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Embracing the power of childhood curiosity in the television industry with Paul Siefken

Embracing the power of childhood curiosity in the television industry with Paul Siefken

Won’t you be my neighbor? We know the beloved Mister Rogers’ quote well, and in this episode, Melissa chats with Paul Siefken, President and CEO of Fred Rogers Productions about how we can keep asking those big questions of ourselves—whether we’re in tv production or accounting—to encourage childhood wonder and enthusiasm every day.

Melissa: Welcome to the cultur(ED) podcast. I’m Melissa Jezior, your host. On this podcast, I talk to top culture makers in the world today to impact the visible and not so visible forces that often make up this overlooked superpower of organizations. In season three of cultur(ED), we’re featuring changemakers from the arts industry. Today, I am excited to be talking to Paul Siefken, President and CEO, Fred Rogers Productions. This production company builds on the legacy of Fred Rogers by creating quality programming for children that encourages enthusiasm for learning. Welcome, Paul.

Paul: Hi Melissa, thank you so much for having me today.

Melissa: Thank you so much for joining. I am really excited to learn more about Fred Rogers, especially since Fred Rogers is the icon so many of us grew up watching. In fact, I feel like I’d probably have to refer to him as Mister Rogers. So, tell us, what in your mind is so special about Fred Rogers, and how do you embed those qualities in the culture and in the work that you’re doing?

Paul: Well, I’m glad that you’re starting with an easy question.

[Melissa laughing]

Paul: What is so special about Fred? It is a big question, because he was special in so many ways. For me I think what strikes me about Fred was that he was just this extraordinary talent. And you know a lot has been said about Fred and his approach to kindness and neighborliness, and all of that is absolutely true, but when you’re at the production company that he founded, I think that we look a lot at the talent that he brought to his work. When you think about it, he was a writer, he was a father, he was a musician, an actor, and a puppeteer. On top of that, he was a child development expert. He was a Presbyterian minister and I like to think he was a philosopher. I think the thing that he was most proud of was being a good neighbor, right? So, he was a very complex man with a lot of talents and what we’re able to do, when we think of him in that way, is realize that he made a choice, right? And the choice that he made was to take his talent and to use it for the benefit of young children.


Paul: And, so, when we see that, we look at it in that way, kind of our course forward is really clear. We should do what he did, right? We should make that conscious choice to bring the talent of every individual at the organization to the benefit of children and families. And you know, another thing that I think he was kind of wise about was that in the late sixties, he recognized that television was an extremely powerful medium, right? And he wanted to use it to model life lessons for young children. And the way that he put it is to show them what the good in life is all about. And he respected the power of television to sort of influence people. And you know, when he was inducted in the television hall of fame, he essentially asked the other people in the television industry, the audience there to join him in making that choice to make quality television that people can see the good side of life rather than the bad.

Paul: So, fast-forward to 2021 and if television was a powerful medium when he started, you know, media in general is exponentially more powerful. And so, we want to continue to use the power that media has to help children, and we do that by working with incredibly talented people. And working with the people who choose to kind of bring their talents to making the highest quality content for kids.


Melissa: So, it’s funny, listening to that list of Fred Rogers’ talents suddenly makes me feel like I probably need to step it up at my own life. I am thinking, wow, that’s an incredible list of talents. The other thing that really resonated or struck me with, what you had just talked about was, it sounds there’s so much discussion in today’s world about what resonates with employees is being purpose driven and working for purpose driven organizations and that’s really something that I think came through at least in listening to, came through to me, is it sounds like Fred Rogers Productions Company is very purpose driven.

Paul: I think so. I certainly try to encourage and repeat to our staff and my colleagues how important the mission of our organization is. Most of the time it’s proven out through the incredible work and the actions that they do every day to make sure that we’re respecting our audience enough to give them our very best.

Melissa: Paul I also understand of your leadership that Fred Rogers Productions has experienced tremendous growth and has earned a national reputation for innovative storytelling. So how do you innovate on the work of an icon and how have you been so successful in this group?

Paul: Well, thank you for the comment. We’d like to think of ourselves as storytellers.

You know, again, I talked about Fred’s talent. He was the creator of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He had a very clear vision of what that program was going to be and then he pulled together this amazing team of people to help bring his vision to life. So, what is our mission? What is our task in terms of building on that legacy? Well, I think that what we’ve tried to do is not say our mission is to try to replicate what Fred did. That was Fred’s vision. So, what we do is try to start with the vision of highly creative people and do what we can to bring that vision to life.


