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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today we’re honored to welcome back our own PBS chief, Paula Kerger the distinguished president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service. Under Kerger’s leadership PBS has innovated amidst the disruptive media convergence of the modern era. Indeed, you may be watching this program or PBS’s in-house productions on your web platform, smartphone, Apple TV, Amazon Fire, digital cable operator, or over the air with good old rabbit ears.
It’s noteworthy that these are principally for-profit entities, and I do want Kerger to weigh in, help us understand how PBS fits into a more expansive public communications landscape. Kerger has been a champion of PBS public affairs in its unique imperative as a network whose news division is not beholden to advertisers, and the clickbait, ratings, and metrics that determine the nature of coverage elsewhere. And in this political season, when the press is criticized for a loop-to-loop reality show, a search for an entertainer-in-chief, that’s partially our agenda today with Paula.
PBS’s distinctive mandate for free expression, the necessity of an autonomous information leader, and how to instill values of civility into our culture. And I welcome you, Paula, the longest serving president and CEO of PBS.
KERGER: [LAUGHS] It’s wonderful to be here and it’s wonderful to be sitting in this chair again, across from you this time.
HEFFNER: Thank you. So, that was a mouthful.
KERGER: It was a mouthful. [LAUGHS]
KERGER: I’m exhausted listening to you. [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: But, but help us see PBS in this nonprofit, public communications landscape. Because when I speak to students around this country, I talk about PBS, and wanting young people to realize that whether it’s the browser you’re on, Firefox Mozilla, or the search engine, or the encyclopedia, Wikipedia, this is a public communications network. Where does PBS fall into that?
KERGER: Yeah. So you know, when we were founded, um, it was envisioned that there needed to be a place on the airwaves that was dedicated to education. In fact many of our licenses, when they were granted, were granted for the express purpose of educational television. In fact WNET, the E in that, in those call letters, uh, is is, significant. In fact the legal name of the company is Educational Broadcasting Corporation.
So um, I, you know, flash forward and now we’re awash in channels and opportunities, but the core of being able to use our ability to connect to the public using whatever media platform the public gravitates towards, is still focused on that core principal of educational content. Quality content. We hope what we do is entertaining, but we aspire to do something a little larger, which is to also create content that is educational, inspirational.
And so that’s the place that we continue to occupy. So as you put it in, in all of those words that they, at the onset, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re watching broadcast television, which a lot of people still do, or watching through cable or watching through satellite, or watching on an array of platforms. The significance is the content that we’re delivering. We just want to meet people where they are. Which is why we’ve been so interested in having our content available in all those different spaces.
HEFFNER: And define your approach. Clearly a civic education.
HEFFNER: An outlier, but how do you make that the pervasive culture in which public affairs operates?
KERGER: Well I think that, you know, look, we were created um with the recognition that there was market failure, that there was a whole range of conversation that was not happening, particularly in the public affairs space that public television um, could address.
And so I think the, the key thing to understand is that we are in fact, um, continuing to provide that service. And in fact as you watch this election season, which you also referenced in your opening comment, where, I think a lot of people have confused news and entertainment, we very clearly understand we’re in the news business.
We also understand the difference between news and point of view. And uh, we, we look very carefully at trying to create the opportunities for discussion about the issues, not about the race as a race. We also um are very focused on creating opportunities for, um conversation. I always say, uh, light not heat.
And I think that’s the other thing that’s missing, this ability to um, we may have different opinions about an issue, but to be able to come together and have a conversation. We may not change the other’s perspective, but at least understanding where people are coming from, I think is, is the important piece of, of what our democracy is based on.
HEFFNER: Do you think that we need to be more activist in demanding from our contemporaries that same responsibility of civic education on the airwaves?
KERGER: Well look, I, I think, um—
HEFFNER: And I say this in the climate of, and I wanted to ask you bluntly, are, are we in jeopardy of—someone said to me, if President Trump exists, it’s gonna be Trump on channel one, Trump on channel two, on Channel Thirteen, on wherever your public station is. Is, are we in jeopardy of losing public service media?
KERGER: Now I think the, the, the real question about um our place in and us versus all the commercial broadcasters, ’cause I think that’s the question you’re asking. I was just at our annual meeting. And the great Newton Minow, um was, uh recognized at that meeting. And of course he’s well known for a speech where he referred to television as a vast wasteland.
The part of that speech uh that actually was the, was the, the focus of the speech, which he thought was the more important message, was about pup—the public service obligation of broadcasters. And so I don’t want to speak for commercial broadcasters in terms of their own obligation. I can speak for us. And I believe very firmly that we have an obligation uh to try to um, help and inform citizenry of which our democracy is based.
And you accomplish that by uh, a relentless focus on facts and information, and really creating the platform so that we can bring together various viewpoints and perspectives. And that’s what we attempt to do each and every day in the work that we take up um in the news, but also the work that we take up across our broadcast schedule. Is to have the kinds of programs that enable people to make thoughtful decisions.
