An Enlighting Interview with WDSE-WRPT’s Patty Mester
(Duluth, Minnesota, August 24, 2019) Want to publish your film on PBS? Patty Mester is President and General Manager of WDSE-WRPT in Duluth, Minnesota. This PBS affiliate is one of the top ten in the country. and In this interview with OWC RADiO host, Cirina Catania, Patty gives us the inside scoop. PBS is the most trusted entertainment brand in the United States. Scoring distribution with them is a win-win for everyone on the production/distribution team!
In This Episode
- 00:12 – Cirina introduces Patty Mester, President and general manager of WDSE-WRPT in Duluth, Minnesota.
- 07:37 – Patty and Cirina talk about how Duluth is a beautiful city with spectacular views and interesting people.
- 16:00 – Patty explains how long PBS will air your program once accepted and how NETA is essential when distributing to PBS.
- 23:57 – Patty points out how APT, NETA, and PBS are high-quality organizations focused on education and are not competitors to one another.
- 29:44 – Visit WDSE-WRPT’s website at wdse.org to check out ways to watch their various exceptional programs.
This is Cirina Catania with OWC radio, and Patty Mester is on the line with us today. She is president and general manager of WDSE-WRPT in Duluth, Minnesota. Patty and I met recently when we were conducting, thanks to her sponsorship masterclass and filmmaking at the station in Duluth. Patty, tell us exactly what it was.
Well, it was really exciting for us because it was actually the first workshop or master class associated with the Content Catalyst event. It’s more than just an event. But it’s an episodic television festival that will be happening here in October. Philip Gilpin, the executive director, has been working in the community to generate not just excited about the event itself, but really to show the community how important it is to honor filmmakers whether they’re producers or writers or set designers. I mean, there’s so much going on here in the Midwest, and we’re really thrilled about the fact that Philip is bringing the festival here because it’s an ongoing event, if you will. And part of WDSE and WRPT supporting that is that we’re able to commit to doing some workshops alongside Catalyst Content. And this past weekend, like you said, when you were here, it was fantastic. The first thing that we’ve ever done as an organization, the first thing that’s been done in the community around this, and we had 18 people in that workshop, who were from various levels of abilities from brand new people to people who work together for 25 years. And seeing that energy and how people were exposed to creating content in ways that they had never done before was so exciting. And Cirina, the way you brought your experience to it, threading that through those instructions, it was really engaging.
All of the hard-earned lessons from Hollywood.
Don’t do what I did. It was fun. I tell you, I was very inspired by everybody in that room. Duluth is an amazing town, and you are bringing something so valuable through PBS with that local community. So let’s step back for just a minute and tell our audience who may not know what is WDSE, what is WRPT, and where can people tune in?
Sure. WDSE-WRPT is a public television station. And in fact, we’re going to be celebrating our 55th anniversary on September 13th this year. And we are a member station of PBS. We’re a member station of NETA and APT. And locally, you can find us in so many ways. You can just find this over the air if you have some rabbit ears, if you will, if you have an antenna, cable stations, direct, etc., but you can also find us online at wdse.org.
Yeah, I noticed that we could see some of your content by going directly to your website. I want to get in in a few minutes because everybody’s been asking me, and I’m so fortunate to have you on about how they quote-unquote, distribute their media through PBS. But before we get into all of that, I think it’s really worthwhile spending a minute on the PBS brand. Why is it so beloved? It truly is, I think, in American icon.
It is. So for about 17 years, there has been a survey conducted annually, and it has proven year in and year out that Americans truly trust PBS more than any other brand in America. I think it’s something like 86% of households watched PBS last year. And part of the reason that it is so, I think, is because let’s just start with children. parents name PBS Kids the most educational media brand for children. And about 70 to 75% of children watch PBS last year and knowing that they can put their children in front of that content, and not only will they learn something, but they can trust that there is something ethical and moral, and they’ll actually get something educational out of it. So when you start as a child, and you’re brought up through that into programs, such as Nature and Nova, and some of those other very educational, it’s almost like a whole life experience in terms of having education there. And then, of course, they have such fun programs like drama through Masterpiece Theater and Antiques Roadshow. I think it’s one of the most popular shows on the PBS affiliate stations. It really carries high [Nielsen ratings.About 75% of children watched PBS last year. Not only will they learn something, but parents can trust there is something ethical and moral, and their children will get something educational out of it. Click To Tweet
I was gonna say I think it’s very highly rated in any station. I mean, it’s one of the highest on the air. Everybody I know loves it.
