The local perspective
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
When it was time to decide, the choice was obvious to Leslie Wilcox. She sided with television that could "choose its own destiny."
The veteran journalist had covered news in Hawai'i for 35 years, nearly all that time as a TV reporter and anchor. She had become a friend to viewers, who trusted her cheery delivery and attention to detail.
But after decades of working for stations owned by Mainland corporations, Wilcox found she was tired of long-distance decisions that showed little interest in Hawai'i.
In February, she left her anchor's chair at KHON for the helm of the undisputed underdog of Island television: PBS Hawaii.
The 53-year-old Wilcox became president and chief executive officer of the locally owned, nonprofit station — a move that insiders say is the best change for public television in decades.
"It meant walking away from a significant salary and a business which I had never planned to leave," she said. "And it meant taking on a challenge at which I wasn't sure I would succeed."
Wilcox said she wanted to work for people with an "emotional interest" in Hawai'i.
"For years, I've watched as profits walked across water to the Mainland with very little left on the table for the community," Wilcox said. "What money there is (in public television), is here for the community. And I consider this a community resource. In effect, the television station belongs to the people of Hawai'i."
STORIES OF HAWAI'I
Connection to the community is the foundation of the change Wilcox hopes to bring to PBS Hawaii. She wants to increase the number of local programs that take an in-depth look at public affairs, the arts and culture, especially Hawaiian culture. She wants to include Neighbor Island communities as much as possible. She wants to hear from viewers.
"I think our job here is storytelling about Hawai'i," she said. "And you rarely see on television real stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, where you really get to know people and know places. That is what we hope to be able to do."
Wilcox has already hired three people with that goal in mind, including an in-house producer to conceive and guide local content. The task had fallen to freelancers in recent years — a far cry from the 1980s, when a crew of "vibrant local producers" created scores of local programs, Wilcox said.
One of her new hires is filmmaker Robert Pennybacker, whom Wilcox lured back to television. Wilcox considers Pennybacker a master storyteller.
A writer, producer, director and marketing consultant, Pennybacker will be involved with production, programming and online content. It was a job he initially rejected when Wilcox arrived, but after meeting many of the station's employees in July, he changed his mind.
"They were very sincere," Pennybacker said. "It really became quite convincing. People's goals are very altruistic. It really is about serving the community and the common good through television, which is something that I believe in."
Pennybacker also was impressed by the journalistic background of his new boss. It colors everything Wilcox does, he said.
"Journalism in its highest form is seeking the truth, and I think that is what a public television station can do and I think that's her vision," he said.
Proof of that came in one of the first decisions Wilcox made. She revamped the station's public service program, "Island Insights," taking it from a 30-minute taped show to a live, one-hour broadcast that takes calls from viewers.
A WHOLE NEW LEVEL
"Island Insights" host Dan Boylan, a University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu history professor who worked on shows at the station since the early 1990s, said the emphasis on local programming shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with Wilcox.
"Leslie is the first true news person who has headed the station, and she really cares about public affairs," Boylan said. "She is of Hawai'i and she understands it. And I think she understands what is important and good about it."
Wilcox is taking the station "to the best place it has ever been," in part because she is a trusted commodity, Boylan said.
"That is extraordinarily important for a place like PBS Hawaii," he said. "She has been in everyone's home. Who could have a higher profile than she had?"
The station will operate on a budget of $6.5 million this fiscal year, a slight increase from the previous year's budget of $6 million. About one-third of its funding comes from viewer donations. But with her reputation for fairness, Wilcox should be able to attract the public support the station needs to succeed, said Chuck Freedman, a Honolulu media observer and a former spokesman for former Gov. John Waihee.
"I think she is custom-built for it," Freedman said. "I think it is the best thing that has happened to public television in Hawai'i in 30 years, and it comes at a time when the rest of the news media — local television news and community programming — is kind of ill-defined and doesn't know what it's going to be."
Wilcox practically grew up in front of a camera.
She was an east Honolulu kid raised in Kuli'ou'ou and Niu Valley. She graduated from Kalani High School and went to work full time at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin while attending classes at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.
TV news viewers first met her in the late 1970s, when Wilcox was hired by KGMB.
Over the course of 15 years, Wilcox worked at the station as a reporter, anchor and assistant news director. Then in 1992, Wilcox moved across the dial to KHON, where she stayed until last spring.
At PBS Hawaii, Wilcox filled a vacancy left by Mike McCartney, a former state legislator who left in May 2006 to head the state Democratic Party. Wilcox arrived at a station that reached fewer viewers than any other media outlet she had worked for.
According to recent Nielsen ratings, PBS Hawaii had a 2 percent share of prime-time viewers over a seven-day period, she said. In contrast, KHON, with its high-profile commercial lineup, drew a 16 percent share.
"We're not commercially driven, and we don't live or die by ratings," Wilcox said. "But I'm determined to attract a larger audience, get more eyeballs to PBS Hawaii."
Additional local programming will do that, she said. The station currently has four weekly shows with local themes. But in October, Wilcox will begin hosting a new weekly program called "Long Story Short." She plans to interview Hawai'i leaders, cultural experts, newsmakers and artists, among others.
Local programming like that rarely surfaces on commercial television, but that doesn't mean the public does not want them, Wilcox said. Having been in their homes so often, she's pretty sure they want the same shows that she likes to see.
"I just know that I, as a person, would love to sit down and watch a very visual and informative story about the place I live, about something I didn't know, something that might enrich my life," Wilcox said. "And that's the work I like to do and the work I love to watch. And I think a lot of other people would, too."
Reach Mike Gordon at email@example.com.