Image from KUOW/Jenny Asarnow project "The Corner"

In the first big CPB/AIR grant round, station producer Jenny Asarnow devised an award-winning bio of a Seattle corner, 23rd & Union. In the next round, indies will pair up with stations.

Q&A: Sue Schardt on
new station/indie grants

Localore: matchmaker for innovation

Everhart: How did AIR’s experience with
Makers Quest 2.0 inform the design of what you’re about to launch?

Sue SchardtSue Schardt, executive director, Association of Independents in Radio: We learned that we have this vibrant asset of individuals — independent producers who are tolerant of risk, incredibly adaptive and able to work really quickly. They are not constrained by institutional mindset or infrastructure and are often at the front of experimenting and hacking. We can turn to that talent and throw it like a lightning bolt at a problem or an idea we’ve identified.

With MQ2, we selected eight producers and gave each of them $40,000 in CPB funding with an assignment to help us figure out how to make the transition from public radio to public media. In shorthand, we asked them to give us new models for blending digital media with traditional broadcast, to help lead us from public radio to an integrated public media.

All eight delivered 100 percent on deadline, on budget, and each of them gave us a different model.

Even though the public radio system asks for and genuinely wants it, it’s difficult to find a place for innovation when it’s delivered.   This was a big takeaway for us all.

Within the field, the MQ2 projects are typically considered “one-offs” — work that just doesn’t stick. To some, this implies the producers somehow didn’t deliver a strong enough concept, or their work wasn’t robust enough, and avoids the more difficult systemic problem of there being little room for innovation.
This is a very hard part of the equation to resolve. It’s difficult when your producers generate such amazing work and that the system can’t find a way sustain it.

So this is why producers will be collaborating directly with stations?

It has to do with the need to build local station capacity — that’s one of the big takeaways.

Our next challenge became: Where are we going to throw that lightning bolt of talent now? How are we going to take this asset and direct that energy?

We decided to direct it toward local stations. They collectively represent an extraordinary asset for this nation and in their local communities. They’re utterly distinctive and powerful, yet they are so busy running day-to-day broadcast operations, cranking out the sausages, every day, 24/7.

Many don’t have the money, the staff or the mindset to be able to experiment, to really experiment. That’s not to say that experimentation isn’t happening, but it’s a real challenge even for those stations doing it. It’s this limited capacity for experimentation within the local stations that we’re aiming at.

We’re going to place 10 producers at 10 incubator stations — stations that are poised for transformation, that are ready for this.

How do you determine that they’re ready?

Within their staff they have someone, usually an individual, who knows how to nurture talent, who knows how to give talented people freedom and flexibility.

Someone who can manage creative people effectively?

That’s a really important ingredient. You need management that is invested in and recognizes the importance of creativity, a leader who knows how to make the space for something to happen.
We’re also asking the incubator stations in this round to actually put money on the table, to have skin in the game.

Public TV stations can also be Localore incubators. Why did you decide to expand beyond public radio?

There was a real desire on CPB’s part to include public TV, and it coincided with AIR’s desire to try to dissolve traditional boundaries between institutions, and between individual producers working inside and outside the system. Within our constituency of 800 producers, we see folks moving to other media at an amazing rate, and it’s out of public media.

In 2010, 74 percent of our members said public media was their No. 1 professional orientation, and it’s 55 percent this year, so we’ve seen a 19 percent drop in our most recent member survey.  And of those who described public media as their primary focus, 63 percent are earning money in other media. They’re finding new opportunities in print, podcasting, and to a lesser extent, website development and e-publications.

Our members are also moving to diversify their craft. Sixty-six percent of our members said they’re moving beyond audio to work in other platforms. We’re seeing a tremendous movement and shift in orientation. We’re seeing an influx of folks coming to AIR; 19 percent said radio has never been their primary focus.

Where are they coming from?

From podcasting, from print, television and video. We are following the lead of our producers and the direction that they’re going across platforms. Likewise, we’re trying to push those boundaries with this project as well.

Your survey of the field of independents really highlighted the differences between public TV and radio stations in terms of their relationships with local independent producers.

Nearly half of radio producers 43 percent characterized their relationships with their local public radio stations as “strong” or “very strong”; only 16 percent of TV and film producers had similar relationships with local public TV. In fact, more than half 56 percent said they had no relationship or a “very weak” relationship with their local public TV station.

Yes. That was one of the more striking points that came out.

Won’t this make it harder for you to bring the public television stations into this process?

No — in fact, it’s just the opposite. Television stations are one thing, but producers and other constituencies within public television increasingly recognize that radio has something going for it here. Radio stations have points of contact with these indies who are creating plenty of national programming and also their own projects.

Television stations — I’m learning they’re a different matter. Their operations tend to be a lot bigger, and they’re also having an especially hard time sustaining day-to-day operations. In this environment right now, it’s difficult for everyone, you know.

For years the Independent Television Service has run a grant program called LINCs that pairs stations with indie producers. It was started by the late Executive Director Jim Yee to build relationships with local public TV stations.

Yes. We’ve talked a lot to ITVS and we’ve looked at LINCs. They were out front, recognizing this potential to match stations and producers. And I think they’re looking with great interest at this new model that we have.

