Right across from the blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel stands a glass-exterior building with a giant “PBS39” logo on its roof. Inside the PPL Public Media Center, you’ll find television studios, a small kitchen, autographed pictures of the Muppets, and journalists hard at work in a miniature newsroom.
PBS39 is a publicly owned broadcasting station in the Lehigh Valley region that believes in the power of community-driven news as the key to effective civic engagement. To learn more about the relationship between Bethlehem and its local public television station, I spoke with Tracy Yatsko.
Tracy came to PBS39 in the spring of 2018, and in the time since, she has made an indelible mark on the community. Tracy is a reporter for PBS39 News Tonight and hosts “Your Take with Tracy Yatsko,” a show designed to elevate the voices of local college students and community members.
I worked with Tracy back in the fall of 2018 as a panelist on “Reporters Roundtable,” the show that was eventually rebranded as “Your Take with Tracy Yatsko.” Every Friday morning, five college students from Temple, Drexel, Centenary, and Lehigh came together to discuss the most important national, regional, and local news of the day. We filmed Friday mornings, and our show aired Friday evenings at 7 pm. This format allowed us to address truly breaking news in real time. For example, for our first show, we discussed was Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. Before every show, Tracy would send us a massive document with questions and resources on the subject we were set to talk about on air. She taught us basic skills in journalistic integrity, reminding us to always consume information that was fair, accurate, and fact-checked. Of course, she also encouraged us to speak our minds and not be afraid to push the conversation deeper.
During my four months working with Tracy, I learned just how much she was invested in the practice of elevating voices that didn’t typically receive a platform. I mean, that’s exactly why Reporters Roundtable/Your Take was created: to give young people without traditional platforms a chance to bring attention to the issues we found most important. She made it her mission to always bring new voices to the table and used her platform to raise awareness of injustice around us all.
Tracy and I talked about PBS39’s role in the community, but we also had a chance to discuss how she personally viewed her relationship to the Southside as a journalist, talk show host, and community member.
For starters, Tracy was quick to explain that she is “not just a journalist that writes stories and goes home.” After coming to Bethlehem, she started attending community events, joined a local church, and still goes out of her way to talk to other community members. Every once in awhile, she told me, “I go [to Dunkin Donuts] just to meet people. Sometimes I don’t even get coffee.”
One of the first things we talked about was impact. “When I’m out in the community and people recognize me, the word impact is always stated, whether it’s the impact of my show or PBS39 in general. I met a man at Dunkin Donuts in Bethlehem, who turned around, knew who I was and told me that PBS39 was the best thing to ever hit the Lehigh Valley. That compliment meant so much to me. It’s all about impact. It’s all about community. The main reason I took this job was because of public television and its potential impact, and that’s what sold me. The fact that people out in the community are actually using the word impact—that PBS39 is creating impact—to me, that is so important.”
This impact comes in several forms. At PBS39, you’ll see debates with candidates for local office, coverage of local events in Spanish and in English, showcases of local artists, and so much more. Tracy also told me about “Kids Summer Series,” a program that runs every Monday through Thursday in the summertime. PBS39 prides itself on offering these free programs for local kids. Tracy told me, “I’m an aunt and I have a lot of friends who have kids that don’t have many free, accessible events to go to that are educational. I love that I can come into work on any given day and there’s kids running around, Sesame Street characters everywhere and it’s a fun environment. Our education team is amazing and to me, that’s beautiful. Education is everything.”
Tracy specifically emphasized the debates that PBS39 hosts. “With local elections coming up, PBS39 is going to host more debates, and on a local level, that’s huge.” It’s this blend of hyperlocal coverage of people, arts, and culture with broader news coverage that gives PBS39 the unique ability to make an impact in the Lehigh Valley. The station is publicly owned, and it feels like it.
Residents are the most important stakeholders in PBS39, and the coverage they offer reflects that. It’s not just the politicians and community leaders that are brought in to weigh in on community issues. It’s the “normal people like you and I who have a story to tell, who don’t have a platform to share their story.” For Tracy, that is “the whole goal of a community.”