Tom Axtell shepherds Vegas PBS through the digital age

Vegas Voices is a weekly series highlighting notable Las Vegans.

In 1994, when Tom Axtell applied for the general manager’s job at KLVX-TV Channel 10, his expectations were fairly straightforward.

KLVX hadn’t invested in new equipment for nearly 20 years. “And in terms of audience ratings, the station was significantly below the national average,” he says.

Axtell figured that he’d “be here five years and then go to a bigger market. That was my goal.”

He laughs. “And 23 years later … ”

Axtell still is general manager of what’s now Vegas PBS, whose East Flamingo Road building has been nationally recognized for its state-of-the-art green design.

“People think of us as a television station,” Axtell says. “We think of ourselves as a multimedia company.”

Among the company’s media offerings are:

■ Several Channel 10 digital subchannels and original local programming.

■ Community services including a lending library of materials for hearing- and vision-impaired children.

■ Instructional media for businesses and organizations

■ An emergency communications system used by police and local schools.

Axtell, 68, was born in Chicago and became acquainted with the broadcasting business from his father who, after World War II, turned a radio DJ gig into a career in radio and TV.

Axtell’s first job in broadcasting was as a corporate sponsorship sales representative for Minnesota Public Radio. His resume includes stops at public TV stations in Spokane, Washington, and Milwaukee, and at public radio stations in Fargo, N.D., and Minneapolis.

Axtell and his wife, Jonna, have been married for 39 years. In fact, he adds, next year, ”we’ll be celebrating our 40th anniversary when the station celebrates its 50th.”

Review-Journal: What problems come with selling public broadcasting to Las Vegas viewers?

Axtell: I don’t think we have problems selling it. In the past nine years, this station has been first or second or third most-watched in the United States. That’s only (among) 56 larger metro areas, but that represents 70 percent of the population of the United States, and we’ve been first, second or third for nine years in a row. Las Vegas likes PBS.

What programs do Las Vegas PBS viewers want to see?

We do really well in drama. Science, this market consumes science. We have people who are hungry for information, and they may or may not have completed a college degree, but they’re still curious. I have a theory that if you were stuck in a low-wage job in Detroit or Chicago, and you decided to come to Las Vegas (so) you could have a high-pay job, those people have get-up-and-go. They’ve said, “I’ve got to make my life better,” and they’re using educational TV. I think that’s something that’s not appreciated in our community, that we have people who are curious and eager to learn. We (do better than average) in historical programming about war. About 10 percent of homes (here) have veterans or active military.

Vegas PBS also produces a lot of local programming.

Our biggest effort right now is to increase our original programming. We have a high school quiz bowl we call “Varsity Quiz” and we do the Clark County spelling bee. Those are important TV shows. We get killer ratings for those. Local people want to see kids who are achievers. We do the science bowl with the (former) Nevada Test Site, and the winners of that go to Washington, D.C., for a national competition.

But the cancellation of “Nevada Week in Review” was a tough one for news junkies …

I predict that, during our 50th anniversary year (in 2018), “Nevada Week in Review” will come back. … We think we’ve got the funding put together, but the question is, is “Nevada Week in Review” the right role? Should we have journalists come on and discuss what happened, or is America over-pundited, if there’s such a word? And should our show be a reflection of what happened, or would the best value for our community be a program that looks forward?

What other kinds of programs work well here?

Technically complex music productions. This is a community where a lot of people work on big-box productions or even small cabarets and so on. When we put high arts on the air, we have people who watch for the art, we have people who watch for the music because they’re musicians, we have people who watch for the technical complexity — how did they shoot that and what did the lighting look like? We get letters. When I was in Milwaukee, I never had anyone write me and say, “They really did an awesome job on the lighting in that show.”

Currently obsessed with …

Believe it or not, I enjoy tricking search engines. … I put in the most ridiculous thing — “collecting dinosaur teeth” — and you’d be surprised. The next thing you know, these things show up in your browser.

Everyday ritual

Morning coffee.

Favorite vacation destination

I don’t go to the same place over and over. I’m more interested in diversity of experience and trying out new things.

Favorite sport

Swimming. I did that in college and after college.

Current book

I try to have three books going at the same time, one book dealing with history, one book that sheds light on technology or business, and the other is current popular reading. So, right now, “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” (by Peter Frankopan), “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, and “Thank You for Being Late” by Thomas Friedman.

If I had a million dollars …

I’d donate some of it, I’d fund my children’s and grandchildren’s education, and I would travel the world.

Underrated/overrated

The rapid news cycle is overrated. There’s a great value in weighing and studying before you allegedly have all the truth.

Favorite movie

I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t been to a movie in two years. But the Indiana Jones movies I just found delightful for escapism and, I think, history and great special effects.

Contact John Przybys at reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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