William F. Baker discusses the legacy of public media.
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GUEST: Dr. William F. Baker
I’m Richard Heffner. And this is the second of two programs honoring public broadcasting, and particularly William F. Baker, CEO of the New York flagship stations, WNET/13 and WLIW/21.
For in early 2008 Dr. Baker becomes President Emeritus after 20 years at the helm of the station’s licensee, the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, remaining, of course, an active member of a new management team headed by Neal Shapiro, former president of NBC News.
Well, last time we talked a lot about public broadcasting’s cabbages and kings. Let’s pick up where we left off. Bill, we were talking about dollars …
HEFFNER: … and cents. And you were making a lot of sense about the role that government has played, the role that your viewers have played. What about philanthropy?
BAKER: Well, I mean … I mean the reason we’re in existence … the reason we’re able to be transmitting this program today and all the other programs we do, is simply because of philanthropy. And there have been a number of incredibly selfless people who are in the category of visionaries, who have really given us the strength to kind of rise above all the noise there is out there in the media world.
One of them, of course, is Rosalind P. Walter. Roz Walter who supports directly this program …
BAKER: … among many of the great shows that we have. This woman is very humble, doesn’t like publicity. We have to beg her to put her name on the programs, but we do that to show the great example of any incredible individual.
Another is Judy and Josh Weston who are my great patrons at Channel 13, again selfless beyond imagination … two of the finest human beings I have ever met. A real hero of mine, Josh … incredible business leader, was one of the founding Chairmen of ADP. And then … you know … just an active citizen who has given so much of himself and, and his … and his money … I mean, you know … to the point of … I’d say it being rather painful.
And there are, you know, the Cullman family. And then, you know, the person that kind of got Channel 13’s economics stable … I mean … sometimes I’m given credit for that, but I could have not done that without the help of our then Chairman Henry Kravis who gave the first big gift in Channel 13’s history … big gift meaning … in other words, Channel 13’s a big New York charity but it had always been kind of March of Dimes type charity, with you know, fifty dollar, hundred dollar gifts. You know. Sometimes a thousand, ten thousand, fifty thousand. But no multimillion dollar gift.
Well, Henry gave the first multi-million dollar gift and that’s what got our, our capital campaign going and what has given the institution true economic stability. So we owe a lot to that Chairman Henry Kravis who is a Chairman Emeritus.
HEFFNER: You know we talked about the role of government. I meant to ask you, in the last program … will ask you now … what role, if any do you think support for public broadcasting will play in the next Presidential election?
BAKER: Well, I mean, you know, one of the … one of my hopes is, is that during this next election … as the election heats up … not that it hasn’t heated up already, but as it continues to heat up … that media will start to be in the public dialogue and that public television … will in itself come up and hopefully, even be an issue. Because we know the public cares about government supporting public television.
And we realize that the US government supports public service broadcasting to a much lesser extent than any, any Western country does. You know in England, it’s something like 80 dollars a person and a citizen in America … it’s 80 cents a citizen, some number like that.
HEFFNER: How do you explain that?
BAKER: I don’t know.
HEFFNER: Are the Brits so much smarter or more generous than we are? Can’t be?
BAKER: Well, they must be smarter. (Laughter) I don’t know. I … you know, and it’s true pretty much all over the world … including and especially in places like Japan. And, you know, public service broadcasting … are media in those countries that, you know that have really, really added to the cultural value of the, of the country.
I mean, you know the BBC has helped define culture in England. So has NHK in Japan. And, and German public television, etc. So I don’t know. It really hurts that we don’t have more governmental support here. Especially since we know the public wants it and … but it just, it just hasn’t happened. You know this, this country started out as a very commercial media business. The whole idea was to make money using the media and to sell products. Well, that idea started very, very early in 1921 when Westinghouse started the first radio station.
I later was President of Westinghouse Television, so I know the history of the, of the TV and radio business pretty well. And, and Westinghouse was making radios, but there were no radio stations, so they decided they better put one on the air. (Laughter) And so …
HEFFNER: That was what … KDKA?
