Alex Quinn has worked for more than 20 years in community-based and educational television, including 6 years at EDC. Alex oversees TV411, an adult literacy series airing on more than 100 public television stations in 28 states. The program is accompanied by print materials and a Web site designed for adults at the pre-GED level who are in need of reading, writing, and mathematics skills. Each episode of TV411 features a collection of entertaining and engaging segments that cover everything from suffixes to percentages, songwriting to filling out application forms. In one segment, members of the Harlem Globetrotters use the concepts of mean, median, and mode to compare their performances on the basketball court. In another, a father figures out how to interpret the labels on over-the-counter medicine for his children. TV411 has won consecutive Emmys from the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in the two years since its premiere.
What were you doing before you joined EDC?
I was the executive director of the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a public access cable network here in New York. I oversaw four channels of programming, with a wide range of shows—entertainment, politics, neighborhood news. We also did video production workshops for community and youth groups. Marian [Schwarz, the founder of ALMA] was on my board; that’s how I found out about ALMA.
How did you get interested in television?
I had studied instructional design and video in graduate school. I was never really interested in commercial television. My desire it to give people a voice through TV—so the position with ALMA was perfect; it allowed me to combine my academic focus on instructional design with my interests in community development. All of us, really, are community activists.
Why is television such a powerful medium?
TV is so accessible. Everyone has a TV and most people are quite literate in TV. They understand the conventions. TV also reaches people with various educational levels, which is important for our work. Many people are visual learners, at least to some extent. That doesn’t mean that TV is a substitute for reading, but it is a good complement. As educators, we need to use all the tools that are available to us: books, TV, the Internet.
TV is especially good at influencing people’s attitudes, and that’s critical to our work. Adult literacy has a significant emotional component. No matter what age they are, people need to see themselves as learners. For many of the adults we work with, education is associated with negative emotions. They may connect it with schools and classrooms, places where they didn’t feel comfortable. That’s why the learning shown on TV411 usually takes place out in the world—in homes, on the job, in businesses. Learning is part of life.
What aspects of your job are most satisfying?
I love the creative process of developing the materials. In some creative jobs, you design things on your own. Here, everything is collaborative. We generally work in a group made up of the curriculum developers, the video producers, the writers, and others. There are so many layers to the process. We begin with an abstract idea—a concept—and then we try to make it real. For example, maybe we begin by thinking about how to teach the skills involved in detecting the bias or “spin” in a piece of writing. How can we make that concrete in a four-to-five-minute segment? We struggle with that for a while; then someone in the meeting comes up with an idea and it’s like untying a creative knot. Others respond and we begin to figure out a way to present the concept.
I also enjoy the opportunities I get to present the program to a group. Recently, I met with a group of adult education teachers to present our new unit on financial literacy. All the other speakers were up there giving PowerPoint presentations and I could tell that the audience was getting pretty tired. So I got up there and got them going with an activity focused on whether it made sense to buy a washing machine on a rent-to-own basis. They loved it. One of them said to me, “As trainers, sometimes we don’t practice what we preach.”
What makes you feel optimistic about your work?
This may be a funny way to answer the question, but I’m optimistic because the need for what we’re doing is constantly reinforced. In fact, there seems to be a continually growing need to help people make sense of information. More and more information is being thrown at people—and the ability to process information is critical, for your finances, your kids’ education, your health care … it’s all very complicated. If people don’t understand the instructions for their prescribed medications, or the terms of the credit card they’re getting, those are serious issues with real-life consequences. We feel that what we do makes a difference in people’s lives.