You unveiled this initiative last week with the launch of what you called the Station Runway  an online display of digital projects by the participating stations to show off their stuff  the characteristics that distinguish them from all other stations in the system. How many have put projects on the Runway?

We started with seven beta stations and expect to have 20 to 25 signed on by the start of the PRPD conference.

The Runway is where stations try to attract the most brilliant talent to work with them. Stations are speaking to the producers and saying, “Look at this amazing group of people who work at this station. Look at the unique culture we have inside this station. Look at the neighborhoods we have in this community that make it utterly distinct from any other.” We want them to show us that. 

We’re talking to managers and saying, “You are the architect of this institution. You have built this organization and made it into the success that it is.  Now, we want to hear your vision for your legacy at this unique point. Where do you see your station in five years, in 10 years? What is the new face of transformed public media in your community?” And if they can deliver their vision, they will attract the right producer.

To what extent have producers and stations already been strategizing about this?

Over these last four months, we have started these conversations between producers and stations. We know that producers have strong relationships with stations, especially in radio, and we’ve tried to instigate those conversations leading up to launch. And if we need to do some matchmaking later on, we will.

Could the producer be a station employee  who does indie work on the side and takes the lead at his or her station?

Yes. We’re requiring stations to cut these producers loose from their day-to-day jobs if AIR selects their projects. This would be their job, essentially, for 9 to 12 months.

How does that fit with your description of the independent talent that you want to attract producers who aren’t tied to institutions or institutional mindsets? Isn’t that a conflict?

The hardworking, sole-proprietor types are at the heart of the independent producer constituency.  We also increasingly understand that independence is a state of mind. When you stand in a public radio or television newsroom and look out at the people working there, you realize that when many of those folks finish doing their top-of-the-hour newscasts or writing their feature stories, they’re blogging or they’re making their own media. There are plenty of these people in AIR — producers who have passion projects that they pursue after-hours.

We’re trying to stretch the tent poles and say that independence is about understanding the power of the individual who is inspired to make media, the power of an individual’s idea-driven enterprise. That’s what we want to support, and that’s what we’re calling out now.

What are you asking producers to commit to these projects? 

We’re asking them to perform a service — to bring their brilliance, passion and commitment for nine months or a year — at a station. To create something that doesn’t exist, with resources provided by AIR, and significant funding from CPB.

We want producers to birth something new, something that will stick when they leave. 

I know you don’t want to suggest examples of the projects that might restrict applicants’ imaginations, but could you describe the sort of project you envision something that a station could carry forward after the producer’s work is done?

Rather than me making something up, the best example is to look back and see what we have done. The MQ2 project that I point to for a lot of lessons is The Corner at KUOW in Seattle. Jenny Asarnow literally went outside the station to create this public media project — to a street corner in an African-American neighborhood where gentrification was under way. It was ripe for storytelling.

She worked with collaborators to build an installation over an entire city block. It was very dramatic to look at — giant photographs of three or four people who walk the streets of that neighborhood every day. And each installation invited passersby to call a phone number and answer the question, “Whose corner is this?”

Jenny understood that the producer’s role as a mediator doesn’t differ whether you’re holding a microphone or you’re hacking technology together to allow you to gather stories at a faster rate or bigger scale. The producer is still the mediator. You’re figuring out where the news is, what the question is, and how members of the community see themselves reflected in your work.

The thing about her project that I hope will carry over to this new work is her understanding that she needed to go outside of the building. Take the institutional culture outside, and put it in a visible place in a new kind of way. Take it to a place where you see some sort of tension in a community, where people gather, where differences intermingle. Those are the places that are ripe for storytelling and new journalism. 

At this installation for “The Corner” in Seattle, residents and passersby contributed to an oral history of the gentrifying neighborhood. Drawn to the corner by flyers and signs, they left audio on an answering machine. (Photo: Inye Wokoma.)

Did Jenny Asarnow have support from KUOW in producing this?

[President] Wayne Roth and [Program Director] Jeff Hansen were huge proponents right off the bat. Wayne was 100 percent engaged and they both supported Jenny’s decision to leave her full-time job to take the MQ2 assignment.

You know, the internal dynamics of each station can be challenging for this sort of work. If you look at a KUOW or a WNYC in New York, you often have a giant infrastructure with so much experimentation going on already. So how do we get attention?

It goes back to what I said earlier about the time being ripe for this shift in focus to experimentation, but staff and managers are working overtime and under great duress right now. This is the paradox.

One of the most important guideposts for being able to move forward is knowledge of where you come from.

The framework that’s extremely helpful for me is recognizing two significant eras in the evolution of public radio. The first 18 years were defined by Bill Siemering when he laid down NPR’s first programming statement in 1970. He gave permission to experiment to a bunch of 20-year-olds who had funding from the federal government. So for 18 years, people tried a whole bunch of stuff.

When David Giovannoni [of Audience Research Associates] released his first audience report in 1988, he initiated a new era that evolved over these 23 years. Clearly and brilliantly he laid down a strategy for public radio to grow up and become a serious player.