Paul: You know an example of that is our new series that’s premiering in October. In fact, coming October 4th on PBS kids at 8:30 AM. And it’s a show called Alma’s Way and it was created by a woman named Sonya Manzano. Many people know Sonya as Maria from Sesame Street. So, Sonya had this real vision of what she wanted to do, and that was that she wanted to show children that they have a mind, and they can use it. That was her vision. How do we do that? And she had come up with a main character whose name is Alma. Who grew up in the Bronx just like Sonya did and who is learning how to make decisions for herself. So that was her vision. How can we show kids how to practice making decisions for themselves through the life of this young girl, who looks a lot like I looked when I grew up in the Bronx? Speaking for Sonya here. And that’s the vision that we took with her, and we built a team around her to make sure that that vision was executed. Sonya is not Fred. Sonya has a very different vision. She has a very different talent, but her goal is to help children to navigate the world. And so, in that way she is just like Fred. And we can say the same thing about Jennifer Oxley and Billy Aronson who are the creators of Peg + Cat or Angela Santomero who is the creator of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or Ellen Doherty who Through the Woods. Tim McKeon and Adam Peltzman created Odd Squad. Adam and David Rudnick, who worked with us to create Donkey Hodie. Those are the visionaries, and our job is to make sure that we can surround them with team to make sure that we can execute and create the program and content that kind of fulfills their vision. So, that’s kind of our approach to really support people who have a clear vision for how they want to reach kids.


Melissa: How do you build the culture around the visionaries that enables you to be so successful?

Paul: I think it’s a lot about relationship building. It’s about building trust. I can use Sonya again as an example. I had met Sonya a couple of times, I think Ellen Doherty, our Chief Creative Officer, had as well but when we were kind of matched up and we heard her idea, there was a period of time when we had to kind of get to know each other to build trust and then to build the team that worked best for the program that she wanted to make. So, it involves finding the right head writer and it involves finding the right educational advisors. It involves finding the right production team, animation team. It’s building that team, so that they’re all sort of on the same page and it takes a long time. Again, I’m talking about Alma’s Way. We first started working with Sonya five years ago and that show now finally premiers next month. So, you need to have the patience and the time to build on that trust.

Melissa: So one thing that kind of struck me as well and we’ve been talking about Fred Rogers vision around using all his talents for children. And from what I understand, you say at Fred Rogers Production that children come first, now and always. So, I’m interested, because I’m guessing your workforce is not comprised of children, but adults. So, how do you serve an audience that isn’t represented in your workforce?


Paul: Yeah, let me re-iterate and make it very clear, that we don’t employ children.

[Melissa laughing]

Melissa: Good to know. Good to know.

Paul: But it is an interesting question. Fred had a quote that he liked to say, he said that, “the child is in me still and sometimes not so still,” which I thought was a great way of sort of capturing the sort of energy of childhood. Another person that I read a lot about and I grew up watching all of his work was Jim Henson. He had a quote that was “the most sophisticated people that he knows, inside, they’re all children”. And so, you know, I think that when you’re doing work for children, we look for people who have kind of a childlike quality, on top of, of course, patience, for that particular position. You know, during the interview process, I will ask new employees, do they like or do they watch children’s television? What’s their favorite? Which is a perfectly expected question if I’m talking to a production person, but maybe not for an accountant, but I ask accountants as well because we want people to understand that this is what we do and we want everybody to be interested and involved. So, we try to foster that. We have before the pandemic, but also during. We try to do regular screenings for all of the staff and not just of our work, but of other people’s work so that we get to have a feel for the industry that we work in, the messages the children are getting. And, you know, remind people that in the midst of all the hard work that we’re doing at the end of the day, it’s pretty important to sit down and watch some kids TV. And you know, I think that there is nothing more powerful than a child’s curiosity and enthusiasm. So, if we can find that kind of curiosity and enthusiasm in our workforce, that’s incredibly beneficial. You know, when you think about kids, they ask me questions and so we’re looking for people who are willing to explore those kind of big questions, so that kids can say, here’s an organization that thinks big like me. So, what kind of big questions am I talking about? Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet, right? Those seem like pretty typical questions, that are kind of questions that kids have. They’re super complicated questions and if you’ve ever been a parent driving a car with a three-year-old in the backseat and they ask you that question you might chuckle and say, oh, that’s such a kid question and then you try to answer and you realize…


[Melissa laughing]

Melissa: You can’t.

Paul: Let’s appreciate that, and how can we think like children and think about big questions? Because that kind of energy can really kind of supercharge somebody’s work. Again, whether they’re in production or they’re in marketing or they’re in finance.

