Paula Apsell Tribute: Dedicated to Excellence, by Melanie Wallace, Rebecca Eaton, Susanne Simpson, Laurie Cahalane and Denise DiIanni
As colleagues we offer the following in honor of Paula Apsell’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Stories unraveling the complexity of the universe with simplicity, insight and beauty are the hallmarks of NOVA. Paula Apsell makes it all work and has been doing so for 33 years. Her stellar vision guides our team, enabling us to create more than 700 hours (and still counting) of science programs for PBS. She searches out every opportunity to keep NOVA strong, mission focused, and relevant. Paula hired me to be her associate producer, giving me the chance of a lifetime to learn how to tell a science story with truth, grit and heart, from one of the very best practitioners. Spacewomen was one of my first programs for Paula. For the initial screening, I thought the storytelling was working. When viewed, Paula said, “You know what’s wrong with this film? “ I didn’t. “The ending needs to be at the beginning and the beginning at the end.” I was stunned, but she was right. Supremely skilled in identifying how to tell a good story, she also has an uncanny ability to improve films by identifying key flaws. For over 30 years, I’ve had the honor of working side by side with Paula and I count her not only as my mentor and friend, but as my inspiration for how to use the medium of television to make a difference in the world.
Melanie Wallace is Senior Series Producer of NOVA.
When I met Paula in March, 1971, we both had just been hired at WGBH Radio in Boston. She was newly-married, wore blue jeans, and proceeded to create a national children’s radio program, “The Spider’s Web,” practically out of thin air. “All Things Considered” hadn’t even been born.
47 years later, we are both still at WGBH. Paula is still married (to the same man).
As a professional, she is tops in her field, jaw-droppingly articulate, appropriately implacable, and relentless in her pursuit of excellence in science programming. She is an international television executive with irresistible “girlfriend” overtones.
As a friend, she is unwaveringly loyal. When trouble happens, she is the first person at your door.
Paula caught the fever of public broadcasting in 1970, and has never lost it. To her great credit, personally and professionally, she truly believes that PBS is one way she can make the world a better place than the way she found it
Rebecca Eaton is Executive Producer of Masterpiece
had the good fortune to work for Paula as a producer for almost 20 years — good fortune because as a young filmmaker she gave me enormous opportunities and has remained a true friend ever since.
Everyone who works with Paula knows that words matter — really matter. She has storyteller instincts, able to see the big picture, the arc, and the meaning of a story. But she also has razor-sharp focus for details. I used to dread showing her rough cuts of my NOVA programs because I knew she would zero in on the inconsistencies, the lack of transitions, and the words I chose…but that was Paula’s genius, to get to the heart of the matter and to make it better. That drive for excellence is what I admire most about her.
Paula is fiercely intelligent, passionate, hard-working, and a great science filmmaker. But what is remarkable about Paula is that words matter because ideas matter — complex, unfathomable, and profound ideas in the world of science. Her devotion to communicating scientific ideas and to the people who live in that world is unmatched, and her contribution is immeasurable.
Susanne Simpson is Deputy Executive Producer of Masterpiece.
“A strong woman stands up for herself. A stronger woman stands up for everybody else.” I cannot definitively attribute this marvelous quote, but if I had to describe Paula in only two sentences, this would be it. For 25 years, I have watched Paula mentor interns and production assistants, coaching them up through the ranks to become successful Editors, Producers and Executive Producers. Mentoring young talent and giving them opportunities was not limited to editorial. When I started in 1991, I was a production secretary and knew very little about broadcasting or production or why we had a Steenbeck (a bit of insight into how young I am). I quickly learned that NOVA was a place where if you worked hard
and demonstrated initiative, opportunities were available. And so, under the guidance of Paula and Alan Ritsko, our former Managing Director, and so many other talented colleagues at WGBH, I followed a similar path.
Paula is a passionate and tenacious advocate for NOVA, science communication, and public media, and is equally dedicated to the family of staff, talent and colleagues that make up our world. There is no off switch for Paula and, while I cannot prove it, I believe she has figured out a way to work while she sleeps. Her energy and dedication are contagious and continue to inspire so many to dig deep and rise to the absolute level of their abilities.
I am grateful and proud to be a member of the “Mama NOVA” team.
Laurie Cahalane is the Director of Business, Operations and Finance for NOVA and a 25-year veteran of the NOVA team.
Paula and Her Girl Band
Screening one’s documentary for Paula was often rousing, a splash of cold water in the face, an exhortation to dig deeper, to find the story which would make audiences fall in love with science, just as she had. Her audacious goal was science literacy for the nation and her method was to ensure her team was the best in the business. To accomplish this, she could be fierce and formidable but always inspiring. We’d walk through fire to make Paula proud, and to bring home the goods for our audiences.
When she began at NOVA more than three decades ago, the sciences and science media were largely the domains of men; in spite of some creakingly slow progress, too often, they still are. While Paula pushed her entire staff to excel — men and women both — she modeled for we young women the art of the possible.
From our freshman class of female interns, secretaries and production assistants Paula trained a generation of public media professionals. We would go on to produce our own science documentaries, to head national primetime series, to soar to a top PBS job. Under her, a former NOVA production assistant rose internally to become her heiress apparent. By Paula’s example, her fervor, and her unique leadership, she toppled many road blocks for NOVA and for all of us.
Denise DiIanni is Senior Executive in Charge Content Development, National Programming at WGBH Educational Foundation