Well, absolutely. And then, of course, it also speaks to that brand, PBS brand speaks to the news, the editorial trust that people have. And then when you couple that with the local stations, who also have very trusted producers, we produce a lot of our own local content, we do our own documentaries around our own communities, we do our own weekly quarterly programming that also engages the community. You couple that with that national programming, and there’s a lot of trust there.
I think a lot of people think PBS is a national “channel,” but the content seems to be very much also driven by local stations like yours. And you do seem to be wired into that community. I watched as we worked with those people that had signed up for our workshop and how committed they are to WDSE and what you do there. It was awesome. There’s a lot of talent in that town. I think everybody’s really fortunate to have each other. So you’re one of the sponsors of the Catalyst Content Fest, correct?
We are. We sort of, and I say this in quotations, I guess, we are the storytellers. WDSE-WRPT has been the storyteller of the northeastern part of Minnesota for nearly 55 years. And what that means is, every year we put out a couple of documentaries that speak to the culture, the people, the history from this area. And so that along with all of the other local content that we create, we are very committed to our arts and cultural community.WDSE-WRPT has been the storyteller of the northeastern part of Minnesota for nearly 55 years. Every year, they put out a couple of documentaries that speak to the culture, the people, and their area's history. Click To Tweet
We really are. We had for many years a program on the air called, The Playlist which highlighted a couple of local bands each week. It’s a quarterly program. But elevating those individuals who have such talent, in addition to people who are artists of many kinds, we have a program called Making It Up North, and it highlights people who make a living in the Northland around their passion. They’re entrepreneurs who are committed to living here by Lake Superior, where it is quite cold. I have to say, and I don’t think that we share the same kind of weather, Cirina.
No, we don’t. I’m in San Diego. For those of you who don’t know that. This is being recorded in sunny San Diego, where it was literally 85 degrees in the studio when I walked in because the air conditioner had not been turned down.
Right. So, fortunately, we have it like that. Duluth is so beautiful. But in the winter, I have faith. It’s a little chilly come February.
Oh, but it’s beautiful there. I’ve fallen in love with the community and the people in it. Four-thirty in the morning headed towards Lake Superior, so we could watch the sunset was a highlight of my last trip. It’s spectacular. And looking at the town of Duluth from Lake Superior, which I’ve been told is the largest freshwater lake in the world. It’s majestic. It’s just majestic. So it’s worth the time when the lake gets angry. I understand there are some pretty tall waves there. And other times, it’s smooth as glass like it was the morning that we were out. Just beautiful.
Exactly. So I know you’re going to get phone calls, though. I just want you to know that people will say the largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Russia.
Well, because it’s the number of gallons of water versus the cubic feet.
I thought Lake Powell was one of the largest, it only has 2000 miles of shoreline, and Lake Superior is like being on the ocean. But looking out on Duluth, I think you’re just in such a beautiful place. And I’m really looking forward to being involved in the content fest. But I know people are going to be clamoring to find out more about how they can get their films on PBS. So let’s take a moment to, first of all, explain how distributing your film through PBS is different from other solutions that might be available for filmmakers.
So, first of all, PBS is a membership organization. And what they do is they provide national programming, and they’re distributing the national programming and technical services to their membership stations. So while they are not producers themselves, people will submit their programming to them. And really, the best thing that I can suggest is to go online, go to pbs.org and look at their submission process for producers because they have very specific standards on how to submit. They get so many submissions that what happens is if people don’t follow the criteria, they easily get weeded out. There are only three people at PBS who actually look through that content. And they have to pretty quickly decide how does it fit within their content strategies, does it really fit ethically with their guiding principles and their editorial integrity, the quality that they want to distribute. So that’s something that they can determine quite quickly. Now, I think that sometimes as an independent, if you feel that their content can stand on its own, and they could submit directly to PBS, then do so. However, if the producer has a really strong relationship with the local PBS station, it may be something that they want to submit to PBS through their local stations because they have the relationships.
