Once again, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger has to justify the 50-year-old institution of public media. Last month, the Trump administration proposed for the third year in a row the elimination of the Corportation for Public Broadcasting, the “quasi-governmental” organization that distributes federal money to more than 300 PBS stations across the country.
“I don’t understand why we’re a political pawn,” Kerger said on the latest episode of Recode Decode. “And it’s frustrating, because I will tell you, Kara, the amount of time and energy that goes into this every year to have to make this case is time that gets pulled away from other things.”
On the new podcast, she explained why eliminating federal funding for PBS would not hurt all stations equally. Some in urban centers like New York and Washington, DC, might be able to get by with the money they get from other sources, including corporate underwriters and individual donations. But the threat is a more “existential” threat for stations in rural areas that “are not going to make it ... unless there is some federal support.”
Kerger recalled a story from 13 years ago, early in her tenure running PBS. During a visit to Nebraska Educational Television, she was greeted by a farmer who said he drove three hours to attend a reception for her at the NET offices in Lincoln.
“He said, ‘I came because I need to tell you something. You cannot screw this up,’” Kerger said. “‘I am raising my children on the farm I grew up on. And I worry a lot that my children are going to have disadvantages because we’re in a remote part of Nebraska. But you’re in our lives and you make the difference to my kids. And if you mess this up, you are putting my kids at risk. And I just want you to remember that.’ And I think about that guy every day.”
You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Paula.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as the new host of the Antiques Roadshow spin-off where we appraise the value of old internet memes, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of PBS. She’s been in that role for more than 13 years, but recently, PBS has been in the news a lot more than usual. We’re recording this in mid-March, shortly after President Trump proposed a federal budget that would close down the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
So, we’ll want to talk about that and more. Paula, welcome to Recode Decode.
Paula Kerger: Thank you, Kara. Pleasure to be here.
You’ve been there 13 years.
I’m the longest-standing president in PBS history.
How was that?
I think I’m actually one of the longest-serving media executives right now.
Right. They’re dropping like flies. Plepler’s gone.
Yeah. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or bad thing, but I’m still here.
So why don’t we talk about how you got here? I like to get people’s history. And then, I do want to talk about where we are with these budget cuts, which has been a feature of life for you for many years, I’m guessing. So, let’s talk about how you got to run PBS.
Well, it all began in a small town outside of Baltimore ... Actually, when I was in college I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I’m really interested in science. Then I flunked organic chemistry.
Yes. That’s a key one.
Yep. That’s the great separator, I’ve come to find. And then, I took a lot of humanities classes because I was just interested and thought I would never be gainfully employed and would never be able to leave home. And so, I got a business degree with no real fix on what I was going to do with it. Graduated from school, started looking for jobs in the want ads, which is where you looked at the time.
Yep. I remember this.
And found a job working here in Washington for UNICEF.
And so, I started in the nonprofit sector and at one point in my career, I worked at the Met Opera — not in a singing capacity, believe me — but on the business side. And I got a call one day asking me if I’d consider going to WNET, which is the public television station in New York. I thought it would be an interesting gig for a few years.
I went there to actually help them put together an endowment and to raise some money. And I then became the station manager — crazy — and COO. I was in that job when I got tapped to do this.
And so what did you think? Where was PBS at this point? Often rides high during different things that were going on. What period of time was this for PBS?
So when I came to PBS 13 years ago, well, I remember my first speech. iTunes was announcing the sale of Desperate Housewives episodes for a $1.99. It just sounded like such a crazy thing. PBS itself had gone through some rocky years. Our stations are all independent and so they’re locally owned, locally operated, locally governed. I run in essence, a co-op. If you want a lesson humility from better-rated organization ...
I’ve worked in co-ops.
Try working in a San Francisco co-op. You learn a lot of things.
Well, I don’t know. I might give you a run for it. So, you have a lot of responsibility, but not a lot of absolute authority, and so, you end up doing a lot of work by a sense of common purpose. In the period that I’ve been at PBS, when I first came, we understood what our business was. We had broadcast towers, we reached a certain geographic area. We were on cable and satellite. We did all this great work for little kids and for adults and felt great about it.
And in these last 13 years, everything, well, everybody in media, has gone through the same thing, but for a public media system, again, this federated systems ...
Loose federation. Right.
There are stations, I’m sure there’s still a couple of general managers out there that think that we’re going to go back to those good old days when it was just a handful of stations and you have just to stand up to change the channel on your television set.
But being able to get everybody on the same page of, “We’ve got to really try to do things in different ways. And look guys, we’re going to do this together. We’re going to figure this out together.”
So, we’re not a network, we’re not navigating all of these new platforms. Just to put Ken Burns up. We want to get your local content there, too, but we’re going to have to do some things that are going to put people way out of their comfort zone.
And so, because I came from a station, even though it was New York, which doesn’t really count, that’s an island off the coast of the United States.
The biggest station, right?
But still, I’d come from within. And I went on the road and I’m still on a road trip. I’ve been to every state except Hawaii. How stupid is that?