BAKER: KDKA in Pittsburgh, 1921.
BAKER: And so, from those origins it was really always a commercial business and the early radio stations were owned by department stores. Again for the purpose of selling things in the stores and selling radios themselves. So … that’s just what happened.
Whereas in England, there were visionary government officials and citizens who said, “You know this is going to be a very powerful business. A business that is so powerful that we can’t just let it become a tool of commerce. We have to let it … we have to do more with it than that.”
And hence you wound up with the BBC and all these other great program services that, that exist in Europe.
HEFFNER: Well, of course, I think many people find it difficult to believe that it was Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, who when approached with the idea of commercials on radio thought that this was ridiculous, this was a great university that we have here …
HEFFNER: … and how could you downgrade it with commercials. We’ve done a pretty good job with that.
BAKER: I didn’t know that story, that’s a good one.
HEFFNER: Yeah and it, it … you know, your own book Down the Tube: An Inside Account of the Failure of American Television … we did a program some years ago, when the book came out …
BAKER: Ten years ago.
HEFFNER: … about the book … I still can’t believe that you’ve had the guts and the nerve to write the way you did about the commercial brethren. Any repercussions?
BAKER: No. I mean I think truthfully, you know, because I was a commercial broadcaster for such a long time and am very close to the people in commercial media… some terrific, really fine people, including my successor Neal Shapiro, who have values every bit as high as mine. And they, they know the problems of their own business. They know the economic pressures they are under. They would prefer to be able to use their business and their great skills to, you know, to the maximum service of the public. Most of them … many of them.
And, but yet there’s that huge terrible bottom line pressure that winds up giving you the kind of television you see on cable and broadcast … commercial.
HEFFNER: Do you think that’s ever going to change?
BAKER: No. No. I don’t think it’s going to change. I think the pressure is going to get even worse. I mean that’s the frightening thing. As media … I mean, you know there’s an argument that says that when there were just three networks and public television, that television may have, in its time, although if you look at some of those shows you wonder … may have been actually better. And I mean even your origins … this, this actual program started on NBC, with you as the host. It wouldn’t be … it wouldn’t exist today on commercial television. Because they have to make money, they have to go for the maximum audience.
So I think it’s going to get harder and harder and one of my worries is, is that that pressure will also fall on public television, not to become commercial necessarily, although we look pretty commercial even ourselves …
HEFFNER: You’ve noticed.
BAKER: Yeah. (Laughter) But, but, you know that in order to keep the lights on … what do you do? You know you just … you have to get audience, you have to …you know you have to … you know what I don’t want to do is see us have to lower our standards and that’s why I worry about government funding, individual philanthropy, individual members supporting … you know, even the poorest of people.
But, by the way, that’s another one of the things that’s been the most touching for me. In all these years being at Channel 13, particularly being kind of a public spokesman for the institution, I get to ride the company car … which is the E train … you know the subway. And, and I am touched by the numbers of people who come up, often people who are clearly the poorest people who say, “thank you” and they’re watching and they’re not watching “Just learn to read” or something like that. They’re watching the opera, ballet and Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose, etc. It just really is, is heartening.
And my wife and I were walking in Times Square about a month ago, right through the kind of center of Times Square … we went off on one of the side streets and a man comes running out of the garage, a parking lot attendant … and puts his arms around me and says, “Channel 13, I love you.”
And my wife turned to me and said, “Bill this is going to be … it’s going to be hard on you when you lose, when you lose that job.” (Laughter)
HEFFNER: So stay on the air at 13.
HEFFNER: Bill, what about the notion of subscription?
HEFFNER: Have … has that been entertained recently?
BAKER: Oh sure. It has been entertained for years. I mean the problem is, it really is an anathema to what we want to be. Which is we want to be free and available to everyone. We want that parking lot attendant not to have to pay to get the programs that you see.
HEFFNER: But you also want to be there.
