For those who haven’t been touched lately by a PBS program, sound the “Masterpiece” trumpet: More free, quality content is coming with even more means to access it, whether it’s streamed from the local affiliate’s website, its app or through your cable provider.
Recent Pasadena transplant Andrew Russell, who serves as president/CEO of Public Media Group of Southern California, is making increased accessibility part of his greater mission in the ever-changing broadcast landscape, “for viewers like you,” as the tagline goes.
And yes, Russell — whose organization was formed by the merger of PBS SoCal and KCETLink Media Group — knows you might have something to say about it. He’s ready to listen.
“One thing I love about public media is, when you talk to people about their TV stations, they say ‘MY PBS station’ — they say it with a real sense of ownership. They care a lot about it and are very invested in it, they have great memories of watching it growing up, and now their own children watch it,” said Russell, who’s grown accustomed to people approaching him to discuss programs and share their opinions about them.
“People love to come up and talk about it, and sometimes you hear the most powerful, personal stories and people will share experiences with our content that has changed their lives. People really do care about that content, and if we make a misstep, they let us know.”
Named CEO of PBS SoCal in 2015, Russell is a 25-year veteran of public broadcasting, having held senior executive leadership positions at both PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Russell joined PBS SoCal as COO in 2013 and played a key role in helping it grow to be the flagship PBS station for Greater Los Angeles and Southern California. He was credited with helping to drive rapid growth across the station’s membership and revenues, increased PBS SoCal’s content distribution, and forged new partnerships with major Southern California arts and cultural institutions. PBS SoCal became the third-most-watched PBS station in the country, with the highest ratings of all Southern California public television stations.
Then came the 2018 merger, creating an entity poised to serve more than 18 million people in the region. One year later, sitting down to discuss its future, Russell gestured toward the company’s relatively new digs in Burbank, appropriately nestled among the Disney, ABC and Warner Bros. lots.
In his trademark soft-spoken tone, Russell warmly reflected on his experiences at the nonprofit organization and his hopes for the future.
“One of our great strengths, as you think about public television and radio being locally owned and locally controlled, is that they are great laboratories for innovation. That’s a really important thing for a community to have, because that locally based media focus serves the community and ultimately has a more positive impact with viewers,” he said, giving a nod to PBS SoCal and KCET’s recent Emmy wins and 22 nominations.
“What we built here is pretty extraordinary. This year, we have the most L.A. Press Club awards of any locally based media organization. … I think it’s a good story about not just our delivery, but about what is happening with locally based media. That’s always a part of our conversation: What is our role? Where can we grow to? It’s a complex and important topic as it pertains to our role in informing people — an informed public is so important for an effective democracy.”
Despite consolidations in the industry and generational changes in the way people view content, Russell said he thinks the core of PBS’ viewership has remained the same.
“People are looking for substantive experiences. They want to be connected and inspired; audience tastes change over time, but what they want has remained consistent. They want to lean in and engage and explore and learn something new. Our role is to focus on that gap. … From the very dawn of public media, the mission has been ‘to fill this vast wasteland,’” said Russell. “Apart from our creative content, people come to our news because it’s trusted. People see it as thoughtful, an oasis from the din.”
Russell’s leadership has heralded a rather pivotal change, the 2018 merger. KCET had been PBS’ top West Coast outpost for nearly 40 years before becoming an independent public station in 2011 following disputes over new affiliation agreements.
The community, Russell said, has been largely supportive of the merger and relieved that the two have rejoined efforts. “It’s been nine years of being apart on the journey … both companies were on parallel tracks, so it’s a wonderful match now, it’s very exciting.”
The CEO’s passion for the project doesn’t escape his team.
Chief Operating Officer Jamie Myers has worked closely with the CEO, helping to integrate PBS SoCal and KCET.
“Andy is an amazing leader and is thoughtful and respectful to those he surrounds himself with on his executive team. He’s really inclusive and creates a lot of teamwork and collaboration around building for something bigger,” said Myers, whose background in education has helped her oversee PBS’ educational programming efforts, which also continue to be a network priority.
“Andy is really genuine and cares deeply for the work and the people connected to the work. He’s very passionate about public media and cares deeply for the community.”
Russell said he feels that during his tenure at PCS, he’s gotten to use the gamut of his talents: Before earning a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University and a master’s in public administration from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (he also has a bachelor’s degree from UC Davis), Russell grew up in the Bay Area and was the son of a journalist and aspiring playwright who ultimately covered theater.
“I grew up in a creative community, and it’s one of the reasons public media has felt like a really nice fit for me,” he said. “Being around filmmakers and performing artists and being the place that connects them to leading thinkers, historians and news and journalism … our role is to connect all those audiences to extraordinary people doing extraordinary work.”
Board chair Richard Cook attested to Russell’s strength in combining his business expertise with the creative side of the job.
“Andy possesses some very unique skills and abilities — he’s got a great mixture of understanding the creative environment but also is very organized in the business sense of things, with being a very good strategic thinker. He’s a rare blend. It’s difficult to find executives with both of those qualities,” Cook said.
While Russell has found his groove as CEO, he’s still exploring his role in the community of Pasadena. When he took the reins in the merger and was faced with splitting his time between KOCE in Orange County, downtown L.A. and the Burbank offices, he and his wife chose Pasadena to settle down. He’d already gotten a great taste for the sense of community at the city’s largest event of the year, the Rose Parade, in 2016, when he got to ride the PBS’ “Downton Abbey” float. It coincided with the year producer Ken Burns served as grand marshal, and luckily Burns, who has been one of PBS’ prolific documentarians, invited the Russells along for the ride.
“We got to watch the float come together as it was created. … I love the community of Pasadena! It was the perfect introduction to the community … to be on that float and go down Colorado and seeing all those people so happy and enthused, even though they’re so tired, the whole community of volunteers makes that happen,” he said.
While Russell is still exploring the City of Roses, he’s an outdoors lover and is enjoying having nearly backyard access to Eaton Canyon for walks and hikes. Although he has yet to come across a bear (“My neighbors told me they saw one in the street”), he’s become indoctrinated with the wild parrots that descended on a fruit-bearing tree in his yard over several days. “Let’s just say they do not have the prettiest voices,” he laughed.
Whether you see Russell at the local bookstore (he currently has six novels at bedside), or at the corner coffee shop, he’ll be ready to talk about the next big story at PBS. He’ll take off that celebrity hat and sunglasses to do it, he joked.
“The stories I love are the ones where I’m learning something, the ones that take me to a different time or place or provide me with insight, connect me with people I didn’t know about, so that there is discovery and learning and a deeper experience,” he said. “The story itself is the surprise of the whole journey … that’s what makes a really good story to me.”