Remembering Tim Russert

June 13th, 2008

Thirteen lost a friend today.

Tim Russert was a good friend and longtime colleague of mine at NBC News.

I could write so much about my memories of him when we both worked in the news division, but in this space, as we mourn his passing, I wanted to acknowledge that there is so much more to Tim than just being one of the most respected political reporters of our time.

Tim cared about his community…in fact, he cared about many communities.

He spoke at churches and synagogues and universities and community groups.

He cared passionately about education and played a vital role here at Thirteen, as our Vice President of Education, Ron Thorpe remembers:

Very few Americans don’t know Tim Russert, the smart, affable, respectful but no-nonsense host of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” In fact, it says a lot about the man that we all think we know him just from our television sets. He had that ring of authenticity.

In March 2007, I not only got to meet Tim Russert, but shook his hand, had my picture taken with him, and actually talked with him for a bit. Amazingly, he was the guy I “knew,” and there was no screen separating us. I wasn’t the only lucky one on that occasion. There were thousands of others, mostly teachers attending our annual education conference, the Celebration of Teaching & Learning. Tim Russert had accepted our invitation to speak at the conference, which wasn’t a surprise since the invitation came from our Board Member and Education Committee Chair, Meredith Brokaw. They were old friends, and I remember smiling when I saw Mr. Russert’s email reply: “How can I say no to the Divine Ms. M!”

We hadn’t really asked Mr. Russert to give a talk at the Celebration. Rather, we invited him to carry on a conversation with five amazing people – the chair of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Karen Cator, Asia Society President Vishakha Desai, IBM executive Nick Donofrio, RPI President, Shirley Ann Jackson, and New York State Education Commissioner Rick Mills. Of course, such an environment was the perfect milieu for Mr. Russert, and his questions swirled through the group, bringing out each distinctive voice and perspective without letting them get away with anything.

But as good as the panel was, what I remember most is what he offered the audience before the panelists came on stage. Alone, pacing from side to side, Tim Russert spoke to the teachers about the teachers who made the difference in his life. He talked specifically about one teacher who, in order to channel the young Russert’s “excess energy”, created a school newspaper and put Russert in charge of everything from writing the articles to collating and delivering the sheets. The message got through to the 2,000 teachers in that room: a teacher had made him who he was.

There was so much humanity and grace in what Mr. Russert shared with that audience, and even more in how he did it. Happily, thanks to digital video, we still have that story, and it’s a much-visited clip on our Web site. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house that March afternoon. Today when I think about that story and the news of Mr. Russert’s death, I’m right there again.

-Ron Thorpe

Watch Tim Russert’s speech at the 2007 Teaching & Learning Celebration here.
The panel discussion is here.

Greeted with Warmth in Albany

June 13th, 2008

Earlier this week I took the train up to Albany. It was my first official visit to my “hometown” since I became Thirteen’s President & CEO. I grew up just outside Albany in the town of Delmar, and in my mind I can still see the downtown area as it was. But so much has changed, from new office buildings to beautiful parks and other improvements. On my drive from the train station, I went past the building where I had my first job — at age 16, as a disc jockey at a country/western radio station.

It must have been the hottest day in Albany so far this year. The high ceilings of the state Capitol trap lots of hot air (I am avoiding easy political jokes here), so the Capitol building felt like an oven. Efforts were underway to conserve energy: no air conditioning in the hallways, lights were dimmed everywhere, and all escalators were stationary.

Despite the heat, or maybe because of it, the Capitol and Legislative Office Buildings were teeming with people. Throngs of folks of all ages, persuasions and interests were trekking the halls of both the Capitol and the Legislative Office Building: tour groups of school children, constituents pressing their cases for or against pending bills, legislators and staffers hurrying to and from one meeting or another … and me.

Public television stations in New York State are educational institutions chartered by the New York State Board of Regents, and as such, we are also the recipients of State funding in the annual budget.

As one of the newest “kids on the block,” I went to Albany to introduce myself and spend a few minutes meeting some members of the Legislature and several of Governor David Patterson’s key staff. The reception I received, I am happy to say, was as warm as the weather!

First up was a meeting with Charles O’Byrne, Secretary to the Governor, and reputed to be one of the new Governor’s most trusted advisors. He was gracious and a great fan of public television. I took the opportunity to extend an invitation for the Governor to do a call-in program or town meeting that we would broadcast live in prime time on all nine of New York’s public television stations. I hope the Governor agrees to do it, I think he’s a natural for television.

Next up was a short visit with Deputy Secretary to the Governor Carl Andrews. He is a former State Senator from Brooklyn, and I was again impressed by how much he knew about Thirteen and public television. I reiterated my invitation to the Governor to do a live call-in.

