Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan talks future of PBS as new CEO

Since 2005, Dean Callahan has made strides to create innovative programs at the Walter Cronkite school

In 2005, President Michael Crow and ASU welcomed Christopher Callahan as dean of the newly-built Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on the Downtown Phoenix campus.

Now, he is working on adding Cronkite’s 13th professional-immersion program, a Spanish language newsroom, this January.

“When I first came out here, we wanted to create these professional, immersive programs that bring together the best of two different types of learning: traditional school learning and experience-based learning,” Callahan said.

Not only is Callahan the dean of a high-ranking journalism school, he was recently named the CEO of Arizona PBS, the second biggest news station in Arizona.

“For a lack of a better description, I think of myself more as the orchestra leader,” Callahan said. “Mostly, I think of my job as more for setting general direction of the organization and really focusing heavily on ‘How do we blend these two things together?’”

Instead of juggling the two positions, he has combined the two jobs to make one.

“Under normal circumstances, it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of my time,” Callahan said. “I really see the job much more as setting the larger direction and getting the right people in place and letting them do great work and be available to them for consultation and advice.”

The blending of these two institutions resulted in Cronkite News, a student news outlet in partnership with Arizona PBS.

As the school expands, so does Cronkite News, hosting high-profile events such as the McCain-Kirkpatrick debate in the midst of the Arizona senate campaign.

The latest on Callahan’s agenda is Arizona PBS KIDS, a 24/7 educational kids program. Callahan recognized that kids were watching television throughout times of the day when PBS content wasn't catering to their age group, so he dedicated a whole channel to it.

“Studies have shown that PBS children’s programs have really tangible benefits for that real target audience: preschoolers,” Callahan said. “It’s particularly important in places that don’t have a lot of preschool enrollment, and unfortunately, Arizona has really low preschool enrollment.”

According to Callahan, two-thirds of Arizona preschool-age students are not enrolled in formal education. Arizona is 48th in the country for education. He said he thinks that the station will provide great advantages to families across the state.

“My hope is once we get this launched, I would like to find the resources to create an Arizona-based program — original content for this cohort of young children that would involve our students in a significant way,” Callahan said. “We’re constantly innovating and changing. We constantly want to be challenging our students and challenging ourselves.”

Kimberly Flack, the associate general manager of educational outreach with Arizona PBS, heads all the work in the community with teachers instructing children from preschool through high school and their families. She helps push the resources of Arizona PBS KIDS to this audience.

Her views on the new 24/7 channel were similar to that of Callahan.

“Most of (the parents) are working more than one job,” Flack said. “So with that in mind, they don’t have traditional hours to watch television with their children. This will provide that. I think it’s essential for an adult to interact with a child if they’re under the age of 8.”

Flack started her work in education by teaching students with learning disabilities.

“I have been amazed at the vast content library PBS offers educators and families,” Flack said. “I think that Arizona PBS and PBS KIDS in general has always had a reach with parents and teachers of special needs students whether it’s children on the autism spectrum to children with milder disabilities.”

She said if students are falling behind in reading in first grade, 88 percent will still be struggling in fourth grade.

“I think we have a huge opportunity to help children with their early literacy skills, early inquiry skills and continue to grow that and improve their performance and provide tools that parents don’t necessarily have in order to work with their children,” Flack said.

Eric Newton, innovation chief at ASU, works with Cronkite News and Arizona PBS and oversees the journalism and media innovation program for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

“At a lot of journalism schools, the innovation is off to one side, maybe in some laboratory classes, but not having to do with the actual news,” Newton said. “In Cronkite, innovative and experimental projects are just a part of regular newsroom activity.”

Newton said that interactive games will help younger people absorb the content of the KIDS channel.

“Since the Cronkite school took over Arizona PBS, it has expanded its public affairs, its news,” Newton said. “The slightest enrichment of offering more kids programming is just another one in a line of improvements.”

He also said the first step will be working on advancing from one PBS channel to two by establishing enough content. The channel's website has already launched. Newton said the channel will be multi-platform, involving various digital mediums for TV, mobile and online. The future direction of the channel will be dictated by what is consumed by the audience.


Reach the reporter at anbuechl@asu.edu or follow @alexa_buechler on Twitter.

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