Absolutely. I’m looking on pbs.org right now while I’m talking with you. For people who are interested, if you go to the bottom of the page, and you scroll to the button that says, Producing for PBS, there’s a very detailed section on the website about everything, your content priorities, your submission guidelines, and the whole proposal, process, editorial standards and practices, funding standards and practices, co-production guidelines, production guidelines, everything that as a producer, you might need to know about what we call deliverables. In your particular station, you were talking about the length of the programs. And there are some very specific guidelines for how long the intro can be and how long you can give credit to your sponsors. Can you explain what you meant when you were talking about 26-46 and the details of that?
Sure. So what they’re looking for is specifically from beginning to end. They’re looking for that content to be 26 minutes, 46 seconds, or 56 minutes, 46 seconds. So what that has to include is yes, you have to have your opening in there. But what’s really important is that the end of that program is that you give credit to where the credit is due for anybody who supported it. Financially, any funding that came through to support that production must be listed in that production, people who were associated with making it happen must be listed in that production. Any foundations, again, more funding parts of that, but it all has to be in there. And it has to be included in that 56-46. Because one of the things that you want to do is you want to protect those people who invested. Make sure that you give them credit where credit is due. And also, one of the criteria is that the producer ensures that there is closed captioning, and there’s very specific closed captioning that’s included in that as well. So again, I would check that out on pbs.org. They give you everything that you need to know. There are other ways to distribute, as well.
I want to ask you really quick, though, before we get off of this because I know people are asking me how much do I get paid. And they need to understand the marketing value of this distribution deal and how the money works. If they’re not Ken Burns, how does this deal work for filmmakers? Once they get a yes, what happens?
So PBS, they’re not funding the program, they’re not funding the production. Where you find the funding for your program, you have to look to your own investors. So you have to look to your own underwriters to your own foundations to individuals who might want to support people who really believe in the production that you’re creating. And so, really, it is a situation where you’re looking to PBS again, as that trusted brand, as that trusted organization, if they decide to pick up your production and distribute it. Once you’ve established a name like Ken Burns, there might be some opportunity in the future to do some. And I have to be really careful here because I don’t work at PBS, and I don’t want to misrepresent them. But I think that somebody like Ken Burns, who has created that really epic, if you will, type of documentary and have that trust and relationship with them that there’s some collaboration that goes on there to determine that funding. But again, I think a lot of that is done through Ken Burns himself.
So I think the good news for producers is the PBS brand has an incredible amount of prestige and recognition. If you are able to distribute your film through PBS, you will be able to get sponsorship more easily than you can if you’re out on your own, trying to convince people you have something wonderful. So the marketing value of that deal, I would think, would be incredibly high. I have a question who retains the copyright?
The producer does.
If you look at PBS, they schedule about six to 12 months in advance, in some cases up to three years, because they actually have content strategies that they are focusing their energies on. So, for example, I know that right now in the forefront, they’re looking at health and they’re looking at content around health, and now with the upcoming elections, of course, they’re potentially looking for content about elections or candidates about the process, about the communities and very recently, the president of PBS, Paula Kerger signed on for another five years. And she’s very interested in documentaries and the historical aspects of the content that people are creating. And I think that you’re familiar with that. I know where you live that you have the Southern Cal PBS station, but I’m assuming that there are some documentaries that are made out of there that are specifically around Southern California about the San Diego area, whatever topic. It is really important to get familiar with that and to really look at what they’re doing. I think if you look at something like Independent Lens and POV, there are about approximately 50 shows that they put on an annual basis with those two programs. And so I think that if you’re looking at more of the documentary, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be historical, but current, that if somebody is looking to get consideration for those programs, they have to be that specific when they submit.
So if you do get accepted locally or nationally, how long is the term? I mean, normally, if they say, “Okay, we’ll run this,” what’s the length of the run?
So it takes about four to six weeks to hear back as to whether or not they’re going to go forward. And then it just depends. So, for example, we have a program called Native Reports. And it is actually the very first program that was produced about Native Americans from a PBS number station. We’re going into our 15th year. And although we distribute nationally, we don’t do it in the traditional ways. But what happens is, the people who are distributing the program will say, “We have a release, we will release this,” for example, “on August 12. And you can air this August 12 of 2019. And you can air it until August 11 of 2020.” So you can air that program as many times as you like during that timeframe. And then there might be a re-release.
