Rocky Mountain PBS's CEO, Doug Price interviewed by the Opportunity Coalition's CEO, Brian Watson


Brian Watson: Welcome to the Opportunity Coalition podcast. Today, we have Doug Price, the CEO of Rocky Mountain PBS with us. Doug, welcome to the show.

Doug Price: Great to be here, Brian.

Brian Watson: Now, Doug, all of us have not only grown up with PBS, but also seen different shows. But for our listeners, just to make sure everybody is on the same page, tell us a little bit about your station and your programming and what you’re about?

Doug Price: Well, I think most people would know we’ve been on the air here in Denver since 1956, so exactly my age. And generally, we’re the second teacher of Colorado’s children, whether it’s Sesame Street, WordGirl, or other things like that, our forte has to been to be an educational resource for the people of Colorado. That continues to this day, and then it’s leavened by other great entertainments, whether it’s Downton Abbey or our own local shows, Arts District, and The Colorado Experience, the goal is to really help the culture advance, and to be a player in preserving the democracy as we know it.

Brian Watson: Well, let’s talk about how much people are viewing TV and specifically PBS, and you and I got together recently for coffee, and you were sharing some of the statistics that help support that concept of being the second teacher of Colorado’s students. I think oftentimes, people assume, well, kids today are out playing video games, and not really watching educational TV. What is your response to that?

Doug Price

Doug Price

Doug Price: Well, I think that television as a whole is becoming more and more stratified. By that, meaning, there’s a lot of different opportunities and a lot of other channels. But one has to look at the progress we’ve made over the last five years, and PBS, when I arrived, was the 11th network in the country, and it’s back to being the fifth, along with the four majors. PBS is right there with Fox, NBC, CBS, and ABC. So we’re back. It’s ironic in a way, when people are thinking all the entertainment is elsewhere, the most important networks in America continue to be the big, locally available networks, that are marked by having local stewardship of the content.

So that’s one thing. I think that from a ratings perspective, we just had the best ratings quarter we’ve had in 5.5 years, led by The Roosevelts by Ken Burns. So the number of people watching television in Denver and Colorado as a whole is stable from the time I arrived in 2009, which is somewhat counterintuitive, when we think of all the distractions and disruptions that have occurred in media.

Brian Watson: Now Rocky Mountain PBS, you obviously serve the Rocky Mountain area, maybe you could outline that for us, but the PBS affiliation in general, kind of walk us through what that looks like on a national scale, and how you receive your funding to put forth good quality programming?

Doug Price: Well, I think there’s two big questions embedded in that one. One is that, in terms of funding, 90% of all funding we receive comes from Colorado. It comes from people like Brian Watson, and your lovely wife, writing a check. Our average donor is about $120 a year. We have 70,000 donors. Corporate support, a variety of other issues. And then the federal government, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, provides about 10% of the budget we have.

And we spend almost double that getting a signal into every household in Colorado, for kids particularly whose families cannot afford cable, still should be the beneficiaries of the rich educational content we have, and we have a strong commitment to making sure that happens. And so that’s generally where we are, in terms of what public support has been. Right now, our budget is roughly $15 million, and almost all of it is raised right here at home.

You asked the question of who we serve. Although we’re Rocky Mountain PBS, dominantly, we serve the state of Colorado. It is true that currently we go into Wyoming, a little bit into Kansas, Utah, and New Mexico, but our emphasis is on serving the people of Colorado.

Brian Watson: So in terms of your support for the federal government, there have been people who have run for office over the last number of years, who believe the federal government should be out of the business of funding such programming. There’s others who believe that it’s vital and necessary. What is your thoughts and response with regards to those critiques?

Doug Price: Well, I think first off, you have to think about, in the western world, where do we rank as a culture, in terms of the support of public media, and we’re dead last. So the investment in public media in the United States is very limited. I think most people don’t understand that it’s a dime on a dollar for a group like ours. They just don’t get that that’s really cost, they think it’s far more expensive. And it seems counterintuitive to me, in a time when you can have a public-private partnership that can educational opportunity as deeply as we do, that you would think that you would go in another direction. Nobody does what we do.

