MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work. And for our conversation today...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SESAME STREET THEME")
SESAME STREET SINGERS: (Singing) Sunny day keeping the clouds away.
MARTIN: Yes. We're taking a trip to "Sesame Street." Mel Ming is the new President and CEO of Sesame Workshop. That's the nonprofit behind the legendary TV show aimed at the preschool set, but Mel Ming's journey to the happiest street in America took many twists and turns.
Born in Bermuda, Ming moved to Philadelphia to attend Temple University. He became a certified public accountant and served as chief financial officer right here at NPR. But of all the experiences, Mel Ming told us that the one that shaped his life the most was his stint in the Army during the Vietnam era.
MEL MING: During those two years, I learned some valuable things. I'll share one with you. I was in Fort Benning, Georgia and we were being taught how to fall backwards if you're coming in with your parachute, and I did what I was supposed to do, and I - but I looked where I was falling and I wasn't supposed to. I was supposed to use the feel of my feet and I twisted my ankle and I'm laying on the ground and I'm in agony and the drill sergeant came over and yelled at me and he kicked me in my rear and he said to me...
MARTIN: You mean - wait, wait. He literally kicked you in your butt?
MING: He kicked me in my...
MARTIN: With his foot, his actual foot on your actual butt?
MING: With his shiny boot. And I think I may have dulled it, but he did this. And he yelled at me. He said, that's what's wrong with you college boys. You think you know everything. If you will do what I tell you, I could save your life. And I looked at him and it hit me that he knew something I did not know, but because his language skills were not great, I had kind of, in my own mind, discounted his knowledge.
But he was right and I learned: don't dismiss people because of how they look, how they sound, those first impressions. If they know, you be quiet, you follow their guidance. And that has saved me, that's guided me, that's gotten me more support through all my life than just about any other thing. Respect.
MARTIN: And after your discharge from the Army, you spent a couple of years working as an accountant until you got a job at some little company, some little place in D.C. called NPR, where you were the chief financial officer. NPR was nearly bankrupt at the time, wasn't it?
MING: Yes. NPR was the toughest job I ever had, but it was a most rewarding experience. There, leaving the world of public accounting, where you're giving opinions on what others have done and going to a place that has high expectations and some high accountabilities, during that time NPR was experiencing some public relations difficulties, some government funding difficulties. The member stations were at odds with NPR, but there I remember discussions about feeds coming in from the Kremlin and the cost of doing it.
But I learned there the balance of business and its practices and its disciplines coupled with the freedoms of the creative within boundaries to deliver great content. And that was an influence that I treasure, and I take a little credit for the great NPR of today. It started 20 years ago.
MARTIN: Okay. Well, you know, I think people know this. I think many people know this, but just in case they don't, I think it's important to remind our listeners that you are replacing NPR's newly hired CEO, Gary Knell, at Sesame Workshop, and you've been named as president and CEO to replace him because now he is coming here. So you kind of did a little bit of a swap. But you know, you...
MING: I was there first.
MARTIN: You were there first. That's right. Duly noted. But you know, as we mentioned, you were a paratrooper in the Army, a CPA, a CFO of a news organization, not exactly warm and fuzzy. So I think a lot of people might wonder then, how did you go, and why did you want to go, to the ultimate warm and fuzzy, Sesame Workshop?
MING: It's a great place because we try to see our work as meeting the needs of children and looking at the world through their eyes. We did a primetime special, which was aired a few weeks ago about hunger in America. A lot of the work - the segment - was this issue through the eyes of a seven-year-old and the honesty of that child, the hope of that child, the frustration of that child as to why there is more month than there is meal. So the workshop is a place where people come to work but they really come to live. It's like an extension of one's life. And my rule is if it's good enough for my grandchildren, it's probably good enough for any child on the planet.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with the new CEO of Sesame Workshop, Mel Ming. We are told that you led the company through a lot of complex problems, including launching the South African version of "Sesame Street," which is called "Takalani Sesame."
MARTIN: But what about that? You know, there are certain core values that are obvious, the "Sesame Street" that we all see here in the U.S., and diversity is one of those. But I think it is fair to say that not every country wants to see these issues the way we do. How do you mediate that, bringing Sesame, the Sesame experience, as you put it, into places that may not share the same view of diversity, ethnicity, difference? I mean, for example, "Sesame Street" is also very big in teaching people how to accept and love people who may be differently-abled, people who use a wheelchair, people who have, you know, lots of other attributes that everyone doesn't have. How do you do that?