I also spent some time with Long Island Assemblyman Bob Sweeney and Commissioner “Pete” Grannis of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation — both ardent environmentalists. We talked about telling the State’s conservation and restoration stories on public television.

I ended the day with a quick visit to Assemblyman Dick Gottfried. Thirteen’s broadcast offices are in the Assemblyman’s district and the Assemblyman, who also chairs the Assembly’s Health Committee, has always been a great supporter of the station.

My recent foray up to Albany is likely to be first of many in the months and years ahead. I just hope the next time I hop a train to the Capitol, the reception up there is just as warm, but the temperature isn’t!

The Thirteenth: Public Television, The Swimsuit Issue

June 13th, 2008

Real journalists don’t spend their idle hours writing about Hillary’s pantsuits. Nor do they tell people who sit in front of their office writing screenplays about world-threatening weather and world-threatening insects and world-threatening greed and stupidity and world-saving special effects done in Flash animation to hold their calls, should they get any.

Imagine my satisfaction, then, when cartoonist Roz Chast agreed to let me present “Public Television: The Swimsuit Issue,” as if done by her mother-in-law, a sweet unsuspecting woman with grandchildren. Roz understands that I live in the world of words, while she lives in the world of the senses, of color, and light.

So when I sensed a unique promotional opportunity for public television in a concept immortalized by Sports Illustrated, I grabbed it. I drilled down. I did not pander to the least common denominator. No. I pandered to the most uncommon numerator. And I retained the celebrity-driven power of art.

And Roz understands this, even if she is totally unavailable at the present time. Which is why, for our first summer issue of “The Thirteenth,” I give you “Public Television: The Swimsuit Issue,” by Roz Chast’s mother-in-law, as storyboarded by me, exclusively for you. What can I add except to say, bring on summer and bring on summer tv!

Please note: No members of the Chast family were harmed during the making of this cartoon. Members of the Thirteen family were neither consulted nor harmed, except for Rafael, who looks ten pounds heavier when illustrated.

Inside Thirteen blogger: The Thirteenth (Vickie Karp, Freelance Writer for 13)

Coming Soon: Look for Vickie Karp on The Huffington Post starting Summer 2008.

I Love My Job

June 5th, 2008

Inside Thirteen Blogger: Ellen Doherty, series producer, CYBERCHASE

On CYBERCHASE, not only do I get to work with wonderful colleagues here at Thirteen, making fun action adventure cartoons about math, but I also have the pleasure of working with incredibly talented actors like Christopher Lloyd, who was recently nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance as The Hacker, and comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who brings such humor and heart to cyberbird Digit.

This week, I got another memorable experience because Matthew Broderick, who’ll always have a place in my ‘80s heart for playing Ferris Bueller, stopped by to record a guest star spot in a special “Father’s Day” episode of CYBERCHASE that’ll premiere next year.

Matthew is playing both Max (the easy-going and likeable dad of a good friend of the CyberSquad) and an evil robot version of Max created by the villainous Hacker in order to ruin both Father’s Day and Max’s spotless reputation.

It was a real treat to watch Matthew bring these characters to life using only his voice, giving a warm “Daddiness” to Max and a dastardly zeal to Robot Max, Hacker’s evil invention. One of my favorite moments: there’s a spot in the script where Robot Max is spraying maple syrup over a crowd of people. The hilarious maniacal laughter Matthew gave Robot Max is not to be missed!

Matthew’s decision to take the role was motivated by someone who is perhaps both his biggest and smallest fan: his 5-year-old son, who watches CYBERCHASE all the time. (Matthew said he sometimes watches the show in the morning with his son.)
We had already decided to approach Matthew for the role of Max when we discovered this, but it was great to hear his wife Sarah Jessica Parker mention that their son was a CYBERCHASE fan during a TODAY show appearance in April.

Tune in a year from now to see Matthew’s performance as Max and Robot Max. It’s a long way off but don’t worry…we’ll remind you all about it!

A Conversation With Aaron Brown

May 30th, 2008


We are a month away from launching our new season of programs and that seems like a good time to begin our conversation with you about what we are doing, why we are doing it and our own sense of what journalism in these times can be about.

With a month to go, the WIDE ANGLE staff is incredibly busy working with our filmmakers around the world to shape the pieces and get them ready for air. I am grateful for their experience and calm. As there is much work to do. It is not enough to simply present a program on Darfur or a program on the changing nature of the military in Japan or our own work on the sad and difficult Iraqi refugee problem in the Middle East. Our mission isn’t simply to make and support films on these issues.

What we must do and are doing is to make and shape films that look at these complicated issues in a compelling way. That requires not simply good journalism but good story telling – story telling with strong and compelling central characters that draw you into the journey we take each week. This is the essential difference between what I call “Eat Your Vegetables” journalism and work that you will not only watch but look forward to watching each week. In truth, the filmmakers and the WIDE ANGLE staff are far more experienced in the art of long form journalism than am I. So, I find myself helping some and learning a lot.

