Looking back on 16 years of conference calls, pitch meetings, keynote decks, sizzle reels, table reads, camera tests and zoom meetings to break down just how it is that I have ended up with a shot for primetime interview show on PBS with people like Bryan Stevenson, James Corden and Jennifer Garner
One week from tonight, I’ll be in the PBS line up. I am as surprised by this news as you are. Here’s how it happened:
I’d been hot on the TV idea since going on The Today Show with my dad in 2004. After a 4-minute segment ended up going for 17, thanks to audience response and a spontaneous producer, someone backstage asked to have a call with me about being a Mommy Correspondent. This seemed very cool and fun but the call never happened and I went back to my regularly scheduled life writing books and raising my kids. A few years later, I drove around LA for two days with a big time TV agent to meet with daytime talk show producers. I did a screen test with Deion Sanders. I thought we were kinda funny together but you never do get told why they’re walking you the unmarked door to a sidewalk. A year later, I sat with the EP of The View in his office above ABC studios in New York. I had an idea for an Andy Rooney type segment to end each week. We emailed for a month but again, zilch.
Last spring, after a really good segment on The Today Show about my 4th book, Tell Me More, I pitched a super smart producer there on the weekly segment idea I’d written up for the last producer. That got some cycles, I made a scratch track, there were a handful of meetings, but again, eventually, it dissolved.
At this point, I was celebrating ten years of encouragement and dead ends.
Meanwhile, back home, I wrote another book. I like writing, but I need more, way more, interaction than the writing life allows so between fits of progress on another manuscript, I turned to my friend Melissa Williams, who is always game and wicked smart — and we cooked up some team projects, like raising $12 million for a children’s hospital through an annual event called Notes & Words.
We also did a live conversation series for Medium where I interviewed BJ Novak, Margaret Atwood and Annie Lamott. As part of that, we went to Miami and filmed interviews at the big annual book fair there with John Cleese and Walter Isaacson for PBS. We turned those conversations into a radio show and podcast for KQED. I was falling in love with public media. Not the money so much as the people.
Just as we were mapping out a second season of that show, I got a job offer which coincided with my husband moving to a start up called Machinify for a salary of $0. It was easy to see the next right move. I signed on with The Nantucket Project and Melissa took a gig making content with a producer in LA named Steve Goldbloom, a total mensch who made short pieces for PBS NewsHour called Brief But Spectacular.
I did one of those BBS interviews and it had a nice viral afterlife. About 6 months later, I did another thing with Melissa and Steve called That Moment When. It too had a nice ride on the Internet. Then the people who make NewsHour asked Melissa and Steve if they wanted to pitch a one hour interview show with me in the host seat.
Uh, yes. We did. We definitely did.
We made a deck.
We had conference calls.
I went to DC to meet with the NewsHour executive producer, a woman named Sara Just who I liked immediately.
Months passed. We toyed with show names and logos. Then, after one too many unreturned calls, emails and texts, I was sure it was dead in the water.
I felt okay, honestly. We had tried. I was proud of our materials and ideas. I had had a legit at bat. What more can you ask for? I figured they gave it to someone real.
But then a year after our first pitch deck, there was a sign of life, a smoke signal from back east that the untitled Kelly-Steve-Melissa project was still coming up in meetings. An important guy at PBS was a believer. The CEO of PBS had the deck. A major funder had watched the sizzle and said, “Now there’s a person I’d like to have dinner with.”
Steve, Melissa and I played another irresistible round of Dream Guests: Dave Chappelle. Michelle Obama. Sonya Sotomayor. RBG!
But the waters calmed again and more months passed. I was so sure it was over I started developing a plan to launch a podcast. Something small and doable that I could push up the hill myself. I repurposed half the stuff we’d made for PBS, including the pitch deck and the reel. I met with podcast companies like iHeart and PRX and went to the podcast awards in LA. I had calls every day of the week with friends who’d hung out a shingle themselves — Dani Shapiro, Nadia Bolz Weber, some guy my husband knew from the pool. I was happy, busy on a project that would not require an ounce of luck, much less a truckload, much less an act of God. I signed for a weekly show with PRX, loving their big hearted, reliable smarts.
And then the PBS conversation shifted. If we could get one good guest, they’d give us a pilot. We got two and then three. We went back with our embarrassment of riches: Jennifer Garner, Bryan Stevenson, James Corden. Can we do them all? Maybe. Budgets were reset. Schedules evaluated. The answer was no. Then yes. Then maybe.
We would record in front of live audiences around the country, events that could help local PBS stations raise money and support. We would start on home turf: KQED. 12 venues were on the list. Calls were made, costs were estimated. PBS gave us our first air date — July 22. We had 4 months. Three weeks later: Covid. Could we start a new interview show using Zoom? It seemed unlikely, unwise even. We wanted to make something beautiful, something special and unusual, not something that looked like what every professional in the country was forced to do all day for work.
I waited for Steve and Melissa to figure it out, something I have learned that I can and should do, while I plowed ahead with my podcast plan.
I realized that making my own sandbox to play in was keeping me occupied. The distraction of building a podcast helped control my impulse to get involved — occasionally overly so — in the TV stuff. In the conversations with PBS, I was the least experienced and most impassioned and this is never an ideal combination.
Melissa, who can do anything, dug in on the rules and regulations for shooting in Covid. It might be possible, she said. Steve called Jen, James and Bryan. They would do it if all the conditions for a safe shoot were achievable. A checklist was circulated. Tests, masks and shields were mandatory. A crew was assembled. Flights were purchased.
We did it. We went to Alabama and LA to sit with these three lovely people to talk about life in America right now, how they feel and what they’re thinking. We talked about the people who raised them and the worlds they occupy now. We talked about what they hope for and what they will never stop working to ensure.
And it was magic.
Since then, Steve and Melissa and a team of editors have been crashing to produce the beautiful and special episodes you will see starting next Monday night. If you like it, please share and post. If you find it inspiring and energizing, we will make more and be back on the air in the spring. But let me say here, if I never get to do another project like this in my life, I will die satisfied. I have said to my kids a thousand times, my idea of happiness is simple:
Make yourself useful, doing something hard, with good people.
And that’s exactly what this has been for me. Enjoy.