Digital Transformation, DEI And Jumping From The Plane: PBS’s CEO Paula Kerger Shares Her Leadership Lessons

PBS’s CEO Paula Kerger

Paula Kerger, PBS’s longest-serving president and CEO, recently received a powerful reminder about the fandom for the nation’s largest non-commercial media organization. As a young woman, she’d longed to be a singer-songwriter, a troubadour with a guitar. Fast forward to the Library of Congress Gershwin Award ceremony at the Kennedy Center earlier this year, where Paula was able to go backstage and meet the honoree who’d inspired her original dream—none other than Joni Mitchell. “I told her I always wanted to be her,” Paula shared. “She said she always wanted to be president of PBS.”

Somehow this exchange had me envision a Freaky Friday-esque switch, ala professional roles, not mother and daughter. It’s Paula’s quick-wit and humor that took me there.

With more than 330 member stations, PBS’s stakes are high: every year, 80% of U.S. households tune in. I recently caught up with Paula to hear how she guided the network through the digital revolution, the diversity and inclusion initiatives that PBS has championed and how she hopes to future-proof this incredible brand.

Shelley Zalis: Describe your career — your path to public media culminating in leading PBS for over 17 years.

Paula Kerger: It was not linear…I started out in college in pre-med and failed organic chemistry so that ended that. I took a lot of humanities courses because I was interested in them and panicked that I wouldn’t get a job, so I got a degree in business and graduated without a plan.

By accident I wound up at UNICEF in Washington, D.C. I discovered early on I wanted to do something that would matter. A series of nonprofit positions in fundraising and strategy led me to Channel 13, the PBS affiliate in New York, where I helped with their first capital campaign. The president said, “I think you could be our station manager,” which I thought was crazy, but I went for it and eventually became COO. In 2006, I was tapped for the top leadership position at PBS.

I look back at these pivotal stages in my career as “airplane moments,” when you’re about to skydive (which I never have, by the way) and have to decide whether to jump. You stand on the edge of the airplane door and you can choose to retreat, or lean forward and it could be the most exhilarating experience of your life. I figure the odds are in your favor and at least you’ve tried it, so you’ll never look back and wonder what if.

SZ: What have you learned about leadership throughout your career as you rose through the ranks?

PK: Leadership isn’t for everybody. People think leaders call all the shots, but the truth is you hire great people and your job is to make them successful. You’ve got to be comfortable knowing you’re under scrutiny. This is particularly true at PBS where you have all these stations that are not directly accountable to you—you’re accountable to them. People say that if you want a lesson in humility, run a federation. You have to move forward with a clear vision and recognize that when the chips fall, people are going to have lots of opinions about what you did. You need confidence and a thick skin.

SZ: How has it been for you to be the steward of PBS, especially during the digital transformation of broadcast media?

PK: You have to be really careful because PBS is such a trusted brand and you don’t want to screw it up. But we also need to be constantly pushing forward. Today, PBS local stations no longer fully control how viewers experience the content and we’ve had to rethink what it means to be a local public television station.

One of the areas that has defined our work is our kids’ content, programming that gives them basic educational, social and emotional skills they’ll need when they walk into a classroom. We’re investing in games in addition to broadcast, making sure we’re on the same digital platforms they are on. Watching television is a passive experience, but you can build content for a smartphone, tablet or computer that is stickier.

PBS has a second bottom line: we’re beholden to our mission to provide content that is entertaining, and that’s sometimes hard to quantify. You can measure eyeballs and advertising dollars but we also need to assess the last piece—are you creating content that is impactful?

SZ: PBS recently released a new DEI report. Your iconic kids’ programming has always featured characters with diverse storylines; one of your newest Muppets is Julie, a girl with autism. But behind the scenes is just as important. Please share how.

PK: DEI is integral to our business, not just a reflexive reaction to the times. I’m not the first woman president—Pat Mitchell was before me—and some of the most influential figures in public broadcasting were and continue to be women: Sesame Street’s Joan Ganz Cooney, Julia Child, NOVA producer Paula Apsell and Frontline producer Raney Aronson-Rath.

We also prioritize DEI in governance. We have a 27-person board, and 13 are women, ten are people of color. As a mission organization you serve all Americans, and our board brings lots of perspectives together. Forty-three percent of our leadership team are women and people of color. Then you look at the programming, both who’s in front of the camera and who’s behind it. Vendors are another piece, the people who provide our programming—we’re setting benchmarks around that.

We’ve hired a new DEI lead, Cecilia Loving, who most recently came from the New York City Fire Department. She has a 360 vision in terms of how you measure your efforts and also how you support and uplift the team.

SZ: How does PBS continue to flourish and anticipate challenges in an always-shifting media landscape?

PK: Three key capabilities enable us to flourish. One is that we continue to put engaging, quality content first. We have a long relationship with Ken Burns and he continues to produce extraordinary programming. We also work with newer talent, like Baratunde Thurston and his show, America Outdoors. Baratunde can talk to anyone and get them to open up and tell personal stories that resonate with our audience.

Second is our ability to look forward and figure out what platforms our content should be on. We have our digital channels and relationships with other distributors like Amazon. We’ve also conducted a few early experiments with FAST channels (free ad-supported streaming television), and we’re expanding our presence on YouTube.

The third piece is our secret sauce: we have affiliates in every community. Those stations have a powerful tool in bringing important local stories forward.

Paula’s visualization of feeling like you’re about to jump from a plane resonated with me. I call them heartbeat moments. It’s when a circumstance puts your subconscious desires and feelings on high alert and your intuition begs you to stand up and do something! My heartbeat moments have led to some of my greatest achievements, and so has sharing my vulnerabilities. Keep her words in mind when considering your next great leap, it might be the most exhilarating experience of your life.

Let’s also mark this momentous occasion for women in broadcast—it’s the first time in history that all major US news networks are being run by women. Be grateful to those who broke the door open and continue to celebrate the women who are making that path even wider! I can’t wait to see what’s next.


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