How a scrappy Wisconsin PBS station cooked up its own Great British Bake Off

For 10 weeks this year, star bakers from around Great Britain entered the Great British Baking Show to face off in weekly competitions involving cakes, tarts and pies. Each week, between one or two bakers was eliminated from the hit British reality baking show, which airs on PBS stations around the U.S., before only three finalists remained for the final challenge.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, between 20 and 40 star bakers from across the state were baking in their own localized version of the Great British Baking Show — but without the eliminations, and with a decidedly Wisconsin twist.

The Wisconsin bakers were participating in the Great Wisconsin Baking Challenge, created by Wisconsin Public Television’s Jessica Lee and Jonna Mayberry. Each week, Lee and Mayberry asked their state-wide audience to participate in a baking challenge inspired by the British show, localize the results, and share their creations online on a website WPTV created for the challenge.

It’s one of the most highly entertaining, highly localized and just delightful forms of audience engagement that I’ve seen — and it’s clear that both the bakers and station employees had a blast. Bakers turned mini-pies into the State Capitol, gave a nod to local beekeepers and blended locally-grown ingredients into beautiful creations. One family made the state of Wisconsin out of pavlova. Another baker turned the state capitol — clearly a popular theme — into a Victorian sandwich.

Meanwhile, Lee and Mayberry recapped the PBS show, while giving updates on what their local bakers made. They also communicated with other departments within their station, illustrating why digital forms of engagement can bring in new audiences and spark new ideas. They also thought about ways to expand the challenge to help with membership and fundraising.

I loved the way they used this project to bring both departments at their station — and people across the state — together. Below is our conversation about the project.

How did you come up with the idea for the Great Wisconsin Baking Challenge?

Lee: I had been to TechCon, the PBS Technology conference, and attended a presentation where they identified flagship programs across the network and looked at their broadcast audiences. They were trying to put together a complete picture of who the audiences were for each program.

I remember that the presenter was struck by how the Great British Baking Show had a younger audience. That was in the back of my mind in May when we were thinking about audience engagement around the program.

Mayberry: We’re very lucky at this station in that there’s a lot of support around new, creative endeavors. Both Jessica and my supervisors encouraged us to brainstorm something new around the Great British Baking Show. We set that time aside but it was totally Jessica coming into the brainstorming meeting with this idea.

Lee: We knew that people who liked to bake were in the viewing audience, and we thought we could use a project like this to bring people into the public television audience who maybe don’t watch public television on broadcast. Maybe they just watch online. We want to reach these people in a way that we hadn’t necessarily before because we’ve been more broadcast-focused.

So we sat down and came up with the Great Wisconsin Baking Challenge. The idea was to combine people’s love of the program and baking with their love of Wisconsin. People here thrive on supporting local farms and businesses and supporting their community, so we wanted people to incorporate that love of Wisconsin into their challenges. So that’s where we came up with the twist: people would bake just like on the show, but there had to be a Wisconsin twist.

We wanted cakes that pulled something out of your garden or the farmer’s market — and definitely the dairy and let people talk about it. That was the idea.

How did the viewers react to the idea of Wisconsin-ifying their baked goods?

Mayberry: It was so incredibly valuable to give people a forum in which to show their state pride. There really aren’t many venues where people can do that — and to take a public media show and to get them to engage with us and also take pride in the state and the fresh, local ingredients and the local farms and farmer’s markets is such a wonderful thing and people really responded to it.

Lee: We had a 30-40 bakers each week which we’re really happy with, and we have about 15 bakers who have participated every week. They’re geographically spread across the state which we’re really happy with. Some people have made it a point to go to local businesses and proudly put them into the stories they submit. There’s a guy in Madison named Ralph and he harvests along his bicycle commute and those stories make it into whatever he’s baking. His picture will have a bicycle helmet in it. This contest has given people a voice to be themselves and geek out in their love for cooking. You can also tell that people love the show because they talk about Paul and Mary so people aren’t just doing this because they love to bake — they want to engage with the show and with other fans of the show.