And so I do think that um, um, you know when you look at public broadcasting, and the role that we play, the one thing that I think people aren’t always uh aware of, is they think of their, you know, lovely public broadcasting stations in their communities. We’re the fifth most watched, of all broadcasters.
So of the hundreds of channels, uh, we’re fifth most watched. And I think that we are in that position because people are looking for information and fact and civic discourse. And so if we continue to uphold that obligation then I think we will have done a great deal in fulfilling our mission, and our commitment, and our compact with the American public.
HEFFNER: And what about that fact-based future in what can be kind of a, uh, a fact-less internet um at times? How, how do you think we can deliver those same eyeballs on the web when clickbait is really the force that is governing what trends online?
KERGER: Well, look, people uh, people watched 5.1 billion videos on PBS platforms last year. So I think that as we focus on, um, ensuring that people understand how to evaluate the content they’re seeing and to look for the authenticity of that, something that carries the PBS brand I think is very important. Because I think what we’ve tried to convey to the public, and clearly they understand, is that the same quality of the programs that we put on our air translates into what we put on the web.
And so, whether it is the programs that we’re streaming on those platforms, or whether it’s new initiatives like PBS Digital Studios, which is uh our work in the YouTube space. There is a, um, a commitment to the integrity of that content uh that’s important.
I uh you know, we are very involved in the classroom. We always have been. So we have a very large audience of um of citizens under the age of five. And uh, but we also have a lot of content that is used in classroom. And um, and we spend um, uh, effort not just in bringing the science programming and the histories and so forth, but also helping teachers um, navigate through media literacy.
And I think that’s a piece of what you’re talking about. What this whole swirl of information, if we can do a better job of making sure that people do understand how to evaluate the integrity and the authenticity and the truth in what they’re reading, I think that’s part of what a mission, uh, should be for a public broadcaster.
HEFFNER: I think one of the areas in which that mission mobilizes young people is finding your roots.
HEFFNER: When you can actually take a swab of DNA as a young person, and find your link in this great American canvas, this heritage that we share… I see that Gates documentary and I wish every student could do that in his or her classroom.
KERGER: One of the things that we have found with that series, which is really popular with a large viewing audience, but is particularly popular with young people, is um, is both the DNA but also helping kids think about the fact that they are part of history.
And so history is not—this was the brilliance of Hamilton by the way. It’s not that history is sort of this dusty thing that you have to study in school and it has no relevance to uh our life, but we are all part of history. We all have our personal histories. And, so the combination of looking at genealogy as much as you’re able to decipher that, as well as the, the DNA which then links back further. Um really gives kids, uh, an opportunity to think very differently about their own place.
And so um, the, we just, again at our meeting last week, we had a class from Brooklyn that had come in, that were very taken with not only the finding your roots, but they were especially taken with Dr. Gates’ series, um, um, African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. And um. And and found that that documentary just really helped to open up their minds about our own history.
And really got them to question a lot of things that they’re seeing in the news today. And so I think the more that we’re able to help link kids to history through our video storytelling, whether it’s documentaries like Many Rivers to Cross or whether it’s um projects like um Finding Your Roots.
Um, it’s, it’s really a way to just bring history home. And, and help people develop an appreciation for the fact that if you understand your past you can help manage and navigate through our future.
HEFFNER: That’s the Twain idea—
HEFFNER: Embodied in what you said about Newt Minow, who’s a mentor, he was on the show both with my grandfather and me, as you are now. And spoke at length about the vast common good as opposed to the vast wasteland—
HEFFNER: –and the opportunity there and—
HEFFNER: When you were speaking to our contemporaries, um, in Chicago, what insight did you most carry forward into this is how we have to construct this future of civic oriented media?
KERGER: So um, the meeting was, um, was an interesting one because I would almost put it into two pieces. So we had two um individuals, both, by the way, who are 93 years old. One was Newt Minow and the other was Norman Lear, ’cause we have a upcoming American Master’s biography on Norman Lear.
And both of them were um certainly true pioneers in thinking about the potential of television, not just as a device for entertainment, but also to open up conversation about uh, who we are.
And um and so, I think that um, certainly our colleagues in public broadcasting really understood very clearly that we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Your grandfather was another one. You know, these are people that in the early days of television really continued to push the envelope and look for that broader purpose. And we linked that to um uh a real deep dive looking at issues around education and the growing um inequality in this country, and ways that public media can play a role in giving all people access to information, as well as the very specific role that we play in this whole civic discourse that we’ve been talking about.