I come to this as a great believer in the mission and a great believer in you. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to engage in the kind of journalism that drew me to the craft a very long time ago. Modern media, with the pressures of minute-by-minute ratings, doesn’t always make that easy. A trip down Paris Hilton Lane is often easier and cheaper than a trip through the hospitals and culture of Mozambique. But you are a demanding bunch. You expect us to do work that is both important and compelling, and you should know how strongly all of us feel about delivering on that expectation. We are also sure you will tell us when we hit the mark and be just as vocal should we miss it.

That part of the season need not wait until we launch. We can begin now with a discussion of what you expect from us, from PBS and from the journalism you consume. I can’t promise we will answer each note we receive, but we will read them all and respond to as many as we can.

Finally, for some of you I am an old face in a new spot, for others I am just a refugee from cable news. To the first group, it will be so nice to work in front of you again. For that second group, I am eager to prove my chops. I trust you will not be bashful in your criticisms and – I hope – compliments.

Let the conversation begin! See Wide Angle site.

Aaron Brown
New York
May 29, 2008

(this post originally appears on Wide Angle web site)

Robert’s Retirement

May 23rd, 2008

Inside Thirteen blogger: David Reisman, Educational Publishing

Robert Miller, who is my boss, co-worker and friend here at Thirteen/WNET, is retiring in June. Robert has been the Director of the Educational Publishing Department since 1983, and I’ve worked with him since 1986. When I first met Robert, I was 28 years old and in my first semester in a graduate program in education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He had been working at Thirteen/WNET for three years. His first project was a set of ambitious print materials for HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS.

I became a full-fledged staff member in the early 1990s. Over the years our department has developed publications for public TV programs of all types, in all subject areas — long-running series like NATURE (we’ve produced its teachers guides for 20 years); Bill Moyers’ programs on poetry, addiction, alternative medicine, and dying; the international documentary series WIDE ANGLE; and even local programs like A WALK AROUND BROOKLYN.

One of the great things about working with Robert is that he brings a truly collaborative spirit to his projects, and he’s very generous with offering opportunities for creative input. Before working at Thirteen/WNET, I’d had some pretty negative experiences in the workplace, and Robert’s encouragement was tremendously important for me. From my first experience with educational publishing (research for the Faces of Japan viewer’s guide) to the recent comic books I’ve developed for NATURE, I’ve always been impressed by how much Robert enjoys the brainstorming process at the beginning of a big project, how seriously he takes the messages of each program we’re working on, and how dedicated he is to making sure that our materials have the greatest possible educational impact.

Robert Miller, Thirteen Education

In addition to his work in educational publishing, Robert is also a very creative person: He is a talented writer of strange, funny pieces of surreal fiction and has a surprisingly excellent singing voice (as my coworkers and I learned when he nervously called us into a conference room to rehearse for a recent guitar recital). He’s also been genuinely supportive of my work as an artist, and one of the nice things about working on 33rd St. and 10th Ave. is that we occasionally go see art exhibits in Chelsea during lunch.

Colleagues come and go, new technologies cause seismic shifts in the workplace – and through all the uncertainty, Robert’s been stalwart and reliable. He’s managed to find a way of being a constant, like the “c” in E=mc2 (the speed of light). He’s been both a mentor and a good friend, and I feel truly lucky to have worked with him over the years.

Swimming with Lava

May 15th, 2008

Inside Thirteen blogger: Fred Kaufman, Executive Producer, Nature

NATURE on-location in Hawaii:

Being in the wrong place at the right time is a necessity when filming volcanoes. Unlike wild animals that tend to run and disappear at the first sight or smell of a human, lava flows are unpredictable, quite dangerous and come right at you.

Good thing I wasn’t around for the filming of this extraordinary sequence of lava dripping into the ocean where it expands, pops and explodes for our upcoming film on Hawaii’s Kilaeua volcano. Emmy award-winning cinematographer Paul Atkins took his HD camera underwater to capture this rare event. He had to brave ocean water temps of 100 degrees to film fire underwater. First, check out the footage:

Here’s Paul’s account of the experience:

    a rare opportunity
    Normally, quality underwater images of lava entering the sea on the “Big Island” of Hawaii are next to impossible to obtain. Once the lava really gets pumping in a location, the scene below the surface is too unstable and dangerous, and the water visibility is reduced to almost zero. As the flow continues, the lava hardens and forms a massive ‘bench” which periodically collapses — certain death for any divers caught in the ensuing underwater turbulence.

    catching the flow
    The key is to catch a lava flow in its early stages before a bench forms, within the first few days of entering the sea.

