Confusion at Twin Cities Public Television sets black history program adrift

Due to a big misunderstanding, Les Lester, author of the "Awakening of Khufu," won't be airing a black history show on Twin Cities Public Television this spring.

Due to a big misunderstanding, Les Lester, author of the "Awakening of Khufu," won't be airing a black history show on Twin Cities Public Television this spring. Les Lester

Author Les Lester wanted to bring his love of black history to kids. So he pitched Twin Cities Public Television -- the local PBS affiliate -- an idea for a new talk show.

Every week for six weeks, he and a guest would discuss notable black legends throughout world history, including King Tut and the last queen of Hawaii. The show would be called Urban Lens.

Twin Cities Public Television loved the idea, telling Lester to work with its community partnerships division to iron out the details. He was told to begin fundraising with an eye on a spring debut.

"I was satisfied that I could have six episodes under my belt that would cover much-needed socio-political concerns confronting African Americans in Minnesota, such as the achievement gap’s connection to black kids not getting their full history in school textbooks," Lester said.

He spent all winter laying out the subject of each episode and courting sponsors. He launched a new corporation called Les Lester Education Productions in order to seek nonprofit status.

But money didn't flow in as easily as he hoped. With spring quickly approaching, Lester turned back to Twin Cities Public Television for financial aid.

That's when CEO Jim Pagliarini wrote Lester to say that the scope of Urban Lens was too large for the station to handle.

"I am sorry that we have misled you or raised your expectations. Your idea is a worthy one without a doubt. But I am sorry we cannot support this," Pagliarini wrote. "The type of show you are talking about -- an ongoing series that is about current affairs and current issues falls outside of what we define as partnership work."

Lester feels that his time has been wasted. If Urban Lens wasn't a good fit for Twin Cities Public Television, he says he would have prefered being told that sooner, before he set his mind to making it a reality.

"I feel that they're taking the black community too lightly," he says.

Reached by phone Friday, Twin Cities Public Television COO Dean Orton said the station always believed that Lester's idea had strong potential, which is why producers spent time advising him how to fund it.

Unless someone is a staff member producing original content for Twin Cities Public Television, they would have to either produce their program entirely before submitting it to air, or find a nonprofit to support ongoing production, while Twin Cities Public Television helped with the editorial side. Lester wasn't able to pull off either of these options in time.

"We did not feel that we had a complete, greenlit program," Orton said. "And that's an area where we want to look at things at our end to see if we could communicate clearer ... We felt that we were still figuring out possibilities and ideas. It seems unfortunate that we may have been on two different sheets of music on that."

While disappointed with the abrupt end, Lester says he's looking into other ways to realize Urban Lens, including rolling it all into a documentary, or creating a webcomic for kids.