Radio exec moves to TV, takes reins at WDSE/WRPT

Patty Mester

At a time when it seems American culture is delaminating, Patty Mester sees public media as the glue that can bind it together.

“The impact that public media has on community culture through education and entertainment is meaningful. I think it strengthens our communities because it educates the individuals,” said the new president and general manager at WDSE/WRPT television.

She began the position Aug. 1 upon the retirement of Allen Harmon. Her new role followed nearly 10 years as regional network manager at Minnesota Public Radio. While the two entities have numerous differences, they also share Internet-based platforms, along with the artistic and business freedom that comes with being funded by viewers rather than advertisers.

“I’m pleased, proud and humbled to be here,” said Mester, the fourth top executive in WDSE’s history (WRPT is a Hibbing-based translator station).

The station’s roots date back to 1953, when a group of local instructors formed a committee to investigate educational television, according to a history posted on wdse.org.  It wasn’t until 1964 that WDSE obtained a broadcast license and opened a studio. Early programming addressed youth education and featured visuals filmed in a classroom.

Mester said education “still is a focus, but it certainly has shifted to programs such as Nova and Nature.” 

Like other media, TV stations not only compete against their television peers, but against other sectors, including print, radio and an array of social media. 

“It has opened up avenues for exposure that we never anticipated,” Mester said. Among the newest for WDSE is Passport, a time-shifting service that allows members to watch their favorite shows on demand. It’s available to members who contribute at least $5 per month.

“It’s exciting. It’s giving people the flexibility they want,” she said. And it’s an incentive for viewers to contribute. That’s crucial to WDSE. According to its 2016 tax filings, contributions and grants generated almost 98 percent of the station’s revenue. It would be nice if money didn’t play a role in the station’s success, but without a strong revenue flow, national shows such as Nova and Frontline couldn’t be purchased from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS).

Producing local programs is also costly. Simultaneously, it is key to the success of public television and serves to stimulate local contributions. Over the years, Mester said, the creative freedom provided to WDSE employees has allowed the station to recruit strong talent who can produce popular programs including Album, Almanac North, Doctors on Call, Great Gardening, Lawyers on the Line, Minnesota Legislative Report, Speak Your Mind, The PlayList, Venture North and WDSE Cooks. One other program, Native Report, is picked up by more than 100 PBS affiliates nationwide.

“We’re proud of all of our programs and are very pleased that Native Report has received that kind of recognition,” she said. “This group is proud of the amount of local production they do – not only the high level, but the quality. It’s very impressive. This staff is so engaged and committed to the work that they do, always keeping the viewer in mind. The goal for them is to contribute to a healthy present and future of our community.”

Local reporters also produce a wide array of documentaries. We are the archivists of history through our documentaries – the creators of experiences and conversations,” she said.

During her first months on the job, Mester hosted listening sessions with individual employees and solicited feedback from board members. Next, she intends to meet with members, underwriters and non-members to learn their views and desires for public television. 

“That will take some time, and after we gather some good, solid input, we’ll start in a new strategic direction,” she said. Part of the process will include speaking with other public television executives to learn best practices, then right-size them for WDSE. Her goal is to ensure WDSE/WRPT serves the community. She believes it has exceeded that goal in the past. “WDSE/WRPT has always had a fantastic, well-deserved and well-received reputation. It’s an essential organization. We aspire to be the hub where the entire viewing community convenes through diverse forums including TV, online and public events,” she said.