Paul: The other part of the purely for production but also for our outreach and marketing is that we don’t sort of just trust our instincts on this. You also don’t trust your sort of memory of… I remember when I was a kid, we have a whole team of child development experts that we work with, different child development experts for different projects and we check because, you know, you may believe that you remember what it was like to be three or four years old but I’m here to tell you that you don’t. So, when we’re able to work with advisors who are experts in the field of child development and they’re able to remind us of the abilities and the thought processes of a three-year-old versus a four-year-old versus a five-year-old versus a six-year-old. That’s extremely helpful in what we do, so, we value that expertise in really, in the same way, that Fred did. He trusted his teacher in child development, Margaret McFarland, for his entire career. He would sit with her and go over scripts and ask questions and we do that same thing now to make sure that we’re getting it right.


Melissa: Now, one thing we talk to our clients about a lot is the importance of not just saying someone is a cultural fit but understanding what makes up your culture. So, it sounds very much like you’re doing what we often coach our clients on, which is understanding the importance of, for example, being childlike yourself or having childlike qualities and understanding the importance of that, so much so that you’re not only asked some of your quote unquote frontline staff but also folks like your accountants and things like that, so it does become part of your culture. So, I love that, I think that’s what creates part of the culture, is when you find people with common qualities or common traits that you all share and build the organization around them.

Paul: Well, thank you.

Melissa: One of the things that I have found, and I even remember watching or seeing as an adult, is a clip of Mister Rogers and Officer Clemmons played by the Black actor, Francois Clemmons, placing their feet in the wading pool together. Back in 1969, I believe is when it was aired, and it was during a lot of civil unrest over pool segregation policies in the US. So, I’m curious like this is clearly such a simple way to make a statement, yet powerful way to make a statement to both children and adults. So, I am curious, given where we currently are in our in our nation amidst COVID, and Black Lives Matter, and highly charged political discourse, how are you and your organization going through the process of figuring out what issues you address and how you address them?

Paul: That’s a wonderful question. And yeah, you did a really great job actually putting that moment from Mister Rogers Neighborhood into context. You know, Fred was responding to such kind of an unbelievably dehumanizing practice that was going on throughout the country.  You know, the issue of segregated swimming pools was not just a thing in the South. It happened everywhere. It happened here in Pittsburgh. [16:04] It also was something that is extremely impactful for children and families. It was something that they experienced in a very real way. Kind of visceral. And so, for him to take that on so kind of elegantly, there is a reason why that’s an iconic moment. The past 18 months to two years there’s been a lot of complexity to the challenges that have been going on with the pandemic, with the social unrest around George Floyds murder and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s something that’s been tough for young children to totally understand in the midst of also an historic presidential election. So, when we think about how to address these issues, I think that you can have both a short term and long-term approach. When you’re dealing with animations, sometimes it’s pretty difficult to be topical because the animation cycle is tough, to go from no idea and script ultimate product. But in the short term, in the midst of the pandemic, we’ve done a number of things. Last August, we kind of stopped production on one of our programs, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and we produced a special that was called Won’t You Sing Along with Me? That was one hour. It was kind of a compilation of previous episodes but also some original animation that sort of depicted Daniel Tiger struggling with not being able to gather with his friends to go to school, to do all the things that children at home were experiencing. We applied a number of the strategies from that program, and it existed for years, directly to issues that were front and center because of the pandemic. So, we hurried that to broadcast in partnership with PBS and it was extremely well received, which made us think that it was needed in that month of August, in terms of streaming videos and that’s free streaming video through PBS. Daniel Tiger was streamed 80 million times in the month of August.


Paul: We also participated last October in a PBS special. It was titled, PBS Parents Talks about Race and Racism. And it was a really innovative idea to essentially have families on set and having your family on camera watch, along with you, a scene from PBS kids’ episode.

It started with the scenes from a Daniel Tiger episode where the strategy of that episode was that in some ways we are very different, but in so many ways we are the same. And in that episode, we worked very hard to sort of play out the way that preschoolers notice differences among each other. And, they are very matter of fact about it and will compare each other’s hair, clothes, or skin tone. That’s just the natural way kids look at things. And in that episode, they actually, you know, there’s a number of scenes where we have Daniel comparing the fur on his hands to Ms. Elena’s skin. And then in that special, they cut to the families doing the same things and talking about the differences in skin tone and what that means. That we are all different. But then again, talking about how we’re mostly the same and that is kind of the level that is understandable for preschoolers and is also very impactful to let them know that it’s ok to notice differences. What didn’t come up in that, but that special has won an Emmy. It was brilliantly done. We were happy to be part of it.