We’re the non-profit sector, and there’s no other media organization that has the emphasis we do, on providing educational, or arts and culture entertainment for that matter, but particularly the educational realm. Why would you choose to have an enormous cultural facility like PBS, and then not repair the roof occasionally? And that’s really where it is. We have hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, billions of dollars nationally, in the public media assets, and these are vital utilities to help protect the democracy.

If you think about what we just went through, all of public media in Colorado gets around $3 million, $3.4 million from the national groups. You just had an election campaign where well over $100 million was spent. So 3% of that is being invested, if you will, by the government, in a utility that provides a great resource, and fact-based information across the board. So it just seems like you’d be squandering an investment, if you chose to back away from it, so that’s my perspective. I have a good friendship, of sorts, with Doug Lamborn, who’s the key guy in terms of opposing public media, and he’s supportive of what we do, he just isn’t supportive of funding at the national level, and others are.

 My point remains, is it’s not the question of the funding, it’s a question of what gets lost without the funding, and my argument is that I’m spending between $4 million and $5 million a year on getting us an air signal to a home on the Western Slope, and to me, I always use the trailer on my cousin’s farm, where the farm family that does the labor for them, exists. And that kid’s not going to get cable television access. To him, the provision of a signal to his house in Montrose County is the key element of helping him bridge from poverty, if you will, to the middle class.

And I take seriously that responsibility, and I hope the political environment will continue to embrace it. There are certain places where you have to invest to get the return that you want. This isn’t expenditure, it’s not something that’s not going to be returned to the American people. Where else? It’s a 10 to one ratio of private investment to public investment. If anybody else gets that elsewhere, let me know, and we’ll work with them.

Brian Watson: Well, I’m glad that you take it seriously, because as you know, I come from a small town on the Western Slope of Colorado, being Olathe, and when I started growing up and watching that programming, that’s when I was in that community, and it’s vital to have that outreach and impact.

Doug Price: It’s funny that you mention, I’ll just interject. That trailer is in Olathe, and I forgot that. Their property is out near Pea Green, so it’s funny that you say that, but I think that that’s really – I grew up in a household that had – I was the first kid, as you know, born into a house that had plumbing. My family’s farm was over there, near Montrose, just up above Olathe and [Boston Park], and decision of government to fund rural electrification had a great impact, on what occurred, and that’s the same thing with us. The ability to provide core services to people who otherwise would not receive them, through fairly archaic technology now of television, but also through a really strong commitment to digital activities, is really important.

And whether you’re conservative or liberal, whether you’re a democrat or a republican, or an independent, I think there are certain investments in the culture that we really have to protect, to make sure that everybody gets a chance at what we think of as the American dream. We’re one of the most traditional and patriotic organizations in America, and I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to think about a small amount of investment creating a great deal of leverage for the American people is valuable.

Brian Watson: Not many people have heard of Pea Green, so you’re after my heart when you bring up that, so thank you for doing that. You come from a background, you’re now CEO of Rocky Mountain PBS, and you were also President of FirstBank at one time, so you have a unique perspective, in terms of how business operates, and how to measure outcomes, and to making sure that you’re having that impact. How do you go about measuring the impact of your programming? Specifically a lot of these communities that are in special need of what you have to offer?

Doug Price: I think you do it in two ways. We really have three distinct segments of programming that are interesting to us, that we think are not being realized in the private sector, the way that they once were. And I go back, fundamentally, to the view that I’m a capitalist at heart, and in the American system of capitalism, you have government, you have commerce, but you also have this incredible role of the non-profit with what we do. And so the non-profit sector is unique in its importance in the United States, in terms of its impact on capitalism. And so what we look at is sort of things, that if you think about the three segments we serve, we are in public service journalism, we’re in arts and culture, and we’re in education.

With respect to public service journalism, we measure our impact retrospectively. We never go into a story choice, we never go into a project in journalism thinking about what we think the impact is going to be. We sort of deal the cards, and let the chips fall where they may, if you think about it. So our view there is a very retrospective look. What did we publish, and what was the impact of that after the fact? And again, we do a form of journalism that is no longer prevalent in the commercial media. Long form, long lead, deep fact-based, almost always data based, oriented.

