Q&A With Alexander Heffner, Host of PBS’s The Open Mind

Fledgling PBS broadcaster Alexander Heffner talks about following in his late grandfather’s footsteps

Political journalist and Harvard grad Alexander Heffner recently became host of PBS’s The Open Mind — a public affairs interview program that dives into issues surrounding media, politics, and technology, among other weighty topics. Being tapped for this position is significant for two reasons. At just 26 years of age, Heffner has made television history as the network’s youngest host. And he has some big shoes to fill: He has taken the reins from his grandfather, Richard Heffner, who created and hosted the Saturday afternoon program for 56 years before passing away in 2013 at the age of 88. The younger Heffner now continues the family legacy of educating the public on political issues; HV asked him to discuss his new gig — and his connection to the Valley.

What do you hope to accomplish as host of The Open Mind?
It’s exciting to see people thinking in response to your questions on the air, in an area where talking points are rehearsed in most television programs. It’s an incredible opportunity to engage the issues of the public good, especially in the context of new ideas and voices. Ultimately, the goal of every conversation I have is to bring new insight into homes, minds, and world views of the public.

You’ve interviewed guests who are much older than you are. Have you come across any issues with this age gap?
​Millennials believe in a future that is not governed by old ritual or dogma. I approach some of these dignitaries and thought leaders from a Millennial lens, as opposed to the outdated paradigm of blue and red states, left and right. The back-and-forth with a younger questioner can help further clarify the ideas of the guest, and bridge the divide between generations.

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Will you take the show in a new direction, or stick to its roots?
I plan on sticking to the true roots, but you have to be versatile and experiment. I’d like to engage the media. I think that it’s imperative to bring to the discussion the issues on the minds of digital natives. Most public-affairs shows don’t approach issues specifically through the lens of Millennials. It’s so urgent because a lot of the issues that Millennials are concerned about intersect with public policy that’s been debated for decades.

Is your hosting style modeled after anyone?
My grandmother has observed that I channel my grandfather at times when I’m hosting. It’s humbling to hear; it reaffirms his wish that I continue the show. My grandfather and I grew up in two totally different media ages, but I think our shared goal is to preserve the quality of information.

What drew you to political journalism?
Well, I think it was definitely in the DNA. I gravitated toward it as a vehicle for accessing a wider dissemination of ideas. Fundamentally, politics is how we live, how we learn, and how we function as a society. So I think that it was a natural connection for me.

Which interview subjects stand out most in your mind?
As a society, we underestimate the class of artists or musicians to galvanize a civic conscience. We recently interviewed [hip hop artist] Aloe Blacc, a philanthropist on the issue of food deserts; and [blues musician] Guy Davis, the son of civil rights icons who fought for racial justice.

What was your time in the Hudson Valley like?
My grandfather owned a summer house on Lake Oscawana in Putnam Valley. During those summers, we would watch The Open Mind on Saturdays at noon. Fairly recently, my grandmother, Elaine Heffner (the show’s executive producer) was reminding me of all the beautiful memories we had there; we were always having some sort of holiday get-together. It was just such a great retreat to simply sit in a chair by the lake and relax.

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See the season premiere below. Watch more episodes at www.thirteen.org/openmind.

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