So, I think that when you listen to someone like a Newton Minow talk about that public service obligation. And of course he was inspired um and coined the phrase “vast wasteland” when there were four channels. And it’s, as he said to me once, it’s gotten even vaster, uh this, um this desert. Uh but there are um shining examples of of really great work that happens in television, and not just on public television, by the way. I think uh there, we are in this really interesting period of great television, particularly in drama. You know, you see amazing drama uh that’s being created on television and actually more so than in the motion picture industry.
Um, so it’s not that we as an industry get it all wrong. I think we get a lot of stuff right. But I think there is a different obligation for the public broadcaster to continually look for ways to serve the public good in a, in a deeper way than our commercial brethren.
HEFFNER: As that wasteland becomes vaster, and it may be the vastest wasteland that we’ve ever seen as an American society, or a civilization, you’re, you’re not worried that, if a more autocratic government took over, there would be a denial of your, of the public imperative, the public airwaves, and that you and I and our jobs would be in jeopardy here?
KERGER: Look. I, I think the thing that you have to remember about public television is that—a few things. One is, and I think most people think we’re like the networks, we’re just the nonprofit version of the networks, and we’re not. We were created, uh, PBS, by stations. So we’re the reverse of the network models. So across this country there are 179 separate licensees that were created by the communities in which those stations operate. I spend a lot of time on the road. I visual—visit a lot of stations and, and am in communities where the public station is the last remaining locally owned and operated broadcaster in those communities.
Communities treasure their public stations and it’s individual philanthropy in those communities that actually makes public television work. We get about 15% that’s one-five percent, of our funding, in aggregate, from the federal government. That actually goes to our stations, not to me, and um, and that really enables public broadcasting to be seen in communities that may not have the economic means to sustain it. States like Alaska for example, where 50% of the funding to maintain that infrastructure comes from the federal government.
But I think that um, when I talk about public broadcasting, it is that bond with the public and the trust the public places in us that has enabled us to be strong. And I think regardless of what happens in Washington will continue to enable us to be a strong organization.
If you look at our history we’ve received bipartisan support over the years. Barry Goldwater was the person that made Sesame Street possible and people are surprised when they hear that. So there’s, I, I think that there has been this—and I would argue we’re the best public/private investment that the government has made.
HEFFNER: So just for our viewers to understand, it is that independence of individual stations and the bonds that they have with local constituencies that you think is our firewall in essence.
KERGER: It is.
HEFFNER: That would preclude any higher power, if you will, from usurping control.
KERGER: It is. Because that is how we’re organized. And so I think that we are, you know people often talk to me about some of the great public broadcasters in other countries, like the BBC for example, um NHK in Japan. Those are, are largely funded by you know, taxes on television sets. It’s a very different system. Uh the, the fact is that while um, you know every year we have to make the case to the public that we are valued and of worthy of support, and I think, you know, there are millions of people around the country that support their public television stations and that is in fact what makes us anchored in communities. It keeps us really honest, because if you violate that trust, people will um, no longer support you.
So I think it does keep us very anchored and it is in fact our our strength. And, and I think it also is what makes us, of a uniquely American institution.
HEFFNER: We had lunch and you told me a a story that, um, that was indicative of that tension between local and national, and the passion with which public broadcasters and their supporters feel around… this should be focused on the community, this should be focused on national public affairs. This should be more activist in terms of the way that we’re directing the coverage of news and information.
Do you think fundamentally though there’s a consensus that PBS ought to be the Wikipedia of the future, in essence that foundation of knowledge that everyone ultimately finds to be instructive, informative, and, you know, the basis of education?
KERGER: Yeah. I think… I think that…
HEFFNER: Are we going to drive this to have a… Because Wikipedia is among the most trafficked websites.
HEFFNER: Third or fourth, and I think PBS dot org can get there.
HEFFNER: I really do, and I wonder if you share that sentiment.
KERGER: Well, I think, um, there are a couple questions that are embedded in what you’ve just asked. I mean, I think that what also defines us is the fact that, collectively, collectively, we create all this great national content. So, the… All of our stations are in fact investors and owners in how that has been built, and, um, and so, like any other organization that has national and local, we always have a lot of discussions of, you know, of how do you weigh what is done absolutely local and what we do collectively, and, and we spend a lot of time really wrestling through, you know, those questions, and the answer is an “and” not an “or”.
So, um, you know, what we’re always thinking about when we do something nationally is also, is there something that can spin off of that that can also be done at the local level that drives more engagement and more conversation and more opportunity.
I think the question about Wikipedia is an interesting one. Someone said to me once, you know, I wonder if, um, public broadcasting should’ve invented Wikipedia, and it’s, it’s an interesting idea, because I think that so much of what we’ve attempted to do on an ongoing basis is informative content, but also when you consider the archive of all the material and everything that’s been done—think about the archive of just this show and all of the people that have appeared around this table, with you and, and before that, with your grandfather.
