Ernest Wilson

Information Champion

Air Date: January 9, 2016

USC Annenberg School dean Ernest Wilson on how to rejuvenate public broadcasting.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today we consider the future of public broadcasting and communications broadly with a pioneer in contemporary American media. Ernie Wilson, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the Water Annenberg Chair at the University of Southern California. Nominated by President Clinton in 2000, Wilson served as Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and founded the board’s new Digital Media Committee and Public Awareness Initiative Committee.

In a recent lecture at Harvard University, Wilson identified digital inequality as a scourge on our democracy and he was troubled certainly by this divide in our transition into a web-centric society.

So at USC he’s embarked now on a Third Space Project, as he calls it, to create a talent pool of next-generation leaders who will significantly, he says, shape the future of our communications apparatus.

I welcome the Dean here, we’re so grateful to be recording this special at Annenberg with luminaries like himself, and first let me ask him how he’s gonna ensure the diversity of media in a digitally divided world, and thank you for being here, Dean.

WILSON: It’s wonderful to be here, Alexander, I’m really looking forward to our conversation.

HEFFNER: As am I. The digital divide is an issue that ought to come up in communication schools and, and certainly your courses here at USC. Is it at the forefront of your mind?

WILSON: It absolutely is. And it’s, it’s an interesting moment, uh, to be involved in these discussions. Of course some of them have been going on for years and years, uh, but often at the margins of commercial organizations and media companies. But I think what we’ve seen over the past several years is a growing interest in the question of multiple voices and different perspectives. Uh, I would love to take credit for that but the reality is that some of us, my colleagues here at the Annenberg School have been raising these issues for four or five years with only modest success.


WILSON: But what’s very exciting is that we continue to do our research. We looked at the representation of people of color and women in front of the camera, behind the camera, and counter-pose that with the growth and rise of uh, those populations in America as a whole. And what we discovered in a sort of sad, depressing way is that the representation of women and people of color before the camera and behind it have really not changed if you can believe this in about thirty years.

HEFFNER: That’s staggering.

WILSON: Yeah, it is an amazing number. Um, but we’ve uh, my colleague Stacy Smith has, every year reviews one hundred films and looks at the speaking role of women and people of color. Um, what words did they say, what positions did they occupy, were they junk men, or judges? Um, and how were they represented, especially women?


WILSON: So uh, we’ve been working on that, kind of laboring in the vineyards, but something curious, over the past really year and a half, there’s been a growing interest in the question of the representation of people of color in the media.


WILSON: And so my colleagues and I, we have the good fortune of being based here right next door to Hollywood and so we have met with the CEOs of some of the top media companies in California and in the world and they said okay, we get the numbers, we understand that um, uh, the representation is not what it should be, and now what can we do about it? So uh, the Annenberg School for Communication in Journalism, uh, I feel is right at the crux of doing the great analytic work and trying to understand and describe these, and now we’re entering into partnerships with not only other academic units but with uh, the great media companies in the United States to figure out how we can make a difference moving forward.

HEFFNER: Hm. I suppose the question might be asked, how would we ever expect these huge institutions, um, of media, that in some instances are against net neutrality don’t believe in the idea that in urban communities you should be able to access, as well as at a McDonald’s, in a public library the internet…


HEFFNER: How are we gonna ever fairly, uh, represent those perspectives?

WILSON: You mentioned the uh, lectures that I was fortunate enough to be invited to give at Harvard, the DuBois lectures. Uh, and there I made two points, and if we think as it as a scissors, there are two things going on. One is that the uh, the demographics in the United States are changing, uh, substantially and the economics of the demographic. So women now account for more than fifty percent, fifty-one percent of disposable income in households.


WILSON: So women uh, now have economic power. At the same time, we also see that people of color, especially Hispanics, are rising very quickly as a percentage of the total American population. So you have that happening. Uh, at the same time, the representation of those groups is stagnant or declining. So that’s sort of a negative part of the scissors. But the other very important thing that is happening is the technology is changing.

And what this means therefore is that whereas before we only had three major TV, uh, stations as you know, um, now there are dozens and dozens and dozens because uh, in, with a device as small as a pen or cell phone that people of color, women can make their own films and make their own content. So uh, Alexander, I am sort, I’m cautiously optimistic. Two things are happening, one is more and more people, especially of the millennial generation, know how to produce really interesting content, and they’re doing so. Secondly, uh, in at least some of my conversations with some of my colleagues on the commercial side, they are understanding that especially for those medium size companies that are looking for niche markets, they’re going to have to attract more women, more Hispanics, more Asian-Americans, more African-Americans, and they’re also gonna have to produce content that is relevant to Indians and Chinese and Indonesians and Nigerians.

