What’s the job for the Public Media Corps?

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The setting is not ideal for video recording — an intimate din of 30 people, clinking our dinnerware and participating in boisterous dialogue — but everyone was intent on making the exercise work.

Public Media Corps round logo We’d all just been handed our very own HD Flip Video pocket camcorders. Between ice-breaker servings of wine, we were to record our thoughts on the future of public media. With that vast question, plus wine and video, it was a perfect recipe for YouTube masterpieces.

The gathering, an interesting mix of traditional and non-traditional public media representatives, began to dream big about public media 2.0. Drifting through the room, the voices captured on our cameras were at once varied and singular — varied because everyone, of course, had different ideas; some wanted to “send content to mobile phones, and from mobile phones,” while others raised philosophical questions, like, “How can people who love social justice media and sports find a space to carry on conversation?”

We also heard, among us, a singular voice, despite the variety of partners in the room, from grassroots public-access content providers as well as flagship public broadcasting stations. They all saw that public media have the potential, or the responsibility, to create a new space for the citizen’s voice to be heard — a space with broader participation, fresh media tools and better outcomes. In essence, it would amount to a new town square that can live up to the FCC’s expectation that the media must “serve the public interest, convenience and necessity.”

The National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) gathered these varied stakeholders for two-day meetings, first in San Francisco and then in Atlanta, to envision its new project, the Public Media Corps (PMC).

The Corps grows out of NBPC’s New Media Institute, an annual media-training program for diverse content producers that NBPC began holding in 2006. In August NBPC requested economic-stimulus funding for the Corps through the federal Broadband Technology Opportunity Program. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is in the final, due-diligence stage of reviewing the proposal. As proposed, the Corps would have a positive impact for more than 3 million Americans in 15-plus regions around the nation.

That new job profile

At the gatherings in San Francisco and Atlanta, a shared objective was to inject new voices into traditional public broadcasting by creating new job profiles.

What would those job profiles be? What skills are needed by these “legacy” broadcasting institutions to reach their audiences in the age of public media 2.0, which CNN, NBC and other commercial media could easily dominate, at least in the volume of their output?

And how can public media broadcasters use social media networks to create that civil, civic space that offers life-improving information and is open to a full range of voices?

Modeled on programs like Americorps and Teach for America, the Public Media Corps will hire local residents as “fellows” for yearlong residencies at public broadcasting institutions. Their job there will be to identify local issues and use multiple media platforms to spark vigorous community engagement on the issues.

Because the PMC’s ultimate goal is to broaden access to the life-improving information that public media can offer, the Corps fellows will act as a vanguard of digital literacy in those communities. They’ll be ready to tackle questions such as: Why does my family need a broadband connection? How can I afford it? Can a “serious game” framed around math, science, social or civic studies truly improve my child’s educational growth?

“The recent H1N1 crisis is a perfect illustration of what public media loses by not finding a way to provide real value to more people,” says Kay Shaw, who will be director of the Public Media Corps. “Public media is the perfect arena to dispel fears and share vital and, in this case, truly life-or-death information in a useful and contemporary way.”

Instead of being a public service, the array of information about H1N1 on commercial media has been more akin to a dizzying vaudeville display—“Step right up, count the blue dots of swine-flu deaths on this fancy map, and be very afraid!” In contrast, public media came up with an innovative response, an online Flu Portal (fluportal.org), a great resource for stations looking to cover the epidemic more effectively.

The Public Media Corps will work to create sustained networks of local social media interaction, fertile environments for sharing necessary information, lightning-fast, focusing on populations that most need the information and reaching them wherever they go for media — on TV, mobile phones or laptops. Beyond broadcasting basic health PSAs, public media would then contribute to the evolution of a “public” that can dissect the fundamentals of issues as complex as the current health-care overhaul and weigh the merits and shortcomings for their own communities.

Is public media — often slow to innovate or take risks — capable of creating this new media town square on your TV, on your computer, on your phone? Do public media have a chance of reaching as many Americans as the audiences of commercial media such as CNN?

Not today. As it stands, public media?s resources for experimentation and outreach are far smaller. Ultimately we need public media to be as loud as CNN in the Twitterverse and wherever else people meet electronically. CNN allows us to gather and gawk — 9.7 million of us were live-streaming Michael Jackson?s memorial service via CNN’s Facebook application, sharing our wit and our pain. The commercial media aim to create the broadest possible viewership, but their objectives are necessarily limited and usually diffuse.

In contrast, public media should allow us to gather and gain. What could we gain? An Aspen Institute and Knight Foundation report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” draws a strong parallel between informed communities and a more resilient democracy.  The report boldly recommends “clear strategies and smart choices can produce a revolution in civic engagement, government openness and accountability, and economic prosperity.” Public media can be a catalyst for this revolution but only with new voices, new tools, and new partnerships.

There is a variety of uses for the social media networks to be built by the Public Media Corps. For example, one of the partners in the project is WPBT, Miami. In Central Florida, 40 percent of the sub-prime home loans issued in Central Florida went to low-income Hispanic families — loans with high interest rates despite the familes’ above-average credit ratings, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

The Public Media Corps strategy is a perfect fit to deal with issues of disparity such as this. Working with WPBT, the PMC would provide an ecosystem of digital content and advocacy targeted specifically for this community — online financial information to empower South Floridians with financial know-how; strategic in-person community exchanges to encourage effective adoption; and mobile applications to help people make better-informed financial decisions on the spot, in pawn shops as well as banks.

The job of the PMC fellows will be to extend the services of public media to new communities that usually aren’t on the list of its beneficiaries or stakeholders, for people who seldom see themselves represented substantially in public media or in media of any kind.

The networked world offers many possibilities for delivering information of real value to these communities, through media or in person. Yet American public media have failed to provide a holistic picture of the country and relevant service to all of its parts. Without swift action now, it may never succeed.

The discussions in conversations about the Public Media Corps highlighted both the potential and the peril ahead. The job of the PMC fellow — part-web-technologist, part-journalist, part-community-organizer — is not an easy one to insert into the system as it stands.

I don’t want to underestimate the difficulty of truly engaging people in major community issues. Americans can surrender to apathy when they can’t see themselves in public media on the screen or detect their community’s presence in behind-the-scenes decisions. The Public Media Corps is tasked with providing more American communities a media space that is contemporary, mobile, responsive and flexible enough to reach them directly wherever their American stories may unfold.

Kay Shaw named director of Public Media Corps

To manage the proposed Public Media Corps, the National Black Programming Consortium has named its staff member Kay Shaw as director. Shaw is NBPC’s director of strategic partnerships and former director of development, and former director of communications for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Before joining the NAACP fund, she promoted and distributed a number of films by black independent producers, including Camille Billops, Marlon Riggs and Stanley Nelson, and partnered with Joe Brewster in the video distributor Delta Entertainment. NBPC is seeking a major federal broadband stimulus grant to launch the Public Media Corps.

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