Jennifer Lawson, 2016 Lowell Award Recipient: Acceptance Remarks

Thank you for this incredible honor. First I want to thank the entire CPB Board, especially those present tonight, Chair Liz Sembler, and members Patty Cahill and Brent Nelsen. I know how hard you work wrestling with really difficult policy issues on behalf of public media and we all benefit greatly from your efforts.

I also want to thank Pat Harrison. Pat, you are remarkable, and it has been such an honor and pleasure to work with you these past five years. And, of course, I must thank my wonderful colleagues at CPB. I don’t have enough time to name them individually, but Pat has assembled an impressive team, and it has been my privilege to work with them. 

This community of public media is a great one, full of smart, passionate people, like a big extended family. It has been a joy to work with you.

This is quite an honor and I humbly accept this recognition only if you acknowledge that any accomplishments I have made in public media depended upon the work of so many others. At its core, public media has always been collaboration between all of us and a receptive audience who finds meaning in what we offer.

I am honored to receive this award because of the incredible roster of recipients I join, including Mary Bitterman and Rebecca Eaton, both with us this evening.

I studied film and television and came to work in this industry because I believed then, as I do now, that these technologies can make a difference in people’s lives.

I grew up in Fairfield, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, amidst steelworkers and coal miners. It was a time of institutionalized racism and strict segregation. The homes of some outspoken ministers and NAACP members were rather routinely bombed. A hilly street in one neighborhood was called Bombing Hill.

Our schools were substandard, stocked with secondhand textbooks and school equipment that were passed down from the local white schools when they had become obsolete. Our schools were pathetic by today’s standards, but my classmates and I were educated and nurtured by caring women and men, teachers and principals, and our parents, who believed deeply that education and information could be transformative and lead one away from poverty, racism, and deprivation.

They instilled in me a belief in the transformative power of education and I grew to think that, in this era, media, given their ubiquity, play a far more powerful role than formal education. We are all constantly learning and getting information from our screens and electronic devices.  We are increasingly watching screens of all sizes and listening to content on our devices.

The question is, what are we learning? What is the quality and value of the content? Is this the content that will help our children avoid the mistakes of history and propel civilization forward? Or inspire us to understand our world, its cultures and make new discoveries?

Public media is essential in providing information with integrity, quality, diversity and transparency of perspectives. And in this day and time, it is more essential than ever.

Public media has played an important role in safeguarding our democracy and our culture. Public media has created a growing, vital document of who we are as a nation in a manner that no other institution in this country can rival, and sometimes, I fear that we’ve lost sight of how precious that is.

If you need documentation of our history, all of our wars, presidencies, biographies of great American leaders and thinkers, you’ll find it in the vaults of public television. You’ll see Martin Luther King Jr. dreaming and you’ll see the nightmare of poverty, inequality and deprivation. Our history is continually being documented on public media from the earliest known days of Native American life on this continent to the Civil War to the Dust Bowl to the current days of the Obama presidency.

Public television has documented a multitude of national events and in many places it has captured the spirit of local communities with a granularity unseen elsewhere. Oregon’s Field guide, Maryland’s Chesapeake, Carolina’s by-ways, Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods and Chicago’s architectural gems and their legacy are all available to us because of public media.

Public media is also capturing our cultural record. The great dancers of our times – from Balanchine, Baryshnikov to Misty Copeland, the great tenors, the great operatic works and eventually Hamilton; playwrights, plays, and the list goes on. The arts and our cultural record are alive on public media.

While there is this richness of history and culture being captured and stored, please do not think that public media is a dusty archive in the attic. Far from it. I am privileged to have visited public media stations in almost every state from Alaska to Arizona and to have managed a public media station in our nation’s capital.

I know that these stations are often local journalism centers and places where discussion and debate occurs, a place where citizens can agree or disagree on contentious issues without rancor; where people are not competing to out scream each other. And of course, to keep our democracy strong, we need places like this, now more than ever.

I have been reflecting on my career in public media and the lessons I take with me as I retire this month. And it really boils down to this: We are most successful when we stay true to our mission and combine the collective power we have; when we work together to stand for quality, take risks and serve all Americans.

We must stand for education and provide essential information. The American Graduate activities and PBS Kids demonstrate to communities and families our seriousness about connection to education.

We must resist the temptation to fill our air with British comedies or other lighthearted fare with little societal value because ultimately, we will be called to task on our distinction and worthiness of public support.

A critical problem and a continuing weakness, however, is that we often have a hard time with our own productions of blending truth and beauty. We have far too much worthy content that denies the human need for storytelling, humor, and nuance. There are many series where we get it absolutely right and the audience, the awards, accolades and continued demand bears witness to the quality.

Public media must accept the challenge of reinventing and reinvigorating itself routinely. If we tell powerful, engaging stories with artistry, using the full language of the media, we will not only retain audiences, we will grow audiences and take public media to younger generations. Recently podcasting has been a breakthrough area. Online digital series are also appealing to younger audiences. Experimentation, creativity and risk-taking should be encouraged.

In the late 1980s when I headed the TV Fund at CPB, the PBS executives and I convened a conference of public television’s top producers at Hilton Head, South Carolina. It was called Exploring Primetime. We challenged the producers to think about the appeal of their work and we encouraged them to take risks and try different approaches. While they were quite skeptical at first, it has been heartening to hear over the years from producers that it did have an impact, that it did make a difference.

The message here is that we must not become complacent, but instead need to take risks and embrace change. We funded and aired numerous experiments, and I think we were all the richer for it—programs like Alive From Off Center, with the Walker Arts Center in Minnesota. Diversity, Digital and Dialogue—this is Pat Harrison’s mantra and reflects CPB’s commitment to innovation. Paula Kerger and her staff at PBS have a similar commitment to innovation and change.

Dare to take a chance. Try something different. If it doesn’t work, stop doing it. Try something else.

This is a formula that has worked from public media’s formative years, and will continue to work despite whatever technological and demographic changes are in store.

Our country is becoming younger and more diverse. Millennials are now the largest generation. Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and other cultural groups are increasingly becoming the majority.

If we do nothing, we risk becoming out of sight and out of mind to this important, defining generation. We need to take more risks and try new program ideas, aggressively seek out new artists, producers, thinkers and bring them into the public media community. Otherwise we risk become stale and irrelevant.

Taking calculated risks is crucial because viewers are being bombarded with a plethora of choices – on air, over the top, online and on other platforms. In this environment, we must also remember that our values are our identity, and we must think carefully about what defines us.

I sometimes encounter people in public media who are anxious about the future of public media, but I am very bullish and optimistic about public media’s future. Public media is an idea that is as central to our democracy as a free press. It is an essential part of the public square in a technological age, true to Ralph Lowell’s vision. 

Public media is more important now than ever, and it is important to keep it strong and growing. We must stand on the principles espoused by the Public Broadcasting Act of telling the stories of the unserved and underserved. Our identity reflects our values. I hope you’ll continue to ensure that public media stands for something important, beautiful, and truthful.

It’s moving to know that one can make a difference in the lives of others. Helping others through public media has brought me great joy. I hope you find much joy in working with your public media colleagues, taking on the challenges, and seeing the positive impact of your work in the communities you serve.

In accepting this award, I’d like to issue a challenge to those present to treat public media as the rare treasure that it is, protect it and to grow it for future generations.

Thank you.