Why do people work in public media?

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People who work in public media make up a like-minded, mission-driven tribe.

They believe that democracy is best served when media provides a public space for a free and open exchange of ideas, when it speaks to viewers and listeners as citizens and reaches urban and rural communities. They value education and nuanced storytelling that doesn’t just tackle two sides of an issue, but three, four or five. They recognize media’s power to help every child learn and grow, to help people understand how history, science and art shapes the news of the day. They believe that great stories and thorough reporting can change outcomes and minds.

While they share these ideals and core values, their paths into public media and their contributions are unique.

This year, as Current marks the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act, we are illuminating the experiences that inspired people to choose to work in public media. Every week, we will be sharing their stories using the hashtag #IAmPublicMedia.

Here are a handful of stories to start with. Hady Mawajdeh was a backseat baby whose parents listened to public radio. He credits Terry Gross for changing his life after his family fell on hard times. Noland Walker recalls a high-school classmate asking him whether his aspiration to become a film director was a “realistic goal for a black man in America” — and he showed her. Susan Stamberg recalls how she came to launch two public radio institutions and earn the distinction of being a “founding mother” of NPR.

Now we want to hear from you. Share your story on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #IAmPublicMedia. Current is also collecting longer contributions, like these stories. If you’d like us to feature your story, submit it here.

Tell us, why did you choose to work in public media?

Hady Mawajdeh

Arts Reporter/Digital Editor, Art&Seek, KERA

As a kid I constantly complained from the back seat of my parents’ car as they listened to public radio. If I’d had my way, we would have listened to pop music or some drive-time show. But I didn’t, so we listened to Bob Edwards or Linda Wertheimer tell us what was going on in the world. I hated it.

When I got my own car everything changed. Instead of Morning Edition or All Things Considered accompanying me on my drive, I had Jay Z and Outkast.

Then I ended up living out of my car. My family had some traumatic events take place and suddenly I didn’t have a home. I had friends whose families invited me over for dinners and sleepovers, but I started spending a lot more time alone inside my car. And as anyone who’s spent more than an hour listening to top-40 radio can tell you, they play the same songs over and over again. I decided to change the station, and I discovered the voice of the woman who would change my life. Her name was Terry Gross.

I was pretty sure I’d heard Terry’s voice before — during car rides with my parents — but for some reason I was more engaged this time. I can’t recall who she was interviewing or what they were talking about, but I can remember wanting more. Her questions and approach seemed so sincere. It always sounded like she was literally just sitting down for a casual chat, which I loved. So the next evening, I tuned in again and I’ve been listening ever since.

Terry’s interviews with authors, journalists, chefs, playwrights, comedians, musicians and every sort of person imaginable opened my mind. From then on I started listening to public radio regularly and I discovered shows like This American Life, On the Media and eventually Radiolab. Those programs showed me completely different forms of storytelling.

Then around 2006, I moved to Austin, Texas. And I discovered a public radio station like no other. It was KUT 90.5 FM and their local coverage of politics and culture was amazing. They weren’t simply repeating facts to me, they were telling stories. They used sound in their reporting in the ways I had heard on national programs and their reporting made me want to engage with this new city.

Journalists like Joy Diaz, Ben Philpott, Nathan Bernier and Emily Donahue introduced me to the idea that what was happening in Austin was just as important as what was happening in New York City or Washington, D.C., and I wanted to be able to tell stories that did the same. That’s why I chose to work in public media.

Today as an arts reporter in Dallas, I’m working to share the stories of individuals who normally are ignored and to broaden sorts of voices that make it to air. I’ve told the stories of music producers, sound designers, painters, dancers, refugees and activists. I’ve shared their struggles and their successes. And recently I was contacted by a mother who told me that her children were big fans of mine. That’s right. I have public radio fans who are seven and 10 years old. Hopefully my work is making their rides to school just a little bit more fun.

Noland Walker

Senior Content Director, Independent Television Service

I graduated from college 30 years ago this year. I remember being at a Memphis house party around that time. The place was crowded, the music loud, and I was relaxed. I’d grown up with almost everybody there. A tiny young woman whom I hadn’t seen in years was standing nearby. She’d been our high school valedictorian, optimistically aspiring in the pages of the yearbook to attend medical school, become a doctor, and “make a discovery that would benefit mankind.” With a forecast like that, I couldn’t resist.

