had to start this up.

The third is that I won’t go around the country and raise money without working directly with the stations. That makes it much more complicated than when I was in New York.

We work with the stations, and some of the stations are a little nervous about us. But, more and more, stations are realizing that, if we collaborate on fundraising, chances are they will end up getting more money, because the ideal solicitation of a donor is for a piece of the revenue to stay with the station and for a piece to come to PBS. If we do it right, everyone benefits. Frankly, even if all the money came to PBS, the stations would still benefit because the money is used to create content.

How much longer can PBS maintain services without working capital? Back in March 2010, you told the Board you were concerned.

Yes, and I am concerned. Yes, we need capital. To be honest with you, that is why I am now spending more and more of my time with the Foundation. It has been helpful to have [Chief Operating Officer] Michael Jones handling a lot of the management of PBS so that I can spend more time on the road.

Part of it is to help the stations, and part is to begin to cultivate relationships with funders. We have a couple of potential gifts that could make a big difference.

Because in the short term, I don’t see the additional revenue coming from the stations. But I really think that for us, longer term, we can best help the system if we can bring in additional money to do content development.

Is a PBS staff reorganization coming this year?

We are looking at some changes pretty soon in the content area. We have not yet decided exactly how to move forward.

With dues flat, KCET leaving and costs going up, making a balanced budget must be really intense work.

It is. We are finding ourselves focused more and more on what we can do. Every year, there are projects that we just set aside. This year we told stations much more specifically what we aren’t doing.

We are not launching any new kids’ programs this year. We are not going to move forward with the News and Public Affairs Initiative until we make sure we have the capital to execute it. I didn’t want to get partway into the project and realize we don’t have the resources to do it.

We are also trying to see where we might bring resources in — ancillary revenue, grants through the Foundation.

For the News and Public Affairs Initiative, you have been moving to start a news aggregation website at PBSnews.org, and hired a publisher and a managing editor to get it going, according to what we’ve seen online. What are the plans?

We are not completely walking away from what we are doing in news, but we are not going to ramp up and have a whole team here in the short term.

As I said, we are going to build up some capacity for the local stations.

What will you do for the stations?

Some of it is widgets, and some of it is national news material that the stations can localize. Some is a sharing of best practices, and some is working to develop partnerships with other news organizations that stations can use. We can make a deal at the national level rather than have every station try to figure it out on their own.

What was the plan for the news initiative and the news aggregation site?

We were planning an aggregation site to distribute content against content verticals, and so forth. We were going to sweep up a lot of the work that was happening across public television as well as other news organizations so that it would be a larger site. And we are still talking about doing more work in partnership with NPR and with other news organizations.

We were going to really do a fairly aggressive effort, but we are not going to do it now.

The idea that Tom Bettag brought forward in his report in 2009 [separate story, May 16, 2011] was for a much more expensive operation with more original reporting. Would that have been impossible to propose to funders?

I would say it is just on pause. I don’t want to start a big project that is not going to be well executed. I think that doesn’t serve us and it certainly doesn’t serve the stations and the people who use their services well.

We are focusing our news and public affairs investment on projects that are important to us, which are the NewsHour, Frontline, Washington Week and Need to Know. That is where our resources are, and we are not going beyond that.

Did you or anybody pick up things in the Bettag report that you wanted to do?

Of course. Bringing together the online and broadcast staffs of the NewsHour, and some of the things that Hari Sreenivasan does online are very much in line with recommendations of Tom Bettag’s report. I wouldn’t want to leave anyone with the impression that the report stayed on the shelf.

As we think about the investments we will make moving forward, I want to carefully look at what the NewsHour continues to do. Because I also don’t want to duplicate anything anyone else is doing. They are building up the kinds of partnerships with, you know, with different news organizations and with NPR, and Frontline is, too.

So I don’t feel that we are letting the American people down at this point by not moving forward with this initiative. I think there is a lot of good work underway. I want to watch it carefully and see how it rolls out and perhaps one of the best things that we can do is just support that.

You are coming up to your fifth anniversary here and …

Yes, who would have guessed (laughs)? And I’m still standing.

When the PBS Board announced that it had reupped your contract, I heard people say, “Why would she want that job? It’s got to be so hard.” What gives you satisfaction and keeps you coming back to work?

I believe the work we are doing is really important. When I travel around particularly — I just spoke at a breakfast in Albuquerque, and a guy came up to me and said, “I just want to thank you for the piece that Robin MacNeil did on autism. My grandson is autistic, and we have really struggled. It was a very important piece for me and for my family.”

How many people have an opportunity to be involved in something that truly makes a difference in people’s lives?

Also, this is really an interesting time for media. We have opportunities to create work that touches people so much more deeply than when we did only broadcasting. And this is a really important time for local media, with newspapers going away and commercial broadcast stations being managed remotely. So those are the reasons that I really value the work.

It is not without frustrations. When you have a system with so many independent thinkers, it can be challenging. It is sometimes difficult to get the people on the same page. Trying to move the whole organization forward at times is hugely challenging. This job is described as having a lot of responsibility and not always a lot of authority to make the kinds of moves and changes that are necessary.

For the most part, I do feel a lot of support from the system, even when we disagree about things. Most times we can get together and end up in the right place. At times it is extraordinarily frustrating, but when it is rewarding the rewards are huge.

I love to just tell little stories that to me represent what public broadcasting is about. For whatever reason — like maybe because we are public television — people tell me things that are so intensely personal.

My latest story came from Knoxville, Tenn., where I visited the station a few weeks ago. I had heard the NPR piece related to the Frontline program “Post Mortem,” which they did together with ProPublica, and I thought it was a really powerful example of how public media come together and talk about a subject that, frankly, most of the media would ignore. [The subject was the inadequacy of many local medical examiners and coroners’ offices.]

So I’m talking with a woman at the station about the program, and she said, “Well, I got this call from this guy who watched ‘Post Mortem,’ and he realized as he was watching the show that he was seeing his son’s story. Like the son of a woman profiled on the program, he said, ‘My son died and the medical examiner determined he had died of a drug overdose. I knew it was not true. But it was the coroner’s report and, you know, that was that.’”

And he said, “After I watched the show I realized, I can’t bring him back, but I can clear his name. I just want you to know I am having my son exhumed. I am going to clear his name.”

Oh, my gosh.

So, you know, when I have one of those low days, I think of those stories. And I think, you know, “God, how lucky we are to be doing this work. How lucky we are.”

Arts initiative gets foothold on Friday nights

PBS has scheduled one of the first broadcast manifestations of the Arts Initiative that Paula Kerger has championed, the first PBS Fall Arts Festival — nine arts specials from around the country, Friday nights at 9, Oct.14 through December. Until now, the initiative was centered online at PBS.org/arts.

Apparently responding to some stations’ resistance to PBS’s original high-brow arts preferences centered on Manhattan, the series includes programs such as “Give Me the Banjo” (working title) with banjoists as diverse as Earl Scruggs, Taj Mahal, Béla Fleck and Steve Martin, who narrates. Also: “Women Who Rock,” inspired by an exhibit at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and featuring performances by Bessie Smith, Lady Gaga and others of their gender and magnetism.

Other specials shot outside New York nevertheless feature artists of such stature that they’re associated with New York, such as the Illinois-based Kartemquin Films doc A Good Man about choreographer Bill T. Jones, and LA Opera’s new opera Il Postino starring tenor Plácido Domingo.

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