The man who helped change public TV in Austin: Bill Stotesbery retires this month
Bill Stotesbery retires this month after guiding Austin PBS through tight times and brand expansions
Few people can say that they helped to change an entire industry.
To a certain extent, Bill Stotesbery, whose retirement as CEO and general manager of Austin PBS — formerly known as KLRU TV — becomes effective on Sept. 30, can say that.
He probably won't. He's pretty humble. He often deflects credit to his board, employees, collaborators, backers or the community.
Yet in the footsteps of his visionary Austin PBS predecessor, Robert F. "Bob" Schenkkan — the "Johnny Appleseed of public broadcasting" — Stotesbery has made Austin's public station a national leader in finding ways to secure fresh funding, negotiate new relationships with public entities, and expand the brands of Austin PBS and "Austin City Limits" regionally and nationally through a bumper crop of award-winning series, shows and documentaries.
Like another PBS forerunner, Mary Beth Rogers, he has strengthened ties to the Central Texas community, looked for ways to take advantage of changing technology, and has helped keep Austin PBS in the forefront of cultural and political shifts in the area.
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Notably during his 17-year tenure, Stotesbery is credited with extending the reach of "ACL" beyond the beloved show and festival of that name — the original licensing agreement with festival producers was made before his arrival — and he has helped usher Austin PBS into the digital age, staking out multiple new cable channels, live-streaming options and new ventures on YouTube.
Stotesbery has pulled Austin PBS out of its once exclusive orbit around the University of Texas. He oversaw the creation, with Austin Community College, of the spiffy new Austin Media Center on the ACC Highland Campus. Delayed by a catastrophic break in water pipes during the winter freeze, the center, which includes three studios, including one dedicated to ACC TV, is now expected to open in the first half of 2022.
That's a lot done for 17 years on the job. After Stotesbery's departure at the end of September, Lori Bolding, Austin PBS COO, will serve as acting CEO while the board of directors conducts a national search with hopes to announce a permanent CEO in January 2022
“There is no one quite like Bill Stotesbery,” says Gary Keller, co-founder and chairman of Keller Williams Realty and a big backer of Austin's music scene. “There simply isn’t. Bill has the biggest heart, the largest vision and the highest expectations of anyone that I know. He’s taken these gifts and given them selflessly and nobly to both Austin PBS and all the people who make it happen.”
He found a way to move to Austin
One thing many people don't know about Bill Stotesbery — so often the face of Austin PBS during awards shows, social events and annual fund drives — is his impact on two of the biggest trends that have made Austin what it is today: high tech and the ACL brand.
The history of tech in Central Texas — which began in earnest in the 1950s, picked up rapidly in the 1960s and '70s, and really took off in the 1990s — remains fuzzy for many Austinites, in part because it continues to develop at a head-spinning rate.
Stotesbery, 68, hails from the Pittsburgh area. His father was a house painter; his stepmother edited a small newspaper. A star high school debater, he was recruited in 1970 to join the debating team at TCU in Fort Worth.
"I didn't know what to expect," Stotesbery says about Texas. "I hadn't been west of Cleveland."
College in Texas during the 1970s meant overnight trips to Austin and, especially, the Armadillo World Headquarters.
"I always tell Ray Benson that Asleep at the Wheel and Ray Benson are the main reasons I eventually moved here," Stotesbery says, "along with Commander Cody and all those other acts that played the Armadillo."
He found a way to make the move to Austin: After some graduate school at UT-Arlington, he enrolled in the LBJ School of Public Affairs, which was founded in 1970.
"In college, I had been involved in student government," Stotesbery says. "I was fascinated by public affairs and learned about the LBJ School, an inviting option in 1975. And I started working with Terrell Blodgett at Peak Marwick Mitchell that consulted on the management of local and state governments."
In 1983, he made a momentous move over to Microelectronics and Computer Consortium, better known as MCC, the country's first industrial research consortium. Headed by Bobby Ray Inman, formerly part of the CIA leadership, MCC was a huge catch for Austin. It is considered one of the key factors in the city's growth as a technology center. It closed in 2000.
Stotesbery helped handle public affairs for this high-profile consortium for five years.
He next joined Westmark Systems, which, in 1987, had acquired Tracor, Austin's original tech success story, for $694 million.
"I had a foot in Washington, D.C.," Stotesbery says about managing the company's interactions with governments, "and a foot in Austin."
He then co-founded a public relations firm that looked after the accounts for MCC, as well as for Sematech, a group formed by the federal government and computer companies to smooth out the manufacturing of semiconductors, and CompuAdd, a local manufacturer of personal computers.
All this meant Stotesbery was in the catbird seat, an up-close witness to the second wave of Austin tech revolution — the first wave consisted mostly of UT's IC² Institute, Tracor and IBM from the 1950s through the '70s.