You started talking about NETA, I believe. Can you talk to people about what NETA is? They can go to netoonline.org while they’re listening to this, and look at the website, but explain to producers what NETA is and why it’s important if you want to distribute to PBS.
Sure. Okay. So this is very separate. It’s a very separate organization from PBS. And it’s a member organization. So public television stations become members of NETA, and it’s actually National Educational Telecommunications Association. And what they do is they connect public television stations with programming, and typically with educational sources that they do have a high focus on children’s education. NETA is a little bit different than PBS. And again, though, there are only a few people who review the programs, but they will work diligently with the submissions, the people who submit the programs and the ideas. They, too, have criteria, and it is stringent, and they want you to follow it. However, if they find that there is a nugget there that they really want to advance that program, they will work with the producer to complete the paperwork and goes through so that they can distribute that program to the public television stations they think don’t quote me on this.
No. Thank you for helping us. We’re trying to get all these questions answered. Everybody’s so interested in this.
I think that approximately 60% of the programs that are submitted that get distributed- now, having said that, I think that some of them do sit there for a while, and NETA is not going to keep them on the shelf for too long if the producer is not going to do the paperwork and really follow-through. That will cause a bottleneck for them. And they’re just such lovely people, and they work so hard and truly want to be helpful. But we really need to respect their process too. And they’re amazing to work with. So I would encourage again, if you go on their website, you can find that criteria as well as the producers. And again, I say you can contact your local public television station if you have a stronger relationship with them and find out if they can work with you. There is no cost to PBS for submission. There are some costs, but there are costs for the distribution with NETA and with PBS.Approximately 60% of the submitted programs to production networks have to sit in the incubator for a while. Sometimes it causes a bottleneck, but we need to respect their process, too. Click To Tweet
Well, but it makes sense. Do they upload this by satellite, and the stations decide what they want to download, or how does that work now? Do you know?
Yes, they’ll send out an email to the program managers from each station. And they will say, you know this program is available, and the stations have approximately 10-15% of their programming that they decide what they’re going to air. And so they take a look at their communities, and they look at what’s nationally being distributed by PBS. They look at what’s going on currently in the culture, in their communities. And they say, “Is this complimentary or is this something that might be of interest to this community?” It’s really checking the pulse of the community and seeing what they’re looking for, and then deciding if it’s a good fit. But also, if it’s just really interesting programming, of course, people will air it. Yeah, it’s kind of fascinating The job of a programming manager, because there is so much, there’s so much rich content out there to choose from, and what a fortunate place to be.
I don’t know how you do what you do. Frankly, I don’t know how you keep it all straight. I’m looking at the NETA guide to media, and if you’re listening, and you do want to submit this NETA, go to their website and click the section that says For Producers. They’re very, very specific about how to handle audio and closed captions and the formats that they accept. So I would believe that if they like your program, and as you said, if they’re willing to work with you, they might send back a note to you and say, this has to be fixed, we really like this, but your color gamut is off or something like that, and give the producer the means to fix it. But yeah, this is wonderful. This is wonderful information.
May I just add one more thing there? If you decide that you are going to work with a local station, which is kind of like your presenting station, there may be some fees involved. And so every station works differently with producers. When producers are putting together their budgets at the beginning, one of the things that they want to look at is how did they build a budget in there for marketing, for the PR part of it, because if they’re looking to that local television station, that local public television station to handle that marketing, of course, it’s going to cost them resources as well, it’s going to cost the time of the person that’s working at the station. It’s going to potentially cost money for the marketing and the PR, so they may pass those costs through. So if the producer actually has that built into their budget upfront, that will be very helpful to them as they go to that distribution step. If they didn’t build it in, they didn’t build it in, but some will. You can anticipate that some will ask for fees, and some may not. It just depends on who you’re working with.
You know what I love about this? I’m just sitting here thinking. I mean, this is why people love PBS so much. This is all aboveboard. It’s all accessible. You know what you’re getting into, what the rules and regulations are. Try doing that with Netflix.
