Mary Bitterman

Air date: Tues., Nov. 24, 7:30 pm


Original air date: Tues., Nov. 24, 2009


Leading PBS in Hawai‘i and Beyond


Leslie Wilcox visits with Mary Bitterman, who was the Executive Director of PBS Hawai‘i (then referred to as KHET) from 1974 to 1979. The youngest Executive Director of a PBS station at the time, she headed KHET at the time of the groundbreaking production of Aldyth Morris’ “Damien”, which won the George Foster Peabody Award and was aired on PBS stations nationwide. She went on to become the President and CEO of KQED – the PBS television station in San Francisco – and was board chair of PBS. Mary is now Chair of the PBS Foundation and head of the Bernard Osher Foundation, which provides scholarship funding to selected colleges and universities.


Mary Bitterman Audio


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And I think the future of our state, the future of our republic, and the future of our world has got to be people understanding people, people respecting people, people respecting the diversity of people’s backgrounds and interests, and insights. And I think that Public Broadcasting is going to play, increasingly, an important niche in bringing the people of the world to a better understanding and appreciation of one another. The stories must be told.


For four decades, a leader in public broadcasting, Mary Bitterman, has had a meaningful impact on how Hawai‘i sees the world, and how the world sees Hawaii. Her story on Long Story Short.


Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, we’ll catch up with Mary Bitterman, the first woman to lead a PBS television station. Which happened to be this station—PBS Hawai‘i, called Hawai‘i Public Television during her tenure in the 1970s. Mary Bitterman would go on to run a larger PBS station, in San Francisco. She would become PBS national board chair, and receive public broadcasting’s most prestigious award for lifetime achievement. She still calls Hawai‘i home, returning to Honolulu every month from her offices on the west coast. And she takes Hawai‘i with her everywhere she goes. In Washington D.C. I’ve heard her explain to large national groups the meaning of “ohana” and the Japanese principle she learned here, “okage sama de,” which means, “I am what I am because of you.” Fate brought this fourth-generation Californian and Ivy League scholar to Hawai‘i. Her husband, psychology professor Jeff Bitterman, was offered a short-term job at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.


And so he was asked to be a guest professor for a year. And so we came to Hawai‘i for a year. And that was 1971, and we—


You thought it would be one year, I bet.


Yes, we never left. I mean, even though I work off island, and have for several years, Hawai‘i has always been our home and permanent residence since 1971.


What made you feel at home here? Because, you know, there is a great deal of aloha and hospitality on one level, but on another level, it’s sometimes hard to get into the culture when people are busy, and they have things to do, and they think you’re gonna be leaving in a—




—year, anyway.


Exactly. And I just can’t tell you how many instant opportunities were made available to me. I mean, I know exactly what you mean. And when people say to me, Oh, I’m going to move to Hawai‘i, I really want to make sure that they understand how important it is to exercise curiosity, and not just to come fully shaped and imprint themselves somehow on Hawai‘i. When I first came, I taught several courses at the University of Hawai‘i. One of the students in class was an older woman who was returning to finish her degree. And she said to me after class, My husband is doing a special project with the Ford Foundation, and I would like him to meet you. So I said, I’d be very happy to meet your husband, and how nice that he works for the Ford Foundation. All right; but here’s what he wanted. He said, What we want is someone to do a history of Hawaiian landownership and land use, so we have a baseline for the development work that we’re undertaking.


Now, that’s a—


And I said—


—fascinating issue.


I said, Here’s the problem. The problem is, I think the whole idea of doing historical research on Hawaiian landownership and land use is fascinating; but I’m not competent. I’m not competent, because I don’t know the Hawaiian language, and because I have not studied Hawaiian history in any really significant, deep fashion. And he said, Well, we really would like you to take on this enterprise, and so on and so forth. At any rate, I was hired to do some basic historical research dealing with a great number of texts. What I did was, I published a series of papers that began with the ancient Hawaiian land use forms, going on to the Mahele, going on to the various uses of the land, especially when we had the development of sugar and pine, then moving on to the period of military installations on the aina, and then really ending up with the visitor industry after the second war and the development of resort properties and the rest of it.


That’s a great way to get to know Hawai‘i, isn’t it?


Now, this, when you said, How did you, coming with this modern European background, and so and so forth, come into Hawai‘i and have a chance to sort of be involved right away? And it’s because I worked on land. It just gave me a chance, I would say, to leapfrog and to arrive, say, by year five, at a place that might have taken some other malihini … twenty, thirty years.


