Originally published in Current, June 26, 2006
By Karen Everhart
“The most important first step is getting everyone to talk to each other,” said John Boland, recalling his early tenure in a new kind of cross-media job — chief content officer — at KQED-TV/FM.
It wasn’t that producers of TV, radio, web and educational content at the San Francisco station disrespected each other when they began working under the new c.c.o., he told Current last week, but they weren’t aware of the work their colleagues were doing in other divisions, especially in education.
Boland, recruited by PBS President Paula Kerger to help her lead PBS into the new digital frontier, will put his San Francisco experience to work as PBS’s first chief content officer, beginning in September. Before Boland arrives, PBS will lose Jacoba Atlas, its Los Angeles-based co-chief programmer, and Cindy Johanson, senior v.p. of interactive and education.
A former journalist, publisher and public relations executive who began leading KQED’s content teams four years ago, Boland says he’ll strive to strike the right balance between traditional TV and new media. PBS has to continue to deliver high-quality television programs “for years to come,” he said. “But for the 21st century, we have to find new ways to repurpose that content and make it available, and to make opportunities to experiment and try new things. That’s going to be my greatest challenge.”
PBS President Paula Kerger introduced Boland to the PBS Board and staff June 13 . As chief content officer, he will direct TV programming, new media, education and promotion. In addition to empowering one executive to supervise all PBS content, Kerger elevated the role of education within PBS. Last week she promoted one of Johanson’s deputies, Mary Kadera, to v.p. of education and appointed her interim head of interactive and education.
Kadera, a former high school teacher, joined PBS eight years ago as an education producer and rose through the ranks to director of digital education. She helped lead PBS’s joint effort with Boston’s WGBH to launch PBS Digital Classroom, an online service for schools that failed to secure the needed $19 million startup capital in 2004. Last year Johanson raised Kadera to senior director, K-12 education, and she has led PBS’s efforts to develop a new education service plan.
“Since my early days here, I have thought about how we should organize to seize the opportunity of the new frontier that we face,” Kerger told the PBS Board on June 13. As chief content officer, Boland will ensure that PBS creates the best possible television programming while embracing new technologies and delivery systems, she said.
“I do believe in the vision that she’s painted in these first months,” Boland said, referring to Kerger, during the board meeting. “We have an incredible opportunity to become even more vibrant and meaningful in this new environment.”
The conversations Boland will lead at PBS will be more complicated than the transition at KQED because both the producers and the ultimate broadcast decision-makers work outside his organization, dispersed throughout the country, he said in an interview. “Those relationships are critical and a foundation for the system,” he said.
As an experienced pubcaster from a major station, Boland’s experience should serve him well at PBS, said Mare Mazur, chief content officer at KCET in Los Angeles. He has relationships in the system and is someone “who people will be excited to work with.”
“From my observation, he is a very good collaborator and a very good partner,” Mazur said. She worked with him on several projects, including California Connected, the statewide public affairs series co-produced by the state’s pubTV stations, and development of Public Square, a new national public affairs block that PBS has hired KQED and KCET to co-produce.
Boland leaves KQED as the station prepares to produce Quest, its first project to be conceived and launched as a cross-platform effort. The $7 million science literacy project, combining a weekly TV series, radio reports, web-original content and educational curriculum, will launch next winter.
“It’s really a credit for John that he was able to create a space where we could come together and have conversations that we hadn’t had before, so that people could work collaboratively,” said Sue Ellen McCann, KQED executive-in-charge of the project.
Quest “takes multiplatform delivery to a new level,” Boland said. “From day one, it was conceived as a science literacy initiative for the general public and was developed to raise awareness of science through all media.”
Boland joined KQED 11 years ago to help turn around San Francisco Focus, a glossy city magazine then published by KQED, which was teetering on the edge of financial insolvency. He was running The Sonoma County Independent, a small alternative weekly he bought after giving up a public relations job with Burston-Marseller, where he did pro bono work for KQED. “I thought, ‘It’ll be a great thing to turn this around and go on with my life,’” Boland said.
By June 1996 the magazine was operating in the black and KQED’s management, under then-President Mary Bitterman, sold Focus to pay down the station’s debt. “I thought, ‘I’m done,’ but Mary kept finding ways for me to help,” Boland said. He led KQED’s marketing and communications and later was promoted to executive v.p. and chief operating officer. He served as interim president after Bitterman left KQED, and he became chief content officer for her successor, Jeff Clarke.