Paul: I’ll throw in another, ya know, One of Fred’s favorite sayings is a Quaker saying is that “attitudes are caught not taught”.  And that kind of it is you take that to heart. We use the word model in our mission, not teach. Fred never saw himself as a teacher. We don’t believe that we’re teaching kids but through the actions of our characters, we’re modeling for them how to be excited about learning and exploring the world. And we hope that we can also model for parents how they can interact with their children in a way that helps them understand the world and the differences in the world a little better.


Paul: Some other things we did during the pandemic. You know, public television we are lucky enough to work with PBS, but PBS is a collection of independent public television stations all around the country. And years ago, we started something called, Be My Neighbor Day with them. The premise was this, if we were to bring Daniel Tiger costume character to your station and provide a grant, we partnered to do this for years now. What event would you throw? It was free for the children and families in your community to come and meet Daniel Tiger, and while they were there, how could you expose them to the opportunities in your community for them to get involved in their neighborhood? Can you teach kids that they can make a difference in the community they live in? And one of the requirements is, you need to partner with a unique organization. You can’t just do this yourself. So that’s the charge and with 350 different public television stations around the country, we’ve been doing about 40 of these a year. Everyone is different because stations are now being empowered to reach out to their community and address the issues or challenges of their community and attach them to Daniel Tiger. So, during the last year, we haven’t been able to go into communities in the way that we have in the past. However, we’ve done a lot of virtual visits with Daniel, and we also had families drop off food, and clothing, and school supplies. And we might have Daniel Tiger there waving with his mask on because we have masks for all our costume characters so that kids could still get that sense of contributing near their community in contributing to their community as inspired by Daniel Tiger.


Paul: So yeah, those are some of the immediate things we tried to do. Longer term, we found then, a lot of the issues that we come up with our regular programs are both timeless and timely, right? The show that we launched in May, Donkey Hodie, its core learning goal is to model resilient children. Now, we came up with that concept five years ago because resilience has always been important for young children if they’re going to be, you know, entering school, kind of ready to learn. In fact, most teachers know that things like resilience and self-regulation, executive function skills, are more important than literacy and math for three and four year olds who are about to go into Kindergarten. But how much more important is resilience now for kids? Because they’re having to overcome enormous obstacles having been separated from one another, from schools, from learning, from teachers, from friends. And so, however, we can model through the stories in Donkey Hodie, some of the ideas of setting goals and overcoming challenges, dealing with failure and persisting when things fall apart, the better. And doing so with a positive attitude, You know, having fun along the way. Giving them songs to sing about resilience. That lets them feel like the challenges ahead of them are doable and empowers them to move forward. So, it’s a really long answer but we’re really invested in trying to make sure that children are receiving the tools that we can provide in the midst of a really tough time.


Melissa: So resilience, I think, is also something that’s so important, not only within our children today, but I think important, even in the workforce. Is resilience, something that you all talk about as well in the workforce and use some of the concepts that you’ve talked about in your programming in your workforce or reinforcing in your workforce itself?

Paul: It is. One of the mantras that we have from Donkey Hodie is “we can do hard things” and we’ll repeat that sometimes “and remember, we’re lucky,” he says, “we can do hard things”.

Melissa: I think I might even use that this afternoon. We can do hard things. I have a team that I was just talking about yesterday. We have a challenge on our hands and so I love that. I love, yes, it is going to be hard and oftentimes it is hard to overcome a challenge, but we, That’s what the great thing about being human like, you’re saying, is being able to use our brains to figure it out.

Paul: Yeah. And that’s empowering, right? To say those, “we” statements, those empowering statements and make them simple, right? And, again, we’re going to encourage children to have that kind of confidence, and that positive attitude you should have in yourself.

Melissa: So, I understand the core values of your organization are: respect, thoughtfulness, difference, and craft. And I think that’s such a great combination of being simple, but also very relatable. So, how do you use these core values? And, how do they show up in your daily work at your organization?

Paul: So, the core values, were the result of you know a group of the leadership team from all of our different departments sitting around and really digging deep on what drives us as an organization. When we came up with those four, we felt that each of them apply in two ways, right? To the audience that we serve, but also, to the way that we work with one another.


Paul: We want to make sure that we are bringing the very best of the best to the kids that we are serving and that we want that we want to have pride in our work, so we don’t skimp on quality.

