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PBS taps Kerger as sixth president

Originally published in Current, Feb. 6, 2006
By Karen Everhart

It will be another month before WNET executive Paula A. Kerger steps into her new job as the sixth president of PBS, but her appointment by the PBS Board on Jan. 22 stirred rare displays of unanimity and enthusiasm among her public TV colleagues, who appear eager for a PBS leader they regard as family.

She is the first PBS president chosen from inside the field since Bruce Christensen, a former station chief and APTS president, was elected in 1984. He held the job for a record 11 years.

During a special meeting convened in Dallas last month, the PBS Board unanimously endorsed the search committee’s own unanimous recommendation to hire Kerger, the No. 2 exec at producing station WNET and a behind-the-scenes player in various system initiatives for the past decade, including the launch of two new digital multicast channels. Her first day on the job will be March 13.

Kerger’s success in managing WNET’s $79 million capital campaign in the mid-1990s — the largest endowment fundraiser ever mounted by a public TV station — established her reputation as a development powerhouse. Kerger became WNET v.p. and station manager in 2002 and was promoted to executive v.p. and c.o.o. in 2004.

Her skills extend well beyond her “sophisticated management” of WNET’s capital campaign, said Kerger’s present boss, WNET President Bill Baker. “She is an experienced manager — a highly regarded, fair and disciplined manager. She has very good taste and the ability to make very good judgments about programming. She is very mission-conscious, and she knows the unique nature of public television.”

When PBS Board Chairman Mary Bitterman introduced Kerger as the next PBS president at the National Educational Telecommunications Association Conference in Houston on Jan. 28, the crowd gave the new hire two lengthy standing ovations.

“I didn’t want to give a prepared speech because I’m with family today,” Kerger said, before launching into a sometimes emotional talk about her passion for public service and belief in a bright future for public TV.

“It was the warmest and most engaging reception I’ve seen anyone get in 36 years in this business,” said Mac Wall, executive director of Kentucky Educational Television. "Nothing short of remarkable.”

“I’m not a Pollyanna, but my optimism comes from being a fundraiser,” Kerger said in an interview. “I genuinely think in the last year people have focused on public TV in ways they haven’t in the past.” The recent controversies over PBS’s editorial independence and federal funding “reminded a lot of people in our communities of why public TV is so important.”

“The thing that will save us at the end of the day is that public television belongs to the public,” Kerger said. “We are decentralized and that is our greatest strength.”

Kerger’s fundraising prowess, combined with her desire to treat localism as an asset, distinguished her among finalists for the job, according to search committee and PBS Board members.

First to be interviewed

Whenever the top job at PBS opens up, the first question is whether the public TV system needs the experience and connections of an outsider — the board’s conclusions in hiring Ervin Duggan in 1993 and Pat Mitchell in 2000 — or an insider who knows the system’s strengths and weaknesses firsthand. The search committee probed beyond that to define other qualities and skills needed for the job. They all added up to “insider.”

Search firm Spencer Stuart interviewed public TV “stakeholders” about the desired qualifications of the next president, and the committee used the feedback to rework the job description 12 times.

“A lot of our colleagues were emphatic about the need for an insider,” said Rod Bates, search committee chairman and director of Nebraska’s NET. “In the end what people were very concerned about was that they’d be listened to as a member. They feel that they’ve been disenfranchised over time.”

“There are a lot of people who feel trust needs to be re-established between PBS and its members,” Bates said. PubTV leaders told the committee they wanted a president who understands PBS’s role as a membership organization, Bates said, “Someone who is smart and a consensus-builder.”

Kerger was on vacation in Maine when the search committee finished the job description in September, and four people separately sent her a copy. “The way they defined the job was such that I thought I could bring something to it,” Kerger said.

“What they were describing about working with a modern media company but at the same time working with a member organization — I feel very strongly that PBS is both a membership organization and a modern media company,” she said.

The PBS Board’s search committee reviewed 125 resumes and interviewed 14 candidates vetted by Spencer Stuart.
When the committee asked for recommendations of candidates who could do the job, Kerger’s name came up more than any other candidate’s, Bates said. The committee interviewed her first. “It’s very, very unusual that the first interview out of the box is spectacular.”

“We feel that she is very much the right person at the right time,” Bitterman told Current. Kerger has “13 years of experience at one of most distinguished major producing stations, and she’s been very successful in fundraising,” she said.

She’s worked effectively with other pubcasters in New York state to lobby policy-makers, “and that is a microcosm for working with APTS on the national scale,” Bitterman said.

“We have been able to find someone who has such a professional appreciation for what has been done and an exciting sense of the challenge of what lies beyond,” Bitterman said.

