A letter from our executive director on the power of local

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“We’re live, we’re local and we’re Washington’s NPR station.”

The first time I heard this new branding slogan on WAMU, I thought, “Bingo!” It was so good that I wondered aloud if it was a manager’s middle-of-the-night “Aha!” moment or an audience-tested message carefully crafted by some Mad Men. It was that simple and that right. I think it’s exactly what listeners need to hear to be reminded of the essential and enduring value of that unique species in the public media ecosystem we call “the station.”

Over the last 50 years, public media stations grew and prospered on the coattails of strong national news, talk, educational and cultural programs. Earlier generations of public broadcasting leaders wisely pooled resources, dreamed big and created brands. But we are now full throttle into an era of disintermediation and on-demand, personalized content. Moving forward, public media stations’ survival depends on building comprehensive multiplatform local services that cultivate community and connection, intimacy and immediacy, through programming that engenders a sense of wonder, place and belonging.

This is why Current and the Public Media Futures Forums, both supported by the Wyncote Foundation, are joining forces with other partners to be announced on a new project, Local That Works. We want to report on the best local and regional programming, engagement and revenue ideas sprouting up at stations across the country. We are especially interested in those that provide lessons for the entire public media system and can serve as models to be customized or replicated in small and mid-sized markets. Mark Fuerst of the Futures Forums will analyze these initiatives and, together, we will reward the best of the bunch with a new Local That Works award (details coming in the spring).

Much of my own public media career was dedicated to launching national programs — NPR’s Justice Talking and Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! But, truly, the most rewarding work I’ve done has been local — at WXPN-FM in Philadelphia and WETA-FM in Washington, D.C. I collected local “Stories of Impact” for the National Center for Media Engagement and worked with the Association of Independents in Radio on the project that led to Localore. All of these perches provided insight on just how much creativity and commitment resides at the local level, where public media can have the most impact.

I think that’s why a growing number of our visionaries, people who have made a lasting mark on public media nationally, are “going local”: Marketplace co-founder (and former Current editor) JJ Yore at Washington’s WAMU, Peabody Award–winning former All Things Considered producer Neenah Ellis at WYSO in Ohio, Public Insight Network creator Michael Skoler at Louisville Public Media, and Greater Public’s June Fox at one of CPB’s newest grantees, KNHC in Seattle.

These leaders are not stepping down; rather, they are stepping up to the most important challenge in our system and getting closest to the stories we need to tell and the people we need to serve.

While the buzz in public radio has been about the for-profit podcasting world’s exponential growth and public media talent grab, I think the transition of national innovators to the local level is an equally important trend to watch.

Local That Works is one of many initiatives Current plans to roll out in 2017, the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act. We intend to look back at the legislation that gave birth to the public media system and look ahead to the next 50 years of public service media. We invite stations to work with us as we tell public media’s story. We’re in this together!