“We realized there was an opportunity to change how we work with content and what its value is,” Clarke said. Other pubcasting joint licensees had begun collaborations among their TV, radio and web operations, “but there was not the cross-platform work being done that we thought could come out of the digital arena.”
Working in this manner “for the most part breaks down those natural barriers that come up within areas of activity within our industry,” Clarke said. “It can get people to look at the landscape differently” and think about delivering media so that people can use it at the times and on the media platforms they choose.
Early experiments with cross-platform production included multiplatform simulcasts for special coverage of the Iraq War in 2003 and election coverage in 2004. It also led the station to expand Spark, a regional arts series originally conceived as a TV-only project, by adding a robust website and curricular materials.
Under Boland’s leadership, KQED also mounted several national productions for PBS, including Frontline/World, several programs for Great Performances, and Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures — a series that influenced President Bush’s recent decision to designate a national monument and protected marine area off the coast of Hawaii.
Under PBS’s new executive structure, Boland will report to Kerger on content matters and to Wayne Godwin, c.o.o., on operations. He’ll supervise the heads of TV, interactive, education and promotion.
PBS will close its Los Angeles office, established in 2000 when then-President Pat Mitchell appointed Atlas, a former colleague from CNN, as co-chief programmer. John Wilson, who has shared the chief programmer title with Atlas since then, remains the network’s top programmer and reports to Boland.
“It wasn’t unexpected to me,” Atlas said of PBS’s decision to eliminate her job. “A new president comes in and wants to do something differently.” Atlas endorsed Kerger’s decision to appoint what she called an “uber-chief.”
“I think it’s a really positive move that someone is in charge of all the content areas — from education to promotion to online — so they’ve got the big picture in his or her own head,” Atlas said.
Atlas cited the launch of Now with Bill Moyers and its continuation as a weekly show hosted by David Brancaccio as one of her proudest achievements at PBS. Atlas also brought Tavis Smiley to PBS’s late-night lineup and nurtured History Detectives into an ongoing series. “Putting a new series on PBS is not an easy task,” she said. Her work on drama projects, including the Latino drama series American Family, was also a high point, she said.
“PBS spoiled me in some ways — as much as it’s difficult and filled with challenges that seem overwhelming at times,” Atlas said. “I so admire people in the system and the work that is done here.” She plans to take time to weigh her next career move and may return to production work and writing.
Interactive content chief Cindy Johanson, the longest serving PBS senior executive, began contemplating a PBS exit six months ago, partly as a mid-career reassessment but also because she felt it may be time to hand the reins to a successor.
“I’ve spent 17 years in the system, and Paula is the fourth c.e.o. I will have worked with,” Johanson said. As she approached her 40th birthday in August, Johanson “was thinking about the next phase of my life.”
“There’s never a good time to leave, but this is a good one because I’ve got a great team in place here,” she said.
Johanson joined WNET in New York in 1989 as a customer service rep for Learning Link, an online education service in the days before the Web. She moved to PBS in 1993 and, after Ervin Duggan became PBS president in 1994, helped lead the launch of PBS’s website the following year.
“That was the beginning of our Internet presence,” Johanson said. “PBS.org is my proudest achievement.”
Over the last decade, PBS.org grew from a few hand-coded web pages to an award-winning public media website with 1,800 sub-sites delivering interactive games, blogs, streaming audio and video, curriculum resources and teacher professional development services. Under her leadership, PBS Interactive developed new revenue streams from e-commerce, online sponsorships and the PBS Kids Sprout digital cable service.
“My staff are proud that they retired all the pages I hand-coded,” Johanson said.
Since 2002, Johanson has managed PBS’s education services, which increasingly were moving online.
Traditional media companies and non-traditional ones that “have really rich content” have approached her about joining them, but Johanson plans to wait a while before accepting any offers.
“PBS has been such a part of my life that this is a little bit like ending a relationship,” Johanson said. “You don’t want to jump too quickly into the next one.”
Johanson endorsed Kerger’s move to elevate PBS’s role in education and to create a chief content officer.
“It’s extremely important that an organization move all of the areas of content creation together so they can look at the creative storytelling and the budget allocations and it can all happen in a unified manner,” she said. “Under a chief content officer, that can happen.”
Web page posted June 27, 2006
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.