In addition to her chief operating officer responsibilities at WNET, Kerger is vice chairman of American Public Television and the Association of Public Broadcasting Stations of New York, a founding trustee of the PBS Foundation, and former chairman of the PBS development advisory committee. She worked with CPB on several initiatives, including the 2003 analysis of public TV’s financial problems by McKinsey & Co., and the resulting CPB project that’s tutoring station personnel in soliciting major gifts.

With Jon Abbott, c.o.o. of Boston’s WGBH, Kerger led the two stations’ joint development of two new multicast services for their own digital channels and for syndication to other stations: Create, a lifestyle channel that APT began distributing nationally last month, and World, a channel of PBS documentaries and public affairs series that’s expected to be offered for national distribution this year.

“It’s a big plus that she enters the job with more knowledge about the complexity of the system and how the different parts of it work than any PBS president in recent memory,” said Henry Becton, president of WGBH in Boston. “That’s most important because time is pressing to get on with the important agenda of helping to refine a digital service strategy that all parts of the system can embrace.”

“This is one of the best things that have happened to public television in a long time,” said Ward Chamberlin, former president of WETA in Washington, D.C., and a veteran production exec. Chamberlin worked at WNET in the 1970s and returned in 1994, a year after Kerger signed on as head of the capital campaign. His job was to revitalize the station’s production output with the monies raised.

“She’s the best development person I’ve ever known,” Chamberlin said. “Most people who are heads of development can make dates for their president to talk to the big hitters. Paula can do that herself. She can move in any arena of society and be confident. She’s such a wonderful believer in public TV and she carries the message to big and small donors alike.”

Kerger came to public TV in 1993 from the Metropolitan Opera, where she had been director of principal gifts and coordinator of its Silver Anniversary Fund capital drive. She had previously worked as director of development for International House in New York City and program development officer for the U.S. Committee for UNICEF.

Pitching and listening

At the NETA conference, Kerger spoke about her goals to secure new revenues for public TV and to build on the progress of the PBS Foundation, established by outgoing PBS President Pat Mitchell in 2004. The foundation has attracted $13 million so far.

“There’s been a lot of skepticism and concern about the foundation and that it might compete with local stations,” Kerger said in an interview. “I really think there is great opportunity there.”

“People and foundations around the country are very interested in the kind of work we do in public TV and we’ve not been able to tap into it,” she said. Recruiting a board of trustees with the wherewithal to make gifts and persuade their friends to contribute is one of her first priorities.

“The money is there, I’m telling you . . . ,” she said emphatically at NETA. “If we can do that in New York, we can do it in the rest of the country, too.”

There’s no shortage of competing priorities awaiting Kerger in the new job. Devising strategies for new digital services, dealing with financial shortfalls and revitalizing the cash-strapped National Program Service are but a few mentioned by station leaders and PBS Board members.

“The immediate thing before us is having her speak with people throughout the system and make sure we have a sense of unanimity,” Bitterman said. “We face so much ahead, we want to make sure that everyone is in alignment.”

“Her first challenge is to re-establish PBS as a station-owned organization in which stations have a large say and work with PBS,” Chamberlin said. “There’s been much too much friction between PBS and stations in this period and it hasn’t worked to the benefit of either.”

Even though Kerger already knows a lot about PBS, she doesn’t know it from the perspective of sitting in the president’s chair, she said. “I need to open my mind and look at it from a different vantage point.”

“She’s got the energy, interest, patience and listening skills, if anybody is able to make it work,” said Kent Steele, WNET executive director of broadcasting. “It probably is one of the most difficult jobs in media.”

Kerger will speak at the Feb. 12-13 PBS planning meeting for general managers, where Wayne Godwin, PBS c.o.o., will preside as acting PBS chief. Mitchell, who has taken the top job at the Museum of TV and Radio, had planned to leave in March but rescheduled her departure date for Feb. 11.

Associate Editor Jeremy Egner contributed to this story.

Web page posted Feb. 6, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

Paula Kerger in a red suit

EARLIER ARTICLES

At WNET, Kerger oversaw public TV's largest endowment campaign, which raised $79 million by 1997. Kerger was named PBS Development Professional of the Year in 2001.

Pat Mitchell, PBS president for six years, becomes president of the bicoastal Museum of Television & Radio on March 15. She announced last February she would leave by June 2006.

LATER ARTICLE

Kerger hires San Francisco station exec as content chief, June 2006.

LINKS

Kerger "demonstrated her sensitivity to the sovereignty of the member stations" by consulting them on protocols governing grant solicitation by the new PBS Foundation, PBS Chairman Mary Bitterman told the New York Sun.

Right-wing media watchdog Media Research Center criticized the selection of Kerger, pointing to her support, reported in the New York Daily News, for airing of the Postcards from Buster episode visiting a pair of lesbian mothers in Vermont.


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