W hen Gary Stokes moved to Spokane in 2011 to become executive director of the Friends of KSPS, he never dreamed he’d be back running a television station.
But that’s where he finds himself.
Stokes became the station’s general manager in September, as KSPS completed its transition from being under the control of Spokane Public Schools to being an independent PBS affiliate.
Running a television station, he said, “was the furthest thing from my mind” when he applied to be the Friends of KSPS executive director.
His wealth of experience in both commercial television – as a news reporter and producer and general manager – and in public television, as vice president of development at Alabama Public Broadcasting, was just the right combination, said Leo Stevens, board president of the Friends of KSPS. When the board needed to replace Patty Starkey, longtime executive director of Friends of KSPS, they were looking to the future, envisioning a time maybe five or 10 years down the road when the school district might want to divest itself of the station, Stevens said. Stokes’ résumé ticked a lot of boxes.
“It was really hard to find someone who understood the fundraising side of public television and the nuances of running a public television station, as well as the commercial side, and who has a strong broadcast background,” Stevens said.
That transition from school district control to independence came sooner rather than later, and meant a change in organizational structure. The Friends group since its inception in the early 1970s has been primarily a fundraising body. Now, that board is in charge of the station, and Stokes has moved from Friends executive director to general manager. He takes over from Claude Kistler, who retired this summer after 33 years as general manager. Kistler had been with KSPS since 1967, the year it went on the air.
Stokes, a Philadelphia native, got into television news after a couple years as a juvenile probation officer, a job he landed after earning a degree in criminal justice from the University of Dayton in Ohio in 1978. His TV career took him to places like Buffalo, N.Y.; Dallas; Baltimore; Houston; and Washington, D.C. In 1996, he moved to Birmingham, Ala., where he was president and general manager of a commercial station until the fall of 2001, and in early 2002 he returned to the newsroom as a news director in Virginia.
“Even that got to a point where it wasn’t as fulfilling as it once was,” Stokes said. “So as many of us do as we reach a certain age, you pull back and say OK, what’s next for me. I was fortunate enough to find a position at Alabama Public Television in Birmingham, where I could use some of the skills I had honed over the years to help raise money for an organization that had an education mission that I felt was extremely important in that state.”
When recruited to apply for the executive director job in Spokane, Stokes said he was impressed with KSPS’ reputation and its location in the Northwest.
“The first time I saw Spokane was when I came for the interview. I called my wife that night and said ‘I really hope they offer me this job because I think this is a place where we’d like to live,’ ” he said.
After a two-day interview process Stevens categorized as a gantlet, Stokes was the near-unanimous choice.
“What separated Gary from the pack was his vision of what the mission for the station should be,” Stevens said. “He’s so mission-driven.”
His early career working with juvenile offenders left him with an appreciation for education and strong role modeling.
“I think a lot of that has molded why I believe so much in the education mission of PBS because every day, 24 hours a day, either through the children’s programming that we have on the air all the way up to and including the news and public affairs programming to the science and nature programming to the arts and entertainment programming, everything we do is designed to help supplement or enhance that education experience for the youngest learner to those who think they know everything yet who manage to learn something new from watching what we have on the air.”
Among his goals for KSPS is to maintain fiscal health and be a nonbiased place for discussion of regional and local issues. He’s also making a big push to expand KSPS’ education mission. He points to the show “Northwest Profiles,” which after 26 years on the air provides a nice bank of regional history, as an example of available content teachers should be able to use to supplement classroom materials.
He envisions working with Spokane Public Schools, the University District, and area school systems to become an alternative learning platform for people of all ages, he said.
He and his wife, Mariesa – a marketing and public relations consultant – have two sons still living back East. Craig, 28, is in Washington, D.C., and Mark, 22, in Virginia Beach, Va.
Both Stokeses have embraced their new home. Mariesa Stokes has joined the Spokane Arts Commission. Stokes is a member of Rotary 21, and recently has joined the board of Humanities Washington, which provides cultural programming around the state.
They live in the Grandview-Thorpe neighborhood, just south of Finch Arboretum; he and his wife both grew up listening to the trains rumble by on nearby tracks, so the train sounds in their neighborhood are comforting, he said.
“Spokane has been everything we wanted it to be and more,” he said. “We love being here, we love the people, we love the community, we love our house, we love our neighborhood.”