Oh, wow, I can’t speak for that. I don’t know,
You’re not gonna get this kind of information. It’s almost impossible for producers unless you know somebody behind the scenes to get this kind of information. And I think it’s very exciting. I’ve had a lot of people lately asking me about PBS. And I was so happy to be there and learn about this. And so happy to have you on because I know you’re so busy. So do you have any advice for producers who may want to submit to your station? Are you looking for programming about health? You also have a lot of educational resources.
Yes, we do that. Can I just jump in here about that?
There’s one organization we didn’t talk about. And that is APT, and that’s American Public Television. They also have a submission process. And they have three types of services, they have syndication, which is dramas are episodic, so if you’re looking at television, there are some opportunities to get their theories distributed. And I’m talking about things like Doc Martin, I think, those are the types of programs that they distribute there. And then they have this premium service that is specifically around fundraising for the public television stations. But then there’s also exchange. And exchanges about the how-tos, the lifestyle, the travel series, documentaries, for example, like me, who doesn’t know and love Bob Ross. So those programs are all distributed through exchange with ATP, and again, there is a cost to that.
So are they competing with NETA in some way? I’m trying to understand how this is all going to work. We’re looking at it from a different point of view, right?
I don’t look at PBS, APT, or NETA as being competitors. I look at them as all being such high-quality organizations that have a different focus, but yet centered around education. And so the work that they do and the work that they distribute is very complimentary. When you say how competitive is it, that has not crossed my mind?
I’ll tell you why. I’m asking that because as media producers, filmmakers, our rules say you can only submit to certain stations at one time.
Okay. So if you submit to local PBS, to APT, to NETA, is that a problem or can you submit to all three?
You cannot do that. So, definitely, NETA has that rule that if you’re going to submit to us, then only submit to us. So thank you for saying that because when you said competitive, my mind didn’t even go there.
Well, we’re always worried about who to talk to first. And if you talk to the wrong person first, then you’re not going to be able to get in the other door. I’m trying to help people understand how they can get the best life for the product that they’ve worked so hard to produce. There are some amazing documentary filmmakers out there that really are at a loss. And I think organizations like yours and the Catalyst Content Fest are very, very important. I think Catalyst is actually the only independent television festival that I know of in the United States. And it’s more of a market. So hopefully, they will be looking for products for PBS as well. I believe they’re bringing in a lot of agents from Hollywood. But this is wonderful. Thank you so much for clarifying all of this. I was looking at your upcoming programming. You’ve got some really interesting events coming. You’re doing a night of country music with Joe Flip, and then your sneak peeking. I gotta watch this. The Ken Burns eight-part series, right? On country music.
Is that right?
Yes, it is. And, the last Ken Burns documentary that came out was about Vietnam. And when you talk about ratings, how difficult it is to get really high ratings, right? I think that one night, the Ken Burns documentary actually beat the Game of Thrones, which was phenomenal, right? Because that was one of the highest. I think that they had 11 million viewers that night, which speaks to I think, the interest in Ken Burns and the quality of Ken Burns. But yes, we are having an event centered around that, screening in the community in northern Minnesota. And it’s in a community called Chisholm, Minnesota. And the community is so sweet because they show up. They truly show up in support of what’s going on. And we anticipate that it will be quite successful. But yes, thank you for mentioning that. And we also are going to be celebrating again, our 55th anniversary in September. And interesting about that is that next year, PBS will be celebrating their 50th anniversary. So there are a number of public television stations that were established well before PBS was even an organization. And that goes back to that educational piece. And that’s how we started. That was our focus.
That’s so wonderful, that sense of history and legacy. It must just be wonderful to walk in there and feel that around you every day. I mean, you should be really proud. So the Almanac North Special Edition is gonna be on September 13, right? For the 55th?
Yes, it is. And what’s really interesting too, is that’s the same day that Downton Abbey is coming out with their movie. And so we are actually doing a screening, and it’s September 12, the local community to get a sneak peek before everybody else gets to watch that movie.
Duluth is hopping. Let me tell you.
Duluth is hopping. Let me tell you it is right.
The local community really supports what you’re doing. Some of the stores have historical photographs that are coming up in their stores, right? You can actually take a tour of Duluth and go to places like Brewed Awakening and Northshore Winery and the Red Mug and Superior and Cedar Coffee Company. I’m getting thirsty. Looking at this.
