This episode of Finding Fred, a podcast about Fred Rogers, focuses on Fred’s background in child development, how he first got into television programming, and what made his show stand apart from all the other kids’ programming on the air at the time. How, host Carvell Wallace wonders, can we continue applying these lessons to our lives as adults, to remember how to listen to “the kids that still live somewhere inside us?” Carvell talks with Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood producers Hedda Sharapan and Betsy Siemens, and TV critic David Bianculli, to learn how Fred applied the concepts of child development to his show, his gamble in television, and the legendary moment he saved funding for public television with a powerful testimonial before the Senate.
“There's a quote from Mr. Rogers' favorite book, The Little Prince: ‘What is essential is invisible to the eye,’” Carvell tells us. “Fred spent his whole life learning how to see the invisible insides of children in his audience. Learning about that essential thing: how kids make sense of the world, how we all make sense of the world.” He wasn’t the only one interested in how kids worked: child development had recently become a hot topic in psychology, especially at the University of Pittsburgh. Eric Erickson, a professor there, “was among the first psychologists to take seriously the inner lives of children,” Carvell says; Benjamin Spock also taught there, writing the seminal work on raising children, as well as Dr. Margaret McFarland, “not as well known as the other two,” Carvell says, “but perhaps the most gifted of them all...It was Margaret McFarland that Fred Rogers chose as his mentor...there are over 900 episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and each week Fred would walk down the street, script in hand, to Dr. McFarland’s office.”
Betsy Siemens recalls Fred’s belief that children live in a magical world, and it required some hard thought and close listening to find a way into that world in order to communicate with them. “One of Fred’s favorite sayings was ‘if it is mentionable, it is manageable.’ The quote is from Margaret McFarland,” Carvell says. “She, like Fred, believed that this is the real value of TV for kids: communication.” He worked hard to connect on their level, bringing their magical worlds to life with the World of Make-Believe, “a place where puppets were in charge, wars could be solved with balloons...playful and full of wonder, but...a safe place where kids could encounter their fears and figure out how to deal with them.” Betsy says that the World of Make-Believe were “the most carefully made parts of the show.”
Originally, Fred intended to enter a theological seminary, but felt that television had such a profound potential to educate children that he changed his career path, working his way up the ladder at NBC. Then, the first publicly funded station, WQED, was started by the mayor of Pittsburgh, and Fred decided to apply. The first show he was on was called The Children’s Corner, and watching it is one of TV critic David Bianculli’s earliest TV memories. “It was captivating then because of how sweet it was and how different from everything else on TV. It was quiet. It was laid back and it took its time.” Fred brought the same energy to his own show: “He understood the value of repetition for young viewers...the value of structure...taking your time.”
Learn more about Fred’s life in television and child development, the lessons he learned from Dr. McFarland, and how he convinced Senator John Pastore to restore PBS funding (“I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I've had goosebumps for the last two days,” the senator said) on this episode of Finding Fred.
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