What kind of feedback did you initially get when this went live?

Lee: After week one, there were so many wonderful stories and it would create great vignettes if we could actually follow them on a bake. Maybe we would do that if we did this again. We have a couple bakers who are baking up at a Heritage Hill State Park, which is a historical museum in Green Bay. This woman Bren bakes in a traditional kitchen in a heritage farm and she pretends that it’s 1905.

That sounds like a PBS show in and of itself.

Lee: She’ll go to the White House cookbook from 1895 and try to find all of the local ingredients and uses the techniques available to make curds or make different flavors. And the public comes through and tours the property while she’s cooking. She is an interpreter at the museum, so she wants to teach about the history of cooking food. One week, she decided to bring out a recipe about the Belgian community of Wisconsin and she wrote a lot about how they would make it traditionally using the ingredients that they would have at that time. If we were to do a video project, it would probably be about her.

Did this project change anything about the way digital engagement works at the station? I know at many stations, there’s a “radio first” or “TV first” mentality, and digital is more of an add-on to those mediums.

Lee: This project was the first time a digital engagement project was able to be worked into TV in terms of promotion. We were able to make 30-second promo and put it on TV. If we wanted to follow up next year, on the TV side they might be open to ideas of going back and forth between digital and TV, which is really exciting.

Do you have advice for other stations that might want to try this? It seems like a great way to localize a well-known brand, build community and engagement, and get people moving off and on screens.

Mayberry: First, they have to realize that is a time commitment. We spent a lot of time on this project. Was it worth it? Totally.

Of course, there are things we would improve, but we tried to work ahead as much as possible. I think that really helped us in this project. We tried to work a few weeks ahead before we launched. We worked in Google Drive a lot and shared everything — blog drafts, the intro text for things, and had all of these things frontloaded so it wasn’t so hectic. It also helps to have a partner in crime. Having Jessica and I share this project made it run very smoothly. From my perspective, I’m in the comms department. So having a comms plan and drafted early and shared with the team was really helpful in terms of workflow for what we were going to send out and when. Having that planned was a load off so we didn’t have to scramble to inform everyone internally.

Lee: A project like this has an opportunity for creativity and intra-department collaboration. We did bring other people in — we brought Scott Stetson from the design department on early. He came up with the logo and the look for the different social media. I work on digital team and we have one web developer, and Johnna and I sketched out what a website could look like.

We wanted to build a landing page and a form and we wanted people to tell their own stories and we want to have a page for each week. It had to be built completely from scratch — there was no prepackaged solution. We looked at different products out there. Could we use Google Forms? But during our research, we found those options were limiting for branding the product.

But now that we have it, we can think of it as a template for other projects. We can do a lot more than Wisconsin Bake-off.

How did the staff react when you first presented this idea to them?

When we first presented this idea to staff, people were underwhelmed.

Are they into it now?

Lee: They’re totally into it and they see the value of the depths of engagement. They see the 40 people who submitted projects over and over again. These people went out and bought ingredients and came up with an idea, baked it, took a picture, and filled out a form. The fact that they’re so engaged — the people at the station got it. They saw that people were really invested in this because they’re invested in the programming from Wisconsin Public Television.

So which one of you was Paul, and which one was Mary?

Lee: We didn’t want to judge their creations. We didn’t want to be the Paul or the Mary. We weren’t the ones to say ‘That’s a bad crust.’ — We couldn’t taste what they made, and that wasn’t the point of the project. We didn’t want to value anyone over anyone else for baking, but we thought with the Wisconsin twist, we could pick a star baker. We were looking for creativity for how people incorporated Wisconsin into their projects. The ones we posted for Week 8 — someone made a clock tower out of mini-pie biscuits to make the Wisconsin State Capitol — that was amazing. People are telling us how much them love Wisconsin.

  • Profile picture for user Melody Kramer

    Melody Kramer

    Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.

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