After 12 years as president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, Barbara Cochran announced Thursday that she will retire from her position in June 2009. Cochran, who has close ties to The Poynter Institute, recently served on the Institute’s National Advisory Board and has been involved in Poynter’s journalism programs. I conducted an e-mail interview with Cochran to learn more about her time at RTNDA, her retirement and what it will mean for the association moving forward. (Note: I have written for RTNDA publications and taught in its programs.)
Jill Geisler: 2009 will bring a revamped Federal Communications Commission, the digital TV transition and a rough economic climate for broadcasters, all of which will have an impact on RTNDA and its members. You’ll retire at the midpoint of that challenging year. What advice might you have for your successor?
Cochran: RTNDA has great strength in its members, its board of directors and its talented staff. It also has a clear mission: to promote excellence in journalism and to defend the First Amendment rights of the electronic media. What is changing is the way in which RTNDA is delivering services to its members. We have made the Web site a source of information and best practices that changes every day. We are relaunching “Communicator” with a new design and more input from members. We will offer professional development through Webinars. Just as the industry is being transformed by the digital revolution, RTNDA needs to use digital tools to provide member services.
The outlook in Washington, D.C., will be interesting. On the one hand, President-elect Barack Obama has endorsed more transparency in government, with more information available online for public access. RTNDA, as part of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, is encouraging that. On the other hand, Obama has endorsed some policies that might increase Federal Communications Commission regulation of content and bring back more paperwork burdens for local stations. So RTNDA will need to keep a watchful eye and a strong voice in Washington. I’m pleased that I’ll be able to contribute to that vigilance as president emeritus.
RTNDA began work on a strategic plan earlier this year aimed at bringing more individuals and organizations into RTNDA and providing improved services. The goal was to keep RTNDA alive, well and relevant. How can the organization sustain its activities involving the First Amendment, Freedom of Information, ethics, skills, training, convention — much less enhance them — during a severe economic downturn?
We’re hearing from our members and suppliers that budgets will be down next year. We want to do what we can to make sure our services continue to be affordable. That’s why we’re developing an online system for entering the Edward R. Murrow Awards competition, which will save shipping expenses. We’re considering other cost-saving measures in membership and other services. But we also want our members and their bosses to be aware that RTNDA membership is a relative bargain. With all that RTNDA does on behalf of stations at the FCC and in Congress, one year of full membership costs less than an hour of an attorney’s time.
OK, let’s move to a brighter question. Looking back on your tenure, what are your favorite memories and accomplishments?
That’s a tough question, because there are so many. I remember the thrill when we learned that the U.S. Court of Appeals had ruled in our favor to abolish the last vestiges of the Fairness Doctrine after 20 years of court battles. Then there was the day during the 2000 presidential election dispute when we got a fax from the Supreme Court saying it would allow the immediate release of audio recordings of the argument. This marked the first time in history that the American people would hear the highest court on the same day a case was argued. Sept. 11 was dramatic, because the terror attack caused us to cancel the 2001 convention, and the successful outcome of our insurance claim was crucial. But most of all, I remember the enjoyment of visiting members at their stations, seeing them at conventions or at the First Amendment dinner in Washington or at the awards dinner in New York. I’ve made some wonderful friends, and I hope to stay in touch.
You’ve agreed to serve a year in an emeritus role, advising and helping RTNDA as needed. What else do you plan or hope to do?
I’m still very interested in industry trends, the future of ethical journalism and journalism education. It will be good to have time to think and perhaps write about those issues. I’ve had wonderful experiences throughout my career and have seen a lot of change, so I hope to have the chance to look back and think about the lessons I’ve learned that could benefit journalists in the future. And of course it will be terrific to have more time to spend with my husband John and the rest of my family. A friend gave us a book called “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” I don’t know if we’ll make it to all 1,000, but I can think of 20 or 30 I don’t want to miss.