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Frontline Fellows: Q&A with SCETV President and CEO Anthony Padgett

Committed to progress in South Carolina, fellows of The Riley Institute’s Diversity Leaders Initiative (DLI) seek to develop real solutions for real social issues. As the COVID-19 outbreak has drastically changed the way we live, these state leaders are quickly adapting the ways they support the communities they serve. We’re shining the spotlight on their exemplary leadership during this unprecedented time in our new Frontline Fellows series.

See all Frontline Fellows interviews

In this interview, we speak with SCETV President and CEO Anthony Padgett. In the early days of the pandemic, the Riley Fellow (Midlands, Spring 2019) and his staff at the public broadcasting network worked quickly to air curriculum-based programs that supplement at-home learning. Since that time, COVID-19 has continued to crystallize the need to make content accessible for students who lack internet access, and SCETV is leading the charge with the pilot of its datacasting technology.

The pandemic has underscored the need for widespread internet access as many children are unable to learn remotely without it. SCETV has been piloting technology that could possibly bridge the gap for some students. What can you tell us about datacasting and its long-term potential?

Datacasting is a technology that has been around for about a decade in the public media sector and has traditionally been used for public safety communications. It was originally designed and implemented as a way to send files using a terrestrial broadcast signal when a cellular network or broadband internet might be unreliable or unavailable.

What we’re talking about with the digital divide in South Carolina is nothing new. [Editor’s note: Roughly 150,000 households with school-age children in South Carolina don't have a reliable internet connection, according to the S.C. Department of Education.] It’s conversation that’s been going on for quite a while now, and all the answers tend to be very expensive and time-consuming. But with datacasting, we can send content curriculum that’s either created by SCETV or our educational stakeholders and partners to students who might have an electronic device but lack internet at home.

Datacasting is essentially the bridge in the middle. Through a special receiver in a student’s home, the technology actually converts a portion of our broadcast spectrum into a one-way encrypted IP data stream. The technology allows us to target who we need to, whether that is a single student or every third grade class in the state.

We’re working on acquiring funding to expand our datacasting system and hope to establish 10 datacasting zones throughout the state. About 98 percent of the state falls within SCETV’s broadcast coverage area. By expanding our datacasting system, in theory, practically every student in the state could be given one of these receivers and have access to curriculum through our airwaves.

When thinking about the long-term potential of datacasting, we hope that COVID-19 is an anomaly, but we know that we’re going to continue to face disrupted learning due to inclement weather events like snowstorms and hurricanes. With the digital makeup day initiative that is already being piloted across the state, our hope is that this technology has an application even after COVID-19 has passed. When students need to make up a day of school, they can still stay engaged from home using this technology even if they don’t have access to internet.

Datacasting hasn’t been the only thing SCETV has focused on at this time. The station increased its educational offerings and has provided local, up-to-date information about COVID-19 since the pandemic began. What programming have you focused on during this time, and how has SCETV’s mission as a public broadcasting network influenced this shift?

As far as content and programming go, one of our initial responses was related directly to education with our at-home learning initiatives. We worked closely with our partners at the South Carolina Department of Education to identify needs and find resources that could help solve some of the at-home learning challenges that were arising. For us, education is essentially in our DNA. As a station, that’s what SCETV was founded upon. It has always been dedicated to early childhood learning and education, so we were really able to leverage the resources that we already had available to us to meet new and evolving needs and create customized content for certain curriculum and grade levels. Our partnership with the Department of Education helped us better understand needs and what the teachers were facing in real life. It allowed us to be more responsive and supportive while ensuring that our programming and content were as impactful as they could be.

We have also always been diligent to disseminate information in a timely and effective manner, and our response to COVID-19 has been no different. We’ve been working with the governor’s office and the South Carolina Emergency Management Division and others with whom we already share a close working relationship. We furthered those partnerships to provide more real-time information from those sources. We provided content directly from the statewide emergency management program as well as the accelerateSC meetings. We’ve streamed events and covered all of the governor’s live press conferences. It is important to us to provide updates in a straightforward manner that really allows people to make the decisions they need to make based on true and accurate information.

Padgett reads Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? as part of the Storytime with SCETV series,
which was born out the station’s at-home learning initiative.

SCETV quickly changed its production model when you all needed to shut down the studio to reduce the spread of COVID-19. What allowed your team to adapt quickly while maintaining the quality of the station’s programming? 

By our nature, we are a creative bunch. A lot of that creativity really comes through in our response and continued work around COVID-19. Our understanding of technology has enabled us to convert workflows and processes for a remote environment. We can be a little bit more responsive, agile, and flexible. COVID-19 essentially tore down some walls for us. We found that a lot of our existing processes and tools were only bound by the limitations of using them in the building instead of using them remotely. By removing the barriers of an office, it really allowed the team to start innovating and see what was possible. We have been able to do more than we initially expected in this new environment.

The devastating impact of COVID-19 has been compounded by racial inequality. What role do you see SCETV playing as communities aim to understand and heal social divisions?

We’ve always known ourselves to be a facilitator for safe conversations given the variety and diversity of content that we’ve traditionally broadcast through the public media system. We now have a real opportunity to apply ourselves and create a space where conversations can be had, questions can be asked in a safe environment, and we can engage in civil discourse around the subject that can potentially be so divisive. Along with that, I think some of the content and information that we’re able to share can help further collective understanding.

In this time of crisis, what has been the most important lesson you’ve learned about leadership?

As leaders, it’s our responsibility to help and empower others to make sure they can do their roles. Sometimes when you get out of the way, other people can bring skills, talents, and abilities to step up and lead in new ways. From a leadership perspective, working remotely has really been a great reminder to trust your team, to empower your team, and to know that leading is supporting. You have to be creative to find new ways to support your team in unusual circumstances and situations. That call still remains, even in times like this.

One of the things we’ve always tried to instill at multiple levels in the agency is that it’s our job to grow people because as we grow people, we grow ourselves. What I think we’ve realized through these unusual circumstances is that sometimes we don’t have all the answers. As a leader, you’re not expected to have all the right answers. As a leader, you’re expected to listen to the right people who have the answers.

The other thing I find really interesting is that there’s less time for debate and more need for action. We’ve been asked how we’re getting so much done so quickly, and the answer is that we don’t have time to sit around and debate it. Decisions just have to be made. As we make those decisions and see successes, we can move forward in the direction that is needed.

How has your participation in DLI influenced your leadership and the kinds of programs you have instituted at SCETV?

It was a tremendous experience, and I appreciate the connections and friends the program allowed me to make. It’s great being able to call other DLI fellows and say Hey, what do you think about this?, and they can challenge me on my thinking about something. That is such a growth opportunity. Especially now as we start to see some of the conversations around social injustice, we realize these issues have always existed. It’s really eye-opening. Ultimately, I think those conversations we had and understanding we gained in DLI are going to continue to make a difference. I’m personally thankful that I had the opportunity to participate in the program.