How do I incorporate that into day-to-day work? You know, at the end of every week, during the pandemic, I send out an update every Friday afternoon and it started off as an update on where are we in COVID world. And it’s interesting to look back at that, back in March of 2020. I think my updates were, you know, expecting to be back in the office in three weeks and now 18 months later, the updates are so status as usual, we’re still going to be working from home, but then I took that time to do shoutouts to all the incredible work that different individuals did that week and I tied it to those core values. So, examples of how certain employees showing respect for another employee or for the audience. And have also tied that to sort of our goals for the year in terms of if it can be a metric. It’s our monthly staff meetings. Making sure that we are highlighting how we are executing on our core values on a regular basis, month by month. And just by virtue of sort of checking in on that. I’m looking to see how different departments how we can see examples. It’s uplifting. Yeah, it helps them to embrace the core values. We want them to kind of be recognized for how they’re living out the core values in their daily work.

Melissa: Yeah, I’m a big believer in core values and it’s important, I think to do, just like you’re talking about to continually reinforce them, because I feel like if you don’t talk about them and reinforce them, then, they are only what they are on paper. So, I think it’s so important to continue to re-iterate why they are your core values. So, it sounds like collaboration with partners is a big part of your business strategy. And I imagine it’s important for partners to align with the vision that you’re talking about in the culture that you have. So, how do you attempt to ensure a culture fit of your partners before entering into your partnership?


Paul: I think folks might be surprised because of the long history that we have. But there really is no, sort of, Rogers Production’s way of doing. And so, different shows feature different partnerships, may call for different ways of doing things. And which maybe because that’s one of our core values differences, so, again, this kind of goes back to what we talked about before.

Honoring the talent and working with the talents that people bring to work and identifying that people are making choices, embracing those choices. So, a lot of the folks that we work with on their programs. Yeah, most of their work has been kind of commercial kids media, right? And they’ve done wonderful work in commercial kids media but we want to make sure that they know that sort of the door is open for when they want to do something, that’s particularly educational that is really kind of a particular value to kids. That they can make that choice and then choose us to work with because we’re here to empower their mission with kind of our passion for that kind of content. So, we’re here to match them with advisors that are going to make the most of their work. We’re here to help with research and development. To make sure that it’s refined, and it can have the biggest impact that we possibly can. That said I’ll go back to sort of expectations of our organization. I think sometimes people are relieved when they meet us and they’re like oh, you want things to be funny? Oh, good. I wasn’t sure if you wanted us to have fun. And, and we’re all about, like, funny content for kids that’s extremely important. The way I explain that to folks who sometimes raise an eyebrow, “you dare to be funny”. First of all, Fred was a very funny guy but second of all, I mean when you think back at the best teachers that you ever had. Generally, those are the ones who are most entertaining. They were the most engaging. They were the most fun.


Melissa: A couple of final questions we ask all of our guests. What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of culture?

Paul: This is going to sound corny, but I really believe it. I think mission and values drive culture.

Melissa: Great, and if you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Paul: Listening.

[Paul laughing]

Melissa: Tell me more.

Paul: I was introduced to an acronym that maybe has been around for a long time, but it resonated with me, and that’s wait, W-A-I-T, which stands for Why am I talking?

Melissa: What does it stand for? Say that one more time, please.

Paul: W-A-I-T, it stands for Why am I talking?

Melissa: Oh, why am I talking? Got it.

Paul: And so, you know, bringing that acronym to any meeting that you’re in a particularly if you’re in a leadership position is important, because if you’re asking yourself, why am I talking? You maybe you remember that it’s more important to listen. Now, when I share that with people, and again, this was shared with me from an outside organization, I think it’s been around for a while but the other part of W-A-I-T for those who maybe don’t participate sometimes, is to ask themselves, why aren’t I talking? And you know, so depending on what your role is often in meetings, to think about that acronym WAIT. That’s really resonated with me. [32:08] But for me, listening would be a great, it is a great superpower. You know when you get experience over years of doing the same thing, sometimes you are tempted to jump in with a solution and sometimes even before you hear the problem. And so, the most important thing I think is to listen to the challenges that individuals have in your organization and, you know, provide them feedback that can help them come to a solution. But that’s not a bad superpower when you have a family, either. Yeah, I try very hard to remember to listen. I have a daughter who is 17 and a daughter who is 19. They’re not so interested in dad fixing that a lot but sometimes they just want dad to listen. So that’s a great superpower.

Melissa: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Paul, for all your insights today. I really have enjoyed learning more about your story and learning more about the Fred Rogers Production Company. So, thank you so much.

Paul: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Melissa: Wonderful, well, thank you.