Losing Ground is a great example of that, which tonight is the night that we expect the Ferguson hearing, the Ferguson grand jury to come out. The Gannett Broadcast Group, led by Channel 9, will have that as the forefront, and so they will use the work we did on Losing Ground, which is a treatment of Black and Latino families, educational and economic prospects in a post-civil rights movement world, as the basis for some of the reporting they do tonight. So that’s an example of something they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

So we measure ourselves by the use of the data, the use of the fact-based information that we create for the broader public. That particular thing was in 104 different publications. It had a life of about, well now, it’s over a year. So that work is valuable, as source material for other reporting, and that’s how we would measure the journalism. What happens once we’ve done it.

With respect to education, we have specific acts we want to motivate. So for example, we’re in the process of starting a campaign to inform people about the resources we have at Rocky Mountain PBS under our digital learning media segment. We have over 80,000 digital learning objects, and the purpose of that campaign will be to get parents and children to access this rich and free educational content, to enhance what they do in early learning, particularly. So we’ll measure that by the number of people that access learning opportunities that we wouldn’t otherwise have had, and we’re planning for that impact, so we’ll look at a prospective impact there.

With respect to arts and culture, I think we say we measure ourselves by the ability of an artist to sell more, the ability of an artistic venue in Colorado to attract more of an audience, and our view is to support rather than just to criticize the art. That we think it’s wonderful, the creative industry is an important component of the Colorado economy, and what we try to do is make sure we’re supportive of the artistic groups that exist, and their ability to have a favorable impact on the culture as a whole.

Brian Watson: Going back to one of the comments that you have provided, this interaction between government, commerce, and the non-profit world. And I think sometimes, as Americans, we forget that those are three distinct, yet connected, interconnected things in society. And in a lot of other countries around the world, government takes care of this thing of non-profit. This idea of giving. Not in all respects, but in large, to good degree, it’s the responsibility of government. In America, we believe that it’s the responsibility of the people, and to encourage that philanthropy, and that giving.

Do you believe part of that social contract and responsibility has been diminished in some respects, being the ever-changing role of specifically the federal government in American society? That people are abdicating more and more responsibility to those needed things in society, or do you believe that it’s alive and well, and people are giving maybe as they should or could give?

Doug Price: I think the American people are really generous, and if you really begin to look at the per capita role that government plays, it’s not increasing erratically. You had a time where, for each of the past six years, ever since the Recovery Act, spending in government has actually gone down. This is kind of unprecedented, Brian, in the way that employment in government decreased, on a state level, particularly throughout the course of the recession. So that’s not really happened dramatically the way it has in this particular recession, before.

So I think the role of government has actually decreased in a lot of ways, in the recent past, both on a state and national level, compared to where it was. You’ll have a big thing like the ACA or Obamacare that comes to the fore, and people will think that more and more things are being taken care of, but the response to a lot of the problems of the country are still built around having a robust non-profit sector. And so I do think it’s alive and well, and it’s alive and well by measuring both the contributions that people of Colorado give to these non-profits, and the proliferation of non-profits that are looking at meeting it. I think it’s one of the more virtuous parts of American life is that, anybody, irrespective of political background, or even financial ability, has the capacity to affect the lives of a lot of people, by using the non-profit sector as a guide, as a place within which to do it.

Whether it’s churches, I think that again, you see a resurgence of church-based activities, and certainly the parish that we’re in has been revivified by a young priest that is just terrific, and has the congregation really focusing attention on addressing the needs of the neighborhood and the state. So I think it would be dangerous to think the American people haven’t embraced philanthropic giving. Think about Colorado Gives day, and the Community First Foundation, and how swiftly that has grown, with my old bank, FirstBank as its leader, from $5 million or $7 million to who knows, $30 million or $35 million this year is possible, that people of Colorado would give in a single day on the, I think it’s the 8th of December.