So following the era of experimentation, we went into an era of discipline and consolidation. We matured.

Today, we have a highly consolidated industry with a bigger audience and more revenues than anyone in those early days dreamed possible.

Seven years ago, an Audience Research Analysis study showed us that there had been a major shift in public radio listening. By 2005, 62 percent of listening was occurring around national programs, an increase from 49 percent in 2001. And ARA reported that in 2005 half of all listening was concentrated in 19 national programs. In 2001, it took 53 programs to generate all that listening.

Those are really, really important statistics. This isn’t a criticism — it helps show us that there was a price paid for that growth. A whole lot of stuff went by the wayside as we honed this research-driven, journalism franchise.

I believe we’re at the door of a new era. We have choices to make. For the last several years, CPB has talked about the three Ds — digital, diversity and dialogue — and this frames what is in front of us beautifully.

When you talk about “diversity,” it translates into community. What if, in addition to thinking “audience,” we thought equally about who is living across the whole of our community?

When we think about “dialogue,” we’re talking about acting as mediators for people in the community to document their own stories through the tools of engagement, allowing people to be their own documentarians.

And “digital” speaks to the craft. It’s impossible to keep up with technology, much less know how to harness it in a meaningful way.  For this, we need brilliant craftspeople — the mediators I spoke of earlier — who can turn it with intention to serve the ideals of public media.

So when you put those things all together — the digital, the dialog, the diversity, the community, the craftspeople and the storytelling — it represents a whole new expansion in front of us.

To me what we need to understand is that we can do more than one thing at the same time. We can and we must continue to build the core journalism franchise. That is so important to this democracy. But we also have to go back to our first era and create the space on digital platforms where we can usher in a new generation of citizens who see themselves reflected in public media, of makers passionate about leading us in these new directions, and re-energized stations that have a fresh and vibrant role in their communities.  

It’s a generational shift. Let’s recognize that. We know how to do this — to make room; we all did it. Many of us who are in leadership positions had the experience of knocking on the door of a station and saying, “I want to do radio.” And somebody said, “Can you be here Friday at noon? Would you like a show?”

With MQ2 you ran into public radio’s discipline of judging the value of a project, its service to the public, by its number of users essentially Arbitron data.

With Jessica Clark you floated the idea of also looking at a qualitative factor that you called “zing” the spark that flies when a piece of well-crafted media inspires the listener or viewer to a new understanding. But you got some strong pushback that there was no such qualitative standard for assessing whether a project was worth its cost. What’s your thinking on that now? With this new initiative, how do you intend to measure qualitative impact?

Two things will demonstrate that what we’re doing is important. One is — as I said earlier — giving stations the permission to be different, to call them out in a different way, to say to them “Show us your stuff.”

If 10 stations define who they are, and they’re all utterly different, it’s going to shift our understanding of the public media system in exciting ways. Part of it is giving ourselves the permission to be different.

Another thing that distinguishes this work is that we’re actively moving into a zone of discomfort. All of us involved in Localore are deliberately pushing into places where we can’t know the outcome. This is a point of tension, especially at this time when resources already are stretched so thin.

We are asking for a lot. But it’s what we must do if we’re going to make good on this commitment to innovation and the three Ds.

CPB is putting a lot more money into Localore more than twice what you had for MQ2. And you have other funders.

Last time we disbursed about $320,000 to producers, and this time CPB is making it possible for us to provide significantly bigger grants to Localore producers and their collaborators. CPB President Pat Harrison will announce the total grant amount this week during the PRPD conference in Baltimore. 

NEA and the Wyncote Foundation are providing funding to AIR to administer the projects. The MacArthur Foundation invested in MQ2 two years ago and their funding has sustained us as we’ve developed this next round. All in all, we’ve raised $1.6 million to support Localore.

You’re asking stations to help make these projects sustainable by committing to carry them forward after the producer’s work is done. How are you defining sustainability? Over what time frame?

Each assignment will be different. The producer’s job is to build something new at the station.

AIR is providing more resources and twice as much time for these projects to develop as in MQ2. The producers will have up to 12 months this time versus just five months that MQ2 producers had.

But it’s really on the stations to make a commitment to sustainability. If they get a brilliant producer, a great idea, resources and a passionate commitment to build something brand new, how bad can it be?

Stations are looking for the means to pursue research and development. Every industry that comes to the next phase of its evolution confronts this need to create R&D if it doesn’t already exist.

How much of a commitment are you seeking from stations? 

We’re not dictating how much a station should give. We’re giving suggestions, but it boils down to sustainability, right?

So they’re either willing to commit their own time to fundraise on behalf of it or commit whatever discretionary dollars they have towards it?

Yeah — what we’re basically saying is, “You decide.” How much could you put on the table that, in your mind, would say, “Yes, I am committed to the success of this.” 

Sue Schardt is the executive director of AIR, an 800-member organization, based in Boston, that’s focused on identifying, cultivating and deploying talent. She has experience as a station-based producer, network manager, researcher and freeform music deejay.

Disclosure: Current is receiving substantial assistance from the Wyncote Foundation, a Philadelphia grantmaker that is also backing the AIR project. 

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