Richard Hudson has produced more than 100 hours of public television, but he’s also found time to conduct private screenings from his backyard.
On clear nights, he walks across the nine acres of his property in Scandia, a community quaint enough to make neighboring Stillwater seem like a bustling metropolis, inhales the overwhelming smell of pine trees, sidesteps thimble-size frogs hopping across the grass, and arrives at his makeshift shed.
He slides the roof off, clicks a portable radio to a classical music station and sidles up to a 6-foot telescope to gaze at Sagittarius, millions of light years away, sometimes until 4 in the morning.
The show never gets old.
“When I’m in Washington, D.C., I always go to the National Gallery to see Rembrandt’s self-portrait,” said Hudson, looking into his lens as copies of textbooks with scandalous titles like “Uranometria 2000” and “The Celestial Sampler” lay atop shelves around him. “I must have seen it 30 times. Doesn’t matter. I see something different every time.”
Hudson’s TV shows could also be described as timeless, with his legacy poised to influence generations of tweens otherwise conditioned to place snoozy lab experiments right alongside choking down their peas and broccoli.
Episodes of “DragonflyTV” and its offshoot, “SciGirls,” both created by Hudson under the Twin Cities Public Television banner and broadcast on most PBS stations across the country, remove the stodgy scientist goggles by placing young people in mission control. On these shows, kids personally launch model rockets, design miniature wind farms, electrify fashion shows and transform giant pig floats into robots.
It’s the hands-on approach that matters.
“Every few years someone comes up with the idea for a show in which kids interview scientists. Bor-ing,” Hudson said. “That diminishes the role of the kid. We want to give them the responsibility so they can succeed on their own and not just be directed by adults. We’re saying to young people, ‘These aren’t superstars. These are average kids, just like you. See how much fun they’re having?’ ”
Hudson, 67, may be easing into retirement, limiting his 40-minute commute to TPT’s St. Paul headquarters to just once a week, but he’s not quite ready to let his teaching credentials lapse.
He just secured a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to back a Hispanic version of “SciGirls” that will debut in 2017. He’s also becoming an active participant in online affinity groups, an interest that’s helping him develop interactive science games for sparticl.org, a fairly progressive website for a guy who listens to music on dusty boomboxes and is remodeling his front porch based on what he’s learning from reruns of “This Old House.”
“He’s the real deal,” said Gerry Richman, TPT’s vice president of national productions. “Brain cells are being changed because of his shows.”
The bulk of Hudson’s duties have been handed off to Rita Karl, who will oversee “Latina SciGirls,” as well as “SciGirls CODE,” which will spotlight girls working on coding and technology projects. TPT is also partnering with 4-H on “Splash Screen,” a project that will help students use mobile devices to explore local watersheds in Minnesota.
It’s hard to measure Hudson’s impact, as TPT has had no funding to investigate just how many viewers have gone on to don white lab coats for a living. What has been widely documented is the need to pump up young people’s IQs in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math — a quartet commonly lumped together as STEM.
According to a survey conducted earlier this year, 46 percent of American Association for the Advancement of Science members believe U.S. STEM education for K-12 student is below the world average. A 2012 assessment by the National Center of Educational Statistics determined that 15-year-old students in the United States rank 27th in the world.
In March, President Obama announced $240 million in new contributions from businesses, schools and foundations to help support STEM initiatives, a mission so crucial to the country’s future that he believes it requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.
That, Hudson insists, must include TV shows.
“If you try to reach kids through just museums and schools, you’re limiting yourself,” Hudson said. “Policymakers don’t watch TV, for obvious reasons. Most of it is so awful. But you’ve got to acknowledge the power of the media.”
It took a while for Hudson to get on board. While growing up in Redwood Falls, Minn., he exhibited an interest in science, building a 6-foot robot based on an article he read in Boy’s Life magazine and tinkering with a chemistry set. But another muse was calling.
At Kalamazoo College in Michigan, he studied music with an emphasis on classical voice, got accepted into the U.S. Army Chorus in the early ’70s and staged an opera about a mad king that premiered a week before President Richard Nixon resigned.
“The opera probably didn’t make it happen, but it was sort of a nice coincidence,” Hudson said.
His love for the classics hasn’t waned. The ringtone on his cellphone is lifted from the final movement of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor and some evenings he’ll relax in his living room behind an electronic keyboard, and play boogie woogie on particularly upbeat occasions.
But more often, Hudson found himself gravitating toward behind-the-scenes roles. He started the touring company for the Minnesota Opera, directed productions all over the country and eventually organized stage shows for television.
Tired of being on the road, Hudson became a segment producer for “Newton’s Apple” in 1984, just a year after the interactive science program for kids had been launched. Four years later, Hudson was running the show.
“I feel very lucky that I was able to bring him on board,” said James Steinbach, co-creator of “Newton’s Apple,” which ran for 16 years and at one point was being used in 10 percent of the country’s middle-school classrooms. “You’ve got to get the facts right, but you also have to have heart. Richard gets that.”
Money changes everything
“DragonflyTV” and “SciGirls,” a valiant attempt to inspire the woefully underrepresented gender, may have roughly the same DNA as “Newton’s Apple,” but they were new at the time (debuting in 2002 and 2010), an attractive attribute to sponsors eager to latch onto the next big thing, Hudson said.
He would know. A significant chunk of his role as executive producer was glad-handing potential funders at board meetings and cocktail parties. Hudson estimates that TPT has secured $50 million in grants over the past 30 years for science programs. A single episode of “SciGirls” costs about $500,000.
“Unlike most people who raise money, Richard is a content person who can talk very intimately about the work. That’s kind of sexy,” said Christine Maloney, Hudson’s wife of 22 years and executive director for TPT’s department of resource management and project administration. “His passion carries over.”
Hudson and Maloney don’t have kids of their own, unless you count their two frisky German shepherds and the 30 million young people that TPT research indicates have seen at least one of Hudson’s shows.
Not that any of those students would recognize his face.
“It was always fun to go out on shoots and go up to these kids whose stories I had watched on rough cuts about 50 times,” said Hudson, who will continue to raise money in upcoming months for sparticl.org and other endeavors. “I felt like I knew them personally, but they had no idea who this old guy was.”
Kids, just consider him the best teacher you never knew you had.