The Corporation for Public Broadcasting distributes about $450 million annually to public radio and television stations, funding everything from “Frontline” to “Radiolab.” Patrica de Stacy Harrison, the group’s chief executive, is the one holding the purse strings.
In the role for well over a decade, Ms. Harrison brings a diverse skill set to the job. She served as an assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs under Colin L. Powell, was co-chair of the Republican National Committee and before that founded a public relations firm.
A Brooklyn native with deep ties in Washington, Ms. Harrison draws on her political network when championing public media. While the Corporation for Public Broadcasting does not produce any programming, it is the steward of the federal appropriations to public media, distributing millions of dollars to organizations like National Public Radio, PBS and local television stations around the country.
In recent years, President Trump has suggested eliminating funding for the corporation. So far, that hasn’t happened. But with her organization under attack from the president and with the media industry in flux, Ms. Harrison believes that public media’s mission — producing nonpartisan, commercial-free, educational content — is more important than ever.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted in New York City.
I’d like to talk about what it was like for you growing up.
This is hard for me.
Because I’m used to testifying.
Just pretend I’m Congress.
I don’t know. I’ve spent most of my life not talking about me. I have this theory about social media and the press. The more you’re out there, it doesn’t matter what you say, but there are now legions of people who will not only push back but come with threats and all kinds of stuff. That’s part of the reason I wanted to do this. To not do it sort of gives in to what’s happening today.
So what was your childhood like?
I was thinking about this, which I never do, and I don’t like to. But I was thinking of who my mentor was, and it was Brooklyn. Brooklyn was the biggest influence on my life, rather than any particular person. Now Brooklyn is all artisan cheese and all that crap. But when I was growing up, it was working class, lower and burgeoning middle class.
I didn’t have parents who said, “My darling, anything you want to do, you can do.” They were like, “Work hard. Then we’ll see.”
What was your first job?
I got a job at a department store in Downtown Brooklyn. But it wasn’t behind a counter. It was in the back room putting on price tags. I thought, “I’m never going to be in a back room as long as I live again.” It was horrible.
So you went to college.
I did, but the whole family had to get together in a meeting. Why was I going out of town? Why wasn’t Brooklyn good enough? My whole life was discussed by aunts and uncles. “Who’s out there? Why would you want to go? What’s in Washington? It’s a terrible place.”
What did you study?
I was an English major with a history minor. I thought, “This is like being paid to read books.” I was a voracious reader as a kid. I still am.
Looking back, memory is so faulty. You pick certain memories to support what you already want to believe about yourself. Nothing was tougher than Brooklyn. So everything seemed like a piece of cake once I got out of that place and escaped. But it was great. I felt sorry for people who didn’t live in New York.
What did you do after college?
I got married, and my husband and I created a public affairs firm that we eventually sold. We had clients who wanted to talk to politicians, so once a month we would have this lunch at the Willard and clients would pay to have conversations with a Bob Dole, a John Dingell, all off the record. I built up a lot of my political relationships through that.
So you’re the one that brought money into politics.
Yes. I am. Hashtag I’m dead.
What did you do after you sold the public affairs firm?
I was very concerned at that time about the Republican Party, and I don’t know how this happened, but I just decided I want to run for co-chair of the Republican National Committee. This was like me saying, “I want to be head of General Motors.” No one knew me.
Somehow I won. That took me on the most incredible adventure, because I found out where all the states were. I thought I was de Tocqueville, going through America and observing this stuff. After that I became assistant secretary of state. Then C.P.B. That’s the life. So we did it. And now … taxi!
Let’s slow down a little. Why were you concerned about the Republican Party at the time?
I wanted to get more women and more minorities in office. I really wanted to see women step up to the plate and have more power on a lot of different levels, not just politically. We knew we had a base of women small-business owners who were concerned about taxes and trying to grow their business at the same time.
Are you still concerned about the Republican Party?
Well, now we all are concerned about it. Now it’s beyond concern. Now we’re in triage.
What did you do as assistant secretary of state?
A lot of foreign services officers reported to me — civil servants, ambassadors. The whole purpose of the bureau was to manage about 35,000 professional, cultural and educational exchanges a year, from students to people that were going to be eventually running their countries. The mantra of the bureau was to increase mutual understanding. But I changed that. I said: “You don’t need to understand me. You need to respect me.” To increase mutual understanding, I have to win respect.
And it was amazing to work for Colin Powell, who is still a mentor. He cared about the people at the State Department at all different levels. Everything he did, I had him under a magnifying glass, and I incorporated some of the things I learned when I got to C.P.B.
Can you give me an example?
Every morning, Secretary Powell would have a meeting with the assistant secretaries and then the higher-level under secretaries at 8 a.m. Not 8:01. Eight a.m. He would go around the room to hear from everyone, and you could pass, but you better not pass twice in one week.
When I got to C.P.B., I realized I needed people who I would meet with every single day and take the temperature. “What’s the big challenge today? What are we doing about it?”
Why is public media important in this day and age?
This is cliché, but I believe it: It is because of this day and age that what we do is so important.
I did a station visit in Cookeville, Tenn. I met these two women who were about 65. They lived up in the hills, and their whole lifeline was public media, over the air, for free. They had learned how to read through public media. For me, they were symbolic. It’s a rural connection. It’s a local connection. It’s education where you’re not selling the kids something.
There’s plenty of commercial providers out there, though, like Disney instead of PBS Kids. Why does the federal government need to be spending a half-billion dollars a year on this?
Because their bottom line is they’ve got to sell those kids. Look at the woman who is C.E.O. of YouTube talking about, Here’s a growing market. Get the kids. Get the parents. Hook them in early. They stay with us for life. That’s their business plan. But then … oh, my God. These kids on YouTube, they’re connecting to stuff that’s not so nice. Now YouTube is trying to figure out: “How do we control that? How do we make it safe?”
We start off with the premise we have to have a safe place where kids can learn so that they’re not bombarded.
President Trump suggested eliminating federal funding for the C.P.B. What was your reaction when you heard that?
He also praised PBS for their really in-depth, balanced approach to coverage of North Korea. But it’s disappointing.
The positive side is that Congress — Republicans and Democrats — know the value. They hear from their constituents. And it’s so much more than “Downton Abbey” or “Victoria” or whatever the popular thing is now. They hear what the return is.
It is fair that we have to make our case year after year. We should have to make our case. It’s taxpayer money. And everybody is out there looking for their money. But it would be nice to have support from the president of the United States.