I think that, anecdotally and practically, you see great evidence that the American people of all political persuasions are jumping to fill the void that isn’t being filled by government, because that’s not the nature of the system we’re in, that we tend to have government do a few things, and certainly in the healthcare arena, it has had to do more and more, because of its nature, but for a lot of other things, the poor, which suffer enormously, were it not for the non-profit sector, and the arts would suffer enormously, were it not for the patrons that support. Which by the way, has a lot of the artisans at the lower levels of the economic ranks. So I’m actually proud to be part of that. And I know what you and your wife do as well, so you’re party to that idea, too, that charity and philanthropy has a great role in the future of the country.

Brian Watson: It really does. To me, it’s one of the great blessings of life, to be able to give, and I agree with you, that Americans in general, were one of the most, if not the most, giving country, and like anything, it’s something that needs to be learned and developed, and so I’m glad that we have these different programs to help promote that. But I want to transition now, Doug, to you on a personal level. I could talk to you probably all day about what you’re doing at Rocky Mountain PBS, and it’s good work, so thank you for your efforts there, but on a personal level, what is one of your favorite quotes or sayings, and why?

Doug Price: I think that it’s a little bit long, but one of my moments I had, Allan Boesak was with the African National Congress, and this was probably in the mid-1990s or so, right after apartheid had been lifted, and he had been one of the ministers that had served Nelson Mandela. And he was giving a talk at the Macedonia Baptist Church, if I remember right, and I went there for Sunday dinner. And he said, the greatness of a nation is no longer measured by the size and strength of its arsenal. The greatness of a nation is measured by the future it provides its children.

And to me, that was the most telling thing I had thought about, and that began, in some ways, my transition into focusing on early learning as the core civic activity of my lifetime, because of that awareness, as he conclude the quote: The grace of God does not fall like rain from the sky. Instead, it manifests itself in the actions of ordinary people.

For us to have social change, it wasn’t going to be led by government, it wasn’t going to be led by some great charismatic leader. It had to be led by individuals making a cumulative bunch of decisions in the right way. And so, to me, that was the most impactful thing I had ever heard, is that somebody who is as completely ordinary as I am, could have an impact by my own personal actions, and that struck me as a spiritual moment as well, having been led in many ways by a personal relationship with Christ, is how is it going to drive you in directions that will manifest itself in positive change for people, not just in a prayerful appeal to a higher authority.

Brian Watson: Yeah. That’s definitely something you can think about and dwell on for a while. A number of years ago, even in my business at Northstar Commercial Partners, decided that I’d start connecting my passions with my profession, and to figure out, what could I do with my sphere of influence, to help someone’s life for the better. And it really is interesting, when you take stock of your own life, and decide what resources do I have, and it might something as simple as encouraging somebody, by saying a positive word to them in a given day, to investing in somebody’s life and coming alongside them.

So you never know the path that that’s going to lead you down, and it obviously has led you down a very interesting path, yourself. So thank you for sharing that. Doug, what is some of the best advice you have ever received?

Doug Price: I think the great line is always tell the truth, so you won’t have to remember anything. I can sometimes be more direct and gruff than I need to be, I suppose, but the idea that integrity is the core of what of we do and truthfulness is the key to that, you don’t have much to do otherwise. The other thing was, the advice I give to others, I don’t know who gave it to me, was when you make decisions as a 17-year-old or a 22-year-old, make sure that you’re comfortable with them when you’re 50. Ask yourself that question all the time.

Brian Watson: That is interesting. Well, you know, telling the truth, so you don’t have to remember what you said, it would be nice if more people in society would use that, that’s for sure.

Doug Price: I think that’s a Mark Twain line, if I remember correctly.

Brian Watson: I think you’re right.

Doug Price: Whoever gave me the quote, I was like, yeah, I like that. It makes sense to me.

Brian Watson: It really does, it really does. What is your personal definition of success, Doug?

Doug Price: I really look at success in sort of three tranches, and I think the commercial component is the least of them. One is to be at peace with your family and your god. Two is to enjoy your day, to like the pace and the activities that you have in the day. To like the contribution you’re able to make as a result of that. And then finally, I think that financial and stable success is valuable. Really, I think if you don’t take care of your family issues first, if you don’t take care of your spiritual life first, it’s highly unlikely that the other components of life will be successful.

Brian Watson: Yeah, it’s very interesting. And I think sadly, at times, we all invert those, where we make that financial success or whatever it might be the highest priority, and I think that that’s a fallacy, and if you don’t have your relationships and your health and your peace about you, you can’t be very productive in some of those other areas.

