The top organizer of the big-topic Public Radio Collaborations, American Public Media news chief Bill Buzenberg, has reluctantly given up the project after three outings.
APM has decided to pick topics to address in its national programs in the future, and producers at other networks and stations will be able to join in, he said.
A year or more apart, each of the projects sparked production of dozens of specials and news features by national and local producers from 2002 to 2005.
More than 50 contributed to the first collaboration in September 2002, “Understanding America After 9/11.” The second, November 2003's “Whose Democracy Is It?” received the top news programming award from Public Radio Program Directors. The third, “Think Global,” aired on approximately 500 stations in May 2005, accumulating an audience of 35 million listeners by APM’s estimate.
But it took too much work to coordinate and promote the project and to raise about $500,000 for each outing, Buzenberg told Current. “Those things really did absorb a year of my time. . . . It was an uphill battle, harder each time.”
“It looks like one of those things that will be on the shelf for a while,” Buzenberg said.
Coordinators of the Public Radio Collaboration will meet in St. Paul June 19 to consider whether to mount a fourth annual edition next year, and, if so, how to shape it.
This year’s attempt to focus pubradio’s programs on an important topic aired the week of May 16-22. Think Global, the third annual collaboration, was the biggest and best so far, says Minnesota Public Radio’s Bill Buzenberg, founding e.p.
It reached a record audience — more than 25 million — through the work of producers of 35 national programs such as Science Friday, World Café, Speaking of Faith and the NPR biggies. Though some programs dealt with multinational trade issues, Kurt Andersen toyed with cultural aspects of globalization on Studio 360 and Justice Talking joined with Radio Netherlands to look into the International Criminal Court. Buzenberg’s American Radio Works provided two documentaries.
“We really went after the nationally distributed programs,” says Betsy Gardella, project director. While specials produced for the project were heard on some 300 stations, bringing in the ongoing national series boosted carriage to more than 500 stations, Gardella says.
Though he’s generally high on the results, Buzenberg also sounds weary of pushing the project uphill for a year, advocating an annual break in programming routines that excites some broadcasters and irritates others.
The project costs millions for participating producers and MPR itself must raise $500,000 to coordinate and promote the project, which includes hiring part-time staffers. CPB funding ended after the first two years. It takes time and money, Buzenberg notes, that could be applied to ongoing shows or simpler projects without hundreds of moving parts.
“We need to evaluate — is this something that should go forward or not, or in a different way?” he says. Perhaps the collaboration should run three days instead of seven, he wonders. Does it need more lead time or less?
The idea of a national conversation was suggested by Rick Madden, the late CPB radio chief, and was translated into the first project on 9/11 themes and the second about aspects of democracy.
“Finally, this third time, we’ve reached the level he would have been pleased with,” Buzenberg says. “This year, people got it more easily. They did more [local programming] around it.”
Many stations picked up 10 to 15 hours of Think Global programming during the week, Buzenberg said. Minnesota Public Radio, where he heads news operations, carried 29 hours. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. aired a nightly hour of Think Global material, including a program it produced for the collaboration.
If year four comes around, a subject must be chosen. The runner-up in last year’s planning meetings, after globalization, was “growing up,” Buzenberg says, though some see sparks in energy.
If we Americans are living in a web of global relationships, how does that web work? The third annual Public Radio Collaboration, May 16-22 , will look at how Americans fit into the global village, organizers have announced.
Also nailed down is funding for most of the $550,000 cost, says Bill Buzenberg, executive producer of the project and senior v.p. for news at Minnesota Public Radio. The Ford Foundation committed $400,000 toward the 2005 project and the Surdna Foundation pledged $150,000 over two years. CPB was the major funder for the first two years.
The collaboration, Finding Our Way in the Global Village, will include segments in ongoing series, documentary specials and a global call-in show. During the week, the focus will shift day to day from the environment, human migration, economics, politics and culture, Buzenberg expects.
Planners will prepare materials to help stations plan local programming and raise local funds in concert with the national effort, Buzenberg said.
The first annual effort, in 2003, rallied producers around the theme Understanding America After 9/11. Last spring, 24 national produces and 220 stations participated in a week of programs on the theme Whose Democracy Is It? Afterwards, WNYC programmer Dean Cappello suggested globalization as the topic for 2005, Buzenberg recalls.
lanners also settled on a subject for 2006: the youth culture.
Joining the project staff are Project Director Betsy Gardella, former chief operating officer at New York’s WNYC Radio, and Editorial Director Jonathan Miller, a former foreign correspondent now based at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Doug Eichten, Deborah Blakeley and Israel Smith return as consultants to the project.
It was no accident that a listener tuning to public radio the week of Nov. 2 had a good chance of hearing somebody, whether a local reporter, national host or caller from a distant locale, talking about democracy in America.
The behind-the-scenes impresario was Minnesota Public Radio, whose annual Public Radio Collaboration enjoyed a highly visible second run this year. With a focus on the health of U.S. democracy, the project nudged producers of all stripes to add to the theme with programs, web features and live events.
The first-ever Collaboration, last year, examined how the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed America, and stations and independent producers pitched in with special one-off documentaries and a raft of shorter features. But only five national programs joined in. NPR News chipped in with just one hour--a set of reports fed independently of its regular news shows.
This year, public radio's signature national shows raised the profile of Whose Democracy Is It? Twenty-four programs in all signed on, including All Things Considered, Talk of the Nation and The Diane Rehm Show. Other prominent contributors included PRI's Marketplace, Studio 360 and This American Life.
With carriage data still coming in, more than 200 stations carried the Collaboration's special programming--so far, fewer than last year. Yet "if you count the national vehicles, damn near everybody played," says Israel Smith, the Collaboration's logistics coordinator.
The Collaboration encompassed 78 specials and recurring shows. At least eight stations held live events in their communities, and NPR and Public Interactive worked together on web features and quizzes. The BBC again produced a global call-in special, this time with WNYC in New York, and several Canadian Broadcasting Corp. programs participated for the first time.
Last year the timing of the Collaboration week, ending the day before Sept. 11, guaranteed the material would be timely but also threatened to bury it in the nationwide media frenzy over the anniversary. This year, Collaboration producers faced a bigger challenge, hanging the event on the wobblier peg of an off-year Election Day.
The theme appeared to click. "This year was the bigger test of whether or not we could put something on the national agenda, and it sure feels like we've done it," says Michael Skoler, project director.
Less successful were efforts to sell local and national underwriting packages tied to the programming. The Development Exchange Inc., which led the sales charge, signed up 85 stations to take part, but only 12 were able to sell packages.
For many stations, the Collaboration's programming fell into place too late for them to reach potential underwriters with enough notice, says DEI President Doug Eichten. "We really need a lot more lead time for stations to do more," he said. Similar problems hurt the Collaboration's attempts to sell national packages on stations in major markets.
Eichten is encouraging Skoler and other MPR staff to shoot for earlier deadlines next year. Skoler also hopes the Collaboration's appeal to underwriters will increase as it builds a track record.
The Collaboration team is already discussing possible topics for next year's project, Skoler says, working closely with NPR, PRI, CBC and the BBC. Some in public radio have suggested revisiting democracy, he says, but he sees challenges in contributing to public debate in the heat of a presidential election.
Web page posted July 17, 2006
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