How many PBS stations are there?
There’s 335 stations.
Yeah. Why haven’t you gone to Hawaii? Hawaii’s very pretty.
I’m going. I’m going at the end of June, as a matter of fact. I’ve been to Scranton three times, not to Hawaii once.
My family’s from Scranton.
I like Scranton.
I’m so sorry. I’m going there this weekend.
Three times. Three times I’ve been. They have a nice station there.
But the thing is, the way to understand this job is you spend time on the road. And in many of the communities I visit, we’re the last remaining local broadcaster. You know, there are television stations there, but they’re being controlled by someone far away. And a lot of times, even their weather is done by four states away.
And you see the consequence in print journalism when you don’t have reporters in a community covering a story.
And you see that play out in public ... So coming into this role, really working with our stations to help them see that if we really are willing to take some leaps together, we can do some interesting work.
Because they’re also in kind of the same bind that local TV stations or local newspapers have been in.
Which is the declining amount of, first of all, television watching or how people get things.
And then also the declining ability to fund those things.
Yeah. And so that’s where our funky business model sort of helps. I mean, a lot of media organizations are now trying to fund themselves in the way that we have, which is appealing to people, to give you money for something you actually could get for free.
I belong to an association of the public broadcasters globally, and when I first came into this job and I’d go to meetings, they look at me like that strange cousin because they’re all state-funded, for the most part. And here we’re begging people to give us money, or not begging.
No. You guys beg. You’re excellent beggars.
We’re asking people to invest. Well, maybe sometimes ... I have a tote bag for you. But we try to make the case of why it’s important and why we’re in it together. And the thing is that some things in the public interest have to be funded by the public.
And so now, it’s interesting because if you are following, as I know you are, what’s going on around the world, a lot of governments are now either getting out of the television business and our public broadcasting colleagues are and all like, “Ooh,” you know?
But, it is interesting as we think about all these platforms because our legacy broadcast business is growing, you know, as cord-cutters, cord-nevers are realizing you actually can watch television for free. And we were very early on in multicast. And so, we have a lot of channels that we offer up. And if you do that and you package it with some other digital media, you actually can have a pretty rich media experience. You may not need all the cable channels.
Right. So how many PBS stations are there across ...?
335 across the entire country?
Across the entire country.
And they are funded right now by?
Depends on how they’re organized. So some of them, like my old station in New York or the station here in Washington, WETA, have their own boards. The lion’s share of their money comes from “viewers like you.” Thank you.
And then, they get some corporate money and then they get some government money, because you’re dying to ask me the government question.
I’ll get to government. I’m not dying.
I know. We’ll get there.
We’ll get there. How can we avoid it, Paula?
I’ll give you the backstory first and then you can ask me the deep questions. So, in aggregate, take all our stations, about 15 percent of their funding comes from the federal government, and the lion’s share of the federal appropriation actually goes directly to them. That was the whole idea when Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act and had this idea of this public-private partnership. What he was really thinking about was the fact that, a city like Washington, a city like New York City, like LA, some government funding would help.
But cities like Cookeville, Tennessee, or Juno, Alaska, are not going to make it in funding a media organization, a television station, unless there is some federal support. And so for those two stations that I happened to mention, it’s closer to 50 percent of their funding is government. So that’s existential. So if you asked me where’s the money comes from ...
And some of our stations are part of state governments. In the South, for example.
Till they get funding from it.
Our public television stations came together because the states thought this is a way of getting classroom education across the state. We’ll use television. And so, their state licensing, some of our stations are part of universities. So some of the infrastructure, a lot of public radio by the way, are part of universities. So, some of the infrastructure is funded by the university, but for the most part, you can pretty much say more than half of the money for every station comes more or less from the public.
From the public, in some fashion.
And most of it, small contributions, which has made us, I think, more secure during these funding issues, and it’s like a political campaign. If you have a lot of people that give you small ...
Sure. You were Beto before Beto.
We were Beto before Beto, baby. If you have a lot of people that give small contributions, they’re invested.
Right. And then they get in the practice of thinking of you like that. Like, not like a subscription service but by these donations.
Yeah. It’s like one of those things you do.
Yeah, exactly. So you preside over these and you’re trying to bring them all together, you’re saying, into the digital age. Talk a little bit more about that. Give me some of the things that were critical for you to try to do that.
So, a whole series of things. One is, we’ve tried to help them build their own infrastructure so they can be in the digital space. So to begin with, we have pbs.org, which in its earlier days was really one of the most visited .orgs, not only in the United States, but in the world because we were there early. It was mostly text. And then we evolved into a video and more stations utilize that.
We built the player that enables video to be carried and most stations use that, but then, all of that seems pretty straightforward. PBS App, being on places like Roku and Apple TV and so forth, and building those platforms. At first people were like, “Well, that means they’re not coming through our local station.”
Our local station, right.
So, we built the platforms so that if you have Roku or Apple TV and you wanted to watch your PBS app, you have to localize. Usually, you pick the station that is in the market you live, but look. I spent a lot of time in Maine and I’m interested in what’s going on in the state of Maine. I localize to Maine Public Broadcasting.
