Ever since she was a child, producer Johnette Alter has lived and breathed the natural world.
Growing up, the 12-year veteran of KERA split her time between Arkansas and Texas. In Southeast Arkansas, where her father’s family grows rice in the Grand Prairie, Alter descends from a long line of dedicated agriculturalists; her family has been cultivating the same farmland since the mid-1800s.
The Alters have a long history in that part of the Arkansas Delta, Alter said. Her great-grandfather developed a particularly hardy variety of rice that became widely used among farmers in the area, and her grandfather was on the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission, where he was instrumental in establishing a 10,000-acre wildlife management area on the White River known as Trusten Holder.
Near Gainesville in Texas, Alter’s maternal family has been raising cattle on Doty Ranch since the early 1900s. Memories of mending fences in the springtime and kicking up dirt on cow trails are still fresh in her mind.
“I would say growing up in both of these places shaped my interest in sustainability, conservation and finding methods for maintaining the usability and the beauty of what this planet has to offer us,” Alter said. “Certainly, those formative experiences have kindled my lifelong interest in those things.”
Alter, who is currently developing an independent TV show with a focus on green initiatives and ideas, was first drawn to the world of TV and radio production by way of a high school boyfriend’s mother.
“She used to listen to NPR in her old Mercedes, and it was my first introduction into public radio,” she said. “I was just riveted by the stories.”
Before college, Alter attended the Arkansas Governor’s School, a summer program at Hendrix College founded by Bill Clinton, where she was tasked with choosing an area of study.
It was there that she honed in on her future career as she opted to study drama and spent the summer writing, producing and performing an original play from scratch. Storytelling, in all its varied forms, became her passion.
By the time Alter was attending the University of North Texas and studying documentary production, she was spending mornings and afternoons listening to National Public Radio.
“Anytime I had to be in the car or was in my room, I usually had the radio on instead of music,” she said. “I decided pretty quickly that that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to work at PBS or NPR because they were telling stories that I thought were compelling and important and necessary.”
Alter wanted to work in public radio immediately after college, but the only internship available at KERA at the time was in underwriting. She took it anyway, and ended up building upon her uniquely holistic perspective on the art of show production.
“Initially, I thought I should just jump into production and be a producer, but it turns out that [underwriting] was a good place to start because you learn how to conceive of a show from the storytelling side and the funding side.”
Shortly after her internship, Alter took to Europe with a friend for several months. She said she planned on living abroad, but it was in a call with her father—asking her to come home—that she was faced with a difficult choice.
“I just chose to go and farm with my dad to try and understand it as an adult,” she said. “What is this business? What does it take? What does it mean to be a farmer?”
She worked on the farm in Arkansas for a full season but was faced with yet another fork in the road when KERA offered her a new position. She eventually went on to become the executive producer of marketing and communications.
Still yet, the countryside remains a large part of Alter’s life, she said.
“One of my calming rituals used to be to imagine walking through the rice field because the sound of it is very calming,” she said. “There’s always a trickle of water running through the field and the rice brushing against your pants and your rubber boots. It’s just quiet. All of that has shaped me dramatically.”
Her current TV project is in development, so many of the particulars are still under wraps, but she said it’ll shine a light on thinkers—people with ideas, big or small, that are making an impact in the areas of sustainability, resource management and conservation.
“It’s about helping people understand that scale and connectivity are paramount to what we need to be focusing on to build the right environment for ourselves as we move forward,” she said. “Instead of looking at the problem, the show is going to focus on the solution and the hope that these people are making a lasting difference.”
The first episode will feature Paul Westbrook, sustainable development manager for Texas Instruments, and his role in helping TI build their first LEED Gold certified chip manufacturing facility in Richardson.
“The connections and the impact from him are fascinating,” she said. “From geo-thermal systems to TI to his own home, it’s just a really compelling story and a great example of all the stories we’ll be telling.”
She said the show, which will have a national scope, will explore the dissemination of these ideas from conception to widespread implementation.
“We want people to walk away understanding that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are or what you’re doing, you’re embedded in this system,” Alter said. “What you do is relevant.”