BAKER: Yeah. We do. But I mean I, I think, you know … you know the idea of “free” is, you know, overrides everything. And, of course, if we are a subscription service, too, then the government steps out because, you know … no, no, no … we should be a free … we’ve got, we’ve got to figure out how to make this work … free.
HEFFNER: Figure it out.
BAKER: That’s Neal Shapiro’s job. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: (Laughter) So that’s why after only 20 years … Bill, let’s go back to this question of politics and of the role that you say now and you said in our previous program and you’ve said it always on the air here with me. The faith that the American people seem to have …
HEFFNER: … in the integrity, the honesty and the value of public broadcasting. Is that shown throughout the country?
BAKER: Yes, yes. The studies about public broadcasting are national studies. They’re done by the Roper organization, they’ve been done for … I don’t know … seven or eight years now. And they sample, you know … large national sample in the thousands of people. And they ask a lot of interesting questions about trust; about what do you value? And, and they list all the institutions, including government and religion and other media.
And public television always turns out to be the most trusted institution in America. Of institution … I mean, not just media institution, but over courts of law, over Congress and everything. And when people ask me that question, they say, “Well, gee, how does it feel when you see that result and you think …”
I think, well on one hand you feel pretty good that you’re working for a place that people trust. On the other hand, you think … gee, shouldn’t … you know, public television to be the most trusted institution in America, wouldn’t it be better if courts, and, you know, government were more trusted? I’d feel better about it.
HEFFNER: Except I must say, as the first guy in and the first guy out …
HEFFNER: … of, of Thirteen … when I watch now, my heart leaps, it really does. I think it’s not just in programming, but the way it looks the way it feels … I think that’s something that you’ve got to be enormously proud about. I mean in 20 years you’ve done …
BAKER: Well, you should feel proud about it … I mean you’re the guy that lit the fire …
HEFFNER: Yeah, I lit the candle … you’ve got the …
BAKER: … and, I mean, you know, and, and following me there will be, hopefully, even more improvements. This is a frightening and yet satisfying business in the sense that it is dynamic. You know the … part of, part of the interest of making public television is that it is not a static kind of thing.
On the other hand, isn’t it nice that public television has the courage to do things that are literally retro, like this program. And I’m not saying that in a negative, in a negative way …
HEFFNER: (Laughter) You’re talking about my age again.
BAKER: No. But, but think about it … you know, this kind of show was, of course, popular in the early years of television.
HEFFNER: Talk is cheap.
BAKER: Virtually … virtually died. And, and now it looks like a whole new thing. You know, you know somebody 14 years old turning this television program on would say … my gosh, what a cool idea, two people talking with no set. You know that must be a pretty … that’s a pretty inventive idea.
So, so we are still able to do things that we think make a difference. You know the reason this show has been on the air 50 years is that, is that I and people who preceded me and, and the people who will follow me say, “you know, this is an important, an important program to have on television.”
HEFFNER: All right. Enough. Enough about this. Let me ask you about the times when people say, “That shouldn’t be on television …
HEFFNER: You and I talked about that once …
HEFFNER: … what’s the situation these days?
BAKER: Well, I mean in some ways, when we get criticism about programs that we put on television … often it’s programs that have something to do with a, you know, a world situation that is … that there’s no remedy for. You know, issues in the Middle East, issues of religion or some, some very complex and, and highly … things that have deep feelings behind them.
We take a lot of heat and, and there’s often a lot of pressure to, to do … you know to take the program off the air, or to do something. The thing that I feel … usually when I feel at my best at the job is when there is that kind of heat and pressure and controversy. Because then I think, you know, we really are doing our job. And, and all we are is a free speech medium. You know many … very often there are programs on the air that I personally disagree with. I mean I disagree with the content of them, but I honor the fact that we should be able to present any point of view because it’s important for us to hear every point of view, whether I agree with it or not. Or whether my Board agrees with it. Doesn’t make any difference. Allowing every point of view is really what this medium should be about.