Well, you could have blown it big time while you were doing this. But you didn’t.


I had so many teachers. I had so many people who opened themselves to me. It was just extraordinary.


But you were a teacher who was willing to be taught. I think that’s one—


Insatiable curiosity; that’s the only way to learn and I think even when one reaches a point where people say, Oh, you know a great deal, one must never be led to believe that one doesn’t have still so much more to learn than one knows.


What did you do when the study was complete, or when your role was done?


Well I’m very committed to the Buddhist principle of impermanence, with all things changing all the time. It’s become my way to explain everything that happens in life. After I served as the historian for this regional environmental management project, which was called HESAL, and the simulation part of it was really that the Fujitsu Corporation provided us with all of these wonderful computers and computer specialists, so we could take the data that our development colleagues were aggregating, and run different scenarios of development. And the focus of our study was the Kaneohe Bay watershed. And we did a number of public hearings in which Oceanic Cable helped us to record some of the public hearings, and really get the public involved in, how do you want the Windward side of Oahu to develop, how precious are the taro fields, what will be the cost of capital facilities to support a much larger population, what will the erosion from development, soil erosion, what kind of damage might that cause to the Kaneohe Bay. And the final thing I did for Ford was to write a history of the Hawai‘i environmental simulation laboratory, which is on file at Windward Community College Library. So there.


Okay; so now you’re pau with that, and—


So now I’m—


—what are you gonna do?


—pau with that.


So far, by the way, I notice you’ve gotten two jobs, not because you went after them, but because people went after you.


Well, the opportunities, it just absolutely was incredible. The man from the Ford Foundation, Bill Felling, with whom I got on very well, he became very interested in Hawaiian history as I shared with him some of what I had read, and introduced different books to him that he began reading. Everything from John Papa Ii to Kuykendall, to “On Being Hawaiian” by John Dominis Holt. Just a whole wonderful range of things—David Malo—and serving as the Ford monitor brought me in touch with more people from the Ford Foundation, which curiously, was the major foundation underwriter for Public Television across the United States. The laboratory also had an advisory committed of extraordinary people, including Phil Gianella, who was the publisher of the Star Bulletin then, Kenneth Brown, wonderful Kenny Brown, people like Minoru Hirabara who headed Del Monte operations, Bud Smyser, also from the Star Bulletin. And this advisory group, several of them said, when the position here at PBS Hawai‘i became open, You should do this. I don’t know the difference between a transmitter and a translator; I think that jobs like that should really go to people well schooled in technology, engineering, production, and the rest of it.


Just like you’d said before, I think the job should go to somebody—


Exactly; to somebody who is competent.


—Hawaiian history.


Yes, to somebody who is competent. And so the argument of Minoru Hirabara, who became one of my dearest friends in the world, and Kenny Brown and others was … Here’s what you do have. You’ve told us what you don’t have; what you do have is a real love for Hawai‘i and the people. You do have an understanding and a growing knowledge of Hawaiian culture, and the cultures of the people of Hawai‘i. You have been connected to a very big foundation, which supports Public Television; and who knows, maybe you could get them to send some money to Hawai‘i for Hawai‘i Public Television. You have testified before the State Legislature, which in those days, PBS Hawai‘i was part of State government, and we received our appropriation from State government. So being able to go before the leaders of the Legislature and being able to testify was considered very important, to do it effectively and to do it respectfully, and all. And so that’s how I became the youngest general manager in PBS’ history, and the only woman to head such a station.


Two historic distinctions … Mary Bitterman says Hawai‘i’s multi-ethnic culture was quick to accept a young woman in this leadership role.


I think that everyone who has come to Hawai‘i, whether ancestors came from Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Madeira Islands, Scandinavia, Ireland, Mexico, Puerto Rico, wherever, that the indigenous people, our host culture, has had a very special effect, a softening effect, and I would argue also having women be seen as potentially very competent. I mean, if we read Hawaiian history, we know the place of enormously powerful, gifted women who played such important roles.


Queen Kaahumanu.


Kaahumanu … Liliuokalani. I was on St. Andrews Priory school board, and we know all the incredible things that Queen Emma did. Princess Ruth Likelike. I mean, just an assortment of people—Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. So I think that, coupled with the fact that a governor like George Ariyoshi, gave opportunity to women. Boy, once we came to Governor Ariyoshi, more and more women were appointed to cabinet positions, and doors of opportunity opened in very, very important ways. So I had this really great opportunity which has made all the difference in my life. This is really where everything started.


