During her visit to Granite Falls over the weekend to help kick off Pioneer Public TV’s $2.5 million capital campaign, Public Broadcasting Service President and CEO Paula Kerger spoke about some of the pressing issues facing public broadcasting and local journalism, in addition to sharing her thoughts about her visit to the newly completed Ron and Diane Fagen Building.

Kerger has served as PBS President since March of 2006, making her the longest serving leader in PBS history. During her tenure, PBS has leapfrogged form the 15th most-watched network in the United States to the sixth. Kerger has emphasized diversifying programming and expanding educational capacity during her leadership.

In an arena largely dominated by men (only 20% of newsroom leadership positions are held by women, according to Forbes Magazine), Kerger strikes a contrasting figure as a female leader of the nation’s largest non-commercial media organization.

Women as leaders

Kerger says that she takes her position as a female leader seriously, adding that she doesn’t “just represent myself, but that I represent half of the population.” Although she recognizes that society has undergone considerable change since the start of her career, recent events like the ‘Me, Too’ movement show that there is still more work to be done.

“When I first started working the balance of women in the workplace was different,” she reflected. “I think there is a whole generation that has grown up accustomed to their mothers and their aunts and others working and it just continues to evolve.”

Federal funding

Kerger emphasized the importance of federal funding in helping support local broadcasting stations across the county (in all, there are 350 PBS members stations). She explained that federal dollars played a larger role in rural stations and make up roughly 25% to 35% of their operating budgets (compared to an average of 15% for all public television stations).

Initially, the Trump Administration introduced a federal budget that completely gutted the PBS allocation. However, Kerger explains that “when it went to the House and Senate, a lot of champions stood up.” PBS was fully funded in the last budget cycle, which Kerger credits to “support on both sides of the isle.”

“Our work is important everywhere,” Kerger reflected, adding that it has “an outsized importance in communities like these where stations are focused on local stories.” She also said that access to public broadcasting was important for small rural communities that no longer had traditional media platforms like newspapers and local radio.

Attacks on media

It is this consolidation of the media by several large companies that Kerger believes has helped drive people to distrust the media. “Democracy is really reliant on an informed citizenry, I really believe that,” Kerger stressed.

She elaborated that media consumers want news reported to them by local journalists with ties to their own community. “We’ve all seen stories where someone clearly parachuted in from someplace else,” she said, adding that they “may have some of the facts, but [don’t] really understand the depth of the stories they are reporting.”

Kerger also lamented the role of the 24-hour news cycle in creating “a real blurring between entertainment and news.” She emphasized the importance of strong journalistic standards, and urged reporters to “remember what lane you are in.”

A point of pride for Kerger was the broad appeal of public broadcasting, particularly considering the divisive political and social atmosphere. “People watch us from all different political backgrounds,” she said, “and we believe that the important thing is to present the news so people can decide what to think. I believe that’s why trust in us is high.”

Kerger also had an explanation for the emergence of ‘fake news’ accusations (a common phrase used to discredit reporting that conflicts with one’s political beliefs). “I think we’re just in a very divisive time,” she explained, “and I think it is too easy for people to throw out [‘fake news’] if they are unhappy with something. It’s easy to throw out lines like ‘fake news.’”

New Granite Falls studio

President Kerger said that she admired the new Pioneer TV studio in Granite Falls, calling it a “beautiful facility.” She specifically praised how the new building “organically fits the landscape.” Kerger underscored that the role of studio wasn’t just to serve as “a place that pushes out a signal, but also a place that brings people in.” Commenting on the new space, she said that “the way that it’s designed really brings people together.”