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Transforming TPT: New platforms for lifelong learning, community convening

CEO Jim Pagliarini
Shore to Shore Communications, IncCEO Jim Pagliarini

You’ve got to hand it to the folks running the mini-empire formerly known as Twin Cities Public Television. Twelve years ago when they added a second broadcast channel, there was a bit of fanfare about their rebranding as TPT.

But what have they said about their conquests since then? Perhaps they have just been waiting, Minnesota coy, for someone to come along and ask.

Since TPT17 joined TPT2, TPT WX and TPT MN and digital sub-channels have been launched with little fanfare. Nor has there been much bragging about the fact that the TPT has some of the highest Nielsen ratings in the PBS universe. Or about the Emmys, or the nearly fanatical devotion its Friday night public affairs show inspires in some circles, or the steady stream of programming it exports to its PBS brethren around the country.

Maybe it should come as no surprise, then, that the leaders of the 65-year-old institution once colloquially referred to as “educational TV” are only half joking when they say they have finished the first, “quiet phase” of a $30 million capital campaign and are now ready to start talking about it — modestly.

In point of fact, it sounds audacious: They have begun spending a little of the $20 million raised to date on a plan to offer not just broadcasting, but lifelong digital learning opportunities for anyone with a pod, pad, phone, classroom whiteboard or, to make sure the Luddites don’t get left behind, a TV.

MinnPost asked TPT President and CEO Jim Pagliarini to describe this stealth transformation. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:

MinnPost: The new TPT — how did the idea get birthed?

Jim Pagliarini: Back in 2008 we, like so many stations, were struggling to figure out what our future was and how we could continue to be relevant. We went through a very intensive planning process at the station where we affirmed that TPT should be around for the next six decades. The media was still going to play a really important role in education and public service, so there was an affirmation of our mission and purpose.

The second thing — that didn’t take really a genius to see — is that there’s a revolution going on in the media landscape. The way consumers are using media is changing. There’s a new generation of people who are not sitting down after dinner saying, “Honey, let’s go watch ‘Masterpiece Theater.’ ” And there is available to us a whole new set of tools to use to pursue our mission.

We looked at all of that and said, we’ve been a very good television station for almost six decades — the station signed on the air in 1957 — but we really need to deliberately go through a transformation where we continue to build on our television competencies, but start to bring in resources, talents and projects that take advantage of new tools and new ways to reach new consumers of public media.

Our core business is doing very well. Every year we have a balanced budget. Lots of people use us, but we don’t have the excess revenue to invest in new ideas and in the new infrastructure and tools that we need to help transform it to this new media organization. The way you raise capital and venture capital in the nonprofit world in order to do new things is through campaigns.

MP: Can you talk a little bit about demand? Were you looking at where you could be of highest service?

JP: The campaign is supporting three things. One is adding to our endowment. We have an operating budget of about $28 million a year, and we only have about a $12 million endowment. We’re trying to add to that endowment to assure some financial stability, and we’re doing that largely through planned gifts and estate gifts to the campaign. Of the $21 million we’ve already raised, a little over $2.5 million has come from members declaring an estate gift to the station, which we will realize sometime in the future.

The other investment in the station is a renovation of our facility, which is 25 years old. We’re right across the street from Union Depot [in downtown St. Paul]. The light rail will literally stop in front of our door. We have a plan to renew the space and open it up to the public. In fact, to create a public gathering space at the street level, move our entrance down to the street level, and have our physical presence tangibly reflect the new open philosophy of TPT.

Then, getting to your question of demand and what we are going to focus on in terms of programs and services, that is a component of the capital campaign, which is all about investing in new ideas and new areas of focus for the station.

We will continue to be a television station and have a general-audience service. PBS, primetime programming, our children’s schedule, but we’re really wanting to develop four centers of excellence that will target certain activities.

One is to build on our work with the Minnesota Channel, which we launched 10 years ago when we were struggling with how to provide vibrant public television service to a community when making television is so expensive. We said maybe there’s a way we could do more programming if we do it in partnership with other mission-similar organizations.

It’s a very robust service. In the last decade, we worked with almost 215 nonprofit organizations, produced 900 or 1,000 hours of programming. Demand from organizations that want to work with us exceeds our capacity. Campaign funds already have been used to bring on more staff to work with community organizations to co-produce programs.

The other focus area that we’re spending time and energy in is beefing up our service to children, families, teachers and caregivers. PBS has a huge repository of really strong educational programs that now extends far beyond the broadcast schedule. If you look at our website — what’s available for parents, teachers and kids online — it’s just a tremendous resource. A lot of people don’t know it exists and need help understanding how to use it.