It’s, it’s great conversation, it is important conversation, and so figuring out how to look at all that material and make it accessible, in essence like a Wikipedia, I think is a, is a big and powerful idea, and, uh, we’ve begun to chip away at looking at how we can give people access to some of the, of the material that does sit in shelves and in, and, um, uh, storage facilities of our stations across the country.
HEFFNER: I… When I had Dan Cohen here, director of the Digital Public Library of America and before that John Palfrey, who was his predecessor, there, there was a question about why there has not been a transformation of Wikipedia into the next phase that is video or visual based.
HEFFNER: And I think there’s a lot of potential for PBS, through the archives and the power of those…
HEFFNER: To … to be that.
HEFFNER: I mean, whether… Because, whether it’s BuzzFeed or PBS, video is the future, and it has been.
KERGER: Right. Right. And that’s why our… That’s why our audiences have grown, is because it’s all people looking for video and so I think the, the real, um, challenge for us is to figure out both how to uncover the material and also how to, um, organize it in a way that people can find what they are looking for.
We have created that for the classroom. We built something called Learning Media, of which we have all of these video and digitized assets that teachers can access, and the video is organized in small segments, and by the way, it’s not just us.
So, in some ways, it’s the idea that you’re suggesting, this whole Wikipedia of knowledge. Uh, we work in partnership with Smithsonian and, and Library of Congress and National Archives, because I think for many organizations, they sit on a lot of content they, they know would be of use and value in the classroom, but they can’t navigate that last mile so that they can make it easy for teachers to be able to find content and to lift it down.
And so, we’ve created that platform and that pipe, in order to do that, and so, I think that there is, perhaps, a bigger idea, beyond what we’re doing for the classroom, where we can make more content available to the general public.
HEFFNER: Let, let me ask you this to conclude, and I know this has gone by like a whirlwind. Um, how do spectrum sales impact the digital divide to which you allude and the concern that access to information, over the air and digitally, through these spectrum sales…
HEFFNER: Could be somehow compromised?
KERGER: So, um, right now, we’ve in the midst of the auction. So, it’s, we’re in the quiet period, and I can’t s… I can’t speculate. I don’t have knowledge about who may or may not participate in the spectrum auction.
What I am concerned about, uh, and what I, what I do know, I should say, is that at the end of the auction, we will look different. The, the broadcast landscape will look different for sure. There may be stations that are no longer on the air.
KERGER: And so, I think that, from my perspective, I worry a lot about making sure that over the air broadcast is robust and accessible. There are a lot of people, and one would argue, people that need public broadcasting more than anyone else, that rely on over the air television: people that live in parts of the country where, uh, over the air television is the way to receive signal and, or that live in homes where the economics are such that, you know, cable is just, uh, a bill or a luxury that one can’t afford.
So, I think that, um, maintaining and making sure that over the air television coverage is, is there is really important. Um, I, I sometimes feel like we live in this schizophrenic existence because we are very anchored in what has been the root way that people have received our content over the air, at the same that we’ve made sure we’re on all these other platforms so that we’ve created choice and convenience for people, that they can access content wherever they want to, to access it, and I want to make sure that when we get on the other side of this, we haven’t created a deeper divide, if in fact people are no longer able to access content that they once did over the air.
HEFFNER: And are there strong schools of thought about whether or not stations should participate in the auction?
KERGER: Well, I think that, um, some stations have, um, I know have explored the possibility of, of sharing some of their broadcast spectrum with others so that they can partially participate. So, I think that, you know, every station has to evaluate the, you know, the pros and cons of whether having more resources to do more locally, um, uh, weighed against having a little less capacity for the over the air.
They can’t get completely out of the over the air business, or they’re no longer a public station, and so I think that – you know – some balance of that. Where there is a real issue, though, is that some of our stations are owned by universities, and so if that station goes away and there is no public broadcaster, that is a problem.
HEFFNER: May I just gently suggest to those PBS stations watching… [LAUGHS] And to their viewers, that the buyout, if you will, the payoff, the payoff to the stations that are selling the spectrum, the revenue there be devoted to curbing the digital divide and ensuring that the resources are being devoted to ways to engage people via digital…
HEFFNER: That’s the future.
KERGER: Well, I think that most of the stations that are considering participating, obviously they are very focused on making sure they’re reaching the public. Um, the only part of this that gives me pause is, as I said, there are some, uh, parents that are not media organizations. They may be universities, they may be states, they may be other entities that may not have the same focus on providing media, and those are the places where I think we just have to watch and, and figure out how we can mitigate, if in fact the reality comes that they’re out of the television business.
HEFFNER: But this is not a grave, uh, conversation. This is, frankly, an uplifting conversation.
KERGER: Oh, I think this is a great time for public media.
KERGER: We have all this potential to reach people and, and, uh, and I think we’re needed now more than ever.
HEFFNER: Paula, pleasure being with you today.
KERGER: Great to be with you, Alexander.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you, in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV, for updates on future programming.