Public broadcasting connects, educates, enlightens, engages people
Weaving his way through a career in commercial news broadcasting from on-air reporter to general manager for CBS and NBC stations in Dayton, Norfolk, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Buffalo, Houston, Birmingham and back to Norfolk from 1980 to 2005, Gary Stokes found his niche in public broadcasting first with Alabama Public TV in Birmingham and then in 2011 with KSPS-TV in Spokane.
For him, the pressure to produce a targeted bottom line for a corporation was much less appealing than the mission-driven focus of public broadcasting to broaden horizons by educating, connecting, enlightening, inspiring and engaging people.
"Public broadcasting needs to raise funds to meet its budget, but it's not the same pressure as meeting the target numbers for profits in commercial media," Gary said. "I like our mission-based work."
Now Gary feels he is better able to live up to the principles and ideals he grew up with, able to do good and able to give back to the community and world.
In commercial media, he asked the questions he was supposed to, knowing they might bring not the depth of answers needed.
"I now see coverage I could and should have done in a different way," he said.
He's no longer producing news, but still has a passion to keep up with news. From 5 to 7 p.m., he watches BBC News, Nightly Business Report and PBS NewsHour.
"I'm a news guy at heart," he said, noting he also appreciates how Frontline researches and tells stories, and how The PBS NewsHour gives people time to answer questions.
"Public broadcasting does journalism that focuses on the answers, not the questions, giving people interviewed time to build up answers layer on layer," he said, contrasting it with journalism that "peppers one question after another, asking the next question before a person has a chance to answer the first one."
Gary considers that type of journalism a disservice.
"It's important to give people time to answer questions in their way, rather than an interview demonstrating a reporter's ability to ask questions," he said.
For Gary, it's about doing what he can to fulfill KSPS' mission to "improve the quality of life" for viewers in the 2 million households it reaches in Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho, Alberta and Southeastern British Columbia.
Values are important to Gary, who grew up Episcopal and went to church every week. On Sundays, he would go to church with his mother and then bowl with his father. Marrying into the Catholic church, he regularly attends the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes.
He lived in Philadelphia through high school, graduating in 1974 and then earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice in 1978 at the University of Dayton.
For two years, Gary was a probation officer for the Montgomery County Juvenile Court. Realizing he was taking it home with him, he was looking for another career path when he met with the news director of the CBS News affiliate, who had heard him announcing for a band concert.
"He said if I ever wanted to be in TV news to contact him. So he did, and after a series of writing tests and an on-camera audition, He started as an on-air reporter for WHIO in 1980. He worked in different positions in commercial television until 2005, when he was hired as the corporate support manager for Alabama Public Television.
When he started at Alabama Public TV in Birmingham in 2005, he said that he found it "refreshing to use the power of media for good."
Gary has been at KSPS for seven years, the longest of any job. Others at the station have been there longer. Some started as interns and stayed.
He came to KSPS to be director of the Friends of KSPS, following Patty Starkey who had been in the position for 38 years.
When Claude Kistler retired as president and general manager, Gary took that role in 2013. That year the license for KSPS was transferred from Spokane Public Schools to the Friends of KSPS.
Gary said KSPS first went on the air on April 24, 1967. Soon after that, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which set up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and eventually the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) to offer noncommercial, educational programs.
Spokane Public School District #81 created most of the programs offering classes, community education programs and interviews with teachers, along with programs from the CPB.
In 1972, after a bond to fund the station failed, the Friends of 7—now Friends of KSPS—was born and took on fund raising. Patty started as a volunteer and then became director, working until 2011.
Friends of KSPS formed as a separate nonprofit that worked with the station until 2013, when they combined into one entity, operating with the KSPS station licensed to Friends of KSPS.
About 20 percent of funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The rest comes from viewers, corporate sponsors, foundations, grants and planned giving.
"The bulk is from individuals who give $60 to $1,000 a year. More are 'sustainers' giving monthly contributions," he said.
"We have a smart, creative production team of five who talk with each other and with people in the community to learn about needs and how to fill them to benefit KSPS and the community," he said.
"We need to figure how to operate in the new normal," he said.
"We use part of the PBS learning media system, but also have our own programs, such as 'Northwest Profiles,' workshops for home-school teachers, 'Health Matters,' 'Stories of Service,' local candidate debates, conversations on education and forums."
Education continues to be a priority, so the station hired an education director, Bukola Breczinski, to provide educational programming and resources for all ages.
She develops culturally responsive curricula for educators to use with programs at ksps.org. KSPS is also offering station tours for educators.
As part of the lead up to Ken Burns' documentary on the Vietnam War, Gary helped bring the traveling memorial Vietnam Wall to Spokane and gathered Vietnam vets to talk about their experiences in the war and since. KSPS held a series of forums in the community with Eastern Washington University, giving veterans a chance to share their experiences.
KSPS produced a documentary on homelessness, "Hidden in Plain Sight," followed by a town hall with people affected.
"We look to create community conversations that can have impact," Gary said. "We want to provide a regular forum for people to have difficult conversations in a civil way. In the real world, people not only have different views of issues but also have areas of common ground.
Now programs are available by broadcast, cable, satellite and online. The online information adds to what is broadcast, but those who access programs online may miss on-air pledge programs that attract new supporters.
Viewers who donate at least $5 per month have access to Passport—a KSPS/PBS streaming service to watch programs at any time.
KSPS is more than on air and online. In addition to tours for educators, it reaches out to build community connections in person.
In 2013, KSPS decided to bring Daniel Tiger from the national program "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" to Spokane for an early August event with activities for children from the local station's "FitKids, Healthy for Life" series of commercial-like messages educating children on fitness and health.
The first year, KSPS expected 50 to 100, and 500 came to the baseball field behind the station. Now 2,000 come, and KSPS brings characters from other national programs, like Curious George and Clifford the Dog.
It's an example of KSPS offering events, as well as programs, to entertain, engage and enrich the community, Gary said.
For information, call 443-7725, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2018