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Powerful Women: Let's Talk – 85: Paula Kerger

Paula Kerger

Paula Kerger, President and CEO of PBS, joins Shelley Irwin on this edition of Powerful Women: Let's Talk

Paula Kerger is the President and CEO of PBS, the nation's largest noncommercial media organization. Paula is the longest serving president and CEO in PBS history.  So many honors, so many speaking engagements, plus giving of her time to great national organizations.We learn what it takes to be Paula Kerger.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:


>> Produced by women about women. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live.


Shelley Moss: Paula Kerger is the president and CEO of PBS, the nation's largest non-commercial media organization. She is the longest serving president and CEO in PBS history. So many honors, so many speaking engagements plus giving of her time to great national organizations. We learn what it takes to get ready Paula. Be Paula Kerger. Hi to you Paula.

Paula Kerger: Oh, very nice to be with you Shelley.

Shelley Iwrin: Yes. Next thing is to get yourself back to West Michigan for that in person. It should happen before both of our times are over, but congratulations to you. I have to ask what was the favorite PBS show you watched as maybe a 12-year-old?

Paula Kerger: Yeah. When I was growing up, I guess the programs I think about a lot well, there were two. One every day when I came home from school, I watched something called Hodgepodge Lodge, which was produced by our local public television station. It was all about the natural world which I had a lot of interest in and it was hosted by a woman who well, actually looked a little bit like Julia Child and she had that sort of larger than life personality and she was really fantastic but, also our family used to watch a masterpiece on Sunday nights and that was really a tradition for us and I think about it a lot as one of those moments when our family all came together and watched television that I still think about to this day.

Shelley Irwin: And little did you know, March 2006, you signed some dotted line, I assume. Nice well congratulations.

Paula Kerger: Thank you.

Shelley Irwin: Yes, yes. Did you seek out leadership in the beginnings?

Paula Kerger: No, and I say when I was young, I always felt like a chronic underachiever because I didn't really have a strong understanding or fix on what I wanted to be when I grew up. I still sometimes wonder what I want to be when I grow up. When I was really young. I thought I want to be a veterinarian because I loved animals, I loved my time outside there we go with Hodgepodge Lodge but, when I went to college I failed organic chemistry and so my idea of becoming of a vet or medical doctor was shelved and I took a lot of humanity's classes because that was actually what I was really interested in. I loved to read, I love literature, I love art, although I have no talent in any artistic endeavor but, I didn't really understand what I wanted to do with my life so, leadership really was a surprise.

Shelley Irwin: Yes, yet obviously well versed at it at this point. Tell me a little bit more about your educational journey.

Paula Kerger: Yeah. So, after my little epiphany that, you know, the medical career is not going to work out. I end my foray into subjects that are of great interest but, didn't seem to be leading me towards any career path that I could discern I got a business degree and then graduated. I had been working and started working when I was really young. I took babysitting jobs when I was really young and because I grew up in the country, I you know, I worked in the barns and helped in the gardens and all that stuff but, when I was old enough to legally work at 16, my first job was at McDonalds and I left the fast food industry and actually got a job at a bank which I worked on and off for throughout my college career and when I graduated, I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. I didn't think I wanted to stay within banking and I happened to find an ad in the newspaper for a job working for a nonprofit organization UNICEF. I hadn’t actually thought about that as a career path I thought that was just something you did. My family was very involved in volunteerism and I just hadn’t made the connection that yeah, there were actually a lot of people that built careers working in the nonprofit sector. I landed a job, not the job I interviewed for, which I wasn't quite qualify for another job working in Washington and I've been in the nonprofit sector all along and so, you know, my early years were spent doing the things that one does when ones young I tried a lot of different things and but, had increased responsibility with each job I took. I was in Washington at first but, within the first few years I had an opportunity to go to New York to run the National trick or treat for UNICEF campaign, which I did and from there I had an opportunity to work and another organization International House from there I had an opportunity to work at the Metropolitan Opera raising money for them by the way, not singing.

Shelly Irwin: I thought that was my *inaudible*

Paula Kerger: And I was in that job when I got a call one day asking if I'd be interested in working in public television, working for public television station in New York. That got me into public television, that was 30 years ago and the first job I did was helping them raise money, which I now then by that point spent a fair amount of time developing a career and I thought it would be interesting work for a while, but it was in that job that I was tapped to become station manager eventually and then COO and it was in that position I was tapped to come to PBS.

Shelley Irwin: Nice. From this journey, what's been a challenge, a surprise and/or a thrill?