So, you know, I’ve also been fortunate in that I’ve had Boards who’ve had …who have always supported that, you know, that view.
And I never will forget … actually it was … it was kind of a funny and scary story at the same time. When I was first at Channel 13 … our … somebody had produced a major documentary that aired, that aired about a man that I was going to visit. I went to visit the office of our … of the man who later became our Chairman, Henry Kravis and somebody had done a documentary the night before that aired … I wasn’t even aware of it … that was very critical of some of aspect of Henry. And I walked into the office, and I … I was there to ask him for money … (laughter) … and Henry looked at me and said, “Bill, did you see …?”
And I thought to myself, “Oh, gee I sure hope he didn’t see that show.” And I walked into his office and he said, “Bill, did you watch your station last night?” And I said, “Oh, gee, yeah, Henry, I’m sorry and, and I was hoping you hadn’t.” (Laughter)
And he looked at me and he said, he said, “Bill, while I disagree with that documentary, completely,” he said, “I believe you have the right and should have the right to be able to put that kind of program on the air.”
And when he said that, I thought, “Wow, what a human being. This is somebody I want to get to know.” He later became our Chairman.
HEFFNER: Bill, that’s what you’ve done. That’s what Thirteen has done.
HEFFNER: What about the rest of the country? Has there been knuckling under to any considerable degree?
BAKER: Generally our colleagues in public television are very impressive people. I mean, you know, we’re not the only, you know, leading light out there. There are many, many of them. So as an industry … of course, that gives us great strength. You know that we’re not just standing alone, that there are 350 public TV stations. And for the most part, we all, nationwide, have, you know … we operate differently, we have different styles, sometimes even very different programs. But we very much think alike. There are some difficulties in some of the state networks … that are owned … networks that are owned by governments. Where sometimes politics winds up playing a little bit more of a role than it should be, because they’re literally governmental entities. But even in those institutions, you know … the leadership and the governors have often shown great integrity and, and leadership. So, as an industry … public television in America, given our relatively small size … I mean we’re, we’re a teeny little industry in the scale of media in America. The people that are carrying this load are doing a very good job.
HEFFNER: And, if I may ask … the FCC?
BAKER: Well, the FCC is another matter. You know, the FCC recently has become highly politicized. The FCC in many ways, though, has, has an impossible and difficult job. They’re always looking in the rear view mirror and this media in America is changing so rapidly, trying to figure out how to regulate these media are very, very difficult. So I don’t think they have an easy job.
We’ve had … we’ve had mixed results from the FCC. I wish they would be a little bit more, a little bit less interested in supporting commerce and more interested in supporting, you know, values of high quality media. But, you know, we even had a situation where you could say values were involved, that didn’t work out too well for us in this … in these regulations about words; about being able to say certain kinds of words, which are considered obscene. And, we’ve gotten into some terrible messes where, you know, we do some major documentaries … say, one about World War II in which a soldier on the war front says a word that is not so nice, but yet we … we refuse to bleep it … because we think, “gee, you know, this is part of that communication, it’s critical that the public understand what war is all about. And hear it from the voice of somebody who was actually there.”
And every time we do something like that, we risk a $350,000 fine. Well, you can imagine that we, we don’t like the idea of that too much.
HEFFNER: But what’s happened? Because I keep hearing the first part of these would be horror stories …
HEFFNER: … but never know quite what happens.
BAKER: Well, in one case … we have not yet had any fines. And, we’re hoping that doesn’t happen, we don’t want to call anybody’s attention to it. No, please; no ideas.
But, there have been public … at least there’s one public television station, one small one in California that got a fine from the FCC, a fine big enough to literally put it … almost put it off the air.
HEFFNER: What happened?
BAKER: So it’s a … well, it’s … I think they’re probably … they’re appealing it right now.
HEFFNER: So we can’t ask whether it’s been upheld or not.
BAKER: I don’t think so. I don’t .. I don’t know where that stands.
HEFFNER: What’s the rationale on the Commission’s part?
