Employee Spotlight: Tim Fallon

Posted by Gerard Longo on

With a New Year upon us, we begin our 2016 Employee Spotlight series with PBS39 CEO Tim Fallon, who provides a glimpse of the year ahead.

Give us a little background: Where were you before coming to PBS39, and how did you become involved here?
I came out of the for-profit world with a family-held company for quite a few years. I was in a number of different roles; I was the MIS Director, I was the Chief Financial Officer and EVP with responsibility for Community Relations. As a part of that CR responsibility, I sat on and chaired many different non-profit boards. One of the boards I was recruited onto reasonably early on was WLVT (now PBS39). It was a function of my wife and I being asked to be the honorary co-chairs for the Great On-Air Auction. Holiday Hair was the opening night sponsor for the Auction for 20 or so years. The following year, David Donio asked me to join the WLVT Board of Directors. Over the intervening years, I was on and off a lot of different boards, but the one that I consistently stayed involved with was WLVT.

I was on the board for 15 years. During my tenure on the board, I had been an advocate of working with ArtsQuest and other partners in creating the SteelStacks campus idea. Jeff Parks, a handful of other folks and I went to Germany to look at different things that could be done with old industrial sites, and we brought back the ideas of what is now the SteelStacks campus. From a board perspective, I led the charge to say that we should move down here and be a part of this.In September of 2009 as a board, we made a commitment to making the move and building the new building.

When did you become CEO, and how did you get there?
As fate would have it, 2009 was when all of the state funding disappeared. We had massive layoffs, and the decision was made that we didn’t have the internal strength to manage a project of this size and scope. So, I had – and still have – wonderful business partners, so I was able to take a sabbatical from my other businesses, step off the board, and agree to be the project director to build what we now know as PBS39 here at SteelStacks.

In March of 2012, I was getting ready to take myself off sabbatical from my other businesses. I was getting ready to leave on a Friday, and the previous Monday was a Board of Directors meeting where the board and the previous CEO decided to go their separate ways. The Board came and asked if I would temporarily be the CEO of the organization. I’m still here, and it will be four years in March.

What do you love most about public media?
Two things. One dates back to why I stayed involved as a board member, and it’s because it’s ever-changing. That was the case back in 1993 or ’94 when I joined. You could just see that it was not the same old regimen that had been for 30 years before. It really changes so rapidly that it’s fascinating to watch and be part of.

Equally important is the mission. It’s the public mission, which we’re making our community better. Every non-profit organization makes its community better, but there are few that have the scope and touch that we have for our community.The fact that we reach more than six million people, and that we have such a personal touch through television and the other things that we do, is so much greater than many of the other things that I get involved with. It has real impact on our entire community. Then, when you tie in some of the thing that we’re working on convening in the community, it’s the perfect storm intersecting my personal interests with what this organization stands for that makes me love getting up and coming to work every day.

What’s an average work day for the CEO of a public media station? Is there such a thing?
There isn’t an average day, but most mornings, I’ll have a breakfast meeting, whether it’s with somebody internally or another leader in the community that we’re trying to touch base with. I spend a couple hours here in the office, then I have a lunch meeting with a major donor, board member, non-profit leader or somebody we’re looking to partner with in some form or fashion. There are days that are filled with conference calls, whether it’s at a national level or on a regional level, and there is a fair amount of travel related to things that we do for public television. It could be a meeting in Washington D.C. at the national PBS office, or national meetings that get rotated around. It’s kind of a frenetic rush from one thing to the next.

How important is having all of these local connections and relationships in terms of making PBS39 a viable community partner.
Viable and visible, I think, are both relevant terms there. People see us on the TV, and that’s great, but it’s somewhat at arms-length. It’s important that there’s a human face in the community that is identifiable with public television. It shouldn’t only be me, and it’s not. We have many folks within our organization who are out in the community representing PBS39. That’s incredibly important, that it’s not just what they see on the screen. Direct community engagement can never be understated.

In any organization, if you just sit in your office all day and concentrate on “making the sausage” that goes on within the four walls of your building, your organization is going to die, sooner rather than later. We’re supported by our community, we have to be visible in our community, and they have to know what we’re doing, so that they want to continue to support us.