HEFFNER: In this globalizing media ecosystem, what are the students here, um, foregoing, um, if anything? What is it that you want to instill here that uh, might be or might have been compromised in some way due to this disruption? Uh, Alberto Ibarguen of the Knight Foundation talks about accelerating the media disruption and I asked him well what, what values do you want to enshrine and preserve forever? Um, thinking about the civic norms cultivated in a newspaper for instance…

WILSON: Right.

HEFFNER: What are you most troubled by when you see the absence of a certain kind of learning at, at, in this millennial generation?

WILSON: That’s a, a good question. Let me sort of back up and say that when I became Dean seven years ago or so, um, it was clear at that point that disruption was the name of the game. It was really changing the game. And the, the sort of mantra that I began to say was we either innovate or die.


WILSON: And I say this in part because the Annenberg School has great advantages. Uh, but the advantage of being large and well known is also a disadvantage because why should we change, we’re doing a pretty good job at what we’re doing. Uh, but my colleagues and I felt that precisely because we enjoyed this pretty good position, we could take risks. And so the idea of we either innovate or die, you know, was widely accepted in the school,


WILSON: And you know, one of those mantras that I eventually got rid of, we need to blow up the school. We need to blow up the silo. We need to get rid of the distinction between the radio studio over here and the television studio over here and online in yet another room. And this place where we’re now meeting, this studio where we’re now meeting, uh, is an expression of that. All of the work is done in one huge newsroom. Um, so that I think that we’re in the midst of change whether we like it or not.


WILSON: And we can try to resist it, we can put our heads under the sand, or we can say we want to lead the changes and not simply become victim of them.

HEFFNER: It seems to me amidst this massive aggregated model, it’s more urgent than ever to teach media literacy. And I think that very much weaves in with your emphasis on um, the digital divide.

WILSON: Exactly. Um, and this is something that does require work because literacy today is not the same as literacy was a generation or two ago. Um, but in the old literacy you knew, needed to know how to read but you also needed to know how to write and to interpret and criticize. In today’s world, you need to be able to view and criticize, but we also believe that everyone needs to be literate in the production of content.


WILSON: So we think everyone who’s digitally literate has to be able to write a blog and to know how to tweet and how to create content that can be distributed to their family, to their neighborhood, and all around the world. So this year, for the first time, this year for the first time, we’ve launched a new course that’s gonna be co-taught by a journalism professor and a communication professor on digital literacy. And we feel this is absolutely essential. The other thing that we’ve done, we spent three years traveling around the United States talking to more than one hundred media and other executives, and the question we asked them was when you hire people, what kind of skills do you need?


WILSON: Uh, we think we know, we’re professors after all, so we think we know something about what’s going on, but I felt it was essential to go and talk straight to our, we call them communities of practice. And they said we need five things. And if you can, we don’t have enough of them, he said we don’t, we have enough MBA students or graduates, we have enough engineers, but there’s this other set of skills that we don’t have and we’ll hire all of them if you can produce them. And some of these will sound familiar, things like um, adaptability is essential, uh, originality and um, intellectual curiosity is another. Cultural competence, to be able to travel around the world, travel around increasingly diverse United States and understand what’s happening. Three hundred and sixty degree thinking was another element. And what I find very exciting about this is that our narrative is we didn’t know some of these things, we went to ask our colleagues what they needed, we came back to the Annenberg School and we’re now teaching those competencies.

HEFFNER: Hm. Harking back to your, your lecture, uh, what is it that you want from, whether it’s the government or NGOs in this country that will really allow an initiative like Third Space to ignite that energy from the largest swath of the population?

WILSON: Great question, I think it’s um, there’s no magic bullet, there’s no magic solution that’s gonna resolve this. I think there’s a tremendous responsibility on the part of those communities themselves, on the part of, of African-Americans and Hispanics and, and Asian-Americans to demand, uh, that they be allowed to articulate and distribute that content. You know, we have an obligation, I come from a generation that grew up under segregation. And I just recently saw the film Selma as many of, of us have, uh, and I was reminded that power concedes nothing without a struggle. And so I think it is very important for people of color and women and other oppressed minorities or people who want to change the world for the better to be engaged in the issue. And today that means being very savvy about how the media operates. So the first responsibility I think is for those people who want to have their voices listened to.

