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Gerald Slater, public television pioneer, dies at 86 of coronavirus

WASHINGTON — Before the Senate’s Watergate hearings, public television was still mostly known as a venue for educational programing. Big Bird, not big news.

But Gerald Slater, an executive at the fledgling Public Broadcasting Service and one of its four founding employees, took responsibility for offering up the 1974 hearings in prime time, shifting the system’s image. In two decades as an executive at PBS and then Washington’s WETA, Mr. Slater played a key role in the development of public television, expanding its coverage of public affairs and the arts.

‘‘Gerry was a bona fide pioneer in a system that started as a kind of experiment,’’ said Sam Holt, another of that first group of PBS staffers.

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Mr. Slater, 86, died at Sibley Hospital on April 24 of COVID-19s. His case was complicated by multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow.

Mr. Slater left WETA in 1989 and ran his own consulting business. Halcy Bohen, his wife since 1987, said Mr. Slater was a central figure in a large family that included his two children, three stepdaughters and nine grandchildren. In later years, Bohen said, he enjoyed taking the grandchildren on trips around the world — China, Ghana, Italy, England.

‘‘He was absolutely a joy to grandparent with,’’ Bohen said.

But he suffered declining health and in October had moved to a retirement community where he could receive care for dementia. When the virus outbreak began, Bohen, who had also moved to the community, said she and Slater were separated in different parts of the facility. The last time she saw him in person was March 13.

The virus killed him a few days after he fell ill in April. His family gathered via screen to be there for his final moments.

Having grown up in the Bronx and never losing the borough’s distinctive accent, Mr. Slater began in the television business while an undergraduate at New York University, working as an usher for CBS.

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Mr. Slater became an acolyte of Fred Friendly, a president of CBS, and part of a group committed to building a public alternative to commercial television.

After the Watergate hearings helped establish public television’s reputation for delivering public-affairs programming, Mr. Slater joined PBS member station WETA in 1975, beginning a long partnership with Ward Chamberlin, the station’s chief executive.

They overhauled what was then a small station, playing off its position in the national capital to tap resources such as those at the Smithsonian Institution.

‘‘We wanted it to be straight and we wanted it to be believable and trustworthy,’’ said Linda Winslow, whom Mr. Slater hired to WETA in 1978. He promoted her to a senior role in public affairs, the kind of job few women held in television at the time.

Sharon Rockefeller, who took over the leadership of WETA after the two departed, credited them with laying a foundation that has positioned the station today as the second-biggest producer of public television content.

‘‘We had no financial base, but it was about location, location, location,’’ said Rockefeller, who was a board member at the station in the early ‘70s.

Mr. Slater could be blunt with people but without alienating them: As one former colleague put it to Bohen, he was a ‘‘sheep in wolf’s clothing.’’