Currently Curious: Why isn’t there more collaboration between TV and radio?

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(Illustration: Chris Campbell)

Collaboration between public radio and public TV can yield huge benefits. So why isn’t it more widespread?

That’s what Amanda Honigfort wants to know. Amanda is a producer at Illinois Public Media in Urbana, which comprises a public TV station and two radio stations. It’s her first year at the station and her first job out of college. Already, she’s seeing firsthand how cooperation and coordination among the TV and radio wings of her workplace can expand the audience for both.

Honigfort

Honigfort

Her question about radio-TV collaboration won Current’s first voting round for questions submitted to Currently Curious, our reporting series based on what readers want to know about public media. Amanda’s submission — “Why has it taken so long for NPR and PBS to talk about more collaboration? What is standing in the way?” — was far and away the winner in our first voting round, which ended Dec. 15.

Before we started our reporting, I wanted to know why Amanda asked this particular question. She told me that she grew up in a town with separate radio and TV stations. Now that she works at a joint licensee, she sees firsthand the benefits of closing those gaps.

“There are a lot of different ways that TV and radio can enhance each other’s content and promote each other to people who see us as one already,” Amanda said. “People don’t see a big difference between NPR and PBS. They still see us as related and tend to love both of us. So it just seems to make sense to work together.”

Illinois Public Media has been taking this approach and reaping rewards, she said. Last year, it produced local radio stories and three half-hour TV documentaries to accompany PBS’s airing of Ken Burns’ Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. The effort also involved WTVP-TV in Peoria, Ill. A town-hall discussion that drew about 60 attendees aired on both WTVP and IPM’s TV stations and deployed both radio and TV staffers as hosts and producers.

cancer_signature_titleAmanda said she thinks the joint efforts helped draw more viewers to the PBS shows. “These big content collaborations and events would not be possible if our radio and TV side weren’t working closely together,” she wrote in an email. “We could create good content and good events separately, but both are better and stronger together.”

IPM is also turning local TV documentaries into radio pieces and producing radio news stories from a series of short TV docs that profile artists. It cross-promotes shows across platforms, such as by airing NPR-produced spots for Morning Edition on WILL-TV as part of the radio network’s Spark campaign. It’s also created American Graduate content for both platforms.

In addition, “by talking often about different projects we’re working on, I think we also give each other ideas we wouldn’t have come up with if we stayed separate,” Amanda wrote. “The collaboration doesn’t necessarily need to manifest in a joint project. Sometimes it’s just an extra person with a different perspective, more ideas on sources, or a fresh set of eyes/ears.”

CurrentlyCurious_lrgLOGOThough more radio and TV entities seem to be collaborating throughout the system, “I’ve been a bit confused as to why it didn’t happen sooner and why it isn’t happening faster,” Amanda said. As an example of an area where collaboration is still needed, Amanda mentioned that IPM’s webmaster built the station’s website from scratch rather than use NPR’s Core Publisher or PBS’s Bento. Neither CMS was able to suit the needs of both the radio and TV content IPM wants to publish online, she said.

“Since there are quite a few joint licensees, and I think added capabilities could only help all stations — radio, TV or both — I wondered why our national counterparts didn’t just work together to create one bigger, better service for all stations,” Amanda wrote in her email.

What gets in the way of successful collaborations? Amanda listed some possibilities, including a lack of time, resources and infrastructure. There are also rivalries — hatchets to be buried. At a CPB Board meeting last June, NPR Senior Vice President of News Michael Oreskes said he had noticed a “truly staggering” number of grudges getting in the way of progress. Since joining NPR last March, Oreskes has stressed the need for the network and its member stations to work together more closely, and NPR and PBS are teaming up on cross-platform coverage of this year’s presidential election.

When collaboration does take hold, it can work on all different levels: between NPR and PBS, among public radio and TV stations, and, in cases like Amanda’s, between radio and TV divisions at joint licensees. In our reporting, we’ll explore how partnerships work and the obstacles yet to be overcome.

We also want to hear from you. Have you tried to encourage more cross-media collaboration but run into roadblocks? If you forged a successful partnership, how did you do it? Should TV and radio work together more, or is it happening enough already?

Comment here, hit us up on Twitter or email us at news@current.org. Your stories will help us with our future reporting — another example of collaboration in action.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Illinois Public Media operates three radio stations. 

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  • juan_vazquez

    Funny, I brought this up at a PBS regional meeting, and also to NPR higher ups, and while they all agree, it seems they all want to take baby steps. Which is fine, but working at a joint licensee, it makes more sense to work together than separately, seeing how the world outside the public media bubble (there, I said it) sees public TV and radio as the same entity at times.