For example?


Well it’s when I really came to Public Television, that in addition to continuing my study of Hawaiian history, that I really became increasingly, increasingly imprinted on Asian history, Asian culture, becoming a host family for East West Center. It was through working with people here at the station, and being really taken into so many ohanas. Our dearest friends were people that I met here; the Kono family, Melvin Kim Farinas, Akio Sakata, who was our chief engineer. So it’s just the world became very, very special for me here. I had never had friends, as I had here.


Why do you think that is? I mean you had a—


I think—


—family in California, you had—


But a small family.


—college experiences.


A small family. So many of my friends here had much larger families. I had two older brothers, and my oldest brother passed away. But it’s really when I came here that I was able to meet so many people with deep roots and many generations in Hawai‘i, that just opened up so many new doors of opportunity. I mean, just through my dear, dear friend Melvin Kim Farinas. Mel was the art director here at Hawai‘i Public Television for many, many years, and I think, gave the station its great reputation for artistry. He was half Korean, half Filipino. His father, Francisco Farinas, was the first Filipino radio broadcaster in Hawai‘i. Melvin’s wife, Ronnie Mae, was half Chinese, half Japanese. Her maiden name was Fujii, her mother’s maiden name, Goo. Just within Melvin, I became involved in all of these cultural outreaches. It just began that everything seemed to connect me to more and more pieces of a mosaic. So if this whole table were these incredible facets, each one of them just sparkling, I began to have connections to so many of them, and every day my life became more interesting, more challenging, because the more I would learn about things that needed to be done or people that we could bring together, and make things happen, it was just terrific; absolutely terrific.


Using all of her skills as a team builder, Mary Bitterman took over a troubled TV station and launched an era when Hawai‘i Public Television became nationally recognized for its programs.


So your personal life was developing, and your knowledge of Hawai‘i was growing. What were you doing professionally here? What did you see needed to be done, and what did you get done?


Well, it was a very exciting time. And I think sometimes when entities are in a distress situation, which we were—


You were invited to lead a distressed organization?


Yes. But I have to tell you, the only distressing thing was that we didn’t have … we had a modest amount of financing, and we were a little overdrawn on our State account, so we had to go bare for a while. What we did have was an extraordinary group of people. We had forty-eight student helpers from the University. Everybody, as we both know, trained in television in Hawai‘i was trained here in the good old days. And we just had a staff of people, thirty-six people, who were just absolutely incredible. But we had to find out how we were going to do things on almost nothing. That’s why we wanted to find a way, even without resources, that we could just kind of take what we had, and do it. So we started, actually, a program called Hawai‘i Now, which was a stripped program, five days a week, in which we could put different segments. And so International Kitchen was one day a week. So how did we start out? This is just an example. We took our fabulous administrative officer, Shareen Nakasone, and said, Shareen, you really make great Okinawan donuts—you know, andagi. Why don’t you come and cook them in the studio? Shareen said, I’ve never been on television, I don’t know if I’d want to do this. But she was just such a great girl; she said, Okay, for the cause, I’ll do it. So she came in, and she was our first cook. And then we began. We weren’t online, but we would send people copies of the recipes from International Kitchen. So people would write in, and then we developed a membership group so they could become members. And it was terrific. So we started off with Hawai‘i Now. But then we did—everybody wants sports, and you have your wonderful Leahey & Leahey program now, but we did something called Sports Page 11, with Marv Vedetto.


With Jim Hackleman.


Well, Jim Hackleman afterwards.


He came later.


But it started off with Marv Vedetto from the University, and then went on to Jim Hackleman. But it was really fun, because we did everything from

women’s sports, which weren’t being covered then, to kids’ T-Ball. I remember we did one program doing a T-Ball game over in Waimanalo, and we had more reaction from the community. People were just—






Totally support that.


Absolutely, absolutely wonderful. And then we began an arts program, Spectrum, we had Dialog which was our Friday night public affairs discussion. And we did a lot of interesting people.


This was when Hawai‘i had only a handful of viewing choices, before the proliferation of cable channels. Mary Bitterman found the funding and gave the green light to a production that would, arguably, become the most nationally acclaimed of Hawai‘i’s locally-produced TV programs.


