By Debbie Gardner
Rus Peotter didn’t plan a career in public television. It just sort of happened.
“As a freshman in college I got a job running a camera for the Maine Public Television auction,” Peotter told PRIME. It turned out to be something that changed his life.
Though he’d worked as a freelance photographer since high school, Peotter had never run a TV camera in his life. With about five minutes training, he tried to follow the director’s scratchy instructions coming through an old, carbon-style headset. Suddenly the camera’s viewfinder caught fire. An engineer came over, ripped off the burning component, calmly replaced it, and reassured Peotter, “you’re doing fine.”
Peotter was hooked. “I loved it,” he said, adding he kept running a camera for Public TV through college. When plans for a doctorate in Economics fizzled, he became a part-time cameraman, then a full-time production assistant for Maine PBS.
“I started running a camera and then they taught me lighting and I learned audio and became a director and producer. Then I learned promotion and started doing marketing and fundraising, and then I got into management. They kept giving me jobs,” Peotter said. “It’s been a great gift.”
In December, with numerous awards – including an Elmo for children’s programming in Maine – to his credit, Peotter bid farewell to 40 years in Public Television, the past 15 as general manager of WGBY Channel 57 in Springfield.
“I never, not in a million years, thought I would work in Public Television, in television, in media at all,” he said. “I’ve met four presidents, been on a first-name basis with two Massachusetts and four Maine governors, interviewed Ed Muskie one week after he left the post of Secretary of State [under Jimmy Carter], while the Secret Service was dismantling things around his house, I met Margaret Chase Smith and a million other people. It’s been amazing.”
Leaving, and not leaving
“I’m leaving WGBY, but I’m not leaving Public Broadcasting,” Peotter said, explaining he was retaining seats on the boards of two national organizations, American Public Television Stations and the Board of American Public Television. He’s also staying in Western Massachusetts, and planning to keep up the community connections he’s made and nurtured during his decade and a half at the helm of the station.
“It didn’t take me long to be profoundly struck by this place,” Peotter said of his family’s original move from Maine to Western Massachusetts. “Its contrasts between the fairly gritty industrial cities like Springfield and Westfield and Holyoke, surrounded by historic Deerfield … you’ve got this great agricultural tradition along the river, the whole academic and intellectual community among the five colleges and all the other colleges and universities in the area, you’ve got great arts and culture … other parts of America you have to drive outwards to get [what we have here].
“The diversity here is extraordinary. I think it looks a lot more like America in a compact area than almost any other place in America,” he added.
Embracing this diversity, he’s served on boards for Old Sturbridge Village, Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), and The Trustees of the Reservation, among others.
“I’m on a lot of boards,” Peotter said, adding he plans to continue working with many post-WGBY. “Later today I’m meeting with [State] Sen. [Eric] Lesser on behalf of WGBY and the Springfield Cultural District, which I chair.”
More than one transition
Peotter said he’s looking forward to taking his time with chores on his farm in Chesterfield, Massachusetts – something squeezed in on weekends while managing WGBY – and spending more time outdoors.
“I love the outdoors,” Peotter said, adding he’s a registered Maine guide, licensed to take people out into the woods. That’s another thing he hopes to return to doing in retirement.
He’s also ready, he said, to turn over overseeing a local Public Television station as Public Broadcasting itself goes through transitions. Noting for years local stations have served as “a retailer of national programs like ‘Sesame Street’ and Masterpiece Theater and Nova,” the focus he said is shifting to more local content.
“It’s really changing quickly now. The role of a local stations is to tell stories of the community,” Peotter said. “ I’d like to say that’s where all the money is too, but that’s not the case.”
Peotter said his background creating local programming in Maine made it easier for him to initiate community-based shows such as “Connecting Point” and the bi-lingual Latino program “Presencia,” in Western Massachusetts.
“Telling those stories and being out in the community and using our assets to help people tell their stories [and] what we do in some of our non-broadcast work in digital storytelling, It’s important work,” he said. WGBY’s Latino Youth Media Institute – conceived in 2009 when a member of the station’s Latino Advisory Board noted a lack of Spanish language video production in the area – is an example of that work. Initially funded through an Institute for Public Broadcasting grant, Peotter said the station continues to fund and run this training, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Public Television’s challenge, Peotter continued, is finding ways to fund more community-based programming and programs amid changing media consumption habits. For example, the old fundraising model of running a pledge drive around a PBS concert doesn’t work as well in today’s downloading environment.
“Musicians used to agree to do a PBS concert because they knew it would sell records,” Peotter said. “Now musicians sell their work through downloads and the concert is less important.”
Even popular shows like “Downton Abbey,” which raise awareness of Public Television, present challenges in translating awareness to financial support. When viewers use on-demand or online streaming, Peotter said, “commercials” for local programming are often clipped out and the station logo is easily overlooked.
“Technology is leaving the local station out of the loop,” Peotter said. “The challenge is that people know the program, but don‘t know where it comes from.”
And without viewer support of local stations, money doesn’t go back up the chain to the national outlet to fund popular programs, he noted.
To try and capture digital viewers, Peotter said WGBY and PBS have launched 24/7 access to popular shows for contributing members through a program called “Passport” that works with Roku, Apple TV or through an adaptor for a tablet or laptop.
But Peotter knows that Public Television – and its local affiliates – needs to tap Facebook, Twitter, all the ways individuals communicate today, to reach an audience.
“There are so many tools and so many ways to use them, and one of the reasons I’m retiring [is] they are not native to me. The mission of Public Television is needed more than ever [today]” he said, noting the uptick in politicized reporting, “fake” news and sound bites that don’t examine the whole picture of an issue. “But the tools to actually do the work, I know what they are, but I’ll never be good at them.”
Instead his dream as he hands over the reins to the next general manager, is to possibly return to his first love, hands-on work as a program producer.
“I used to enjoy it very much, I used to win Emmys” Peotter said. “But I don’t want to do it full time. I have other things I want to do.”
<!-- AddThis Button BEGIN -->
<!-- AddThis Button END -->