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How ‘The Open Mind’ Could Change Public TV

When former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels guests on the public affairs series “The Open Mind” on Sunday, host Alexander Heffner won’t be fixated on asking the well-respected Republican about the summer of Donald Trump.

Instead, the half hour will be focused on the link between college affordability and economic growth, given Daniels’ role as president of Purdue University.

Such in-depth, high-minded conversations have been a hallmark of the public television series throughout a run that has lasted almost 60 years, making it one of the longest running series on TV. Heffner’s grandfather Richard hosted the show from 1956 until his death in 2013, and the next summer the younger Heffner succeeded him.

“I don’t think there’s a Sunday show that is designed to depolarize the toxic political climate,” Heffner says, adding that he sees the show as a place to “facilitate a dialog that breeds novel thought and new ideas.”

While the show traditionally has run on Saturdays, stations in Los Angeles and Washington are running it on Sunday morning, as it is on PBS’ World multicast channel, with carriage in more than 150 markets.

Heffner, 25, has expanded the show’s presence on social media, but is mindful of the core audience.

“I think that what is distinctive about our approach to Sunday public affairs is we strive for timely but also timeless, so that it would be relevant and provoke the same kind of thought and consideration for the audience as something that was live,” he says.

Capturing the emerging civil rights revolution, his grandfather featured Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1957 interview, and through the years had guests such as Margaret Mead, Malcolm X and Gloria Steinem. The elder Heffner was also chairman of the MPAA’s ratings board from 1974 to 1994.

Alexander Heffner has maintained the show’s simplicity — a table and two chairs and a black backdrop. The show continues to tape at the City University of New York, and airs, as it has for the past 35 years, on its home base, PBS station WNET.

Heffner was special correspondent in 2012 for PBS’ “Need to Know,” focusing on the millennial vote, and some of his recent “Open Mind” shows have been mindful of younger audiences.

An interview with writer James Patterson, for instance, focused on youth literacy. Alberto Ibarguen, former publisher of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, talked about journalism in the Snapchat age. Last week, Maya Soetoro-Ng, professor of the Matsunaga Institute for Peace at the University of Hawaii and sister of President Obama, talked about helping students understand that non-violent resolution and “the work of peace is not just about the slogans.”

Neil Shapiro, president and CEO of WNET, said that the durability of the show “begins with Richard, who kept it going and was a fixture.” He said that he was impressed by Alexander Heffner’s tape when he expressed interest in keeping the show going, and then he raised the funds to do it.

Heffner’s grandmother Elaine is executive producer, and Rebecca Wharton is senior producer.

He’s planning to have more focus on the 2016 elections this season, as he will be the Fitzwater Fellow at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.

“With political guests in the sweet spot of public affairs, we are really trying to discover new thinkers about politics,” Heffner says, adding that the emphasis will be on those dedicated to fixing problems “as opposed to further entrenching us in the left-right paradigm.”

Bernie Sanders was a guest before he announced his presidential run, and Heffner is open to having on candidates as the campaign progresses. He even has a question he’d like to ask, which alludes to New Hampshire’s slogan, “Live Free or Die,” and one that would elicit a thoughtful response rather than a sound bite.

He says it’s “to hear the candidates’ definition of what does it mean to live free in a contemporary society.”

 

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