Right. From here, yeah.
So, what we’ve tried to build is to create an experience in the digital realm that looks like what you would experience if you were watching your station. It would be easier for us to just think about ...
Nationalize everything. As we make all of our deals just to create a national — you know, we’d been talking to some of the proverbial skinny bundles and they’re not so excited about all these local stations and we’re really trying to help them see, actually, there’s a lot of interest in local content and if we can figure out how to make it not as painful for you and do a lot of the backend work ...
Because they just prefer to have “the PBS.”
They just want a national feed, but they’re missing out on a lot of great stuff. I mean, I talked about ...
Right. And some of your shows are from those stations, mostly from the big ones, right?
Yeah. We’ve got great shows that come from small stations. Look, I talk about Cookeville. Cookeville is in Appalachia. They are the only television station in the community and they have an amazing cultural archive. They do a lot of work in bluegrass. And I mean, that stuff is fantastic. It’s not just of interest to Tennessee, and to be able to elevate that up so that it has access to a much larger audience around community of interest, not just physical community, I think it’s pretty powerful.
Right. So, you’re building a local app on a national level, is essentially what you’re trying to do? And so, obviously you have the website, you have the app. What other initiatives?
We’re on Apple. We’re on Amazon. We have channels there for some of our content, which for years we used to sell DVDs and now on the streaming business, part of our economic model is that we were distributing on Netflix.
We’ve been disturbing on Amazon. We have a little bit on Netflix, but they’re not as interested. They want originals or they want to own outright. And I can’t... I want to have stuff that’s available free, right? That’s what “public” means. And so for Amazon, for example, we have a drama channel, we have the Masterpiece channel, we have a kids channel, and we have a lifestyle channel we just launched.
And we do that. It’s helping us clear the rights for streaming that we can offer up for stations. We built a service for our station that is a library of content. So, if you’re a member of your local station, you can watch everything for free and broadcast. You can watch everything for free streaming for some period of time. If you want to see a larger library, if you are a member, then you have access to a streaming service.
We have built a whole scope of work on YouTube under the banner of digital studios. We’ve had about 2 billion streams, and we’re now teaching our stations how to do more effective work on YouTube. Anybody can think they know how to shoot work on YouTube.
Right. That’s beyond just putting up Antiques Roadshow on [YouTube].
Correct. And in fact, when we started it, the idea was not to take television producers and throw them onto the YouTube space, which I know some media companies did. We recognize that because look, the through-line through all our stuff is education. I mean, that’s why we were created. The “E” in a lot of station call letters, that’s what it stands for. And so, we’ve thought a lot about particularly ... How old are your kids?
They’re 16 and 13 now, but they watched a lot of PBS.
Yeah. When they were little, but not so much now probably.
Uh, you’d be surprised. Yeah. They watch some of it.
They might watch a little of the nature — good. Well-brought-up kids then.
Yeah. They watch it all on YouTube, though.
That’s where we went. So, there are a lot of people like the Greens that are doing great work. They do crash course and so forth. And they think of the medium differently than a television would.
Until they’re making it for that.
So, they’re making it for that platform. So that’s what we’re teaching our stations how to do. And I think one of the big sea changes is getting past this idea that being a producer on YouTube is not a first step to doing something on television.
It is an important platform in its own right. And every once in a while, we’ll do something on YouTube that might become a television series, but that should never be the intent. We did a kid’s television series called Word Girl and it started out as little shorts on YouTube and then became a series. But most of the stuff we’re doing ...
It’s just living there.
It’s Okay to Be Smart, a lot of science, it’s a perfect platform for all of that. And so, to get stations excited about the fact that, for a different price point, they can actually produce really great engaging content and that’s where all the kids are.
Right. Then you can make money from it, from some of the platforms.
For some of it, you can.
Absolutely. We’re here with Paula Kerger, she’s the president and CEO of PBS and we’re talking about their digital efforts, which I think are much more involved than people realize because people think of ... you know, NPR has gotten into podcasting, but slow.
Podcasting, in a deep way.
Deep way, but was slow originally, but it has a lot of stuff. And meanwhile, the public, the private sector, I guess, stuff like they make became big. How are you looking at all the stuff being made that is not unsimiliar to a lot of stuff on PBS? Like, you’d think some of the Netflix shows, for example, could have been PBS shows. I’m thinking Salt Fat [Acid Heat], that one.
Yeah. Some of them could be. And you know, it’s interesting.
How do you look at that? There’s so many content creators now and in documentaries and stuff like that.
This is not a time for the faint of heart and I think it would also be, you could easily be distracted by the fact that there’s a lot of people playing in a lot of space. But look at Netflix, for example. Netflix, a couple of years ago, was at all the festivals and it bought everything.
And then two years ago, I’ll use Sundance for example, bought nothing. And then this year is now back and buying and so forth. So I think it’s cyclical. It’s not that different than what happened on cable. So you have all these cable channels that cropped up ...
