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On her twenty-first birthday, Kathleen Pavelko watched the sun go down while sitting on the steps of the Parthenon. This is one of her favorite life moments.
The president and CEO of WITF has dedicated her life to the improvement of journalism and the advancement of public service. In a world that’s divided by ideology, propaganda, and disinformation, public broadcasting engages a community of viewers and listeners with rich, trustworthy content that’s more diverse, less biased, and digs deeper with focused, in-depth conversations and attention to issues that matter. WITF went on the air in 1964. PBS first went on the air in 1969 and NPR in 1971.
Pavelko has been at the helm of WITF since 1999. She’s the fifth CEO in fifty years. Her office is located inside the 75,000 square-foot WITF Public Media Center in Swatara Township, Dauphin County. Built by High Construction, on a thirteen-acre tract of land, the Public Media Center houses recording studios and offices to accommodate both local and national programming. It also serves as a community space.
Prior to WITF’s 2006 move to the new building, the company operated out of a 1958 elementary school on Locust Street in Harrisburg. “I went around the old elementary school and took snapshots. I collectively call them ‘the squalor pictures’ because they depicted the hugely cramped quarters, the tattered infrastructure, the deteriorating drywall, the busted floors—all of the things that go along with a very old building,” she says, characterizing the challenges. “I joke, and it’s true, that our receptionist gained fifty percent efficiency when she was no longer on the phone saying, ‘Have you gotten to the Wendy’s yet? Turn left at the Wendy’s.’ It was really hard to find.” Pavelko led WITF’s most successful capital campaign, Building on a Lifetime of Learning, which raised $21 million for the construction of the Public Media Center.
Pavelko is an extremely articulate and intelligent woman—and a woman of action. She’s a self-professed news junkie, describing her “news diet” as an eclectic mix of NPR, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Patriot-News, The Washington Post, and Twitter (@KPav). In 1975, Pavelko earned her bachelor’s degree, in three years, in history—largely ancient history. By 1979 she earned her master’s degree in print journalism.
She married Eugene Borza, now an emeritus professor of ancient history at Penn State University and a respected author of many works on Macedonia. By the time her master’s degree was awarded, the two were living in London. She was working as a freelance writer, working for The Sunday Times of London until the paper suspended publication for 10 months in a labor dispute.
After a year, they returned home to State College. She went to work for Penn State Public Broadcasting and was hired as a writer for a weekly legislative roundup show called “Pennsylvania.” A year later she was hosting a daily, live interview program. She did that for three years until she and her husband traveled to Greece and lived there for two years. He was on sabbatical and she worked as a freelance journalist. “I worked for a Greek publication that was published in English and for Deutsche Welle, which is the non-commercial broadcaster in Germany that needed pieces produced, curiously enough, in English,” she says. “The world of journalism is a very interesting place.”
Upon return from Athens, she returned to Penn State Broadcasting. This time she filled various positions including the head of promotion and fundraising, the director of programming and production, and eventually the COO. After being offered her first executive position as president of Prairie Public Broadcasting, she and her husband moved to Fargo, North Dakota.
It was in Fargo where she recounts a beautiful story about the power of community during the Red River Flood in the spring of 1997. “We had moved to Fargo in October and it started snowing. It did not stop snowing,” she recounts. “That led inevitably to the flood. And we had bought a house on the river. Good planning on our part,” she adds with sarcasm. Pavelko describes neighbors and volunteers passing sandbags through her living room. Seventeen thousand sandbags. Comprising a three-and-a-half foot dike “For three weeks we fought the flood,” she declares. Schools closed so that everyone could volunteer in some way or another. “Our home was saved by people whose names we never knew,” she says. “But they come to help. It really was a remarkable experience. I’ve never experienced community in action quite like that.”
In 1999, Pavelko came to WITF. She believes their tagline “Live Inspired” means that public media should both inspire and satisfy curiosity about the things we do and the world around us. “As a journalist, I’m always interested in knowing what is happening. And as a student of history, I’m interested in finding out what’s happening now and how it connects to things in the past.”