"It was sort of Forrest Gump-y," he says. "You could look back at UT's aspirations to predict the future. Back then, however, there was a lack of financial infrastructure. By the late 1990s, you could glimpse a future that might include Tesla, Samsung and Oracle. There's a lot more to the tech sector now than I ever would have expected, but it's really not a surprise."
Big changes for Austin PBS
This nexus of philanthropy, public affairs, technology and public service led Stotesbery down a long path to Austin PBS.
His wife, Susan Stotesbery, a former banker and professional organizer, and their daughter Kate Stotesbery, communications director for Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett, supported his switch to public broadcasting after he received a call in 2004 from Jan Lehman, former Austin PBS board chairwoman and a successful corporate recruiter by trade.
"I was only a viewer at that point," Stotesbery says. "But I've always been a big Austin PBS fan and still am. I hope to be for a long time into the future."
His time in the Austin technology sector allowed Stotesbery to think strategically. What could Austin PBS become? How would it negotiate the rapidly changing world of digital media and yet remain true to its community roots?
One major change: a move away from UT.
Many if not most public radio and TV stations were, at first, tied to colleges and universities. Students got experience working on shows and the schools benefited from the prestige of being associated with what was, in the early years, one of the few broadcast stations in any town. The public media, in turn, got access to facilities and the chance to work with talented faculty members.
In recent years, however, as UT has needed more space for its own programs, Austin PBS looked for a new home.
"ACC gives us the opportunity for so many collaborations," Stotesbery says. "They focus on the Central Texas region, like we do. These days, UT has a more national or even global perspective. Still, UT will remain incredibly important to us."
He points out the schools' equally ambitious world views: UT’s slogan is “What starts here changes the world.” ACC’s is “Start here. Get there."
Another area of development during Stotesbery's tenure has been Austin PBS's response to the changing media landscape. For years one of the only media players in town, it now competes for viewers with a tsunami of cable, live-streaming, social media and other digital platforms.
"PBS helps us adapt," Stotesbery say. "We were among the first stations to move into the digital world. We now have four cable channels and we have already moved onto many digital platforms, including video on demand. Our production and technology team is really on top of all these changes. We'll probably end up with more channels."
The station's trump card: "Austin City Limits."
The influential concert show was conceived in 1974 by program director and later general manager Bill Arhos, producer Paul Bosner and director Bruce Scafe as an offering for all PBS stations. Willie Nelson served as the first headliner act. Longtime producer Terry Lickona honored the show's roots and expanded its original mission.
"'ACL' makes us unique," Stotesbery says. "It's a gem."
In the early 2000s, when Austin PBS and the city were stressed mightily by the dot.com bust, the board looked for new ways to take advantage of "ACL's" brand. In 2002, its leaders forged a licensing agreement with what was then Capital Sports and Entertainment, now C3 Presents and owned by Live Nation, for a two-day outdoor festival in Zilker Park.
Today, it could be argued that ACL — the show, the greatly expanded festival, and other named spin-offs — had done more than almost anything other than South by Southwest to introduce Austin culture to the world.
With Stratus Properties, Stotesbery oversaw the expansion of the brand to the state-of-the-art Moody Theater at ACL Live, the show's current home, downtown.
Additionally, a deal with New West Records allowed "ACL" to move into CDs and DVDs. Stotesbery pushed to preserve the "ACL" archives and create the ACL Hall of Fame.
"These things have raised the visibility of the show for a whole new generation," Stotesbery says. "It's the only PBS show with a theater, festival, documentary, book and radio station. Austin PBS, C3, Stratus, Waterloo Media and so many others have worked hard to make ACL what it is today."
Public media for the future
All these factors have combined to make Austin PBS a model for sustainable public TV across the country.
"It is all tied to the local community and the community's profile in the nation," Stotesbery says. "We are figuring out how to become more agile, creative and increase our impact in the Central Texas region."
He points out that, out of 350 PBS stations in the country, Austin PBS exists in a mid-sized media market — currently ranked No. 38 — and subsists on an annual budget of $16 million. Yet it continues to produce more original material than most stations.
The shiny new studios, offices and public spaces, built on the site of an expired Dillard's department store that was part of the former Highland Mall, is intended to make Austin PBS even more visible and accessible. Originally, the equipment and media center design were projected to cost $12 million, but the winter water damage could push the price tag over $15 million.
Austin PBS shares the multi-storied building with ACC administrators, who are slated to fill the upper floors.
“When I think of Bill, I think of Austin, and I think of the stories he’s helped bring to life that inform, entertain and inspire.” says Richard Rhodes, chancellor of Austin Community College District. “We all benefit from watching his vision come to life. I hope we can carry his legacy forward to make him proud.”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.