In summer 2020, Heather Reese, an attorney who’d spent the previous decade working in compliance and strategic initiatives for Wisconsin Public Media, got a new job title: associate director.
It was a time of bustling significance for the organization, which includes Wisconsin Public Radio and PBS Wisconsin. In 2018, the organization transitioned from the University of Wisconsin–Extension back to its historic home of UW–Madison, requiring abundant administrative changes and the building of new relationships.
Reese was working closely with Gene Purcell, a personable, longtime public broadcasting executive who was named to the top job, executive director, when the UW–Madison move was announced.
Then, in July 2021, the unthinkable happened. Purcell was struck by a vehicle while riding his motorcycle.
“I remember that day vividly,” Reese says, “and the days that followed.”
At first, there was hope that Purcell would survive, but he died four days after the accident.
“When I first got the phone call, I thought, ‘OK, we’re going to have to figure out how to do this for a few months while Gene recovers,’ ” says Reese. “Then it became clear that wasn’t going to happen. It was a shock and a tragedy that still lives with us.”
To chart a path forward, Reese, who was named interim director of Wisconsin Public Media in August 2021, spoke daily with Marta Bechtol, executive director of the Educational Communications Board, which distributes public broadcasting across the state in partnership with the UW Board of Regents.
In part, Reese drew on recent personal experience.
“I think one of the ways and reasons I was able to manage through that and deal with that,” Reese says, “is because I lost my husband in a tragic accident as well.”
In August 2017, Eric Reese, an avid, lifelong fisherman, died of accidental drowning while fishing on Big Sand Lake, near Phelps.
“I had gone down that path of grief myself, understanding it and building the tools that I needed to continue,” Reese says. “So while [Purcell’s death] was absolutely a shock, I felt I could draw upon my experiences to sort of be calm and mindful and work my way through it while trying to lead everyone else through it. It doesn’t jar me. I’m all too familiar with grief.”
In June 2022, Reese, having served as interim director following Purcell’s death, was named executive director of Wisconsin Public Media. She might have been hesitant about applying if she’d not had the interim director experience first. Reese calls herself a natural introvert, and the public-facing nature of the top job would have made her leery before.
“It’s not natural,” says Reese, who is now comfortable in the position. “I like putting my head down and getting work done. But by the time the university opened the position for application, I knew that I had gained enough confidence in my ability to do the job that I should throw my hat in the ring.”
Reese has, in any case, never been one to meticulously plot career moves. It dates to her college days at UW–Stout.
“I wish I could say I had a grand plan,” says Reese, who grew up in Medford. “I did not.”
She studied hotel, restaurant and tourism management at Stout and was active in student government, serving as president of the Stout Student Association.
A savvy adviser noted Reese’s passions — policy, advocacy — and suggested law school. Reese chose UW–Madison, clerked at a law firm while in school and stayed upon graduating. She eventually spent four years with the Murphy Desmond firm — doing business and real estate work — and in 2010 decided to leave private law practice.
Reese thought she’d work for a private company, but a compliance and contracts position opened at Wisconsin Public Media.
“It was serendipitous,” Reese says. “I thought, ‘This is interesting. I’m a fan of public media. I really appreciate the work that they do.’ So I applied.”
She did the legal work well enough — reporting and following federal regulations while overseeing production agreements, copyright and intellectual property — that in 2016, Malcolm Brett, then-director of public broadcasting in Wisconsin, offered Reese an expanded role with strategic projects that carried across public radio and television.
“She was a very good colleague to work with,” says Brett, who retired in 2018. “She took on a lot of unfamiliar roles and really worked her way through them very effectively. She was good at analysis, good at communicating and she was able to work with people [throughout] the organization.”
Reese notes that these are challenging times for all media, Wisconsin Public Media included.
“We’re putting our heads together,” Reese says, “and making sure we’re investing in the right tools, the right platforms, the right infrastructure and staffing to continue to meet people where they’re going, where the audiences are going for their content. That’s a lot of planning and visioning and development.”
It includes television, radio and the web.
“We’re traditional broadcasters,” Reese says, “and broadcast is still significant and important, particularly in the more rural parts of our state. We have broadband deserts where people can’t easily view online.”
Still, she’s proud of Wisconsin Public Media’s online growth. “In the past 10 or 12 years I’ve seen us go from a pretty static webpage to having really engaging online services,” she says. “I think broadcast and online will continue to sort of merge and support each other rather than be separate silos of distribution.”
Reese talks up her staff — “their creativity and dedication is an inspiration” — and gained further inspiration at Concerts on the Square this summer when she found herself chatting with several members of the Friends of PBS Wisconsin board.
“They all have a different favorite thing about us,” she says. “But it’s incredible how much they appreciate what we do.”
To wind down, Reese heads to her home in rural Fitchburg, where she plays with her silver Labrador and enjoys the quiet.
“There’s a wonderful backyard that connects to these acres of woods,” she says. “It’s just a solace and where I recharge.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” at madisonmagazine.com/dougmoe.
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