The past year has been a tumultuous one for administrators of public broadcasting, and programmers have had to fend off accusations of political bias. Into the embers of the skirmish steps Paula Kerger, who's just been chosen as the new president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service. Bob speaks with Kerger about the challenges ahead.
BOB GARFIELD: Come March, Paula A. Kerger of New York City's public television station WNET will succeeded Pat Mitchell as President and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service, PBS. She takes office in the wake of the most contentious period in PBS' history, the crusade by then Corporation for Public Broadcast chairman Kenneth Tomlinson to eliminate what conservatives see as a liberal political bias in public TV. Tomlinson himself resigned from the CPB in November in advance of a CPB Inspector General's report concluding he misused CPB money in a liberal bias witch-hunt. But he was replaced by another Republican appointee, Cheryl Halpern. This is the status quo Paula Kerger inherits, and she joins me now. Paula, welcome to On the Media.
PAULA KERGER: Thank you, Bob. It's a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: First of all, congratulations.
PAULA KERGER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Of course, I think that's probably how the devil greets newcomers at the gates of Hell.
PAULA KERGER: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Can we just go down a checklist of reasons why you'd have to be crazy to take this job and just get your reaction to them? Okay?
PAULA KERGER: Okay.
BOB GARFIELD: Paula, public broadcasting has been ground zero in the culture wars, and Bush Administration appointees have unapologetically had PBS in their sights for three years. Now you take the top job there. Well, first of all, what are you expecting?
PAULA KERGER: Bob, I've been in public broadcasting for 13 years, and so I do, I think, have a pretty good idea of what I'm walking into. And, you know, this is the good fight.
BOB GARFIELD: Were you able to extract from the PBS board or even CPB, promises that you'll be, you know, left alone, at least editorially, to do your job and to create the kind of programming that people expect from PBS?
PAULA KERGER: Public broadcasting really is the stations across the country. It's not really a place in Washington. The whole editorial control of what ends up on a public television station is really handled at the local level, and what PBS does is aggregate resources. Now, to answer your question, in terms of the board, the PBS board was unanimous in their support for me and was unanimous in their signal to me that they will stand behind me to work to make public broadcasting as strong as it needs to be. And I have had already conversations this week with Patricia Harrison at CPB, and I very much look forward to working with her to ensure that public television maintains its strength, its vitality and its independence. I think that's just critical.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that's nice, but, of course, Patricia Harrison has her own, you know, very strong Republican bona fides, and if, just hypothetically, she came to you and said, "You know what? Wall Street Journal Report was nice to balance the leftist tilt of Public Broadcasting Service programs, but maybe we can have yet more right-wing programming to just make sure everything's in balance," – what would you say?
PAULA KERGER: The Patricia Harrison that I've gotten to know over the last six months does not strike me as the kind of person that's going to make a comment like that. And I do think that when you look at the public broadcasting schedule, we need to make sure that we are presenting a multiplicity of viewpoints, but I really don't think that that's going to be an issue for us in this coming year. I really don't.
BOB GARFIELD: Getting back to the checklist of reasons why you have apparently taken leave of your senses in this- [OVERTALK] [LAUGHTER] - position – now, you have a reputation as a crackerjack fundraiser, and you're walking into an organization that is not exactly awash in cash. How are you going to come up with the dough to keep PBS programming up to the quality that we've all come to expect?
PAULA KERGER: I think one of the important things that happened over the last two years – in fact, I would say in thinking about Pat Mitchell's legacy, to me it's the most significant thing that she accomplished, was the creation of the PBS Foundation. And the Foundation has existed for a little more than a year. We raised 13 million dollars in the first year, and I see the great potential for it. You know, I think that your question about programming is such a key one, because to me, the most heartbreaking position to be in is to sit opposite a desk of a producer that has a really fabulous idea and know that you don't have the resources to make that project happen or know that it's going to take four or five years to get a project to air. I think of the Broadway series that was premiered last year - I think it took eight years to raise the money for that project.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. Not to be too much of a smart-aleck about it, but 13 million dollars give that woman one white chip. We need a whole stack of purple chips– [OVERTALK]
PAULA KERGER: Of course.
BOB GARFIELD: - to really fund public broadcasting into the future, no?
PAULA KERGER: Of course, but it's a start.
BOB GARFIELD: Allow me, please, to play devil's advocate here. Way back when Newt Gingrich was talking about the contract with America and plans to zero out public broadcasting, you know, even 10 years ago the argument was that with cable being as ubiquitous as it now is and the Discovery Channel and History Channel and Independent Film Channel and Sundance and so forth, producing programming that is very similar to that which has traditionally appeared on PBS, that PBS has really outlived its usefulness. Has PBS, in any way, become obsolete?
PAULA KERGER: During the argument over the contract with America, the public spontaneously rose up and signaled to their representatives that public broadcasting was extraordinarily important to them. This past year – now, sort of flash-forward now 11 years, and it was the same immediate response. I was spending time in Washington visiting with the New York delegation, and again, offices told me they were getting more phone calls on this issue than any other issue. This was not an organized campaign. This was the American people reaching out to their elected officials, letting them know that public television is a critical part of their life. To me this signaled that public broadcasting is unique and different and treasured by the people of this country, and I think the moment that it's not, then we shouldn't exist. But I believe this is our legacy over the last 40-some years, and I think this will be, in fact, our legacy moving forward. We are television of and by the people.
BOB GARFIELD: Congratulations once again, and thanks for joining us.
PAULA KERGER: Thanks so much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Paula Kerger is the newly-appointed President and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service.