Free To Choose Network founder and CEO Bob Chitester (right) with his friend and colleague Tom Skinner. (Tom Skinner / Wikimedia Commons)
Bob Chitester, executive producer of Free to Choose, looks back.
Imet Bob Chitester 25 years ago like countless others – with a phone call from nowhere from a contagiously optimistic man in Erie, Pennsylvania, with an idea I just needed to hear and couldn’t possibly resist. In this case it was a television show explaining the principles of the free market with a number of young people as hosts. Bob had decided I would be one of them, and so it was. We recorded several episodes and I learned lessons on television that were extremely valuable and no one else would take the time to teach me.
Most famously, Bob was the executive producer of the iconic TV series Free to Choose with Milton Friedman, arguably one of the most influential programs of the past 50 years.
He has remained an evangelist for freedom with numerous other television projects on the Free to Choose Network. Bob has a great passion for spreading ideas, educating and educating young people. . . for pretty much anything he encounters. He is a great enthusiast and has always been determined to share his enthusiasm with others.
He is now seriously ill with cancer and I recently took the opportunity to speak to 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 grew up in a small town in North Central, Pennsylvania. I got a full-time scholarship to the NROTC and went to the University of Michigan.
I enrolled in engineering because my high school math, physics, and chemistry teacher thought I was pretty astute. The very first Algebra Blue Book showed me that I didn’t know what I was thinking about algebra.
I wanted to make music, but couldn’t because of the scholarship. I then decided on radio and television.
RL: After you graduate, of course you actually go to television.
Yes, my first job was at a brand new high school, Greenfield High School, outside of Salem, Michigan.
I was hired to go there because they received the Ford Foundation scholarship to set up a video surveillance system for classroom use. So I set that up.
I’m going to work for college to do the same thing I did in high schools. I put in place a video surveillance system that essentially allows faculty members to teach up to 400 students.
One thing led to another, and when I was 28 or 29 I became the executive director of a public television station in Erie, Pennsylvania. Over the next three years I managed to put the application together with the FCC and raise funds and start the station in 1967.
RL: By the way, were you always a free market guy? Or did you have a conversion?
I’ve always been a free market guy in the sense that I consider myself an individualist. Instinctively, I was built to avoid peer pressure.
RL: OK, how did you get to Free to Choose from this station in Erie, Pennsylvania?
A little later I met Wilson Allen Wallis, one of three people – Milton, George Stigler, and Allen Wallis – whom Milton referred to as the Three Musketeers. He then became chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I’m a very loudmouth, the head of a small public television station. So people got to know me pretty well at the national meetings because I was always involved in controversy. And then I met Wallis and he was amazed that there actually was a public television director who shared his ideas and Milton’s and Stigler’s.
By this time John Kenneth Galbraith had written a book, The Age of Uncertainty, and the BBC was making a Galbraith-hosted series based on his ideas. I thought there had to be an answer to that. Wallis said to me, “Well, Bob, if you’re really serious I know who your host should be.” 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 made the TV series and it was done and done, I think it was around June 1979. We did it and it wasn’t until January 1980 that it was shown on PBS. Then it was once a week for ten weeks.
RL: During the course of the production and broadcast of this series, when did you realize that something special was going on?
When the third program aired, I spoke to Milton on the phone, one of our regular conversations. And towards the end he says I want to give you a new phone number. Then he went on to explain, “You know, Bob, I don’t like it and I just can’t do an unlisted number.” For him it meant that he thought he was better than other people.
Anyway, he tells me, “I had to change the number. I get calls from all over the world. They want me to invest money on them. “
To this day I’ll meet someone – and I happened to be here with some locals recently – and when they discover that I’ve created Free to Choose they immediately say, “Oh my god, Bob, this series changed my life.”
Then you have Estonia, where Prime Minister Mart Laar literally used the book Free to Choose as a guide for the formation of the Estonian government.
RL: And Milton will get a bestselling book from it too?
Yes, and this is relevant to the success of the show as a communication tool. The book consists of modified transcripts from ten television shows so that the television series comes first.
Milton and Rose brought the transcripts of the programs back to Vermont. And in a short time came out with a book with ten chapters. And sales were phenomenal – 100,000 hardcover books for the first year in the US
RL: And you stayed with the Friedmans in the years after the program?
Let me give you an example of the comfort Milton, I, and Rose had together. It was after Milton’s 90th birthday. So I arrive at her apartment and he got used to asking, “Bob, how many miles did you run today?” And in this particular case I said, “Well, I didn’t run, but I got 250 stomach cramps.” He didn’t know what that was, and I couldn’t think of a better way to describe it than lying on my back and making a few. And the next thing I know is Milton doing these tiny little bumps, and Rose got on the other side and did the same.
RL: What lessons have you learned as someone who has pondered for decades how we communicate these ideas about markets and freedom?
I was very excited about Jonathan Haidt’s work because it supported the perspective I always had: people make a decision based on emotions, and then they turn around and try to find the right way to find out .
The aim is to make people understand what it means to live in a free society. And in terms of storytelling, find something that is natural to that person, in terms of their behavior or way of thinking, etc. And to develop a story, a narrative that is consistent with their personal experience because it is now a logical one Explanation given why they chose X.
RL: Bob, to say you are a lucky warrior is an understatement. Where does it come from?
One of my successes was my curiosity. You know, when I was a high school student, I did a couple of small jobs, etc. And there I discovered something. I could make every job a little more interesting. And then it just takes that posture as you move forward.
To bring it back to Free to Choose, it is extraordinary that since 1980, with one or two exceptions, there has been no such attempt to give the American public a clear sense of the society envisioned by the founders, which tends to erode away.
And these ideas are very powerful. The bottom line was, Milton, 1; the Soviet Union, 0.