Public Affairs

Kerger brings financial savvy and heart to PBS

I never thought I would end up working in media," says Paula Kerger, executive vice president and COO, Educational Broadcasting Corp. (EBC). "It wasn't by design." Today, she oversees fundraising for EBC, the parent company of New York public-TV stations WNET and WLIW. She led "Campaign for Thirteen," the largest endowment effort in public television's history. And last week, she was named a founding trustee of The PBS Foundation.

Her journey to this point includes work in several fields.

Jim Marcus, who chaired the board of The Metropolitan Opera Association during Kerger's tenure there, says, "The Met was just another step in her development. Where she is now resonates in her soul."

At the University of Maryland, Kerger had stints in pre-med and liberal arts before deciding on a career in business. When she graduated, the nonprofit sector was looking for marketing majors. She enjoyed public affairs, so she took a position in UNICEF's Washington office, working on fundraisers with volunteer organizations and joining with lobbyists to petition for government funding. In 1982, she was transferred to the national office in Manhattan, where she met her first big challenge.

The Halloween fundraising drive came on the heels of the Tylenol cyanide poisoning. With children's activities being canceled nationwide, the organization quickly offered the alternative: Trick-or-treating for UNICEF was safer than collecting candy. The idea preserved the Halloween spirit and
the profitable fundraiser. Plus, Kerger learned how to successfully operate a business during a crisis. That lesson would prove invaluable when she entered broadcasting.

Kerger became vice president and station manager of WNET in 2000. The following year, she inaugurated the new digital transmitter atop the World Trade Center, two months before it was destroyed on 9/11.

Then there was the anthrax scare. The station had just mailed newly designed marketing materials, and viewers were afraid to open them. Fundraising was threatened, since the mailing list is PBS's lifeblood. Some people wanted to wait to address viewer concerns. Not Kerger. "It made more sense to get a team together, get the information out and communicate," she says.

The station aired photos of its envelopes and developed internal systems to protect the employees opening the mail. The effort exemplifies what Kent Steele, executive director of broadcasting, describes as Kerger's ability to work through "the politics and make a functional and smart decision."

Such savvy was evident early in her career.

Kerger's development expertise was tapped at International House, a nonprofit organization founded by the Rockefeller and Dodge families to increase understanding of different cultures. As part of the senior management team, which included Bill Rickert, grandson of Cleveland H. Dodge, and Abby O'Neill, John D. Rockefeller's granddaughter, she helped run a capital campaign that raised $30 million.

In 1989, after five years at International House, The Metropolitan Opera Association recruited her. She worked on its silver anniversary and large-donation fundraising. By 1993, she had built a program that could sustain the opera for years.

Then, as if on cue, WNET tapped Kerger for its capital campaign that same year. The station had little endowment, and she felt her experience could put together a "good fundraising machine." It generated project-specific money, a working-capital fund and an endowment for producing programs like Charlie Rose.

Kerger used her fundraising ability as leverage to create two channels in partnership with WGBH Boston. Shared schedules, costs and resources give the stations space for new shows, including HD content.

With the possibility of early return of analog spectrum, more resources for other expansions could be available, but Kerger is discreet about plans.

Dr. William Baker, president and CEO of EBC, expresses his respect for her intelligence, finesse and understanding of public TV's unique needs: "I'm very proud of her work and what she's been able to accomplish."