4 lessons from 5 years of pushing the boundaries of public media

Screen shot
Screen shot, localore.airmedia.org

The station application deadline is approaching for AIR's "Localore: Finding America competition," which will bring together 15 stations and collaborators to work on projects for public media. Stations have until May 31 to apply, and "outside collaborators" have from June 1 to June 26. They'll then be matched and will work on a project together. From AIR's site:

Finding America is the third in a series of AIR’s R&D storytelling productions to incubate innovation in public media. Finding America suggests that although there is an abundance of coverage and documentation by media each day, there are dimensions of the country that remain off the radar. Successful productions will enlighten the national narrative of America through the lens of public broadcasting.

Sue Schardt, executive director, AIR. (Submitted photo)
Sue Schardt, executive director, AIR. (Submitted photo)

Sue Schardt, AIR Inc.'s executive director and Localore's executive producer, spoke with me about lessons learned from AIR's previous two projects.

1. 'Talent drives change.'

AIR, which has been around for 27 years, knew this seven years ago, Schardt said. Now, talented producers are moving from networks and stations into independent spaces and starting their own podcasting enterprises, for instance.

"Independent producers are by nature riding highs and lows constantly," Schardt said, so the very nature of the job is one of constantly adapting.

"By nature, independent talent is absolutely suited for this time that demands fast iteration, fast adaptation, a very high tolerance for the fear that comes with the kinds of risks of putting yourself out into the unknown."

People say it's the golden age of podcasting, Schardt said, but she goes a bit further -- "it's the golden age of talent."

2. 'Digital projects are ephemeral.'

With Localore's last project, 10 teams collaborated on projects around the country .

"We invested a lot in digital and we ended up with extremely beautiful, rich, inspiring, immersive digital documentary platforms, and I would not change that for a moment," Schardt said.

But when technology changes so quickly, how does something like that keep up?

"Digital properties are ephemeral, so we don't build them like the Taj Mahal, we build them like we know that in a year's time they will dissolve, so we scale our investment accordingly."

In this next round, AIR is calling on people to use existing digital tools.

"We're not going to try to invent them," Schardt said.

3. We have a lot of D, we need more R.

"The basic idea of Localore and one of the key elements of this work is that we recognize that this industry is in the midst of change," Schardt said.

And that change is happening to a mature industry that doesn't have the resources, mindset or staff to explore, "so we are solving that problem for them."

A lot of investment is now made into development without first taking the time to research what's needed, she said. Investment tends to go straight to digital, which is enticing and sexy.

"So it's not well-anchored in what difference it's going to make and to whom. What human need is it going to serve?"

In Localore's next round of projects, the first assignment will be to go to the far corners of communities where public media doesn't exist "and literally take lawn chairs and set them up on a corner and observe."

"The idea of repose is an important one to me in this next round," Schardt said, "the idea of stillness, of observing and absorbing."

4. 'This is a long game.'

In 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Public Broadcasting Act, "one of the things he said is that 'it will be free, and it will be independent--and it will belong to all of our people.'"

Those remarks, read today, are fascinating, she said. Public broadcasting has been enormously successful, "probably more than the founding architects imagined in terms of significance to American culture, but we're serving about 11 percent of America, so we've effectively cultivated the core investors."

Public media has developed around the people who called in and gave support, Schardt said.

"We didn't mean to exclude anyone, but now we have to come to terms with the fact that we have a ways to go."

Getting there is a long game, she said, "and one that is completed of a series of nudges over time. It takes decades to instigate change."


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