That’s a fair point, yeah.
That in their first incarnation were supposed to be PBS, but the commercial version. A&E, if you remember, it was arts and entertainment. Abbe Raven is a great person, but I don’t think she thinks she’s trying to do great art on A&E. She’s doing interesting and engaging programs, but it’s different. You could go down the line and look at a whole series of cable channels.
We’re watching it actually on a faster trajectory with Netflix and Amazon. There’s a wash of content there, but where are the priorities? They’re not in the same business as we are. We just happen to use the same tools. For us, it’s a really interesting balance of understanding our North Star of the kind of content that we produce, not being stuck in the mud and that we’re only doing the stuff that we did 30 years ago because that’s who we are.
What works. Right.
But also really paying attention to the fact that even with this wash of material out there, there’s a lot of stories that aren’t told, there are a lot of storytellers that don’t have profile, and we’re in every home. We are seen in every home across the country. For kids in particular, it’s huge.
I’ll tell you a story. A couple years ago, we launched PBS Kids as a channel. When our content came and initially talked to me about it, they said, “You know, look. We want to launch a broadcast channel.” I was like, “Oh, come on. You’ve got to be kidding. A broadcast channel?” They said, “No, no, no. There’s all these kids that are in homes that don’t have cable and that don’t have access to broadband. We think that it’s a big enough market.” We pushed on it because — do our stations actually have the capacity to take another broadcast channel?
A multichannel. Right.
A lot of them were multichanneling, but they were already filled up capacity-wise. I was convinced to do it. I will admit part of what convinced me is that we were also going to stream the channel. I thought, “Okay. I’ll agree. We’ll do the broadcast channel. I know that’ll reach kids that need us,” particularly kids that are in low-income homes or kids ...
That only have broadcast signals.
... or kids that may be in homes where English is not spoken. A lot of those are disproportionately broadcast-only homes. We will have done an important thing, and so forth. I was all on board with that, but I wasn’t ...
But at first you weren’t because of what the future is.
I wasn’t convinced that we were making a big bet on something that maybe would become of less importance as we move forward, but the reality is that the broadcast audience is big and is an important piece of how we’re distributing.
Here is a project we did just a few years ago, which is broadcast, which is as legacy a business as we can be in, and is streamed. Then through the streaming, we’ve been working on embedding games into the live streams so that kids can watch a live stream, pause, play the game. Then it becomes even more interactive. It just increases the educational value of the work.
I think that it’s a really great example of this just schizophrenic world that you have to live in, where you really have to pay attention, particularly for the core business. If our core business is to reach people and change lives, obviously we have the biggest possibility of impact with those who have less choices. The broadcast piece has to be a focus, but at the same time really thinking about how technology has evolved and figuring out how to push the envelope.
As there’s more and more digital access by everybody, by the way ... That has increased for everybody. Everyone’s got a phone. My kids watch everything on their phone, pretty much. They hardly turn on the television. Just to play games, actually. To play Fortnite or something like that. Do you have to have a broadcast element? Do you imagine that in your future to have or is it just the full accessibility because broadcast is what broadcast is? It’s signals.
Everybody has phones, but not everybody has access to broadband.
I’m a big advocate for broadband for a lot of reasons because I just think access is such an important ...
Oh, it’s critical. We’re like a third-world country.
The digital divide, which we just continue to talk about, doesn’t get bridged in the way that it needs to. It has such huge implications, both from a moral standpoint as well as an economic standpoint. There was that article in the Times, I think it was last year, that had that ... A great photograph of the two kids that were standing outside their school, trying to do their homework, tapping into the broadband from the school on their phones.
One of the things that we’ve done in the kids space is that we also are building games that parents can download, but kids don’t have to be online to play. We’re constantly thinking about ways that we can use capacity ...
On a lower ...
Yeah, but the other thing that I’ll say about broadcast is part of the work we do is broadcast as a media organization. The other thing that we do is that we use our spectrum for first alerts. People don’t know that, but we’re the backup redundancy for the first-alert system for the country. The reason that broadcast is important is because digital overloads. If you’ve ever been anywhere like New York after 9/11 or after a power outage, you know that you couldn’t call anyone because everything just melted down because of the demand. Being able to have a one-to-many infrastructure I think still matters.
Where does most of your viewing come from? Still broadcast by a large amount? I’m guessing lesser and lesser, right?
Well, we’re all watching the trajectory. I think with kids, it probably is going to cross within the next couple months, as a matter of fact.
Oh, wow. So streaming.
Streaming more than ... We build our streams for mobile. Mobile has obviously surpassed desktop as a way that I think ...
And these televisions.
I think over the top is really important. I used to say that people always gravitated towards the biggest screen at their discretion. It’s not the case anymore. You know it. You can sit in your living room or your bedroom with a TV set bolted to the wall, but you’re watching on a pad. The interesting thing about also the space that we’re in right now is so much is on demand, but I’ve always believed and now I’m starting to see articles of other people that believe the same thing I do, is it’s almost too much and that people really also look for curators.