Paula Kerger: Well, I think actually all 3 of those all relate to relationships and people and I actually say to this day that I think my greatest days are when I see the results of great work of people that I have the privilege to work alongside and the worst days are the ones where you have to make hard HR decisions. It is fantastic to work with someone, to mentor someone and to see them achieve great success and it is also heartbreaking when someone can't quite make all the pieces come together and for me as someone who actually grew up being pretty shy, actually, even I will admit being a little bit of an introvert. When I'm in a professional circumstance, I hide it pretty well because I have a job to do but, you know, left to my own devices a cocktail party is the worst place I can find myself. Having to go up and introduce myself to people I may not know but, I think that having the empathy of being a leader and tapping into that side of myself that sometimes has to push a little bit more, I think to me has been the greatest surprise. How that part of my professional life has developed and being able to, you know, to guide and mentor people along the way is not something that I would have thought when I was a young person is how I would end up spending frankly, most of my time.

Shelley Irwin: Nice. Speaking of young person's, how does a woman find her voice find her niche, find her passion, her ladder to climb?

Paula Kerger: Yeah, that's a really good question. When I was young, I used to wear my hair pulled back because I thought that it made me look a little bit older and when I was really young I used to look very carefully at the people around me in and tried to figure out what about them I could emulate. Pretty early on I realized that the most powerful thing that I could do and needed to develop was my own voice and I say that to a lot of young people now. When I started out in my professional career, many of the jobs that I was in and many of the circumstances I found myself in, I was surrounded largely by men and I realize that what I brought to the table and conversations as a woman and with my own experiences was genuine to me and that is always the advice that I give to young people that I talk, to particularly young women is you have to recognize your own authentic voice and use that because that is who you are and ultimately that's what you're going to tap into as you, you know, develop in life and particularly when you get to leadership positions and have to make tough decisions. You have to be really comfortable in your own skin and who you are.

Shelley Irwin: Taking a risk making a decision when you are asked to take on a new challenge. Is it important to always say yes or say yes, when perhaps you are still doubting yourself?

Paula Kerger: Well, I'll tell you, I have an analogy that I use with a lot of young people and in conversations and it's, I will tell you what it is and with the disclaimer around that I have never actually done this thing, which is I encourage young people to take the risk and jump out of the airplane, and what that means is if you think of it as a as an analogy, you know, skydiving is not for everyone, leadership is not for everyone. You make the decision to do it, you get when you stand on the edge of the of the door ready to lean forward. It has to be absolutely the most terrifying but, you also now know that it could be the most exhilarating. The important thing about it is that you don't get up in the air by yourself, you have a lot of help. You get a lot of training before you take that first leap, and the other thing is, it may be that you never do it again but, you will never go through your life wondering what if and I so I do think that it's important to take risks, not crazy risks. You know, you have to evaluate everything as it comes. Some things some risks are worth taking, others maybe not and you have to understand how much tolerance you have for risks, but you have to take some. I think often times human nature is such that we hold ourselves back that we even if we're in a bad circumstance, we stay there because it's what we know and we get comfortable in it and I think that those that have had successful careers for those that have constantly paid attention to those moments when it made sense to lean forward and not question forever in your life what if? You know, the worst thing that is going to happen for the most part is that you're going to end up on the ground. You're not going to be hurt and it will of either been that experience you can check off your bucket list or it could have opened up a whole new passion for you. Now, I recently told this story with the group of women at University of Virginia as part of a leadership development program and someone raised their hand and said actually, I was injured when I had my first leaps but, usually you end up on the ground in one piece but, I do think that the point of it is really important is that you don't want to get to the end of your career and wonder what it's like taking another path.

Shelley Irwin: And you have or have not jumped out of a plane?

Paula Kerger: I have not.

Shelley Irwin: Okay.

Paula Kerger: I have not done it but, I’m okay still using this analogy. I just think it's a powerful one because I think that it does capture so many of the decision points that one makes in ones life. Maybe one day, I haven't really decided that yet.

Shelley Irwin: Are women needed for this public media niche? Let's brag about the power of public media.

Paula Kerger: We have a lot of extraordinary women in public media and it's been part of its history from the very beginning. There’s many both documentaries and now a series on HBO Max about Julia Childs. I mean, she was an extraordinary person who really changed the way that we think about not only cooking but, also created. She was not the first person to do a cooking show on television, but she certainly was one of the most successful from the start. People like John Cooney who created Sesame Street and had this idea that some of the principles that were used frankly in advertising could potentially be applied to teaching children about letters and numbers and those core concepts that are important at the beginning you know, you look at great journalists like Charlene Hunter Balt, or Gwen Eiffel, or Judy Woodruff, and others that have come along and you know producers, the producer of Frontline Raney Aronson or the producer of News Hour *inaudible* an industry that is filled with extraordinary women. And I think it makes our entire enterprise quite strong that we bring together people from many different backgrounds and perspectives and men and women together who are committed to using media not just as a tool for entertainment but, when we really hit our marks also be educational and inspirational.