BAKER: Well, I mean, you know, well first the Commission was directed to do this by the Congress; and the Commission’s view was that, you know, television is free for all and that the standards of television have dropped and we should hold higher standards.
Well, I think they picked the wrong thing … namely words … to be the, to be the standard bearer. The problem is, though, how do you, how do you regulate other standards. You know, they kind of … how do you say, “Well, there should be more public affairs shows, or there should be higher values show, or there should be less game shows. Or whatever it might be. It’s a very … regulating this kind of business is tricky and in some ways maybe, maybe no regulation is best. And that’s a reversal of what I said in my book.
HEFFNER: Yes, indeed.
BAKER: And that’s a reversal of what I said in my book.
HEFFNER: Do you really think that?
BAKER: I, I don’t … no … do I really think that? No. But I think you can make an argument for that.
HEFFNER: What kind of argument?
BAKER: Well I think the argument goes back to free speech. That, you know, kind of letting whatever happens, happen. Because when you start trying to regulate something, you can often made bad regulations like these … seven unacceptable …
BAKER: … words. But, you know, but there should be good regulations that say, “Hey there should be public affairs programming on …”, you know without defining what that is. There should be children’s programs. There should be religious programs. Those were regulations that used to exist that no longer exist.
HEFFNER: I remember at the old WRCA-TV where The Open Mind began …
HEFFNER: When I used to have to fill out the FCC regulation … how many, what percentage of agricultural programs…
HEFFNER: … as well as children’s programs and all the others. You’re describing, though, a medium, and I mean yours …
HEFFNER: … public television that seems to be holding its own.
BAKER: We are, yeah.
HEFFNER: More than that.
BAKER: I would say it’s amazing and, and very … it makes me feel good that we’re able to in, in these times of massive media explosion to be clearing there on the front page.
HEFFNER: Well, you’re not only on the front page … you’re on the frontier of this revolution in communications.
HEFFNER: Very briefly, what are you doing in that area?
BAKER: Well, I mean, we’re doing a lot and that pleases me, too. Channel 13 and Channel 21 work together, so these are two full power television stations in New York, the biggest city in America, the biggest market in America, plus two digital television stations; and those digital TV stations broadcast a 24 hour public affairs channel called “World”, a 24 hour kids channel called Thirteen Kids; a 24 hour kind of how-to and how to create. A 24 hour Spanish language public television station called Vme. And a 24 hour high definition channel called Thirteen/HD.
HEFFNER: When you say “digital”, what do you mean, you can get it on the computer?
BAKER: No. Well, I … in some of them you actually can. Then plus, by the way, a broadband service, which is things that we provide over, over our website … thirteen.org
By digital I mean over the air. I mean if you have one of these new digital TV sets …
BAKER: … all you need is rabbit ears and you can see this over the air. The cable companies and the two big ones in New York … CableVision and Time Warner take down most of those services, … cablevision takes them all and puts them out to the public on cable.
HEFFNER: So that you can multiple your impact upon the situation
BAKER: Yeah, well I mean … I mean … it may … some of these channels may actually hurt our primary channels, which has been an issue with us.
HEFFNER: You can’t watch two …
BAKER: And it’s an issue with the commercial … yeah, I mean television is a, is a linear thing … you’ve got to watch it … you know you have to watch it at real time, and you can only watch usually one at a time.
But, it, it’s nice if there’s something no on 13 or 21 that you don’t want to see … know that you have five other options. And for kids, you know for example, oh, and I see, you know, I now have grandchildren. And I also see how children watch TV which is quite different than our children watched television.
My grandchildren want to see Sesame Street when they want to see it, they don’t want to wait. So, the cable companies offer 13 … at least Cablevision does … 13 on Demand, where you can go free and get whatever kids program we offer at that time. Pretty impressive.
HEFFNER: Bill Baker you’ve done so much in these twenty years of 13, you’ve really got to continue doing it … however … President Emeritus … nice title … stay with it and thank you for joining me again on The Open Mind.
BAKER: Thank you, Richard.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.