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The Education of Courtney Pledger

4 min read

Arkansas PBS, now far more than the state’s educational TV network, claimed a basket of recent accolades after taking a crucial role during the pandemic: broadcasting a remote curriculum to the state’s children while continuing to evolve into a multiplatform conduit for telling Arkansas stories.

Executive Director Courtney Pledger reflected on three regional Emmy Awards, five national Public Media Awards and a $6.4 million extension of the network’s broadcast footprint even as the network has expanded exponentially online.

Those accomplishments came at the heart of a deadly pandemic, and required some adjustment. “We’ve been operating virtually for our meetings,” Pledger said in a telephone interview. “All staff meet every day on Microsoft Teams to stay safe, but we do miss that human touch, the story by the water cooler, you know?”

Pledger is rightly proud of the Emmys, presented virtually in November by the Mid-America Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

“They really show the diversity of the storytelling we’re doing now,” Pledger said, “ranging from a look at a former Arkansas governor to a holiday special with Arkansas’ favorite celebrity gardener P. Allen Smith. And one of my favorites was the program on Hazel Walker,” a revolutionary women’s basketball star.

“Men & Women of Distinction: Mike Beebe,” a film on the last Democratic governor of Arkansas, born in a tar paper shack in Amagon (Jackson County), won a directorial Emmy. And Smith’s “A Garden Home Christmas” won as Lifestyle Program/Special. “Hazel Walker’s Arkansas Travelers” was honored in the Historic/Cultural Program Feature category, the uniquely Arkansas story of Walker, a prodigy out of Ashdown. The Associated Press’ female athlete of the year in 1940 and an inaugural inductee to the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, she owned, managed and starred for her own pro basketball team. Her Travelers “were women who played only against men,” Pledger said. “And they won something like 85% of those games.”

The Public Media Awards were announced Tuesday, with Arkansas PBS winning in five out of nine nominated categories including overall excellence in education and community engagement. An integrated media campaign for “GobbledyBook,” a series to encourage a love of reading, was another winner, as was a multiplatform solution to keep students learning from home: Arkansas AMI, for alternative methods of instruction.

Another winner was a development course from Arkansas 2019 Teacher of the Year Stacey McAdoo: “Coaching Self-Expression — Go In, Poet.” McAdoo, who teaches at Little Rock Central High, preached a relationship-based approach to nurturing expression in students.

“We’ve really made a seismic change in the way we conceive content, the way we produce it, and the way we distribute it on all these platforms,” Pledger said.

“It’s thrilling, but sometimes a little daunting. Now you can take television with you wherever you go.” She said key hires in the technological, content and education revolution included COO Ed Leon, Chief Content Officer Greg Gerik, Director of Production Levi Agee, Director of Education Sajni Kumpuris and Andrew Bicknell, director of engineering and chief technological officer.

State CARES Act funding provided the $6.4 million for expanding the broadcast footprint to unreached pockets of the state. Later this year, the broadcast signal will reach 99.5% of Arkansas homes. “That’s huge,” Pledger said.

The successes are a bit of validation for Pledger, who had a rocky run of staff relations after Gov. Asa Hutchinson chose her to lead the network in 2017. In modernizing production and operations and broadening Arkansas storytelling to a national audience, she angered some members of the staff with moves that sometimes ran afoul of state practices. Outrage grew when she fired Mona Dixon, a longtime COO of the network’s sister foundation, in early 2019.

Dixon appealed, saying she had faced retaliation from Pledger after raising questions about spending protocols. That appeal led to a standoff between the foundation, now known as the Arkansas PBS Foundation, and the network itself.

Eventually Pledger, who previously headed both the foundation and the network, agreed to a solution that gave the foundation its own director. Veteran fundraiser Marge Betley was hired for that position in September.

Pledger said Betley has been doing a “marvelous” job, and that the foundation and the network are in harmony.

“There’s never been a more important time for the Arkansas PBS Foundation.,” she said. “We all know that public media is essential, but in times like these, it’s even more so.”

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