Shelley Irwin: Thank you for that. You are of service to your community, probably not only locally but, regionally and nationally. How important is community service as we shape our lives?

Paula Kerger: It is profoundly important. I believe that as one worries about one's career, one also must pay attention to one's family and friends and the 3rd leg of that source is community service our country was built with this idea that we are interdependent and that we are here for one another and so our engagement as citizens, including community service is profoundly important and I also believe that it's not something that you wait to do at the end of your career once you've made it.

When I was very young, I went with my grandmother door to door to collect money for the Heart Fund and as I said at the beginning of this discussion, I was very involved in volunteer activities throughout my entire life and you know, it's if you want to set aside the fact that it's the important thing to do, the right thing to do, it also is an activity that connects you to a lot of people that can also help you professionally. It is a side benefit that I think most people don't realize is that if you give generously of yourself, you actually get so much more back in return and I’ve continued to stay engaged with a number of organizations. I just stepped down as the chair of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. That's been my biggest involvement most recently and it's a real kick I have to say being able to help an organization that I remember visiting when I was a child when I thought it was the most wonderous place I've ever been, and so I know that as long as I have breath in me, I’ll continue to be involved with organizations and try to do a little piece to make the world a better place.

Shelley Irwin: Thank you for that. Now it's time to have some fun with you, Paula. There is a picture behind your shoulder, is that a dog behind you?

Paula Kerger: Yes, there are two dog pictures behind me, I have two Vizslas and that’s where I love to spend some of my time, out in the yard with them. They are very high energy animals and they also love to run. I run a little bit and they're great companions.

Shelley Irwin: Yes, and let's move on to, of course, my research included looking at your Facebook page, is your profile picture of a triathlete?

Paula Kerger: It is and which is something I attempted to do after the age of 50, I will say. Actually it was my 50th birthday of pledge to myself that I was going to try something crazy. I had a friend that participated in these races and I went to races and I saw you put your age on your calf. I know that sounds horrible, but because you're competing against people of your own age and so that's how you realize who you're competing against and I saw women that had numbers on their cabs that began with twos, and threes, and fours, you expect that and fives, sixes, and sevens and I thought I wonder if I could do that? And so I did about 13 of them. I haven't done one in a little while but, I'm really glad that I did it. It was it was very hard, but it lifted me out of myself and that was my one of my airplane moments. I'll tell you, jumping in a big pool of open water that’s definitely an airplane moment.

Shelley Irwin: That’s wonderful and of course, leading the question, how important is it to find a passion that may not be associated with the office?

Paula Kerger: I think it's hugely important. I encourage people that work with me to pursue other interests. Everybody's been talking about, What did you do during this covid period? And I began beekeeping and I have three hives. This will be my second year. I partnered with a young woman who I knew that lives close to me that has established hives a few years ago because her son was very concerned about the demise of the honeybee and it's been an amazing experience. I love birds and so I’m a bit of an amateur birder as well and just being able to again, contribute back a little bit and helping to build the pollinators felt like a really interesting exciting thing to do and I think about those things now in a different way, which also ties back to some of the work that I do at PBS, as we look at some of our science and natural history programming and talk about the contributions that each one of us can make individually to preserve our planet.

Shelley Irwin: Do you have a go to motto? As we look to say our goodbyes.

Paula Kerger: Well, I guess I talked about it already as I talked about my airplane moment but, it's just really to lean into opportunity and challenge and we try to do that each and every day not to stay passive but, to really look at each challenge as it comes or, you know, as Winston Churchill once said, when you're going through hell, keep going. You know? You just keep pressing forward and that's what I say to myself every day.

Shelley Irwin: Future of PBS in fine shape?

Paula Kerger: I think we're in excellent shape. I think when I look back, we just celebrated our 50th anniversary of PBS and I think our best days are ahead of us. I see extraordinary opportunities for service to our youngest viewers all the way through our adult lifelong learners who come to PBS for information that hopefully makes a difference in their lives and we're very excited about what that represents as we look at our programming ahead.

Shelley Irwin: Paula Kerger, thank you for joining us here. Sharing obviously your experience, your mottos, and your inspiration for many. I so appreciate you sharing your words here on this edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk.

Paula Kerger: Thank you, Shelly.


>> Produced by women about women. These powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women, Let's Talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women, Let’s Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters or Grand Valley State University.


Shelley Irwin is the host and producer for The WGVU Morning Show, a newsmagazine talk-show format on the local NPR affiliate Monday through Friday. The show, broadcast from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. features a wide variety of local and national newsmakers, plus special features.
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