We’ve had these endless conversations for years about does broadcast schedule even matter anymore? Actually it does, because there are a lot of people that really do rely on the fact that they can sit down and they go to a brand that they like. Not all brands are equal. I’m not sure that every brand has the same significance. I think ours does. People know what PBS is. They’ll turn to PBS and they’ll see something they like or don’t, but it’s easier to do that than to think, “Okay. What do I feel like watching tonight? Am I in the middle of that series? Do I want to ...”
I feel like that all the time.
I know, right?
I just turn on the TV and let it go.
You turn on the TV set.
It’s like, “What’s there?”
Yeah, but then I just have cable people screaming at each other and then I turn it off.
Yeah. Well, watch us. Watch us. Watch us.
I do watch PBS, all the time. When you’re thinking about the content itself, that’s the delivery systems. Obviously it’s going to be mobile. It’s going to be streaming. It’s probably going to be in lots of different devices and things like that, as you move forward. Have you made a big investment in VR and AR or anything like that?
Yes. I wouldn’t say big, but we are making investments in that. Probably the person in public broadcasting that’s doing the most interesting work in that is Raney Aronson, who is executive producer of Frontline. I think Frontline of all the series ... People always ask me this question, which they always think is a softball. “What’s your favorite program on public television?”
I don’t care.
They don’t realize that you pick one and you put everyone else in therapy, right? But it is the most important that we do. I think that I’m proud of the NewsHour, so I don’t want anyone at NewsHour thinking, “Why didn’t she mention the NewsHour?” The thing is that there’s so few people truly in the investigative journalism space.
Yes. 100 percent. I was just on your one about Facebook.
I saw that last night.
The power of the content itself is important, but for a very long time, they have thought about, how do you extend the reach of a broadcast event into something that actually is more deeply felt? They were very early on in probably more than any of our other producers in putting content online and then putting full interviews online.
Full interviews online. I think that’s great.
Then really keeping a resource and ... Look. For a long time now, people go online to look for stuff, but I used to get calls from congressional offices, think tanks, the White House and everything, looking for programs that have been on. To be able to have that collection and full interviews, she’s very interested in transparency.
Also, if you see something and you’re not quite sure the source of anything, you can go online and look. She’s begun to experiment more heavily with other platforms. VR is a place that she created some work out of a Syrian refugee camp. She, partnering with NOVA, has done some great things. Looking at the disappearance of glaciers. It’s the most empathetic of media.
It’s perfect for us because it’s purely an immersive experience, and you can be part of something and understand it in a very different way through VR.
100 percent. Everyone’s always down. I’m like, “No, this is going to be ...” I’ve spent a lot of time in the empathy labs at Stanford. All kinds of different things. Stuff that Laurene Jobs did around art and around immigration. It was the most moving ... It really is moving, if it’s done correctly. You could see it being badly used or used for entertainment purposes in ways that are icky.
Oddly enough, I was talking to ... I’m blanking on her name. She’s an actress, but she was going to do ... Not King Lear. She was going to do Shakespeare in VR and thought it would be great. It was amazing. There’s all kinds of cool ideas coming around. Educational ideas.
In part of my side life, I’m involved with the National Museum of Natural History, and I think that as a media platform, it’s huge. I think for museums, it’s huge, because if you think about things like helping people understand the impact that we’re having on the environment, to be able to put you immersed into an environment I think just creates a whole other ... It just creates a whole other experience.
Expensive right now.
Of course it’s expensive.
And the devices.
Yeah, but eventually the cost will come down. I think that perhaps games will drive some of it. I don’t know, but I think it’s a platform worth watching more than some others.
Then last thing in this section: Content. How much has it changed, the content? Obviously you’re known for Downton Abbey and the Masterpiece Theater stuff. Whatever. Of course, I make jokes about Antiques Roadshow, but it’s popular. It remains ...
Hugely, it’s our No. 1 show.
Yeah. Has content changed or shifted in mentality?
Yeah. Well, a couple things. One is look, we’ve been talking about different platforms and the length of programs. I love short film. Short film just has struggled forever because it’s broadcast. What do you do? You put a bunch of films together that may or may not connect. It’s always very unsatisfying. We started doing film festivals online. Of course they’re online.
Yeah. They’re offline.
Short film festivals online. The thing is, I think it’s a format in itself. I love short stories.
It’s a great use of online.
It’s beautifully done. It’s a great use, but I think beyond that ... Look, we want to continue to evolve the content that we’re doing, and we want to create ... One of the things that does make us different than anyone else is, Netflix isn’t local. Amazon’s not local. I don’t have $15 billion to spend on content. I never will.
No? You don’t?
We’ve never been over-funded. Shock to everyone. We’ve always had to think a little more creatively. We do a lot of stuff in partnerships. In full disclosure, we have a partnership with Vox with a film we’ve done with Marcus Samuelson called No Passports Required.
I think that part of what we’re looking at is building partnerships with other organizations. Not just the BBC around drama, but other types of media organizations.
