Dawn Gabel thought she would one day return to a career in public broadcasting. She just didn’t expect it to be back where she started.
Now that she is at the helm of Smoky Hills Public Television, she wants to make sure its owners — the people of central and western Kansas — are aware of everything it has to offer.
Gabel was named general manager and chief executive officer of SHPTV in late August. She started her career there in 1989 as membership coordinator and worked her way up to public information director and then director of development over seven years.
In the intervening years, she worked in donor recruitment for the Central Plains Region of the American Red Cross and as a program director at Hays Medical Center.
She was most recently CEO of the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, leading that educational facility to a re-opening after it closed in 2014.
A couple of years ago, Gabel told a friend who works at KCPT, the public television station in Kansas City, that she would go back to public television “in a heartbeat,” she said. That thought stuck with her.
“I thought in my heart it would be somewhere like Topeka or Kansas City, because I was living in that area,” she said.
But then she saw SHPTV was looking to fill the position after Michael Quade, the general manager and CEO since 2011, left for a job in the Hoistington school system.
“I applied, and in my heart I knew it was the right thing to do,” she said.
“I believe wholeheartedly of the mission of bringing public television to the rural areas,” she said.
Gabel isn’t the only one excited for the new job. Her 4- and 6-year-old granddaughters in Kansas City are too, but for different reasons.
“They want to go to a production of ‘Daniel Tiger,’ and I have to explain to them that’s done somewhere else, but you’re welcome to go to ‘Doctors on Call,’ ” Gabel said, referring to one of SHPTV’s original shows.
“Not the same, probably,” she said with a laugh.
Gabel’s own memories of public television — or rather the lack of it — are part of what drives her love for the medium.
Gabel said she could remember watching “Sesame Street” in its first year of broadcasting in 1969, when Topeka’s public TV station also began broadcasting.
“Then we moved to central Kansas and I didn’t see ‘Sesame Street’ again until I was a high school senior,” she said.
That was 1982, when KOOD, the charter station of SHPTV, went on the air from Bunker Hill. Until then, only cable subscribers in western Kansas could see PBS programming.
Today, four stations comprise SHPTV — KOOD, KSWK in Lakin, KDCK in Dodge City and KWKS in Colby — broadcasting to the western two-thirds of the state. DirectTV and Dish Network carry SHPTV to the Wichita market.
SHPTV converted to high definition digital broadcasts in 2003, early in the federally mandated conversion process, according to the station’s engineers, making it one of, if not the first, in the state to do so.
Today, SHPTV broadcasts three channels on its digital bandwidth — the primary PBS programming; Create, with do-it-yourself type programming; and the newest of PBS’ offerings, PBS Kids.
It’s the latter that Gabel especially wants people to know about. Launched in January, PBS Kids provides around-the-clock educational programming, some of which integrates mobile apps and online games.
“PBS has a set of programs themed ‘ready to learn’ that is preparing pre-schoolers from home though PBS children’s programming to enter kindergarten,” she said.
The 2017 Kids Count survey by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that more than half of 3- and 4-year-olds in the United States do not have access to pre-school. In Kansas, it was 56 percent.
“We see the need with pre-K in our area, and with that need, we know we have some great resources that we can share,” Gabel said.
The channel features shows such as “Sesame Street,” “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” “Wild Kratts,” and “Arthur.”
SHPTV will focus in the coming year on how schools can also use the programming of PBS Kids in their curriculum.
“We’re going to reach out to all of our schools to make sure they know ready to learn is available to them,” she said.
SHPTV will continue to focus on its original programming, Gabel said. “Real Ag,” “Doctors on Call” and “Traveling Kansas” are preparing for new seasons, and “Kansas Legislature” will return when the Legislature convenes next year.
Even with the agriculture and oil economies of western Kansas in a downswing, Gabel said she is optimistic about the publicly funded station’s future.
“Public television was introduced to central and western Kansas during a downturn, and if it can be introduced at that time, it certainly I can it can weather this downturn,” she said.
“Our membership base is still solid,” she said.
To acknowledge that, Gabel said, SHPTV will be conducting a “thank-a-thon” throughout September and October.
“It's a true heartfelt thank you because its easy to support things when are times are great. It's harder when things are tough,” she said.
Some of that will be done on air, some through email and even “good old-fashioned letters,” Gabel said, but the station is also working to build its social media following.
“We’re thanking, but we’re also asking what can we do better, what can we do for you,” she said.
“Here in central and western Kansas, there’s no six degrees of separation, there’s one degree of separation. So I figure if we double or triple our followers on social media, we’re going to pretty well reach most everybody on social media through their friends,” she said.
One of the changes already underway is working to acquire more mystery shows like “Doctor Blake Mysteries” and “Father Brown,” she said.
Now in its 35th year, SHPTV continues to innovate and grow, Gabel noted. And the work of its staff has been recognized.
Last week, Gabel joined the SHPTV staff for a pizza lunch to celebrate being named 2017 Non-Metro Television Station of the Year for the second year in a row by the Kansas Association of Broadcasters. The station also accumulated 10 awards in individual categories for its original programs, sports coverage and promotional campaigns like Family Fun Day and Kids Club and for its website.
“It says a lot about the public television station that really is owned and operated by the people of Kansas,” Gabel said. “It really is owned and operation by the people of central and western Kansas for themselves. You are the owners of a non-metro station winner
“That's pretty prideful for everyone to say,” she said.