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Courtney Pledger Named to Lead AETN; Was Leader of Hot Springs Film Festival

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Courtney Pledger, a native Arkansan who built the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival into a national event, was named Tuesday morning as the new executive director of the Arkansas Educational Television Network.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced her appointment at a packed news conference at the State Capitol, describing her as the ideal person to succeed longtime AETN Director Allen Weatherly, who died in November. Pledger’s start date at AETN will be March 20.

“Courtney’s experience in television and her executive leadership skills make her the ideal candidate for AETN,” Hutchinson said after praising Weatherly, who died at age 64 after leading the network for 15 years. “Her work to establish the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival as an Oscar-qualifying event demonstrates her outstanding leadership skills. Courtney’s passion for the industry is second to none, and I am excited about her vision for the agency.

Pledger, who has also worked as an executive producer for DreamWorks Animation and as a senior vice president of development and production at Radical Pictures, said her very first job while she was a student at Millsaps College in Mississippi was at a public television station. She noted AETN’s importance in public media and declared that she was “thrilled to be back.”

She noted the strong organization she is inheriting, giving particular praise to Tony Brooks, AETN’s deputy director who served as interim director of the network after Weatherly’s death. The audience in the Governor’s Conference Room at the Capitol gave Brooks a round of applause. “He has led a talented team, and I hope to build on that rock-solid foundation,” Pledger said.

Pledger noted AETN’s role as one of the 349 member stations of the Public Broadcasting Service, and said it was particularly satisfying to take over AETN as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

“I take this new role with excitement for the future of Arkansas’ only statewide public media outlet, looking forward to making programs in Arkansas, about Arkansas,” she said, praising productions like the Emmy-winning documentary “Champion Trees,” “Exploring Arkansas” and the forthcoming AETN documentary “Dream Land: Little Rock’s West Ninth Street.”

“I will work to ensure that AETN continues to serve every inch of our state, rural and metropolitan, our students and educators, and with the help of a growing number of digital platforms, to provide education for all.”

Born in Little Rock to parents from Fordyce and El Dorado, Pledger said she is “steeped in Arkansas” and was overjoyed when she returned to Arkansas in 2011 to head the Hot Springs documentary festival, which she has overseen since 2012. She will be stepping down from her role with the film festival soon, Hutchinson said, adding that Pledger was the unanimous choice of the AETN Board of Commissioners, which voted on the post earlier Tuesday morning.

Under Pledger’s leadership, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival has flourished into the oldest all-documentary festival in North America, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

She said she had “no marching orders” from Hutchinson, who pledged that state funding for AETN would not be cut under his balanced-budget plan. “I recognize talented leadership on my team, and she has my support and commitment,” the governor said.

“AETN has the ability to tell the story of Arkansas in a way no one else can,” Pledger said. “We will always speak primarily to Arkansans about subjects most important to Arkansas. But we also have a reach beyond the state’s borders to showcase the state to a national and even international audience.”

Pledger cited research that has identified the Public Broadcasting System as the most trusted American institution, and she said its news broadcasts are more crucial than ever. “From PBS, you can count on getting balanced, thoughtful, truthful coverage. That’s all the more important these days.”

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