Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpBig changes in the air at one of Arlington’s higher-brow employers.

The public broadcasting notables at WETA as of July became owners of the nationally broadcast PBS NewsHour, transferred from private hands by founders Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer after a 35-year partnership.

I recently finagled a tour of WETA’s executive offices and studios in Shirlington Village, to preview changes on the producers’ whiteboard.

Arriving on the eve of the seven-day marathon of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Roosevelts, I greeted NewsHour co-anchor Judy Woodruff as she prepared to travel to Iowa to cover a visit by Bill and Hillary Clinton.

WETA has come a long way from its 1961 start showing black-and-white lectures (http://watch.weta.org/video/15161243/ ) from Yorktown High School in an endeavor launched by the late educator and civil rights activist Elizabeth Campbell. (After the county renamed Shirlington’s main drag in 2007 to honor Campbell and her husband Edmund, WETA changed its mailing address from South Quincy Street to Campbell Avenue.)

Today the station has an $80 million operating budget and is revered as one of the top three public TV drivers of national public broadcasting content (along with WGBH in Boston and WNET in New York City). WETA is home to the towering Ken Burns—whose next project, on cancer, “will be as big as his Civil War series,” predicts Rick Schneider, WETA’s chief operating officer.

This summer’s transfer of the NewsHour creates “possible synergies” with the Friday night pundits panel “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” Schneider says. With its distribution to 300 stations, the NewsHour also “creates a good case to talk to funders as a unique take, with a different mission from the main network news, providing more context and depth than the typical minute-30-second packages.”

The News Hour “is a trusted brand, a wonderful legacy space on the media landscape,” agrees Sara Just, an ABC News Washington veteran newly installed as the NewsHour’s executive producer. “But it’s ready for a revitalization, to improve production values and speed up the metabolism. It will retain its special place of telling stories others don’t have time to tell—we’re not speeding up the story-telling,” she assures me. “But we’ll be aggressive and get out front with more exclusives and breaking stories, maybe with more graphics.”

Like all media today, the NewsHour is growing its presence on mobile devices. “The people who are in the habit of tuning in at 6:00 are not the same people” who’re on social media, Just says. “We want them to find our content where they go.”

The digitization was visible on my tour of the production facility room given by national publicity director Kate Kelly, who noted that tapes are being phased out. She showed off the sets, editing rooms, green room and master control room. During the 2010 blizzard, she recalls, technicians slept there. Passing through the offices of WETA-FM radio, I glimpsed the classical CD library that is among the country’s largest. I drew a wave from morning on-air personality David Ginder.

WETA strives to be a good citizen of Arlington–its website carries the local history blog Boundary Stones by staffer Mark Jones.

Schneider was pleased to return to Arlington after running the Miami public station, having lived in Fairlington 25 years ago. Praising Shirlington’s restaurants, he said, “Back then, it was not the village it is now.”

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Arlington’s sunflower lady is one unhappy camper. Linda Fettig recently mounted a magic-markered poster at Lee Highway and North Powhatan reading, “Thank you, lady who complained about the sunflowers. The county cut them down! Hope you are happy!”

Fettig told me she’s been planting the sunflowers for seven years to the delight of most in the neighborhood—the exception being an unidentified woman who called the county to say the flowers blocked her view turning out from the street. On Sept. 5, with no warning, three Virginia Department of Transportation trucks pulled up and crews cut down a chunk of the innocent plants. Says the sunflower lady, “I had to put the sign up because it made me so mad.”