Doug Price: I look at the Millennial, my kids are Millennials, more or less, I think. And I look at what they do, and I think they tend to have their priorities in the correct order. And spirituality doesn’t have to be in a dogmatic relationship with Christ, or Judaism, or Islam. I think to lead the spiritual life is possible without strong religious beliefs. Simply to understand that there is a higher purpose in what we do, and to be attracted to always being a part of that, whether we’re a successful business leader, or a media, non-profit manager, or somebody just laboring as an artisan or in the crafts. I mean, it’s the same thing, is that we all have contributions to make, and we should be led by a higher calling.

] Jim Wallis, who’s an evangelical minister out of DC, says before you can reach common ground, you have to reach higher ground. And I think that in our lives today, particularly when you watch some of the activity in the political realm, and the advertising and other things, it doesn’t feel like anybody is in it for higher ground, and if that as a culture is what we want to do. And we seek to do that every day at Rocky Mountain PBS. It’s certainly a secular world that we live in, yet we always try to say, what is higher ground for the culture? What are the things we can do to defend the democracy, in a sense that is potentially vulnerable to increasing money spent to give ways to occasionally extreme views. What is it we could do to preserve the culture that is part of the fabric of the American way of life? And so I think everybody that’s in the building, all 84 of our employees, think when they come to work that we’re serving a higher purpose than we would have in other lines of work.

Brian Watson: Well, I’m glad to hear that you’re in pursuit of higher ground, because sadly, there’s some programming out there that seems like they’re in pursuit of the base nature of humanity, and lower ground.

Doug Price: It’s a funny deal, Brian, because I think that if you compromise your standards, then I think that you can lose ground, and when I look at what we’ve done, we’ve gone from being the 11th network to the fifth, I think a lot of that is the quality that we deliver every day. We’re not afraid to talk about the current events of the culture, so it’s not like you’re avoiding the things that are controversial, that we refuse to talk about the legalization of marijuana or something. No, we have to be in the culture that we serve, or we’ll be gone.

Some people can do things from an ivory tower, but we prefer to think of ourselves as Mother Theresa like, in the sense of being in her order, and being the muck of – slums of Calcutta. We have to be in the culture to serve the culture. But I think we are able to provide a level of aspiration and education to the people of Colorado, that is distinctly different from some of the others that are strictly in pursuit of a more base audience. And so, I get that. That’s why our guys like coming to work every day.

Brian Watson: That’s wonderful. So what do you believe is the biggest challenge or threat facing our country or world today?

Doug Price: Just throw out a little question there. I think to an extent, the culture is being stratified, into tribal groupings. When we look at Africa, some of the struggles they’ve had with tribalism, some of the countries that have a more nationalistic sense are more successful. So on account, you look at that. And I think there’s this idea of getting into really smaller and smaller groups is a dangerous one. I worry about that a lot. We have fewer and fewer common experiences through media. That when you look at the campaign we just ran, so much of it, I was saying, in a culture where the Supreme Court has said that money is speech, you have to have places where speech can’t be bought by money.

And I think that we find ourselves in that position, where we’re at risk of having fewer and fewer groups, have more and more to say, about the future of what we do, and I think that’s where something, an organization like Rocky Mountain PBS comes in. And we have 70,000 individual contributors to what we do. I went through this with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it’s incredibly balanced in terms of the political perspectives that we have. It’s incredibly balanced in terms of the ethnic groups that donate to us. It’s incredibly balanced, frankly, in terms of the economic willingness of people of limited means to contribute, as well as those with significant means to contribute.

And so we think of ourselves as an institution that has to fight this idea of tribalism and stratification. That we have to provide emotional events through the programming we create that unify the American people into a purposeful view. And it’s not that we have to tell them what they should think. On the contrary, we’re never going to be in a position, we’re never advocates, but we’re only conveners. And so our role to be a safe place, where the important conversations of the day can be, is really something that is significant and important to our team, because I do think that otherwise, you have this feeling that everybody is in a group of five, and then we’re going to fight to the end to battle for our interests, as opposed to the shared interests of the culture, and of the democracy.

