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Reynolds Week: Tales from PBS’ Nerd In Chief

January 7, 2015

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Our Reynolds Week fellows are known as the #Moneynerds. The inspiration for our hashtag comes from public television — specifically the #PBSNerds.

On Tuesday, the #MoneyNerds got to meet the PBS Nerd In Chief, Bob Beard, the director of special events at Arizona PBS, which airs on Channel 8 in Phoenix. It which is under the direction of the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and is the second-most watched PBS station in the U.S., behind its counterpart in Portland, Oregon.

PBS Nerd

Beard’s academic expertise is the phenomenon of geek and nerd culture. His research shows that 58 percent of Americans define geeks as “intelligent and attractive” (which prompted one of my Twitter followers to respond, “Hello, ladies”). Given that the natural audience for public television includes this smart segment of the population, Beard set out to see what he could do to with the label.

Four years ago, he came up with the idea of holding a Nerd Walk during Arizona State University’s homecoming weekend. In the past, homecoming was reserved for traditional festivities which seem to favor jocks, cheerleaders and the cool crowd.

Beard, however, thought the nerds ought to have their own festivities. He tweaked the PBS logo to add black, nerdy glasses, and threw open the celebration to the PBS audience.

Now, the Nerd Walk draws people from across the Phoenix area, some bringing robots, some dressed as fantasy characters, all happy to wear pins bearing the PBS Nerd logo. PBS Nerd events have spread to other public television stations and campuses around the country.

It may not just be due to the nerds, but Arizona PBS ratings are soaring. Kelly McCullough, the general manager of Arizona PBS, told the #MoneyNerds that his station’s ratings are up 23 percent year over year.

Downton Abbey, the hit British program about the aristocratic Crawley family, is one reason. But so is the station’s programming, which is divided into three channels — Eight HD, with traditional PBS shows, Eight Life (cooking and gardening) and Eight World (travel and music).

The variety of programs means it’s likely that any viewer can indulge their tastes. As Beard puts it, “Everybody’s a nerd for something.”

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