Before Paula Kerger became the president and CEO of PBS in 2006 she worked at the PBS station WNET in New York for 13 years. She has a specific story from her time there that she loves to tell, about visiting a soup kitchen where she was approached by an unfamiliar man who kept saying, “I can’t believe you’re here.” The man had recognized her from her work on WNET. He went on to say that he had been much better off previously, but that he had some “challenges in [his] life” that lead him to the soup kitchen. He thanked Kerger for her work and said that she was “A window into the world I once had . . . you keep me connected to things that really matter.” For Kerger, this is the power of public broadcasting.
Kerger’s talk on Tuesday night in the SUB was a joint effort between Montana PBS and the MSU Leadership Institute as part of a series of lectures supported by Montana media pioneer Joe Sample. The event was also in celebration of Montana PBS’s 30th anniversary on air.
Kerger began by quoting former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow’s description of “the television landscape as a vast wasteland.” She sees the work of PBS today as an “oasis . . . where television can entertain, inform and inspire.” She emphasized the role of each PBS station in supporting communities. She believes that the educational aspect of PBS is one of the best ways to accomplish this.
“In large part the success of our country of tomorrow depends on how we equip our youngest citizens,” Kerger said. She believes that educational programing can be an effective way to supplement the learning of children. Traditionally, the educational programs on PBS like the universally-known Sesame Street focused on basic literary skills, but today they have shifted to focus on math skills. They also focus on “the need to give kids the social and emotional skills needed to succeed in school.” In this way she hopes that PBS’ programs for children will help them to be better prepared for the future.
Kerger also spoke about reaching out to new digital platforms. Initially, PBS saw the internet as just another way to draw attention to their already-produced television media. Today they see the internet as a way to not only reach new demographics but create unique and powerful media. “We re-thought our strategy and put in place a new culture, starting with web-only content,” Kerger explained. In 2012 PBS created a digital studio that puts out unique web content ever since. Kerger says that PBS will continue to explore new platforms and ways for the audience to connect to digital media that shares “the same DNA” as traditional PBS programs.
Finally, Kerger discussed the role of the community in both supporting and being empowered by PBS. Kerger believes that it is important to have media institutions that are publically owned and controlled. She also thinks that Montana PBS has done a great job of putting out content that “really resonates here locally but also, I think, could have meaning nationwide.” Montana PBS was also praised for being a platform for civic engagement through their coverage of local elections and how it is the only television outlet in the state that is producing long-form investigative journalism documentaries.
Overall, Kerger described an evolving PBS. She wants to create an institution that extends to every American while maintaining the quality of programming for which PBS is known. Toward the end of the talk, the subject shifted from change and innovation to the core values of PBS: “No matter how much our platforms evolve the one thing that will always stay the same is our singular mission to create content that educates, informs and inspires,” Kerger said.