Susan Farmer, longtime president of Rhode Island’s only pubTV network, died Sept. 16 after a 12-year battle with cancer. She was 71.
Farmer broke down barriers in Rhode Island by becoming the state’s first female secretary of state in 1982. After losing a bid for lieutenant governor in 1986, she was offered the position of president of Providence’s WSBE (now branded as Rhode Island PBS) the following year.
She ran the station for nearly two decades and, despite coming into the field from politics, became a beloved system leader due to her fundraising acumen, playful demeanor and commitment to the mission of pubcasting, according to pubcasting colleagues.
Farmer served on the boards of many public TV affinity groups, including the National Educational Telecommunications Association and the Association of Public Television Stations.
At WSBE Farmer established an independent fundraising nonprofit for the state-owned network. The Channel 36 Foundation, now the Rhode Island PBS Foundation, helped the station reduce its reliance on state subsidies, increasing fundraising revenues by more than 50 percent during her 17-year tenure. She also launched a weekly public affairs program A Lively Experiment; Farmer, at ease on camera, occasionally guest-hosted the show herself. And she was an early proponent of the educational programs on pubTV, adding GED on TV and college telecourses to WSBE’s schedule in 1987.
“Susan was someone who led from the front,” Skip Hinton, president of NETA, told Current. “She was a trusted voice. She was also a very persistent voice. She didn’t back down in making her argument.”
That persistence and resolve came into play in 1991, during what would become the key moment in Farmer’s tenure: a funding showdown with then-Governor Bruce Sundlun, who announced his intention to zero out WSBE’s state funding. Farmer — a Republican — cornered the Democratic governor outside a sub shop in full view of reporters to argue the case for preserving the subsidy. Sundlun subsequently agreed to a reduced appropriation for WSBE, but an appropriation nonetheless.
“She saved Rhode Island public television,” David Piccerelli, current g.m. of Rhode Island PBS and Farmer’s son-in-law, told Current. “She was the person who kept it going and saved it from the chopping block.”
“She was very bold about the important mission of public broadcasting,” said Beth Courtney, president of Louisiana Public Broadcasting. Together with Elizabeth Christopherson, longtime executive director of the New Jersey Network, Courtney and Farmer developed strong friendships as the few women running public TV stations in the 1990s. They formed a tongue-in-cheek organization, Women Executives in Broadcasting, composed solely of the three of them — but wouldn’t divulge to other managers what WEB stood for. It was their way to make fun of pubcasting’s numerous acronyms.
“I think we have to have joy in what we do,” Courtney said. “And she had such a joy in living. Everything about her was joyful.”
Farmer was diagnosed with cancer in 2001 and began what would become 12 years of experimental drug trials to stave off the disease. She retired from pubTV in 2004.
She is survived by two daughters and four grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to the Rhode Island PBS Foundation.