WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW IN WYOMING: Public Broadcasting Chief a Storyteller at Heart
Joanna Kail seeks to tell Cowboy State tales
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Dec 27, 2023
By K.L. McQuaid
Special to the Wyoming Truth
As CEO of the wide-ranging Wyoming PBS network, Joanna Kail juggles fundraising, overseeing staff and fostering individual relationships and corporate partnerships.
But she considers her primary job to be a storyteller, a steward whose mission is to share and preserve unique Wyoming tales and history.
“There’s nothing more exciting to me than finding stories that need to be told or preserving stories that might be lost,” said Kail, 48. “It’s why I love PBS so much, because that’s what we get to do.”
Kail was named CEO on Sept. 1, after over six years as executive director of the affiliated Wyoming PBS Foundation and a career that included marketing, public relations and co-ownership of a pair of businesses, Wyoming Inc. and Wyolution LLC.
During her time at the 40-year-old, Riverton-based network, Kail has advanced several ambitious stories capturing Wyoming life.
Perhaps most notably, Kail shepherded a six-part series entitled “A State of Mind: Confronting Wyoming’s Mental Health Crisis” last year. The programming was so critically acclaimed that a second, seven-part season is in production.
Such a focus is especially important in Wyoming, which regularly ranks as top in the nation in deaths by suicide each year. In 2021, for instance, the suicide rate in Wyoming was double the national average and 88% higher than in 2005, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
Kail also has championed programming featuring the Wind River Indian Reservation and Native cultures, among other subjects.
Wyoming PBS traces its roots to KCWC-TV at Central Wyoming College, which still holds the network’s public broadcasting license.
Initially, the station broadcast to roughly 33,000 residents in and around Fremont County. In time, thanks to additional transmitters installed near Casper and Laramie, the network’s reach grew.
In 2008, KCWC-TV officially changed its name to Wyoming PBS to reflect its statewide audience and 24-hour programming. Today, Wyoming PBS can be seen by 95% of the state’s population, and the full-time staff has grown to 18.
‘Passion for this state’
Like Wyoming PBS, Kail has transformed and evolved over the years.
Kail’s parents moved west from Atlanta when she was in pre-school. They planned to relocate to Billings, Montana, but along the way, they became enchanted by Lander’s natural beauty and put down roots there instead.
When she was in high school, Kail’s family relocated to Cheyenne to be near her aging grandparents and their farm. Adjusting to a new school was difficult at first, but it ultimately provided a valuable life lesson.
“It taught me to expand my idea of who I was as an individual,” Kail said.
She met her husband, Jared, at the University of Wyoming. Kail graduated in 1998 with a degree in marketing and communications. The couple married in 1999.
“He’s my biggest cheerleader,” Kail said of her husband. “He’s always been my rock and my encouragement, telling me I can do it, whatever it is.”
While at UW, Kail landed an internship at the Children’s Miracle Network, the charity spearheaded by singer Marie Osmond and actor John Schneider. At 21, Kail designed a two-page spread that appeared nationally in USA Today to promote the network’s telethon.
From there, Kail wrote articles and did public relations for members of the Wyoming Legislature, before taking an extended break to raise two daughters.
That experience in Cheyenne has helped her at PBS, because 40% of the network’s funding comes from state lawmakers. Another 37% is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, while the balance comes from individual and corporate donations.
In mid-2017, Kail landed the job at the Wyoming PBS Foundation. A few years later, then-CEO Terry Dugas asked Kail about her career aspirations. Kail didn’t hesitate to share her goal: “Your job.”
It was the response Dugas, who was eyeing retirement, had hoped for. And it set Kail on a path that would lead her to the C-suite.
Colleagues and friends say Kail’s personality, drive and desire to tell stories have boosted Wyoming PBS.
“She’s a very creative individual,” said Emy diGrappa, executive producer at Wyoming Humanities, which has funded several PBS programs. “Her personality is very open. She’s no wallflower. She wants to get to know others, and she’s warm and approachable. But mostly, she’s always thinking about what stories in Wyoming need to be told, what’s the next big idea she can explore.”
DiGrappa said Kail also excels at the corporate side of the public broadcasting business.
“She’s very successful at getting really big donors involved and engaged,” she said. “A lot of CEOs don’t have the skill set to build true relationships around what they want funded. For Joanna, it’s always ‘What is the project and what is its purpose?’ She connects people to specific projects they care about. To do that well, she does a lot of homework and she listens.”
And while Kail has earned kudos for her work at PBS, she said her family – Jared and two daughters, both in college – remain her greatest accomplishment.
“I want my kids to be in a position to succeed; that’s the most important thing for me,” Kail said.
DiGrappa said Kail’s ability to balance work and family life is “inspirational.”
“Joanna is very self-motivated and driven, but when it’s family time, she puts that down and focuses on them,” she said. “That’s a real skill.”
Still, Kail acknowledges the responsibility that comes with leading the PBS network in Wyoming and the platform it provides. Moving forward into 2024 and beyond, Kail said she wants to spread Wyoming stories beyond state lines.
“Wyoming is not like any other state. It’s unique in a good way,” she said. “People outside of Wyoming need to see who we are. That’s my goal.”
She also hopes to use PBS to educate residents and further internship and mentoring opportunities for students.
To achieve her primary goal, Kail wants to tell more stories.
“I was raised in Wyoming, and I have a passion for this state,” she said. “I see Wyoming PBS as an opportunity to foster and tell more of the aspects of the culture and history here. That’s our future.”