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Take Five: Patricia Harrison stresses the public in Corporation for Public Broadcasting

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 13, 2010 - When she took over as president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2005, Patricia Harrison had one of her favorite quotations, from essayist E.B. White, engraved in a large Lucite frame and placed in the lobby, for visitors and employees to see and reflect on:

"Non-commercial TV should address itself to the ideal of excellence, not the idea of acceptability -- which is what keeps commercial TV from climbing the staircase. I think TV should be providing the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills. It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky's, and our Camelot."

Making sure that CPB and its broadcasting entities, NPR and PBS, can serve such a wide range of audiences -- in a time of tremendous upheaval in media and journalism -- means creating a whole new way of looking at the corporation's mission.

Harrison was in St. Louis this week to visit KETC Channel 9 and take part in the introduction of its new Nine Network of Public Media, headquartered in its Nine Center for Public Engagement -- a physical representation of how what was once known as St. Louis' educational television station has evolved into a catalyst to bring different groups together and redefine what public media really are all about.

"KETC has transformed itself," Harrison said in an interview, "keeping all of the good, all of the foundation that people have come to rely on the station for, and moving toward collaboration and partnerships. Together, the network is such a powerful resource for the community, for St. Louis and beyond. This is the future of public media -- in partnerships, in collaboration. It's not one size fits all."

Harrison came to CPB from the State Department, where she was acting under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. That experience has helped inform the new direction that she has taken the agency. Instead of networks being places that send information out over the airwaves to a waiting audience, she sees her role as turning the media into two-way communication.

"Forty years ago," she said, "the idea of broadcasting was taking content and delivering it to a person in an easy chair or on the couch. For a long time, that was appointment television. Everybody would gather around the box in the living room or wherever it was and watch a show together, whatever that show was.

"Appointment television is gone, for the most part. We have Americans on the move, taking their techno-toys with them. So how do public media remain vital and relevant in their lives? By continuing to deliver this content, but on many different platforms, whenever people want it. And accepting the idea that the greatest ideas do not open in the boardroom but in the community, and being a real partner with the community. They paid their taxes. They own public media."

We talked in a conference room down the hall from the new Nine Center for Public Engagement, where the Beacon is an involved and grateful tenant.

You are engaged in a project called Public Media 2.0. What does that mean?

Harrison: Even with all the advances in technology, you still have to have content that is worthy to be put out there. So the question is: Why are public media still relevant? Why do we need them when we have all these channels today, when people have all these tools at their disposal?

The answer, and this is the part that gets lost, is that we are still delivering quality content that inspires, educates and informs, for free. There is a very important place in American civil society where you can get information beyond a sound bite, where you can get educated on issues that impact your life.

With all the changes in the media landscape, what are public media bringing to the table that is new?

Harrison: Public media are stepping up to the plate at a time when journalism is going through either constructive or destructive change, depending on your view. Fewer reporters are available to cover city hall, to cover town hall, to cover government. How are media going to cover the stories that nobody wants to cover on commercial television? Who is going to take the deep dive on immigration or education or jobs and the economy?

Even though we are going through what I call the "mallization" of America, we're still a country with unique communities, and localism right now is so important. With these local issues and local challenges, locally owned and locally operated public media entities, part of the community, can help the community meet these challenges.

How do you convince Congress to spend money on public media in these tough economic times?

Harrison: That's been a challenge since the inception of public media. There has never been the funding equivalent to the increased mission or the expanded mission. We make our case to the Office of Management and Budget. We talk to members of Congress. CPB cannot lobby, but I am frequently in conversations talking about the value of specific stations.

We get approximately $500 million from the federal government, and there is a formula we have to distribute it to more than 1,000 television and radio stations. We have a cap on salaries at CPB and on how much we can spend on administration. After we get all this money, with 75 percent to television and 25 percent to radio, that all represents just 15 percent of the station's budgets.

It's absolutely the best example of a public-private partnership. The stations, like any business, are continually asking, "How am I doing? Am I being supported by the community?" That's a lot of support coming from the community, 85 percent, especially now. People are very passionate about public media, but the stations are hurting like everyone else.

What kinds of direct benefits do people get from the stations?

Harrison: Beyond the wonderful, perhaps unmeasurable cultural and arts programming from this station, KETC, it helped people save their homes with its focus on the mortgage crisis. They did it by collaborating with organizations in this area, and not caring who got the credit, and by bringing in people who may not watch public TV or listen to public radio but were so frightened when they got a foreclosure slip, they came to a town meeting. The end result was a fulfillment of the mission of public media -- serving unserved, underserved audiences with information that makes a difference in their lives. We have to do more of that.

Next, we'll be concentrating on dropouts. We have to make a connection in people's minds. This is a crisis beyond your own son or daughter. It does impact you. Your children might be doing well, staying in school, but we are living in a world where so many millions of young people are not even able to pass a basic reading test they need to enter the military or get a job. Each community can make a difference, and we're going to look at how public media throughout the country can address this.

So what's in the future? Where is journalism going? Where are public media going?

Harrison: Everything is evolving. Now, what I talk about is on air, online and on the ground. The barriers are down because of technology. Partnerships are easy. Unfortunately, a lot of talented journalists are available, to be part of something like the Beacon or local journalism centers or Public Insight Journalism. A lot of innovation is taking place. Is it all sustainable? No. But at the end of the day, whenever the end of the day is, we're going to have something that's very vital for our democracy.

We have to have the equivalent of a watchdog press, locally and nationally. And public media can facilitate that. We have invested millions of dollars into quality journalism. You need those journalism ethics and professionalism. You do want a thousand flowers to bloom, in terms of citizen journalism. Those are great. But when you need major surgery, you don't want a citizen surgeon.

My job is to invest in high quality journalism and let the chips fall where they may. I don't even have to like it; I just have to make sure it gets funded. And I am dedicated to that. We are going to gore people's oxen. On any given day, I may have somebody from one side of the aisle complaining that we are very, very left, and another call that says we are too right. As long as those calls keep coming, that means we're doing a deep dive on all these issues and putting all that information out there, and people can bring their brains to the table and figure it all out.

Our feedback in every single survey is that PBS and NPR are at the top of the trust level when it comes to news and information, children's programming and educational programming. We've never betrayed that trust. The tools may be different, but we have more opportunity to engage, and we don't want to miss that opportunity.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.