Um, I think also that the government can play a role, uh, the Federal Communications Commission as you mentioned earlier Alex is wrestling with this issue of Net Neutrality. Um, and the Federal Communications Commission has a role to play, not the main one but an important one.


WILSON: In addition, uh, I am pretty convinced now that the, uh, that the folks in Hollywood are beginning to get it, here’s an example. Um, the, the share of global entertainment is going like this, it’s going way up, Hollywood’s share of that is flat or increasing at the rate of inflation. Several years ago there were three or four movies that lost 250 million dollars apiece. That’s a lot of cash. And what that means therefore is I think the studios are beginning to say we need more creativity. We need more out of the box thinking.


WILSON: We need ideas that are gonna sell and attract people across multiple platforms. And so if they need that new talent, which they are admitting, they need to look in unconventional interesting places.


WILSON: Among women and among communities of people, of people of color and internationally, so I think that’s essential. Um, and even uh, and certainly universities, we have to keep raising them, that’s our responsibility as a Dean of a, of a great communication and journalism school, I have to work with my colleagues and we’re trying to introduce these into the curriculum as a requirement, not because it’s a sort of…


WILSON: Uh, a set aside or something, but to be smart in today’s environment, we’re told by the people who hire our students, they want diverse teams.

HEFFNER: Mm hm. Well that’s encouraging. I don’t want to get too inside baseball with you, Dean, but you were the leader of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We are here broadcasting on PBS member stations in New York and elsewhere, uh, there’s a lot of radical transformation occurring within the ranks of uh, public television and radio too, but I’m interested in your insight in these spectrum sales, uh, as part of the FCC’s ongoing effort to um, adapt to the uh, digital age, um, long-suffering member stations across the country are in the process now of uh, weighing whether or not they want to sell their spectrum. Are we putting public broadcasting at risk when these spectrums are being sold?

WILSON: Let me say something that I should have said earlier which I think is very important…


WILSON: Which is God bless Open Mind.


WILSON: Uh, and uh, you know, a blessing unto all public broadcasting, you know, whether television or radio and increasingly online. Because it is hugely important. Uh, the United States of America really underpays for these wonderful assets and content that we could, that we’re doing a lot with already, that we’ve done a lot with traditionally and that we could do more with.

HEFFNER: Well thank you for saying that, sixty years next year. [LAUGHS]

WILSON: That’s, that’s great and it’s been worth every year. Um, and I feel very strongly about this, having served on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting board for ten years, the CPB is chartered because I don’t want to make too much inside baseball, uh, there’s public radio side and the public television side and then over them, distributing the money that Congress provides is uh, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, kind of as a shield between Congress on the one hand and the producing stations and distributing stations on the other. So it’s a really important question because public broadcasting is in the public interest. Um, and as we get more consolidation of the media, fewer and fewer owners, uh, and we run the risk of the homogenization of content, then public broadcasting is more important.

Now here again I believe that public broadcasting could do a better job of reaching out to new audiences, uh, uh, over new platforms, this is something we tried at the um, at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting board where we wanted more, more uh, digital work and more diverse work and more distributed work.


WILSON: So I think there’s a real challenge for, on the radio side and especially on the television side where it’s more expensive to make sure that what we produce, someone wants to look at it. That it’s in the public interest, that it’s across multiple mobile platforms, that it represents multiple voices. Now because public broadcasting is really underfunded in many ways, um, they are seriously considering whether or not, or rather how to respond to the Federal Communications, uh, proposal that they sell part of their spectrum back into the market.

Now some of the stations that exist really don’t use a lot of that, that uh, that resource, that scarce resource which is spectrum. And so for them it’s not much of a loss because they wouldn’t be using that uh…

HEFFNER: Because they’re digitally operating now, because they’re, or they’ve merged with other stations.

WILSON: They’ve merged with other stations or uh, new compression technologies make it less necessary to have as much as they had before…


WILSON: Um, but it does represent I think kind of a risk that um, some public broadcasting station, that all public broadcasting stations have to decide, so the one way to think of it is do you get resources that in the short term you know you need, i.e. cash.


WILSON: By selling another asset, um, that you don’t think you will need as much in the future but you’re not certain. Uh…

HEFFNER: It must be somewhat coveted if the Dells and, and presumably others are after it.

WILSON: Right, exactly, and that’s partially because the rise of, of mobile platforms.

HEFFNER: Mobile, Wi-Fi,

WILSON: And cellphones, Wi-Fi hugely important. Um, and it’s a scarce resource but it is a resource that is controlled by the Feds. It’s a natural resource like land is a natural resource.