    I feel one reason this separation continues is because of what I call the “public media bubble”. We tent to insulate ourselves from the rest of the media landscape, including our public brethren, and then we fall behind. We care about what we do, and how our current audience sees us, and forget working with anyone else to expand our audience, or share resources.

    The other, is money. No one wants to work together and possibly have to ‘share’ a possible pool of money that one side may have been getting for a while, and open up the possibility that the other station may chisel away at that funding.

  • Ann Alquist

    To piggy back on Juan’s last comment: working at a joint licensee there was a lot of hand wringing how much radio was paying for this or how much TV was paying for that. Thankfully, the leadership understood the importance of investing in organizational priorities instead of it being determined by the platform. But it was very difficult to explain inside the building to people producing content for a specific medium.

  • Eric

    Moving pictures and audio are consumed differently. Topics, methods, gathering are vastly different. A listener may like a certain topic but a viewer would not seek that topic for a visual experience.

  • Aaron Read

    How old is Amanda?

    I infer from her resume on her website that she’s probably in her early twenties, possibly just 23 or 24.
    http://www.amandahonigfort.com/#!resume/c46c

    That means Amanda is too young and too new to system to understand that there are literally decades of mistrust and snootiness between public television and public radio. Many of PBS’s and NPR’s leaders are either old enough to have lived through (or old enough to have come of age when the dynamic was very strong) the infamous tale about how supporters of public television tried so hard to keep radio out of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 that the radio supporters had to scotch tape the words “and radio” after every mention of television at the last minute before it was signed by LBJ.

    http://www.npr.org/sections/npr-extra/2012/11/08/164624162/how-public-radio-scotch-taped-its-way-into-public-broadcasting-act

    Throughout the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s…TV was where it was at. Public radio…which was often rather different from much of public radio today…was the bastard stepchild that most TV stations tolerated, at best. Towards the end of the 1980’s that started to change, and IMHO the biggest single turning point was the First Persian Gulf War in 1992 and many stations’ decision to add BBC World Service programming to their lineups in large doses. The Beeb’s reporting was second to none in that war, and listeners ate it up. Suddenly public radio was the place to be when you wanted to know, right now (remember, this was before the internet), what the hell was going on in the world and back home. This spurred many additional refinements leading up to Audience 98, which is where a lot of the “new improved public radio” best practices were codified and put into action by the bulk of stations (measured by listeners). Simultaneously, as cable TV rose in prominence throughout the late 80’s and across the 90’s (and even moreso in the 2000’s) PBS’s stranglehold on new and experimental programming largely vanished. Especially their ability to be the pipeline for topnotch BBC TV content.

    Obviously I’m oversimplifying here. One could write a book about all this. Hell, I’m sure SEVERAL books have been written about this! :)

    Bottom line: as the 90’s rolled into the 2000’s, the power dynamic flipped: instead of public TV being where the real money was…it was public radio that was swimming in cash while public TV was facing real financial problems.

    Now that it’s been a few years, people in the system are getting used to public TV and public radio being much more equal partners. Especially because instead of only having to fight each other, there’s massive competition from a myriad array of other parties knocking on their collective doors. Nothing motivates like both parties realizing that if they don’t hang together, they’ll likely hang separately.

    People like (I assume) Amanda, who are too young to have personally experienced all this, must be utterly confused as to why there’s all these personnel-related barriers to collaboration, when it seems so obvious to them that everyone should be cooperating. But decades of mistrust and entrenched attitudes do not change overnight. It took decades for these barriers to come up, it might only take years instead of decades for them to come down…but it’s still years. It’s not gonna happen overnight.

    And eventually there’ll be more and more people like Amanda getting into positions of power in both radio and TV, and these barriers will erode more and more, faster and faster.

  • Jim Russell

    The real answer to this is … because the industry (management) permits the bickering and rivalry to continue. I have often told outsiders that NPR and PBS are more separate than NBC and ABC. The competition and non-cooperation simply make no sense. The other networks have overcome it by simply ordering the troops to cooperate. By the way, there are exceptions — joint licensees like ideastream in Cleveland where management insists on integration and collaboration between radio and TV. But, by a large, there is little cooperation. In the past, Minnesota Public Radio was often at war with the local PBS station, TPT, going so far as to refuse simulcasts of public events!

    • Aaron Read

      With NBC and ABC, I think there’s more authority at the top to force compliance amongst the troops.

      I don’t think either NPR nor PBS has enough authority…directly or indirectly…over their member stations to make them play nice with each other, do they?

  • Very interesting. ‘GBH is interesting on radio (NPR, APM & PRI) and TV (PBS & APT). I love BPR & Greater Boston.