Bob Chitester, the executive producer of Free to Choose, looks back.
Imet Bob Chitester 25 years ago like countless others did — with a call out of nowhere from an infectiously upbeat man from Erie, Pa., with an idea I just had to hear and couldn’t possibly resist. In this case, it was for a TV show explaining free-market principles with a number of young people as the hosts. Bob had decided I was going to be one of them, and so it was. We taped several episodes, and I learned lessons in TV that were extremely valuable and no one else was going to take the time to teach me.
Bob most famously was the executive producer of the legendary Free to Choose TV series with Milton Friedman, certainly one of the most influential programs of the last 50 years.
He has remained an evangelist for freedom with numerous other TV projects under his belt at the Free to Choose Network. Bob has a great zest for spreading ideas, for educating young people, and . . . for pretty much everything he encounters. He is a great enthusiast and has always been determined to impart his excitement to others.
He is now gravely ill with cancer, and I recently took the opportunity to check in with him about his career and Free to Choose. Here is our conversation, edited for space and flow.
RL: So, Bob, where are you from?
I was raised in a small town, in North Central, Pennsylvania. I got a full-ride scholarship to the NROTC and went to the University of Michigan.
I enrolled in the engineering department because my high-school math and physics and chemistry teacher thought I was pretty sharp. The very first algebra Blue Book showed me that I didn’t know what I thought about algebra.
I wanted to go into music, but I couldn’t because of the scholarship. I then decided on radio and television.
RL: After you get your degrees, you actually go into TV of course.
Yes, my first job was at a high school, brand-new high school, Greenfield High School, outside Salem, Michigan.
I was hired to go there because they had gotten the Ford Foundation grant to set up a closed-circuit television system for instructional purposes. So I set that up.
I go to work for a college to do the same thing I’d done at the high schools, set up a closed-circuit TV system, where faculty members could essentially lecture as many as 400 or so students.
One thing led to another, and I became the general manager of a public TV station in Erie, Pa., at age 28 or 29. I managed over the next three years to put together the application to the FCC, raise money, the whole thing, and launch the station in 1967.
RL: By the way, were you always a free-market type? Or did you have a conversion?
I was always a free-market type in the sense that I describe myself as an individualist. I instinctively was built in such a way that I was not susceptible to peer pressure.
RL: OK, so how do you get from this Erie, Pa., station to Free to Choose?
A little later, I met Wilson Allen Wallis, who was one of three people — Milton, George Stigler, and Allen Wallis — that Milton referred to as The Three Musketeers. He was then chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I’m a very outspoken loudmouth, head of a small public TV station. So that at the national meetings, people got to know me fairly well, because I was always involved in whatever controversy was going on. And then I met Wallis, and he was astonished to find that there was actually the head of a public TV station who shared his and Milton’s and Stigler’s ideas.
Around this time, John Kenneth Galbraith had written a book, The Age of Uncertainty, and the BBC created a series hosted by Galbraith on his ideas. I thought there needed to be a response to that. Wallis told me, “Well, Bob, if you’re really serious about doing something, I know who ought to be your host.” And he mentioned Milton Friedman.
RL: Then, he puts you in touch with Rose and Milton?
Yes, after four meetings with them, they agreed to do the TV series.
So, we produced the TV series, and it was finished and ready to go by, I think it was around June of 1979. We did it, didn’t get shown until January of 1980 on PBS. Then, it was once-a-week for ten weeks.
RL: When did you realize in the course of producing and broadcasting this series that you had something special going on?
By the time the third program aired, I’m talking to Milton on the phone, one of our regular conversations. And near the end of it, he says I want to give you a new phone number. He then went on to explain, he said, “You know, Bob, I don’t like and I just cannot do an unlisted number.” To him, it meant that he thought he was better than other people.
Anyway, he tells me, “I had to change the number. I’m getting phone calls from all over the world. They want me to invest money for them.”
To this very day, I will be meeting somebody — and this happened recently here with some local people — and when they discover that I created, Free to Choose, then they immediately say, “Oh, my gosh, Bob, that series changed my life.”
Then, you have Estonia, where Prime Minister Mart Laar literally used Free to Choose, the book, as a guide in setting up the Estonian government.
RL: And Milton gets a best-selling book out of it, too?
Yes, and this is relevant to the show’s success as a communications tool. The book is modified transcripts of ten TV shows, so that the TV series comes first.
Milton and Rose took the transcripts of the programs back to Vermont. And in a short period of time, came back out with a ten-chapter book. And the sales were phenomenal — 100,000 hardback, the first year in the U.S.
RL: And you stayed close to the Friedmans in the years after the program?
Let me give you an example of both the comfort level that Milton and I and Rose had together. This was after Milton’s 90th birthday. So, I arrive at their apartment, and he had become accustomed to asking, “Bob, how many miles did you run today?” And in this particular instance, I said, “Well, I didn’t go running, but I did do 250 stomach crunches.” He didn’t know what that was, and I couldn’t think of any way to describe it better than just getting down on my back and doing a couple. And the next thing I know, Milton is doing these tiny little raises, and Rose got down on the other side and did the same thing.
RL: As someone who has spent decades thinking about how we communicate these ideas of markets and liberty, what lessons have you gleaned?
I got very excited about the work of Jonathan Haidt because it supported the perspective I’ve always had, which is people make a decision based on emotion, and then they turn around and try to find the right way to reason it out.
The goal is to get people to understand, first of all, the whole issue of what it means to live in a free society. And in terms of storytelling, find something that’s natural to that individual, in terms of their behavior, or the way they think, etc. And to come up with a story, a narrative that aligns with their personal experience because now they’re being given a logical explanation of why they decided X.
RL: Bob, to say you are a happy warrior is an understatement. Where does that come from?
Well, one of my successes has been my curiosity. You know, as a high-school kid, I worked a few little jobs, etc. And I discovered something there. I could make any job somewhat interesting. And then it’s just taking that attitude as you go forward.
To bring it back to Free to Choose, it’s extraordinary that since 1980, with an exception or two, there’s not been another such attempt at giving the American public a clear-eyed sense of the society envisioned by the Founders, which tend to be eroding away.
And these ideas are very powerful. The bottom line was, Milton, 1; the Soviet Union, 0.