    In this case, the ocean-entry lava flow had stopped for several weeks. Suddenly, a fresh surface flow rolled down Kilauea volcano and began to sizzle into the ocean again. The sea bottom at this spot was relatively old, meaning it had not experienced a lava flow since the early 1980’s. This, combined with clear, calm weather on a usually turbulent coast, was the special set of conditions I had waited 25 years for.

    The first challenge was picking a place to position our boat and enter the water. Out in front of the flow, the ocean surface was steaming hot, in places as much as 100 degrees fahrenheit. A few feet beneath this scalding layer, however, the water is much cooler. The plan was to slip under the hot layer, and swim in the cooler water toward the lava flow at the coast, navigating by compass if necessary.

    getting out
    In a way, lava diving is similar to ice or cave diving. In an emergency — if you run out of air, for instance — you can’t make a vertical ascent and come up. There’s a ceiling of scalding hot water looming above. You must save enough air to navigate out from under this ceiling before you can surface.

    Our filming went well on the first dive, and we got fantastic shots of bizarre pillow lavas forming and exploding in clear, blue water. We thought we saved enough air pressure, 500psi, to make it out. But, as we swam toward our boat, we realized we had a problem. Each time we attempted to come to the surface — sticking one hand up to test the temperature — it was too hot and we had to retreat. We kept trying for 100 yards out. Nothing. The scalding hot ceiling had expanded while we were down under. We couldn’t come up for air and my air pressure was down to next to nothing, less than 20psi.

    For a moment, I thought the rare footage we had just shot would never see the light of day. I looked at my dive buddy, Richard Pyle, and we just shrugged. No choice. We went up through the hot water. By some miracle, we surfaced in a cooler spot — I don’t know where it came from. It was hot enough to steam up our masks, but not enough to boil skin.

Thanks, Paul.

The Thirteenth: Television and Loneliness

May 13th, 2008

Why do people talk to their television sets? Have television and real life become hopelessly intertwined? And scarier, have television sets literally become our friends? I recently spoke with Jonah Lehrer, author of “Proust Was A Neuroscientist,” about these and other questions.

T.T.: Do you think Proust would have watched television?

Lehrer: My sense is that he would have. He used to listen to live opera over the phone. In his essays, he comes back again and again to the way you are lost when you read, disappear into the medium. Books and television are both complex acts of disappearing.

T.T.: What actually happens in the brain when we read a book or watch television?

Lehrer: Television requires that we think a lot and invent worlds and keep track of characters, but when we watch the Sopranos, we’re all watching the same Sopranos. I think the most complete act of imagination is still reading words on a page. The brain provides an incredible feat of cognition when we read. It transforms symbols on a page into a movie we create in our head. It reads a sentence. ‘Jack was smiling.’ The abstract communication is translated, and our mirror neurons light up as if we were smiling, too, a hot new brain circuit. The mirror neurons are involved in how we understand how someone else is feeling. In science, we call this dual process. The frontal cortex rationally takes in the information and farther back in the brain, the limbic system responds.

T.T.: Does someone real or imagined make us respond in the same way?

Lehrer: The brain is constantly confronted with ambiguous symbols. It does really well in making sense of those ambiguities. We may not see the same color red, but we pretend that it’s all the same red. The visual cortex particularly excels at this. For example, we each have a blind spot in the middle of our visual field, but the brain seamlessly fills it in. Confronted with holes, we automatically make sense of it anyway.

You’ve written about how, observing just a few brush strokes in a painting by Cezanne, the viewer will fill in the scene.

Lehrer: Yes. And similarly, if you show people a computer screen with just a few pixels and lines on it, representing a face, people will hypothesize that it’s a face. As for television, its very nature is so cinematic that I think it is captivating to memory and naturally confuses us. Photographs can do this, too. I know that many of my memories are actually based on looking at family photographs.

T.T.: But you don’t talk to those pictures.

Lehrer: When our computers crash we yell at them because we invest them with the qualities of something that has agency or intention -– something that is alive. The brain didn’t evolve in a state including television. When the brain evolved, all animated creatures were living things, not electronic.

T.T.: So how do we relate to electronic communication?

Television has many human characteristics. It seems to be a little moody. It throws out different emotions. And the brain is slightly tricked by things that don’t have agency and are not really alive. So you could construct a hypothesis that we talk to our television set not because we are lonely, but because our brain thinks it’s “one of us.”



Haven’t sent your renga yet? Just send one along when you’ve got it… And come back June 13th, when The Thirteenth presents an extremely limited engagement of “Public Television: The Swimsuit Issue.”

Inside Thirteen blogger: The Thirteenth (Vickie Karp, Freelance Writer for 13)