You know, that British drama thing just always works. Doesn’t it?
I know. It’s beautiful, right?
Do you think there’s any era it’s not going to work in? We’re going to be on Mars and watching.
No, we’re going to be watching from Mars.
But something British. They’re going to be in outfits and they’ll be ...
It will be, and people will love it.
I think the other thing about content that we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is the fact that we are local. This past fall, we did a project called Great American Read. The whole idea was to try to identify ... Really, was to get people excited about reading and to talk about books. Books that are meaningful to you. It didn’t really matter what book was picked. It was just an organizing principle to get people excited. The thing is our local stations could do stuff around it. You had book groups and all this other kind of stuff.
It was a simple idea, but I think more things that we can do that really leverage the fact that we actually have local media organizations that actually can bring people together.
I think that’s an interesting way to think about how do you develop content around it. We have two projects that we’re thinking about for the future that would fit into that, that would really get people interested and excited about having local conversation. That’s the thing we’re missing in this country. Local conversation.
Interesting. Is there a length thing? You’re talking about shorter films, but that’s just because you want to show off your films. Do you have to change things? One of the things that I was talking about when Mic went belly up was, “Millennials don’t need different content.”
They don’t need “snackable” content. They might like some content that’s snackable, but it’s such a terrible word. It’s my least favorite word about content.
I’ll say two words: Ken Burns.
People always clutch a little bit when you have the next big Ken Burns. We have 16 hours of Country Music coming up this fall.
It’s going to be fantastic.
Do you know how much I love country music?
It is fantastic.
People are often surprised by that, but I do.
It is fantastic.
I cannot wait. You have no idea. I’m literally going to just park myself in front of the whole thing.
You should because it is ... He always says, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done,” but it might be. It’s just because the stories are so powerful.
Bluegrass. Everything. Yeah.
It’s all personal stories.
Is Dolly Parton in there?
Oh, yeah. Big time.
We need some Dolly.
We need some Dolly.
That’s great. You’re not necessarily thinking these changes, it doesn’t have to be twitchy or it doesn’t have to be slower or faster or ...
No, I don’t think so. The only place where I would say we have really thought a lot about different forms of content is with kids. I wouldn’t say twitchy or any of that stuff, but we do pay attention to what kids are watching because the thing with our kids’ content — you know this — is it’s all based on core curriculum. We’re focused principally on kids up to the age of 8. We work with experts that help us understand what are the things that kids need to know before they go into pre-K for the first time or any kind of formal pre-K because sometimes ...
Look, I go to communities where kids are like 5 before they actually enter a real school, or as young as 3. There’s skills that kids need to learn. There’s social/emotional skills. That’s what Fred Rogers knew how to deal with, emotions and all that stuff.
What are the most popular ... Ours was Tinky Winky. There were Wiggles involved and I think there was The Magic School Bus all the time.
Yeah. Those are all great.
Those are all yours, right?
The Wiggles are not ours.
Okay. Wherever they were. The Magic School Bus you had.
The No. 1 show for kids is Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
Which is the successor of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
For years, we have talked to Fred’s company about doing a new Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. There is no other Fred.
A woman, Angela Santomero, who was quite inspired by him, had interned with him, had gone on to do Blue’s Clues for Nickelodeon.
And she really spent time thinking about how could you reinvent Mr. Rogers. So she did it animated. She did a little live action, and Daniel Tiger is Daniel Stripe the tiger’s son. And it’s also social/emotional skills, everything from potty training to how to deal with anger. There are episodes that I’ve benefited from tremendously these last years. And it’s the No. 1 program, very heavily streamed, by the way.
Yeah. Interesting. And Sesame Street, that’s ...
And Sesame Street is celebrating its 50th anniversary, God bless it.
Did you say The Electric Company, or is that on ...
Electric Company is now gone ...
Sad, that was when I was younger, younger. Not young.
So, the recent budget. The federal budget that’s been proposed, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be the federal budget, I think that’s going to change rather dramatically, but it would close down the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Can you explain to people what that means so that people understand?
Yeah. I can also give you a civics lesson on how budgets become law.
Okay. “I’m just a bill.”
There was a children’s show ... That’s it. That’s it. So as you know, the budget belongs to Congress.
Conjunction Junction, it stays with me to this day.
And it should. And it should. So the president submits his budget recommendation and this year, as it has been for the last two years, the recommendation is zero funding for public broadcasting. And so where we start is ...
Explain CPB, just ...
And it’s a little more complicated, because we actually ... Our funding is put forward two years in advance. And that has been historically how we’ve been funded. The idea was ... It was actually two reasons why we were in the category of which ... there are very few organizations left in this category. One is to preserve against editorial influence. We do something that irritates some member of Congress and then they try to take all of our money away. So if you have that buffer ...
Which has happened.