“Still going to medical school?” I not so innocently asked.

“Forget that,” came her almost scornful reply. “I’m headed to business school.” (It was the ’80s, after all.) She then turned the game on me asking, “And what about you?”

“I want to be a film director,” I said above the noise of the party. To my surprise, a look of bewilderment spread across her face.

“Is that a realistic goal for a Black man in America?” she asked, her bewilderment shifting to well-meaning concern as she appeared to think about it more. After all, it was the ’80s and she, as you might now imagine, was not Black.

What I did not bother to tell her that night was that Henry Hampton, a visionary Black producer, had just hired me as a production assistant. Henry and his extraordinary (and integrated) team of women and men had just produced the groundbreaking Eyes on the Prize documentary series. It had aired on PBS. For me, the world of possibility would never look the same.  

I couldn’t have expressed this at the time, but somehow I understood that public media matters because it’s important for people to see and hear great television and radio that reflects something beyond the reality of our commercial news and entertainment media. “Our nation wants more than just material wealth,” proclaimed Lyndon Johnson when he signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.  “While we work every day to create new goods and create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man’s spirit,” Johnson concluded.

I tend to agree. Sure, everybody wants to make money, but even Oprah aspired to making “Change Your Life television” in the end.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s obviously a lot of great commercial TV being made these days. However, I choose to work in public media because every week I have the privilege and challenge of identifying and working with filmmakers whose work and experiences collectively reflect all aspects of this country and beyond — the good, the bad, the inspiring and everything in between. Outside of public media, that’s still hard to find.

(Photo: Tory Germann for UMass Lowell)

Callie Crossley

Host, WGBH’s ‘Under the Radar with Callie Crossley’

Growing up, news was an important part of the dinner table conversation at my house. My parents were avid readers of the then two Memphis newspapers, and regular TV news watchers. As a family, our radio was tuned to the local black station. NPR was not part of our listening regimen.

I found NPR and PBS later in life, first as a listener and viewer. I came to work at WGBH as a reporter on the only daily local news program, The Ten O’Clock News. While I honed my skills as a reporter and producer working in local commercial television before WGBH, I learned to add the depth and context that I know now is critical to any story in public media. There has always been a freedom to being able to explore subjects that don’t receive much play on commercial stations because of time or perceived lack of interest.

Today, I’m delighted when I hear from listeners to Under the Radar with Callie Crossley who call or write to say “I didn’t know that.” Or, “You always have someone on who I’ve not heard before.”

Social media has made audience engagement primary, but public media has always been about the mission of audience engagement. Members — my radio listeners and TV viewers — regularly talk back to me much more than when I worked in network and even local TV. In public media, we never forget that we’re working for the public interest and trust. At this turbulent time in news media I’m proud to be a part of an institution where trust is foundational.

Rick Sebak at Nathan’s on Coney Island in 1999 while making “A Hot Dog Program” for PBS.

Rick Sebak

Television producer, WQED

It wasn’t a choice so much as a logical dream. Who was making the TV I most liked to watch? PBS.

I was lucky enough to be born in Pittsburgh in the 1950s when Fred Rogers and Josie Carey were producing a daily program called Children’s Corner where they encouraged kids like me to explore, to write, to wander and find joy in all kinds of activities. I learned a lot and knew those shows were my favorites.

When I began studying TV production at the University of North Carolina in the early 1970s, I heard that Josie Carey was making a daily kids’ show called Wheee! at the South Carolina ETV Network. I wrote her asking if she would take me on as an intern for the summer, and she did. It was one of the fastest, most productive summers of my life, and public broadcasting was clearly a place I loved working.

It was the excellence in content, concern for the viewers, joy in sharing facts and stories and insights. It was being a part of the world that encompassed Sesame Street and Lowell Thomas Remembers and American Short Story (including the amazing “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”) and landmark productions like Anne Of Green Gables. It was unusual television where local programming and surprising stories were valued. It was pledge breaks and great co-workers too.

