WXXI – “Secretary of State”
By Kenny F. Jean
Dr. Susan Rogers was raised in the Syracuse area and credits her mother, a librarian in a small town, for being an influence in her life for advocating for the public’s free access to information—whether music, art, or books. Sue serves as Executive Vice President and General Manager at WXXI, the public broadcasting station serving greater Rochester. This mother of two adult sons is responsible for the day-to-day operations of all matters related to WXXI, from the television station to radio to film to community education.
As I enter the WXXI building, Sue greets me, we exchange niceties, and walked into her active office. During the 40 minutes of conversation, she responded to several questions and shares a wealth of information about WXXI. She also shares her professional journey. It is very apparent that she is a storyteller with the skills to give me, the listener, a visual of what she shares.
Even though she went to Alfred State to earn a degree in pottery, pencil art resulted. There were challenges in her studies; she shifted her plans. She felt that as an artist it is important to get enough from the material to keep her going—that there is a conversation with the material and ultimately with yourself. For Sue, the work did not give anything back. As she states, “You get back what you put in.” Eventually she realized that even though she enjoyed working with art; it was not enough. So she started doing arts programs in the community with senior citizens. Then she started creating puppet shows for the town. Her goal was “to get out of the house.” With emphasis she shares, “People who are true artists like working in the studio. I dreaded it.”
Sue returned to Alfred to earn a master’s degree in student personnel management/higher education. She found that technological advances had changed so much in the field of film—an area in which she had an interest; video tape was invented–cassette not VHS but three-fourth inch —she chuckles about this. This meant that people, everyday people, could make a video. Before that it was just TV studios. With excitement in her voice, “Normal, ordinary people could now use video cameras.” As part of her internship and studies, she would bring performing artists and speakers to Alfred. The town was in an isolated, rural community with a population of about 2,000 residents. (Now there are two colleges and a larger population.) Great artists came to the campus: dancers and speakers; but she thought, “They come here, they travel here from Buffalo and Rochester airports, and then they are gone.” Sue wanted to capture these performances and events, so she launched a television program with the students to capture these artists—she wanted to save their visits/performances. What resulted was a strong interest in videos “because you are able to capture the moment.” Job offers came after college completion, but she began a company that would develop and produce documentary videos. Rochester is where she landed—no obligations, no children, and not married (yet). There was a struggle to documentary film-making. It was then that she learned about “the most significant things to do when you want to do documentaries—raise money.” That was in the 70’s and it was difficult to do. Today a movie can be shot on a smartphone and edited, but “then you had to hire an editor and it was expensive.” Most of her time and effort was devoted to writing grants. Even though she liked it, the venture was not the most financially secure decision she had ever made.
Sue “stumbled into a job at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)” and started the very first distance learning program there. Positive things resulted as delivery and access for education was available to those with physical impairments, traveling challenges, childcare difficulties, and other barriers. At the time, it was the very first year that cable television was being installed in Rochester, and RIT was using cable TV to deliver courses to people who could not travel to the campus. “Yes, it was in the days before there was the Internet,” she exclaims with a laugh. Sue is passionate when sharing that “I got in it because of videos and stayed in it because of computers. Computer networks really helped bring learning to the world. I also got really involved with the use of technology to overcome disabilities, because many of our students were either deaf or blind.”
Sue completed her doctoral studies at the University of Rochester, but there were things that could not be overcome. “We were working real hard to have access to education, (but) there was nothing for a student who could not read; and there was nothing for the student who had no money.” The courses were pretty expensive. She looked at the data: 25% of the adult male population in Rochester were functionally illiterate. She thought, “This country can’t have that!” It was great that RIT was developing these wonderful engineers and artists; but “if 25% of the population can’t read the pill bottle to give their children medicine, we’ve got a problem. How do you have a democracy, how do you have people to vote, how do you have people get a driver’s license?” It bothered her that these challenges could not be overcome.
Sue’s career eventually led to a position at WXXI. Married and with a family, she welcomed the opportunity to assist those with challenges to gain access through the programming at the station. She believes that public media is one of the best things about what they do because it’s free! It is for everybody. Her mantra: “It is the making of a living and the living of a life; not as two processes but as one.” At WXXI, the educational outreach was great; and she realized that she had made the right decision. People shared thoughts once they knew she worked for the station; they were amazed about what was going on with the station; they were engaged in discussing their opinions about the good and bad. WXXI had the power to touch and impact others’ lives.
Based upon demographic data, the poorest of children are watching the programming; there is a high percentage of children in the City of Rochester, African American and Hispanic, who are home watching while being cared for by grandparents and other elderly family members. WXXI is a resource. When education specialists are sent out into the community to help the public, they show how to use the programming to help and make it educational for the children. They give tools such as a book to use and/or talking points. They train child care providers; they are at settlement houses to help the community use PBS programming for education.
Sue is particularly concerned about holding onto certain things—what some may call a heritage. “We must cherish them and we must guard them; however, there are other things about how we do the business that we have to be able to let go.” She believes the organization must bring in the best and deliver it to the public. Children should be exposed to the very best. Sue wants issues to be faced together. What is being done about them? The solutions may not be easy. “The biggest danger we face is people trying to get a quick fix. The world does not work that way.”
When asked about where she sees media in ten years, Sue believes that media are in two fast changing areas.
“If someone would have told me 25 years ago that I would have one of these things (holding her cellphone), I would not have believed it. Everything is on it—videos, photos, etc. It is hard to make predictions about the future. My hope is that WXXI will continue to provide and be a public media place—whatever that media looks like. Yes, WXXI has been and now is television and radio. But the vision that people had when they formed this was that it be a place for education, news—a place for the public good of television and radio. I hope we will still be doing that no matter what the media may be. Our mission of public service will be there no matter the media. I was happy to be here. I want the best of productions similar to HBO and others to be available on public media. It should not be only for the people who can afford to get it. That piece of our mission is very important. Another piece is a local voice. We bring in the best for everyone and share it—the best art, the best music, the best discussion, and the best issues. We bring it and give everyone access to it. And then we also take the best of everything that is here and share it with everybody else. That goes both ways.”
Being behind the scenes and not on air is where Sue is most comfortable. She doesn’t need the recognition but must be aware that others may need it. There are those who need to be the face of something, but that is not her goal. She wants to make sure that the resources are being put in the right places and preserving WXXI for the future. She is proud that a solid endowment has been sustained, even though growth has not been significant. She values the on-air fundraising activities and considers it a privilege to be on television and tell the public what WXXI does and ask for contributions. People listen to her. They have plenty of options but choose to not change the channel and listen to the appeal for funds. They can turn the channel. They do not have to listen. She (and others) invite them to help keep the cause strong. It is even more important now that the Little Theatre is part of the organization.
I conclude to my readers who may ask, “Why did I title this article Secretary of State? While sitting in the office conducting Sue’s interview, all I could notice was that her heart is gold. She smiled, laughed, and at times became very passionate about speaking of people who are less fortunate. Her laughter was very sincere even though she was strictly business—but with a heart.
Secretary of State: (n.) is a senior official of an entity; principally concerned with policies and is considered to be the representative and or equivalent to the President/CEO.