If you have that buffer. And then the second was really anticipating the fact that our work is ... It takes a long time to produce work, and if you want to enter a project, you want an idea that you have the funding on the other end. So what he’s recommended, what the administration has recommended, is really eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is a quasi-governmental organization, which is actually how the federal money flows from treasury to our stations. And so it is an entity that takes in the federal appropriation. It makes sure that our stations are operating as they should, as nonprofit public broadcasting entities. And then it distributes them out based on a formula.
And so by zeroing the money flowing to it, it eliminates the organization because you don’t need an organization if you have no money to divvy up. And it would be an existential issue for probably a third of the stations in our country, largely in rural communities. And so what we ...
So that means no funding whatsoever to public ...
It means zero funding.
And right now the number is?
And right now the number that comes into public television, public radio is 445 million.
Small. $1.35 per person per year. Can’t even buy a cup of coffee in most communities for that.
That’s for both of them together.
That’s for both together.
That goes into the Corporation Public ...
Goes into the Corporation. One piece goes to radio, one piece goes to television. And so the thing that has, and I made reference to this a little while ago, the thing that I think has been very helpful for public broadcasting is that there are a lot of people around the country that really count on us.
It’s truly a gift actually, this job, is being able to visit communities. And I remember one of the very first stations I visited was Nebraska. And I was very focused when I first took the job on visiting parts of the country that I didn’t know as well, and particularly smaller communities. I wanted to understand how the public television stations worked, because although all the stations are similar, they’re different. Priorities are a little different, and I knew my station in New York, but I knew it was very different than our station in Peoria, or Nebraska Educational Television, which is a statewide network. So I went to Nebraska and they had a nice little reception for me.
And this guy came in, he was a farmer, and he had driven three hours to come to this reception. And he walked over and he looked me the eye and he shook my hand and he told me that he had driven three hours and he said, “I came because I need to tell you something. You cannot screw this up.” And I said, “Well, well,” doing my little Paula thing, and said, “Well, this is what we’re going to do and everything.”
He says, “No, no. I want you to hear my story. I am raising my children on the farm I grew up on. And I worry a lot that my children are going to have disadvantages because we’re in a remote part of Nebraska. But you’re in our lives and you make the difference to my kids. And if you mess this up, you are putting my kids at risk. And I just want you to remember that.” And I think about that guy every day.
Yeah. But the point is, you know one of our biggest advocates on Capitol Hill is Tom Cole from Oklahoma. He knows what we do. He also knows we do this other work, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about digital and all this stuff that we’re doing for the general audience population, we run a project called Learning Media. It is a broadband pipe into classrooms with educational assets. Now what does that mean? I don’t know if you remember this, remember when you were a kid and the teacher would want an hour off in the afternoon?
Yeah, they’d put on a movie.
And they’d find the kid from the AV club with a pocket protector and he’d go into the closet and he’d get the cart and he’d thread the film and we’d all watch it with our heads on our desks. But teachers today, really what they want to be able to do is use bits of content in the classroom. Kids are surrounded by media, and then they go into classrooms that a lot of times look like they did when you and I were in school.
And so creating ... So if you look at this legacy of all this great content that we use, and I was always impressed when I’d see a teacher that would buy a DVD and then figure out the right place in the DVD to play the ... You know. And so everything’s digitized and we can also take the content and break it up. So rather than having 16 hours or 18 hours of Vietnam from Ken Burns or the Civil War series, you can take the curriculum that teachers use in the classroom, because the other thing besides money that teachers don’t have is time, you can pull out the right clips so that they can ...
You know, most classes are now wired with broadband, so they can use it. So in addition to using our own stuff, there are a lot of organizations that have really great content: Smithsonian, National Archives, NASA. All of these organizations have really beautiful material and they always think, “Well, the teachers will come and they’ll find our stuff and they’ll ...” They’re not going to do it.
Right. Instead of pushing it out to ...
And so taking their stuff and doing for them what we do on broadcast.
And vetting it.
Which is taking other producers’ stuff and vetting it.
And vetting it properly.
And then putting it in the right context and putting it with lesson plans and offering it up is something really powerful. All of that is what the federal budget helps to fund.
Right. And so what happens now? Because this has happened before, right? They tried to zero out the ... I remember Jesse Helms was involved in something. I can’t remember.
So what happens now is actually really important. And when I really worry about, because I just was talking to someone this morning who said, “Are you really worried about this? Because you always go through this and it’s all going to be okay, right?” And I said, “Only if people reach out to the legislators and say, ‘This matters to me.’” Because the two things that legislators care about is they do care about their constituents ... Three things. I think that most people come to Washington wanting to do right. You might agree or disagree with what “right” means, but I think most people have a larger idea of what they think is good for their community.
So you assume that. The second thing is they care about their constituents. That’s who they’re representing.
They definitely do.
And they want to be reelected. And so if their constituents say, “This matters to me,” then chances are they’re not going to vote to wipe us out. But you know, look, I am very sympathetic. There are lots of things that could be funded. And we could very easily fall off the table like the NEA and the NEH and all these other wonderful organizations ...
That’s what I was thinking. I wrote about those at the Washington Post.
… if people don’t step up and say, “This matters.” And I think that’s the important thing.