WILSON: And so sometimes people mistakenly say well this belongs to the, to the private companies or to PBS, it doesn’t, it belongs to the people. And the people through the Congress and then through the SEC set up the rules about how it should be distributed.

HEFFNER: So, so in terms of protecting that public trust, Dean, what’s your prescription?

WILSON: One of the things that’s very interesting, and I had the good fortune not only to go to New York City and uh, you know, California, San Francisco but we went to uh, Indian reservations, native peoples. We went to Alaska. And in some of these states, public broadcasting, public television, public radio are the only stations that produce local content. It’s really, really important for them. Now in other places like Los Angeles, we have four broadcasting stations just on the television side, and the situation isn’t quite the same. But in terms of producing non-commercial information in the public interest not driven by uh, uh, consumer sales, it’s essential for the preservation of democracy, so we had three, we call them the three Ds, which I talked about earlier.


WILSON: One is dialogue. The public broadcasting system needs to be much more in dialogue with local communities, with women’s groups, with all sorts of voices that have historically been excluded from broadcast, I mean let’s not think that there was a golden age of television or there was, but the golden age of television did not any, include people of color. Gold was the only color uh, and white folks, uh, that were on the screen. Um, so one is a dialogue with, with the voices that are now excluded.

Secondly is diversity. We want diverse voices introduced into the content. There in the marketplace, um, so that’s essential—and the third is digital. And so we need to find way sot combine dialogue, digital, and diversity in ways that can rejuvenate public broadcasting, and I think public broadcasting is up to the task.

HEFFNER: If we think about the rejuvenation of public broadcasting, do we want to put an emphasis, whether you think about it as a civic imperative or a moral imperative on the foundational principle here, educational programming.

WILSON: Uh, Alexander, as you know very well, uh, this was started as educational television.


WILSON: And then broadened to include public broadcasting, which included more, uh, greater variety beyond education. I think education is at the core but only in a very, it should be defined in a very broad way. Public educa—civic education is important, not just the three Rs but civic education. I would love to see more work on media education in public media. Uh, I think that PBS has a tremendous opportunity to help Americans to become more media-literate if you will…

HEFFNER: Well that’s certainly what we’re striving for here.

WILSON: And that’s, and that’s what you know, thank goodness you’re doing that, but even in a more technical way, uh, to reaching out to various, you know, not just the millennials but beyond um, to say here’s, here are ways that you can be uh, more literate, but this comes to the, the final point I want to make on, in this area. Having moved to LA from Washington D.C., which is one Monopoly town to another Monopoly town,


WILSON: Or sometimes I think one world of imagination to another world of imagination, um, it’s gotta be entertaining. Public broadcasting has got to be able to, and has to do what commercial broadcasting is doing, which is to create content that is compelling. It’s got to be compelling to attract young minds, especially with the millennial attitudes where their attention spans are relatively short. They want the message out front very quickly and we have to adjust to the realities of this new generation. So education yes, but education that is compelling and sometimes even entertaining.

HEFFNER: Finally, we’re running out of time, content too that does not portray the stereotypes of a generation of – whether it’s people of color or Native Americans, we’ve talked about this a little bit but we’re, we’re not there yet, are we?

WILSON: No. And let me just be blunt about that is that study after study after study at my school in the Annenberg School and others demonstrate very clearly that if you have mostly guys behind the camera making decisions on the, about production and distribution, then it will reflect a guy bias. This is not rocket science, it’s not a surprise. We have generations of information to show that. We also have tons of information that demonstrates that if you have women behind the camera, they are more likely to be inclusive. Similarly, with people of color. We know this is the case. And so part of what we’re trying to do is correct an imbalance. If we want diverse, interesting, new kinds of programming, we need to get diverse, interesting, new kinds of people, very straightforward. And that’s what we’re doing at the Annenberg School to help fill that white line and create the next generation.

HEFFNER: And quality too. And, and in terms of the normative…

WILSON: No but, you, you, if you, if you’re just monochromatic in today’s world,


WILSON: If you don’t have the representation of all aspects of society…


WILSON: It’s lower quality.


WILSON: So I think…

HEFFNER: Quantity and quality.

WILSON: Quantity and quality,

HEFFNER: And we’ll leave it on that note.

WILSON: And it’s a great, great opportunity I think for your great program and all of us are interested in, in good commercial content and good non-commercial content to be engaged in this great, uh, this great opportunity that we have before us.

HEFFNER: Thank you.

WILSON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Ernie Wilson, Dean here at USC Annenberg. And, and thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.