You mentioned that you’ve had opportunities to travel and meet folks from other PBS stations. Why is developing that network important?
It extends also to why I meet with other folks in the community. If you don’t explore and find out how other folks do it, how are you ever going to innovate? I feel almost mercenary sometimes when I go to these conferences, because I’m going with the strict purpose of soaking up ideas. Sometimes, it’s the newest idea on fundraising, or something we want to do on air. Usually, it’s community engagement. I love listening to Tom Axtell from Las Vegas PBS, and all of the ways that they have extended the mission of public media to be incredibly valuable in their community.

I’ve visited WCNY in Syracuse twice to be a sponge and learn from what they do. It’s a very creative group, and creative on a budget. These are folks who don’t have a lot of disposable dollars at their hands, so they get very creative in figuring out how to do a lot of good with very little money. I look to figure out things from them.

Occasionally, we bring things to the national stage, as well. Laura McHugh (Executive Producer, Local Programming) presented at the NETA meeting in Tampa this fall, so there are some things we’re engaged in that other folks want to hear about. Dave Guerrero is often asked to be part of national panels, as well as Teri Haddad.

It’s an exchange of ideas. Sure, you can do it with message boards and blog posts, and they’re valuable, but you can’t ask the second question in those mediums. Sometimes, it’s valuable to have those face to face conversations.

Even here in Pennsylvania, that exchange of ideas has become stronger, hasn’t it?
In the last 18 months, we’ve put a group together of all of the Pennsylvania stations. We’ve been working on a number of things. First and foremost is the restoration of public funding from the Commonwealth, but it’s going to morph beyond that and will include ways that we can collaborate from an educational perspective, a local content production perspective, and the model of “one-plus-one-equals-three.” If you go to where it adds up to eight, I think we get geometrically more bang for our buck as we pull our stations together.

It’s not that all eight have to do the same thing. Three or four may do something, and then three or four may do something else. In the same way that we’re sharing a lot of resources with WVIA and some with WQLN, these resources were not necessarily available to just one station. We may not have been able to afford them or utilize them. Now, by sharing, we can leverage them. I think that makes a lot of sense.

In your time here, what have been some of your favorite things to experience?
It’s a long and distinguished list. One of the things is launches. I love launching new projects, and I love being a part of launches, whether we debut a new documentary, or bring a new program like the Full STEAM Ahead! initiative out. The promise of something new and valuable, to me, is exciting.

The other thing I like – and it’s corny, but true – is when we do events and get big smiles, especially from kids. When we had the dioramas here as part of PeepsFest, when we partnered with our friends from Just Born, watching all of those families come in, be happy and learn something is exciting and fun.

My wife works with agencies that help distressed families and children, and their metrics of success are that people don’t go hungry and have a bed at night. It’s incredibly valuable work. I love the fact that we work in an environment where we get to bring enjoyment, entertainment and education in a fun and positive way where we get a lot of smiles.

What is your outlook for PBS39 in 2016? How can it be achieved?
The future is blindingly bright. I don’t mean that in a flippant manner. There are opportunities that we’re going to create, by working the plan that we have put together collectively, that will make us even more valuable to our community and make us a better place to work. An important piece here is that nothing to get to that point requires luck or magic. While there may be some things that come along that are “lucky,” we don’t need that. We have the capacity within to achieve the goals that we’ve set out. To get there, we have to execute on the plans that we’ve built together.

We have opportunities to do more local programming, more educational outreach, to continue making great documentaries about our history here in the Lehigh Valley, and to increase our value as a community partner. 

Why is it important to the community that PBS39 achieves its goals going forward?
Somebody at the PBS world came up with a litmus test I like to use. When people say, “You don’t really need public television,” I like to turn that around and say, “What would this community look like if there was no public television or media?” What void is created by that? The bigger the void, the more valuable we become. You always have to test yourself against why we’re here, and what would be the loss to the community if we weren’t here.

I’m very excited about what’s going to happen this year. I think if we sit down a year from now and review what our incredibly small but gifted team is able to accomplish from this point in time to a year from now, people will be amazed.

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