So the argument would be, you’d raise your own money.
Yeah, so the argument is, yeah, go raise your own money. And then they point to “Oh, the commercial market will pick it up.” And I always say, “Oh really?” That works maybe in the short term for a project or two, but on a sustained basis, who’s there? And go to all the communities I’m visiting where ...
... the only remaining reporters there are television and radio reporters. And I think it really matters in this society.
Have you gotten pulled into the political fight, like whether you’re liberal or ... It does, right? Radio more than ...
Probably a little bit radio more, but look, I’ve talked to enough people who say, “Well you know, you’re awfully liberal.” And I said, “Well, just point to me what that is. Tell me what that is, because if liberal means that we really work hard to try to have lots of different perspectives, then I don’t think so.” And when you talk to most people, they don’t see it.
So I don’t understand why we’re a political pawn. And it’s frustrating, because I will tell you, Kara, the amount of time and energy that goes into this every year to have to make this case is time that gets pulled away from other things.
Yeah, PBS is not particularly ... I can’t think of ... What was the most controversial show for you all?
Well, if you look back, I mean, people will take exception with Frontline. They’ll point at documentaries that we’ve done. There were some hearings, I think it must have been last year’s go-round where people were looking at some of the independent film. We do a lot of independent film, more than some of the stations that get recognized as being “the home of independent film.” We’ve always been. And if you show different people’s perspectives, that makes people uncomfortable sometimes.
That’s the most liberal we get.
Most of the tentpoles are pretty down the line. But not political.
Yeah, but you know, I don’t know. I mean, look, we live in this weird time and I loved Gwen Ifill.
I knew her well.
She was, in addition to a fantastic colleague, a great friend. And she used to always say, “Look, our role is to bring light, not heat.” And some people aren’t comfortable with light.
Yeah. Absolutely. So how do you imagine it’s going to ... You guys are lobbying your ... You’re using social media and other ways to do that.
We are using Protect My Public, if you’re listening and you want to be part of a movement, go to Protect My Public and you can be part of it. You don’t even have to do that. Just call or email your legislator.
Do you happen to know the reason why ... Is this just the Republicans do this all the time, or is just this particular administration?
You know, we’ve been in this situation before.
Situation many times.
So I just think it’s just ... If I understood what fired it, I just don’t know. But it is what it is. And so all we can do ... And look, we have ... Barry Goldwater, for Pete’s sake, was a huge fan of public broadcasting. We have great conservatives.
Barry Goldwater, for Pete’s sake!
Barry Goldwater, for Pete’s sake.
So you know, he was very close to Joan Cooney, who founded Sesame Workshop. There’s a wonderful video of Fred Rogers on Capitol Hill talking about what he was attempting to do with his series, and I think if people really understand what we were doing, then they would say, “You know, maybe we should give you more money, not less.” But anyway.
Right. Right. Right. And so if you had to pick PBS in 20 years, how would you look at that? What would you think it is?
I think in 20 years ... You know, it’s interesting. We do a strategic plan that we build on a three-year basis. Because for me, it’s always hard to ... I just look back three years ago, not to mention 13 years ago, when I started and how much shifts.
But I would hope a few things. One is that the principles around our content are intact. I think that’s our guide star. I mean, we want to do important stories that are authentic and that make a difference in people’s lives. And I would hope that PBS 20 years from now would not trade on that. I would also hope that as media continues to evolve that PBS continues to be innovative. I mean, people don’t know that we created closed captioning, that we were the first big media organization to use satellite broadcast.
Tech. We’ve been ahead of the curve every step of the way.
Both of those things are tech.
And so I think we need to be 20 years from now as innovative as we can be. I work with a lot of creative people that are all in the tech space. And we can’t be afraid to be bold and to move into that space as much as possible. And my goal, before I hang up my skates, whenever that is, is I would love to see us with more funding so that we’re not lurching from year to year trying to figure out how to knit things together.
So you need an internet billionaire.
Yeah, I need an internet billionaire.
I know a lot of them.
So if you’re listening you could ...
How many billions do you need?
I would take ... Even one would make a big difference, because I think as a lot of people are worried about the future of journalism and are investing in a lot of great organizations ... I’ve been looking at things like Report for America and others. But we’re here and we have an infrastructure and we are hugely trusted. So this is a place where you can make a big impact.
I hear Facebook’s giving away money out of guilt, out of sheer guilt for ruining the entire ...
Anybody wants to write a check, I’m here to talk to you. Just call me.
You’ll take their money. I got some ideas for you, Paula. I know some people and I can irritate them into giving you money. I’m always trying to take their money as much as possible, make them feel bad about it so they feel good.
I can make them feel great about it.
Good. You make them feel good, I’ll make them feel guilty.
I can promise they’ll go to heaven, you know.
All right. This has been a great conversation. This is Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of PBS. Thank you for coming on the show, I really appreciate it.
Thank you Kara. It was fun.
I’m very excited to watch the country music thing. I’m so excited. You have no idea.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.