I worked for eleven years at SCETV, then answered an ad one day in Broadcasting magazine and landed a job back in Pittsburgh at WQED, where I’ve had the privilege of toiling on local and national programs for 30 years. No other sort of television provides the opportunity to tell stories, to celebrate aspects of American life, and to take the time to get it right.

Stamberg in 1982.

Susan Stamberg

NPR Special Correspondent

I started in public RADIO in 1963, so am lucky enough to have helped launch two major public radio institutions: WAMU-FM, the brand new station at American University, and NPR, the brand new network of noncommercial stations across the country.

I chose the first job — WAMU — because I got bored typing at The New Republic magazine. I chose the second because I wanted to take my local Washington, D.C., radio experience to a wider audience.

I chose public because it was the only thing on the air that I cared to listen to. Everything else was silly call-in shows, sillier DJs, and constant commercial interruptions. To have had the chance to be in on the creation — to shape programs and programming in creative ways, to speak in a natural voice, with persistent deep, ongoing curiosity, and to find listeners with similar curiosities and a tolerance for experimentation and information — has been an ongoing pleasure and honor. I miss the innocence and adventurousness of the early days. But I admire and salute the expansion and excellence of today’s public broadcasting.

Rafael Pi Roman interviewing Dick Cavett.

Rafael Pi Roman

Host, ‘MetroFocus’, WNET

In 1992 I was the host/producer of a weekly current affairs program on NBC’s New York City affiliate when a friend told me WNET was looking for a new anchor for its nightly news segment, The Bulldog Edition. About 10 minutes later I had already set up an audition with The Bulldog’s executive producer. About 15 minutes later I called my agent to tell him about it. He was, to say the least, bothered and bewildered. Why in the world would I want leave the number one station in the number one market especially when I was “on the fast track to the top” of its news department?

The answer to his question was simple: because I would be leaving to go where Robin MacNeil, Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose worked. Because I would be leaving to go to the most intelligent station on television. Because, if they would take me, I would be leaving to go to the network that inspired me to get into television in the first place!

I got the job, and though my relationship with that agent didn’t last long, my tenure at WNET obviously has. Twenty-five years later nothing could be clearer: I do work at the most intelligent and inspiring network on television, a network that in the age of fake news and alternative facts is needed more than ever.

Niala Boodhoo

Host of ‘The 21st’, Illinois Public Media

(Photo: Daniel J. White)

Ken Burns

Documentary filmmaker, Florentine Films

From my first film The Brooklyn Bridge in 1981 to the upcoming The Vietnam War scheduled for this September, I see my work as a conversation with the American people. As I’ve said many times, not one of my documentaries, produced solely for PBS for nearly 40 years, could have been made anywhere but on public broadcasting. Each time a film of mine happens to reach a large audience, I am “invited” to join the marketplace. Each time I patiently explain to my new suitor what I have planned for my next project — a seven-part series on the Roosevelts, or an 18-hour examination of the Vietnam War — I am laughed out of their offices, sent, happily, back to PBS.

As a filmmaker, I am of course thankful for the artistic freedom and lack of commercial breaks. But there’s more to it. The conversations we have with our fellow citizens are two-way. It’s during the broadcast and across digital platforms today, of course, but it is also in small and large towns across the country, in colleges, universities and schools. Hardly a day goes by without my hearing from a person way too young to have watched The Civil War when it premiered in 1990 about the impact that film had, due largely to PBS’ commitment to education.

In an era when we are increasingly divided, and media companies dissect our interests to deliver the most focused content, PBS speaks to the entire country. We operate on the belief that even with all of our differences we have something in common. Public television is a place where we can gather and explore together.

2 thoughts on “Why do people work in public media?

  1. “People who work in public media make up a like-minded, mission-driven tribe.”

    That is certainly true.

    I suggest Current explore this observation further by commissioning a poll (anonymous of course) asking public media employees who they voted for POTUS in 2016, 2012, 2008, 2004, etc.

  2. After working all over the world with several large and small broadcast organizations, I find working with a PBS stations the most satisfying. From working in war zones to sports, only PBS gave me a true opportunity of being involved in the community and actually trying to make the world a better place! PBS is for everyone, it’s simply “being more”!

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