We brought on three full-time people to start working in the community with organizations providing services to children and families to increase awareness and the use of this programming, both online and on air.

We’re also rolling out something that PBS has created, that we’ll supplement with our own programming called the PBS-TPT Digital Learning Library. PBS has digitized its library, cut it into learning segments and correlated them to state educational standards so teachers will be able to draw on and use this resource in their classroom. A teacher is able to find the exact five-, six-minute segment from an American Experience series on Franklin Delano Roosevelt to use in the classroom.

And we’ve digitized our archives. Right now you could type in “Paul Wellstone” and see clips of every time Paul Wellstone appeared on either “News Night Minnesota” or “Almanac.” We’ll be integrating our library video content into the PBS library.

We also saw a huge opportunity and a need to address America’s older population. We launched a service called Next Avenue, which recognizes the fact that there are two significant trends occurring in the nation. One, there was this huge population moving into the 50-plus demographic, against the backdrop of the longevity revolution.

We saw this huge need to give people good information at an early stage of becoming old — we call it the young old — to be able to make good decisions about their health, their finances, about how to continue to work if you need to or how might you do volunteerism as you age. We put together a national website.

This is the first time a station has ever created a national PBS media product that’s something other than television. Typically, we produce TV shows, and distribute them to stations. We have given away Next Avenue to every PBS station in the country and have established a whole network of partners ranging from Huffington Post to the National Institute on Aging. Our job is to curate and to create content. We have a group of 10 editors and journalists who are working on Next Avenue all over the country.

The last area is the one that is least developed but in many ways for me is incredibly exciting. The Next Generation Initiative recognizes that not only is America graying, PBS is graying. I started working in PBS when I was 23. My generation had a chance to build what public television is today. There needs to be a transition of energy and leadership to a new generation here in the Twin Cities, to define and create what public media is going to be for this state.

Part of the campaign funds are going to invest in bringing a new team of people in who really know how to use interactive media to begin to figure out what is the 21st century version of “Almanac.” How do you connect with the younger generation to get them engaged civically? How do you tell the history of Minnesota in a different storytelling language than television?

We’re saying, understand the mission, the values, the principles and the purpose. Now, how do you do it? Go figure it out. As a tangible example, in 2008 we were spending $60,000 a year on interactive media. In this year’s budget we’ll be spending $700,000. The level of investment that we’re putting into new media — building apps, getting programming on iPhones and things like that — it’s just got to be part of our future.

MP: What is public media’s charter?

JP: There was a correctly perceived observation that television and radio were dominated by commercial interests. Non-commercial television and radio were created to say that basically this media can be really effective in selling washing detergent, and it can be really effective in selling people ideas, in getting them engaged physically and teaching them art, history and culture. The mandate as I see it is to fill the void that exists in the marketplace of using the power of media for education and public service.

The way we’ve defined our mission is: TPT exists to enrich the lives of individuals and to strengthen our community through the power of media. It intentionally has two prongs. There’s a lot we do that touches the lives of individuals in ways that we don’t even see. It changes people’s lives, it changes kids’ lives and what they see on television.

The other is that it’s a tool that can bring community together. The work we’re doing with the Minnesota Collaborative, we do many convenings of groups. For example, with our children’s work, we sometimes are the glue that brings disparate organizations together in the community to say, “Hey we’re all trying to accomplish the same thing. Let us be a media partner, let us all work together and take the assets that we have and try to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

MP: If our readers want to start wrapping their minds around the fact that TV is now a slice of what you do, where would you direct them?

JP: If somebody wanted to experience an example of what the new TPT is, Next Avenue is not a bad place to go. Over the course of the next year people are going to see TPT appearing on different platforms. You will see us announcing an application for the iPad where you’ll be able to stream PBS programs and TPT programs. It’s not there yet. I would say within the next three to four months that’s going to be available.

Television is still going to be a huge part of what we are. Today, on a bad week, about 1 million people watch us. That’s far more than are ever going to come to our websites, at least in this decade. So it’s going to be more than a slice. The real advantage that we have is to leverage and coordinate what you can do on television with what you can do online, with what you could do by bringing people together.

Again, so much of what we’re doing is all about partnerships, it’s recognizing that we don’t necessarily need to create this content ourselves. The role that we can play is building the platform and serving as a curator and editor of content other people are producing.  Content is going to come in from science museums, from other educational sources. We’ll produce some of our own and we’ll begin to populate it.

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