This is FCC chief Newt Minow’s true legacy

by Paula Kerger

Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow left a mark on the institutions he cherished and the communities he served. He will of course be remembered for his warnings to a nascent broadcast industry of the “vast wasteland” of television. But his most important message was his call to “put the people’s airwaves to the service of the people and the cause of freedom.”

As then-President Barack Obama said of Newt, “public interest” was “the heartbeat of his life’s work” by harnessing the power and potential of media as a transformative force in our society. Media, Newt said, “has an inescapable duty to make (its) voice ring with intelligence and with leadership.” And to make sure that the media served the public interest, Newt devoted his considerable influence and intellect to the creation of PBS.

Newt occupied significant leadership roles in public media, first on the board of PBS’ predecessor, NET, and then on the PBS board of directors during a period of significant growth. He continued his service to our system as a board member of WTTW-Ch. 11 in Chicago until the end of his life. Beyond his formal roles, over six decades, Newt was an adviser and friend to so many leaders across our public media system. When I became CEO of PBS, Newt summoned me to Chicago for a meeting. And he certainly didn’t mince words when he told me, “Don’t mess this up” because “people across the country are counting on you.”

Newt was always there for me throughout my tenure at PBS and served as a great counselor, continually reminding me that in our leadership capacities in public media, we are stewards of something much larger than ourselves. Following the path Newt and other founders set for us, we have built an entire media system devoted to the principles of public service, embracing television, and now YouTube and streaming services, to educate, engage and inspire our audiences.

The importance of our public media system has only grown since Newt began his work. Amid an explosion of choices, public outlets are still among the very few organizations focused on media that lift people up and bring communities together. In many regions we serve, our stations are some of the last locally owned and operated media organizations. And we’re the only media organization solely focused on how we can use media to help children learn.

Today, more than 50% of children don’t have access to quality preschool. But using the power of our platform, we prepare kids for success in school and in life. We are embracing the promise of new technologies to deepen our service, developing truly interactive shows, building games to strengthen learning and creating content for the classroom, so that every child can see the world as full of possibilities.

This spirit of optimism is perhaps Newt’s most essential contribution, and it continues to inform our work at PBS. I recently watched some episodes from WTTW’s “Firsthand” initiative, which examines the challenges and opportunities facing people who were formerly incarcerated. Filmmakers followed Tawana Pope, who spent time in and out of prison before deciding to change her trajectory. Today, Tawana is an ordained minister and social worker, focused on how she can lift up others who are struggling with addiction. A critical part of her journey, Tawana says, was using her experiences to “change the lives of the men and women … (who) don’t have a voice, don’t know if they have a voice, don’t know if their story matters.”

Pope’s words speak to the enduring need for public media. By shining our light, we help people recognize that their stories matter. That their voices matter. That they matter. And that by coming together, there is nothing we cannot do.

In every community across our country, we continue to fulfill Newt’s vision, tackling some of the biggest challenges of the day, from threats to our democracy to climate change. And our public media system is Newt’s true legacy, media that are solely in service of “the people and the cause of freedom.”

Paula Kerger is CEO of PBS.