WSBE: 50 years of ‘lively’ educational programming

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Fifty years, 300,000 households watching weekly, and thousands of donating members are just some of the numbers representative of Rhode Island’s PBS station WSBE as it celebrates half a century of being in business. The station and its members are celebrating with a new logo, golden anniversary-themed special events, and sharing its accomplishments with media peers.

The station first officially hit the airwaves on June 8, 1967, and has since evolved in numerous ways. WSBE has made the transition from analog to digital technology and remains conscious of the constant changes that occur in the field of television. The station has diversified its programming, providing shows for children, cooking enthusiasts, news junkies, documentary lovers, and more. WSBE’s local programs like Our Town, Rhode Island Classroom, Story in the Public Square, Community Conversations - Prescription Drug Abuse, and Harvesting Rhode Island are what President and CEO David Piccerelli believes are standouts.

“I think one of our strengths is that we are reactionary to issues of our community and we’re able to put together informational programming that touches upon the issues that are affecting the community,” he said. “I think we’ve done a lot of that through the years.”

In addition to tapping into issues vital to its community of viewers, WSBE’s employees say they strive to uphold the station’s mission of providing educational programming for people of all ages.

“We have something for everybody. We can be a resource for continuing education, so to say, or for bringing something to light that you may not have learned through high school or college,” Piccerelli said.

One of the station’s flagship programs that fits WSBE’s educational mission is the 30-year-old A Lively Experiment, a weekly show where panels of reporters, commentators, professors, and more come together to discuss current events. It’s live to tape, which to host Jim Hummel means, “You never know what’s going to happen.”

Hummel calls himself the show’s “air traffic control guy,” a description that feels pretty much on the mark; on the day we visited, he was handling Democratic strategist Rob Horowitz, WPRI investigative reporter Tim White, URI Political Science professor Maureen Moakley, and former Representative and Trump Rhode Island Campaign Chair Joseph Trillo. As if the panel itself wasn’t enough, he was hosting it in the midst of an announcement on a potential 38 Studios settlement and the news of President Donald Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

The conversations were “lively,” (in this case, especially once Trillo got on a Trump rant) as a mix of different views was put forth. This of course makes for great television, but to those at Lively, entertainment is just a bonus. Hummel and producers first and foremost want to ensure that their viewers learn something from watching.

“I think entertaining yes, but really more thought provoking. I look at it more that way, that it’s actually interesting and maybe looks at a topic from a different angle. If that creates entertainment, then great,” said Kim Walden Keough, a producer on the show.

Panel guests are often determined by availability (the show typically tapes Friday mornings, airs later in the day, and again on Sunday), but Lively’s producers do try to book a diverse array of guests, no matter how difficult a task that may be. Hummel recalled a viewer recently commenting that the panelists slanted too far to the left, but said the perceived one-sidedness was most likely due to a guest’s last minute scheduling conflict. He said they always aim for a balanced panel, and that viewers take note when that happens as well.

“Sometimes it takes a little extra effort but I think that effort has paid off because we have a lot of people who say ‘wow, you've got more new people and it's a little more balanced,’” Hummel said. “My ideal show is to set the topics and sit back. If you've got a good panel, they're going to carry it.”

Hummel and Keough both have extensive backgrounds in television, but Lively is different from what they’ve worked on in the past. The control is in their hands, and they have more freedom to let their guests speak their minds.

“I think here, because we’re PBS, we’re allowed to have those conversations,” Keough said. “When I was a sportscaster, everything was scripted to the minute, to the second. This is nice because we don’t have to do that. It’s about the conversation, opinions, and letting people’s emotions have at it.”

This year, those emotions have “had at it” on a national scale. A bit of an uproar ensued after the public discovered PBS could potentially make it on the chopping block of Trump’s new budget. Piccerelli acknowledged that this was troubling but sadly, unsurprising.

“I think it’s nothing new to us. It’s been a battle that’s been fought for a number of years.” He adds that public television is “without a question” something that constantly finds itself needing to be protected with support from the public.

WSBE’s annual programming and operating budget is $4 million, half of which comes from fees, grants, and other contributions from a loyal base of members - 18 families and individuals have been members for 30 years, 1,050 for 20-29 years, and 1,038 for 10-19 years. Their longest membership clocks in at an impressive 38 years.

Piccerelli also noted that on a national scale, public television has support from lobbyists, activists, and legislators including Rhode Island’s congressional delegation. He seems confident that if PBS, and specifically WSBE, has had enough backing to overcome hurdles for the past 50 years, it can continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

“Fifty years is a long time for anyone to be in business. We’re very proud to continue on to broadcast and to fulfill the mission of the station for the community that we serve,” he said.

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