Obviously, the jewel in the crown was Damien, which I am so delighted … I can’t begin to tell you. It just is so personally meaningful to me that this extraordinary story, this exquisite play, written by a most wonderful woman—I just wish everyone could have known Aldyth Morris. Brilliant, sensitive, compassionate. Everything about her was very special. You would just know that if you read the script; you know that somebody very special wrote it. And then to have that combined with a brilliant actor, who just became Damien in Terence Knapp, and a gifted producer/director, Nino Martin, and a gifted art director, Melvin Kim Farinas. It was a combination of things—the videographer, Wade Cuvian—that was magical. It’s just extraordinary. But we did some other programs. We did a three-part series with Joe Nathan, an independent producer, called The Japanese. And those were films that he filmed in Japan, and then we did local follow up. So for example, his film called Farm Song on a Japanese family living in an agricultural area, we went off to Maui and did the Orodomo family in Kula. And when he went off and did Full Moon Lunch, a bento operation, we went down to Liliha Street and did Nishi Catering. So it was a combination of trying to take the wonderful things of our own community and setting them into the context of a larger world. And then, of course, China Visit, which we had a group of Hawai‘i residents going in 1977, the year after Mao’s death, to do that film, was a terrific thing.


You were one of the first groups of Westerners in China.


Exactly. But I think it really stands the test of time that you’re able to look at that film, that is PBS Hawai‘i’s film, and you’re able to go back and see what China, now the tenth largest economy, was like thirty-two years ago. It’s very exciting.


You hosted that documentary in pigtails.


Well, I have to tell you. It’s very interesting. When we were in China in 1977 people will not believe it; they just won’t believe it, because China has just moved so quickly forward. In 1977, there was not one woman to be seen wearing anything different from a navy blue or a gray Mao suit with Mao trousers, and whose hair was not cut like this, or who had pigtails. And because I have long hair, it was decided that the best thing for me to do was to put them in pigtails, right?


Later, Mary Bitterman was asked to take the directorship of “The Voice of America” which she saw, in part, as an opportunity to bring Hawai‘i’s spirit to the rest of the world.


And so a door of opportunity opened to become the youngest and the only woman ever to serve as director of The Voice of America, and all because the people of Hawai‘i gave me the opportunity. And I worked very hard at The Voice, and really tried to introduce the aloha spirit to a larger audience. We really opened up our relationship with China, we arranged for the first exchange of broadcasters between The Voice of America and China. We had some wonderful, wonderful days and, as you can imagine, it was my work at Hawai‘i Public Television, Koji Ariyoshi, the trip to China, that I already had contacts with Chinese broadcasters, and with the Minister of Propaganda in China. So that when I went to The Voice of America, I was able to build on some of that, and arrange for these exchanges.


And by the way, was that the actual title, the Minister of Propaganda?


Yeah; yeah. Dung Lee Chun.


If we could skip ahead just a little bit. I think you were recruited for another job at a Public Television station.



It was another distressed station, but much more distressed, much larger jurisdiction.


Yeah. And that was an opportunity which arose in 1993, and it was in distress, it was in a near bankrupt situation.


And the viewers were extremely upset that local programming had been yanked from them.


Local programming was gone.


Which is something you had brought back to Public Television in Hawai‘i.


It also had a recent labor strike, and there were very antagonistic feelings between union members and the management of the station. There were a huge number of problems.

Your good relations with unions must have helped you in—


It helped me a lot.


—San Fancisco.


Because before I went there, people on the KQED staff had called people in Hawai‘i at HGEA, Charlotte Simmons, other people, saying, What is this person like, and so on and so forth. So that was enormously helpful. But at KQED, what I tried to do was two things. One, to put the stations back on sound financial footing, and we would be responsible stewards with the community’s investment in us, and we would deliver the greatest possible content.


Years after reviving the San Francisco PBS station, KQED, Mary Bitterman became the president of a funding organization that helped her rescue that station. the Bernard Osher Foundation is one of the nation’s largest supporters of higher education and the arts. It’s given millions of dollars to the University of Hawai‘i. At this time in 2009, the Osher Foundation is Mary Bitterman’s paying job. But she has never stopped contributing to PBS, serving in many unpaid leadership positions, including National Board Chair and head of the PBS Foundation. I’d like to thank Mary Bitterman for joining us on Long Story Short, and for upholding traditions of teambuilding and excellence here at PBS Hawai‘i. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


History was biographies of admirals, generals, and kings and queens. But the real richness of history are all of these other people, and the way in which they shaped our lives. And I think Public Broadcasting’s niche is in bringing more people on the stage, and letting them all be heard.


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