PBS Boss on Importance of Audience ‘Trust,’ Empowering Her Team

PBS’ 50th year is also its 14th with Paula Kerger at its helm. She is now the longest-serving top executive in PBS’ history — and has guided it through a period of accelerated change.

“I don’t think I have words to express how much I feel that Paula’s been the perfect leader for the perfect time for PBS,” says the documentarian Ken Burns. “I have in my long tenure there dating back to the early ’80s been through many, many presidents, and she is far and away the best chief executive that we’ve ever had.”

Kerger entered public broadcasting through the nonprofit sector, joining New York’s WNET in 1993 as head of development — not a programming role, but a fundraising one. She was shortly thereafter named general manager of the station. Kerger had no prior media experience. But she had been successful in firming WNET’s financial footing when it faced serious economic challenges.

Kerger went on to become president of WNET, then was named to her PBS post in 2006. Her tenure has been marked by a leadership style that emphasizes empowering team members and utilizing PBS’ unique relationship with local stations.

“I am not the creative director of public television,” Kerger says. “I know to hire great people. I do have a lot of opinions. But I think for anybody that runs an organization like this — and particularly PBS, because we get most of our content through our stations, and we have a lot of great creative people that we work with — the job is really to put a great team together and to help to direct the strategy. I always feel that my job is to clear the brush and to find the best possible people, help them figure out how to work together, and make sure they have all the tools and resources they need to be successful.”

Having come from WNET, Kerger understood the dynamic between PBS and its stations. “I knew that I’d be running a membership organization,” she says.

She therefore has spent much of her tenure on the road visiting stations, logging facetime. The coronavirus pandemic grounded her, but not before visiting her 50th state, Hawaii, and 50th station as head of PBS in January. (“How stupid am I that Hawaii was the last place I visited,” she jokes.)

Certain aspects of running PBS are constant — the periodic threats by politicos and even presidents to defund the Corp. for Public Broadcasting continue, but have yet to come to fruition, thanks in large part to strong ties between public media and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. But the biggest change in recent years has been the incursion of digital media.

“There was a time when there was TV and the web was an afterthought,” says Neal Shapiro, the current president and CEO of WNET. “And now everybody knows that’s changing. Somewhere in 2021 or ’22, more people should be watching things digitally than will be watching live television. And Paula’s been very good about moving PBS into the digital age.”

He cites as evidence the success of Passport, an on-demand service available to donors that includes a deep library of content not available through PBS’ linear channels and on-demand services.

And as American institutions are under attack, PBS engenders a broad public trust that is increasingly rare. Kerger understands that part of her role continues to be to steward and protect that trust.

“We are a part of people’s lives from the time that they’re very small,” Kerger says. “When you look at the work of Jim Henson, or you look at the work of Fred Rogers and others — part of what we’re trusted with is the most important part of their life, which is their children.”

That trust, she continues, extends into all aspects of PBS’ programming and its mission: “People will trust us to get it right.”

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