That’s right. And that’s the reason why we have been on the air for 55 years because we have been supported by our local community. They are amazing folks that live here. And they are committed to public media and the quality that we provide in programming. So yes, we are extremely fortunate.
So what are you most proud of?
That’s a tough one. Because now, as a person, as an individual, I just feel so fortunate that I get to do this work. I’m really lucky that I get to be associated with this organization that I get to work with the people that I do every day. And I think that I’m most proud of the fact that people who create the content work hard. They’re really interested in what they’re doing. We have some very localized programming, and the fact that the community shows up for that, I guess that’s what I’m most proud of. That I get to be part of the community that is really here for this kind of program. Our vision as an organization is to be essential to the communities we serve. And that’s not just about programming on-air, that’s not just about broadcast programming. That’s about engaging with them through social media, through other online resources. And particularly through events. It is inviting people into our studio and conducting events in our studio because we have the largest television studio in the area. Well, you’ve seen it.
I walked in, and I looked around, and I went, “I love this place already.” It was really wonderful. It was a great place to be. And I was thinking about the fact that you are a local PBS station, but what you are doing is making creativity and entertainment accessible to the community. And that for someone who is creative, that’s just an amazing experience to see where it’s made, and you were bragging about your employees, and we walked around, we met a lot of people, and it really was a lot of fun. I would like to tell people how they can support WDSE-WRPT. So where do they go, and how do they do that?
You just go to our website wdse.org, and there’s a button there that says Support and click on it, and it will bring you right where you need to go.
So go to pbs.org, go to netaonline.org, or go to aptonline.org, and you’ll get some very clear directions on how as a producer, you can submit your project directly to PBS or through NETA, or through APT. It’s pretty awesome. This is really valuable information.
Again, I encourage people to contact their local stations. They probably have their system set up. They probably have their criteria set up. And many of them on their own websites. If you decide that you want to work with the local public television station. We are just in the midst of really defining that right now because we’ve had some recent submissions. And I suspect and expect that with the Catalyst Content here in the community that we will find more people who are looking for assistance to navigate that process.
Well, this is the wonderful start to what I think is going to be a very long and happy relationship for a lot of filmmakers with PBS who may not have thought about it before. So I thank you for everything you do for the community, and nationally and just for everything that you’ve done for our workshop, for example. And I really encourage people to get involved. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, Patty. I really appreciate it.
You’re welcome. And thank you, Cirina. Your support is amazing.
And that was Patty Mester, the president and general manager of WDSE-WRPT in Duluth, Minnesota, sharing her vision and giving us some great advice about how to get our programming on to the most beloved brand in our country, PBS.
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- Almanac North
- Antiques Roadshow
- American Public Television
- Bob Ross
- Content Catalyst
- Doc Martin
- Downton Abbey
- Independent Lens
- Joe Flip
- Ken Burns
- Making It Up North
- Native Reports
- Paula Kerger
- PBS: Public Broadcasting Service
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- Philip Gilpin Jr.
- POV – Acclaimed Point-of-View Documentary Films
- The PlayList Presents | The PlayList
- Prepare an impressive project proposal. Assemble your materials and make sure to include all the relevant information about your production. Highlight the best elements of your project as well.
- Showcase your best work by creating a stellar portfolio. Let producers know what you’re capable of doing when pitching your show.
- Be aware of the production network’s editorial standards and practices. Airing your film or show to a well-known company has corresponding rules and guidelines.
- Gain exposure by implementing some marketing strategies for your project. You want to reach out and target audiences to watch your film.
- Set high standards for your project. Make sure everything you create is something worthy of praise and recognition.
- Build your network. Work with the right people who can help get you to where you want to be. Maintain a good rapport and strengthen your professional relationship with people in your field.
- Join festivals and workshops to learn more about the latest trends and updates in the film industry.
- Be more visible online. Use social media to connect and better engage with your audience.
- Utilize innovative techniques to satisfy viewers’ interests. When producing a film, it’s essential to bear the audience’s interests in mind.
- Check out WDSE-WRPT and PBS.org to learn more about how to publish your film.