MING: Michel, all that is true and those are values that we hold dear. What we found is as we use our process to determine what the content of a particular show, "Takalani" or other shows will be, we engage local experts, child development experts, TV and production experts, and we give them space to come up with the needs of the children in their land or they're particular geography. And we only have issues when what we think are wholesome values - honesty, respect, caring for your environment, caring for your neighbor - when their list deviates from ours, we have to try to move people towards more where we would like them to be. But our and my contribution and our point of view is we don't see Sesame Workshop as a colonizer. We see Sesame Workshop as a teacher, an enabler, and we have to be prepared to let others determine to go a path that's different from ours.
Now, I've been at the workshop 12 years and the workshop has been doing this for 42 years, rarely if ever has there been a desire to teach children things that we do not support. There have been occasions where we feel that the local interest may not go as far as we would like and we have to be wise and try to figure out how far do we push them to go in a way that we think might be most appropriate. But we also recognize if we do not connect with children and their (unintelligible), we cannot teach them. So there's a balancing act but...
MARTIN: Is there a place that you would not take Sesame Workshop? Would you say that you just can't until you get yourselves together, until you get your attitude straight on certain things you can't be there?
MING: Gary has shared with me his first and early forays of the workshop into South Africa. And we were asked to be there five years before we actually began work there. And we did not go earlier because we could not support a broadcast system that valued the separation of the races and we did not want to be a part of their agenda. And it took five years, there was a change and then Sesame was welcomed as a nation builder.
MING: We've gone to places where teaching girls has not been a high value and we became part of the changing of that landscape and we do that. So we start where there is agreement and then try to move it in more broadly, but with always how can this make the lives of those children better.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of things in which there is not broad agreement, do you have a favorite Muppet?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MING: I used to before I got this job.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Oh, so you're not going to tell now?
MING: They used to call me at times Grover.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MING: You know, I was an accountant. You can be like...
MING: But no, they are...
MARTIN: Not Oscar.
MING: No Oscar. Now I'm in feeling a little grumpy and...
MARTIN: You're a little Oscar, a bit grouch, a little grouchy?
MING: Yeah. And also the Count because I'm miserly. I was an accountant.
MARTIN: Oh because you like to count, because the Count can count.
MARTIN: But do you...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MING: Seeing these experts, these puppeteers and see how they bring those characters to life, I love them all.
MARTIN: That's very diplomatic.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Well, what's your vision now? Now I know that you're very new in the big chair...
MARTIN: ...but, as president and CEO, but what's your vision for your leadership of the company? If you and I were to get together, I don't know; let's say five years from now, what will you have hoped to have accomplished?
MING: Five years from now we will discuss the joys of seeing Sesame reach instead of 10 percent of the world's children, 50 percent of the world's children. Then, I would like to see Sesame become a valued assist for teachers in preschool or for home-schooling parents who want a curriculum that they have a comfort around in sharing with their children. I want to see Sesame to become more of a voice for the stresses that children experience and help educate the wider world about what a child goes through when they're hungry or when they have to deal with separations and movement.
MARTIN: So nothing big at all. Nothing big.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Before we let you go, as I mentioned, we call this segment Wisdom Watch, and so we like to ask our guests if they have some wisdom to share. And you can choose any vantage point you want. We didn't touch much on your being an African-American CEO, but maybe we could save that for another time. But do you have some wisdom to share?
MING: There are a few things that have become guides for me and anchors for me. The first is learn to deal with fear. I've proven that I fear what I don't know. And when I don't know it and I fear it then I fight it. And the combination of fears that really that result in fights stifles my own development. So I speak to my own family, I speak to young people, speak to aspiring professionals: don't be afraid to the point where you cannot learn and use knowledge to help you overcome fears. And then, as you overcome them, build on what you know. With it comes a confidence that you can grow. And as an African-American, as a person of color, the difficulties that I've faced often have resulted because I wasn't known and I was feared because I was not known. After you got to know me I wasn't such a bad guy.
MARTIN: H. Melvin Ming is the president and CEO of Sesame Workshop. Previously he served as Sesame Workshop's chief operating officer. He's succeeding Gary Knell, who is becoming the CEO - who has been named CEO of NPR. And Mel Ming was kind enough to join us from NPR's bureau in New York. Mel Ming, congratulations on the new job and thank you so much for joining us. Thank you so much for coming back to NPR, where you once worked, to speak to us.
MING: Thank you, Michel.