LINCOLN — The new general manager at Nebraska Educational Telecommunications doesn't talk much.
It's not that he doesn't have anything to say. But Mark Leonard is new to Nebraska, so he figures he'll start with his ears open and his mouth shut.
“You do a lot of listening,” Leonard said. “As an outsider I think you owe it to the community and to the organization to understand where they're coming from. You find out what it's doing right, first, before you try to change anything.”
Still, there are some changes he would like to make.
He said he would like to see NET expand its educational role, especially through the newly launched NET Virtual Learning Library, a public archive of NET content cut into academic morsels for teachers and students.
The online library offers multimedia resources, including audio, video and interactive components that are engaging and continually updated from a variety of sources.
For example, a student who is skeptical of the need to learn math can watch as an architect explains how he uses geometry and measurements to design a variety of buildings: houses, fire stations, churches.
In class, teachers might not screen all of the recent NET production “Nebraska's Capitol Masterpiece,” but the NET Virtual Learning Library would let them compile quick snippets to share with students.
“Kids are expecting things to be interactive, moving, not just static textbooks,” Leonard said. “I saw a demo of a chemistry lesson done using media clips that were able to show how atoms actually work in relation to one another. Maybe if I had access to that, I may have actually understood chemistry.”
Leonard said technology has changed the way NET should relate to its audience. Public access and social media now play a much bigger role.
“As broadcasters, we have historically had the mindset of 'we produce the content, we schedule the content, we transmit and you, the audience, should tune in at 8 p.m.,' ” Leonard said.
“It's breaking that mindset, because the technology has changed,” he said. “People expect to be able to interact with their media.”
During his 32-year career, the Albany, N.Y., native has worked at six public broadcasting stations, from Seattle, Wash., to Rochester, N.Y., and most recently, Illinois Public Media. Only the third general manager in NET's 59-year history, Leonard follows Rod Bates, who retired June 30 after 17 years.
NET operates nine radio stations and nine TV stations, with state funds supporting the infrastructure and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln serving as the licensee of NET's flagship educational station, KUON-TV.
“It sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare,” Bates said, “but in fact, it's a very strong entity.”
Strong public broadcast entities are rare these days, with a sour economy and federal budget cuts pushing stations like WLAE in New Orleans and KCET in Los Angeles to drop their PBS memberships. Both remain on the air as independent public stations.
In Nebraska, 1 million people a week watch NET Television and 110,000 listen to NET Radio. Last year, NET successfully completed a five-year $25 million capital campaign, Inspire Nebraska, which boosted membership by 50 percent and contributed to an endowment that now tops $10 million.
Support for NET is stronger than at most PBS affiliates, Leonard said. The core funding is solid, with federal grants and state and university appropriations totaling $14.7 million — about 71 percent of NET's operating revenue. The rest comes from individual contributions, grants, contracts, underwriting and a small portion of self-generated funds.
Leonard said Nebraskans take ownership of the content that NET produces, which keeps private donations and support consistent.
“People take a lot of pride in what NET produces, because it's about people of the state and things of interest to Nebraskans,” Leonard said.
NET streams live coverage of the Nebraska Legislature and produces local in-depth content, such as “Great Plains: America's Lingering Wild,” a collaboration with Nebraska nature photographer Michael Forsberg, and “Nebraska From the Air,” a project with the London-based firm Skyworks to film the entire state from above in HD.
“It's deep content, it's more context and it's more lasting meaning,” Leonard said. “With public broadcasting you can take the time to do a more complete story, more nuanced story and so that's satisfying.”
Leonard said he believes that today's barrage of reality TV shows drives people toward public broadcasting and away from cable programming.
“All those offerings people were proposing to be the commercial alternative to broadcasting — A&E, Bravo, History, The Learning Channel — all ended up going in very different directions as they were driven by ratings and profit,” Leonard said.
“If you look at TLC or A&E, what you're seeing now is “Pawn Stars” and “Ice Road Truckers” and things that don't look like history, science or arts. So the gap, if anything, has gotten bigger. And what we produce is even more special now in the clutter of cable universe.”
Leonard said, after two months at NET, he's not in a rush to change anything.
“We're dipping our toes; we're treading carefully,” he said. “There's nothing that's on fire.”
For now, Leonard will continue listening and learning the state's nuances through firsthand experience, like his recent trip to Scottsbluff for the debut of “Great Plains: America's Lingering Wild.”
“What I'd like for us to be able to do is listen to the entire state.” Leonard said. “Alliance is not the same as Scottsbluff and not the same as Chadron. We need to be able to have ways for our staff to be more informed and more visible to all parts of the state.”
“When you start to think of public broadcasting existing on behalf of the community, you should be focusing on how you make your community — in this case communities — stronger.”