Brian Watson: Doug, I don’t know if you remember or not when we first met, but I was a young freshman, going to the University of Colorado, and had the opportunity to be in the President’s Leadership class, which you were involved with, and thank you for your service there. But you know, at the President’s Leadership class, we talked a lot about building common ground and empowering others, and how to use your skill set. And I agree with you, that as technology has increased over time, in one way, it’s been very empowering, in another, it’s also been very limiting, in terms of people going into these subgroups, and specifically extreme subgroups, which is unfortunate. And I think those are things to be addressed and to be looked at. We’re one community, and to try to create those relationships and bonds is just so vital and important to our future. So thank you for sharing that. But if you could make one change, in order to make the largest positive impact in our country, world, or your business or industry, what would that be?

Doug Price: Another light question. You know, you have to look at what is going to have the most impact, right? And what is clear to me is the earliest stages of human life are the ones that are worthy of the greatest protection and support. And so, if I were the emperor for a day, I would really ask the culture, the society, the democracy, to pay closer attention to the needs of the youngest children amongst us. That we have done things for economic reasons that are useful, in terms of the way parents work, the participation of both parents in the workforce is something that is remarkably different than it was when I was born, and even when you were born, knowing that you’re 20 or so years younger than me.

The world in 1956, when I was born, is radically different than today, when we had – in 1956, you had about one in nine women in the workforce, post-World War, they had gone back during the war, but they had settled in, in a pretty traditional view, and so kids had a lot of adults that were paying attention to their lives and supporting what they did, and I think the resulting impact was really favorable on our economic prospects. You took kids who had loving parents, and contributed a pretty good education through the GI Bill and other things, and all of a sudden, we had this period of great robust growth.

And so I worry today, when roughly 70% of women work, and you have a great number of people in the workforce, and too few people paying attention to the early learning care stream, that’s an area that I think I would change. And obviously, I spend a lot of my adult life working on that area. To me, that’s the most important area of investment and attention the culture can pay, is to kids, before they’re the age of six and hit school. At that point in time, we have this investment curve that Jim Heckman has popularized, the Nobel-prize winning economist out of the University of Chicago, where 90% of the brain growth occurs before a child is six, but only 10% of the investment occurs in roughly the same period of time for those kids, and that’s something I think we have to think about as a culture addressing.

And the good news is, in a time in Colorado, or in a time, nationally, where we’re polarized between the parties, both parties, I think, generally can default to having an appreciation for young kids, and helping to act on them. So maybe this is an area, in the next two years, we can pay a lot of attention to, and have both parties say hey, if we disagree about a lot of things, at least we can agree that young kids deserve the best we can give to them, and figure out a way to make that system more functional, and that outcome of early childhood more favorable for these young kids.

Brian Watson: Very true, very true. The younger you can start, the better, to have that positive impact. Doug, what is the best way for our listeners to learn more about you and your organization online?

Doug Price: We’re easy. You think about it, you just go to RMPBS.com, and we have an enormous staff. We’re probably the best, of the people that you had an opportunity to interview, we probably have the best online presence of anybody, because that’s what we do. So if you go to RMPBS.org, it tells a lot about what we’re doing, and what we’re about. You can look me up on Twitter, and follow me there, as well. So it would be fun to have folks be part of it. But I think we were one of the few institutions that really authentically embraces people from all walks of life, all economic resources, all political perspectives, to come together and form that great public square that is Rocky Mountain PBS.

Brian Watson: Well, Doug, I want to thank you for your time today. I also want to thank you for your heart. You obviously have a heart for the community, and you have a positive impact in your role as CEO of Rocky Mountain PBS, so thank you for that, and please keep up the good work.

Doug Price: Brian, thank you so much, and best of luck to you, as you continue your own endeavors.

Brian Watson: Thanks for the listening to the Opportunity Coalition podcast. We would love to have you subscribe to these podcasts for free on iTunes, or like us on Facebook. If you’d like more opportunity about the Opportunity Coalition, or if you would like to see a schedule of upcoming events that you can attend in person, please visit OpportunityCoalition.com. I hope you have a great day.