Going Public

After a long and successful career as a news anchor, Leslie Wilcox moves to become the head of public television. The ‘first lady’ of island TV vows to make it ‘the people’s channel’

Susan Sunderland
Wednesday - July 18, 2007
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Wilcox, in red, with (from left) husband Jeff Brown, daughter Kai and family members Maile Oliveira, Alex Oliveira, Sydney Cazimero, Liza Cazimero and Ben Cazimero
Wilcox, in red, with (from left) husband Jeff Brown, daughter Kai and family members Maile Oliveira, Alex Oliveira, Sydney Cazimero, Liza Cazimero and Ben Cazimero

kinds of coverage we need in order to have an informed citizenry and good democracy.”

She adds,“Some issues in Hawaii are cross-generational and very compelling, like sustainability. People are tired of clutter and exaggeration. They want discussion of local culture and current issues.

“We need to address the widening gap between haves and have-nots, talk about how to develop a work force from our educational system, and why it’s so hard to afford a home here. You can’t do it in eight-second sound bites.

“This is the public’s television station, and we want to have a dialogue with viewers. We intend to do so while being locally focused, having high standards in editorial and production values, and dedicated to the concept of pono (doing right),“she states, noting outcomes from a team strategic planning session.

The PBS Hawaii ohana has 30 full-time employees, 20 part-timers who are primarily UH students, and a core of dedicated volunteers. The 42-year-old private, nonprofit organization operates on a $6 million annual budget, more than a third of which comes from viewer support. There is no state funding.

PBS Hawaii is owned by the people of Hawaii through the Hawaii Public Television Foundation governed by a volunteer board of directors. It has satellite feeds on major Islands and reaches 98 percent of Hawaii’s households.

Wilcox comments that while that’s impressive penetration, she would like to see a growing general audience for public television.

“I want to grow the audience 5 percent for five rating periods,“she says.“That’s an ambitious goal, but I think we can do it.”

Let it never be said that Wilcox backs down from a challenge and ambitious goals - even while there might be negative or naïve perceptions of public television.

“Some people think we’re high-brow and not cool,“she says.“We might do a campaign on how not-cool we are. It’s fine to be not-cool.You don’t have to be mainstream to be interesting and a worthwhile part of the community.

“Our role is to respect people.We respect them by maintaining high standards and lifelong learning. Lifelong learning doesn’t have to be dull.”

PBS also has not taken a back-seat to progress. Wilcox reminds us that PBS has always been at the fore-front of technology. By September 2008, PBS nationally intends to be in high-definition mode.

Currently, PBS Hawaii broadcasts seven days a week, with more than 200,000 households tuning in each week.

PBS viewers are said to be among the best-educated and wealthiest audiences. Corporate underwriters recognize PBS as a channel for reaching decision makers in the community.

You can also target those brilliant kids watching Sesame Street each morning and those avaricious collectors tuned in to Antiques Roadshow on Monday night. Local prime time shows are Na Mele (Monday), Leahey & Leahey (Wednesday), Island Insights with Dan Boylan (Thursday) and PBN Friday with Howard Dicus. Wilcox will host a Tuesday evening interview format show called Long Story Short starting in October.

If discussions with UH are successful, there’s hope for a PBS Hawaii partnership with the Academy for Creative Media. Plans envision an expanded building at the current PBS site that would house TV production, filmmaking and video game design enterprises.

“It would be a great creative venue and outlet to show the students’ work,” Wilcox says.

Dreams are born of great ideas and collaboration, Wilcox believes. She has seen from co-founding the Lokahi giving project how much people are willing to help and give of themselves for a common goal.

That’s why the transition to her new job has not been difficult. “It feels like home,“Wilcox says of her new role at PBS Hawaii.

She is surrounded by staff and friends who are excited to be on the adventure with her.

Sportscaster Jim Leahey says, “One of the good things that happened to PBS Hawaii is Leslie Wilcox. When she came here, she said, ‘We’ve got to make PBS Hawaii the voice of the people.’”

The other half of the Leahey & Leahey team, son Kanoa Leahey, adds,“PBS is the purest form of TV. It serves the true values that inspire and motivate those who chose this industry as a career. We serve and are supported by the viewers. That’s healthy, inspiring, and I feel privileged to be a part of it. We serve something greater than the bottom line.”

It’s not hard to be insightful and eloquent when dealing with a gracious communicator like Leslie Wilcox. But we like the simple way Mayor Mufi Hannemann describes her: “That’s one classy wahine.”

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