In review of pubTV stations, CPB’s Krichels sees ‘energy in the system’

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Ted Krichels, CPB’s senior v.p. for system development and media strategy, recently talked to Current about the 50-page “Public Media Models of the Future” report he co-authored this fall with PBS Director of Strategy Stephen Holmes. Edited, rearranged and condensed excerpts from that conversation follow.

Current: How did you start the process? Did you survey the entire system, or was it more word of mouth?

Ted Krichels


Ted Krichels: Stephen and I initially were collecting stations, ones you would have heard about. We would then correlate the models we were interested in with other material that we could pull, including financial reports, and try to see how it came together.

Then we did different visits and a number of in-depth phone conversations to really try to dig down beneath the surface. In the system somebody will get up on a panel and talk about this incredible initiative they’re doing, and everybody’ll walk away and say, “That’s great, but we could never do it here.” The idea was to try to go deeper than that, to say, what is great? Does it really hold up to scrutiny? And then, what is it about that that we could distill and share in a way that other stations might be able to learn from or even collaborate with in terms of moving forward, so that each station doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

The challenge is in the execution. Take the example of Nashville Public Television, which has just done amazing work in terms of developing significant initiatives in the community that they have been able to garner funding around and also to have an impact. When we talked about, “Where did you get this idea? Did you talk to other stations?”, the response from CEO Beth Curley was, “No, we figured that out on our own in our community.” We heard that in Minneapolis, in San Diego. There’s a lot of pride in that, but it also speaks to an issue of our system, of needing to figure out how we connect and how we share information more constructively and more intentionally.

This report came out of the PBS Sustainable Models Project you were leading, and the report’s subtitle is “Insights to help increase the local impact, relevance, and sustainability of stations across the system.” What were the criteria for being “sustainable”?

One of the initial challenges was, what’s the lens we are going to look through here? We knew we weren’t looking for stations that were running a used-car dealership on the side and making a lot of money. We were looking for initiatives that fit into the overall mission. Steve found a model that came off of a Knight report — an intersection of organizational capacity, social-value creation and economic-value creation. It has to connect there. It has to be sustainable, it has to have a business plan around it, you have to have an organizational capacity.

This was something that I think we learned as we got into this, that in order to take on different initiatives it doesn’t just happen in an organization. There typically has to be some kind of prior history, or commitment to that, some ability within that organization to move this forward.

Then, obviously it’s got to have a social value, we’re public media. So it has to tie in and have that kind of connection to what we do and what our mission is.

How do stations go about building that organizational capacity?

One area we spent some time on, and I would like to spend even more time on, is looking at where stations can work with others in some capacity. There are backroom activities that can be consolidated. One of the big challenges here for the system is, stations have to home in on what is their value in their community. What is their localism and what defines that? I would argue it’s not defined by a backroom business service or by a master control. It’s defined by your connection to your community. The challenge then is, how do you effectively and efficiently handle the infrastructure needs of that and how do you free up as many resources as possible to have that connection in your community?

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are ways that you can work together, that you can share: we have the examples of the Local Journalism Centers, joint master control, backroom business, outsourcing on underwriting. So when a station doesn’t have the ingrown capacity they’ve got to look for ways to do that. And if you can’t do that you’ve got a challenge, frankly.

Walk us through some of the service models you identified.

Addressing community needs is probably one of the broader ones. The idea of being engaged in communities goes back many years. I think the real difference today is that we’re in a different economic environment, frankly.  So the idea of doing good work or being engaged in your community simply as part of your mission doesn’t work right now. It’s got to be on a business basis. We were looking for that engagement and what the model was behind it.

I mentioned earlier the work that Beth Curley has done in Nashville. They are very, very clear that they don’t do their larger projects unless they have a significant portion, if not all of, their funding committed. Right now they have about three to five projects — immigration, early childhood, aging — and they are multiyear, multi-documentary projects.

They didn’t get there overnight. They went from a school licensee to a community licensee and essentially had a vision of what they wanted to be. Initially they didn’t have funding, they had to build the reputation, they had to build the recognition within the community and identify potential donors and funding partners and build up the credibility. But if you look at where they are today and how they have done that, it is a remarkable success story.

The other example which I think ought to be looked at more closely is the Minnesota Channel at TPT. They made a conscious decision about ten years ago: they stopped their nightly news program. It was a great concept, but it was losing money.

They wanted to have a connection to other not-for-profits in the community. They created essentially a channel that had a business strategy around it. Their work with not-for-profits is based on a production contract; it is a business working relationship.

Initially, the programing that was created did not air on their main channel. The new channel had editorial standards — they were not looking to be promotional, but they were slightly different and broader than the standards for their primetime channel. What’s happened over the years is that they have built very strong connections in the community, and projects have risen to the level where they now do often appear on their primary channel. They’ve gotten some significant funding around that. They’ve also got a credibility with those organizations that they never had before. So the business relationship actually became a source of strength for building that relationship.

At ideastream in Cleveland, what Kit Jensen and Jerry Wareham did was to intentionally get together, create a vision. It was not driven by a financial crisis. The vision was: we need to be more essential in the Cleveland community, and we can do that more effectively if we come together and merge.

It’s also an example of the power of radio and television working together. There’s a significant opportunity here for how public radio and public television can work effectively together.

Engaging beyond broadcast — I come into it almost a little defensively, because people think, “Oh, community events, we do those.” But if you haven’t looked at what Wisconsin Public Television actually does, you don’t really understand the potential power of what these events are.

Wisconsin Public TV's LZ Lambeau event in May 2010, which honored Vietnam vets, brought out 70,000 veterans. (Photo: Dru Sefton, Current)

Wisconsin Public TV’s LZ Lambeau event in May 2010, which honored Vietnam vets, brought out 70,000 veterans. A map collected their memories of where they served. (Photo: Dru Sefton, Current)

As broadcasting entities, there may have been a tendency in the past to think that meant that you are in somewhat of an ivory tower and that you look out at a distance at the community. The events that Wisconsin Public Television does are on the other end of that extreme. They have managed to develop these events in a way that have a measurable impact in the community. The Veterans Project is just a phenomenal example of how you can combine web, television, radio and community events to really have an impact on a particular issue.

The idea and, to me, the compelling vision is: if you’re going to be in a community, to think beyond simply what the next technology is, to realize there is nothing more compelling than in-person connections to make something really come to life.

News and public affairs — This is not one that is widely being utilized in public television, but it seems like there is a public/private model that has significant potential to fill the void that has been left by the demise of community newspapers. For San Diego GM Tom Karlo, the news is his anchor store, as he calls it. It is what drives his brand identity. He obviously carries the full PBS schedule, but in his mind what has driven the increase in major giving has been his ability to fill a niche that is very significant in that market.

Production collaborations — This is primarily inspired by the work WNET has done with the arts initiative. There is now talk of similar models for science, for outdoors programming. What is compelling about this concept is that it builds on the production capacity of the stations and their connectivity within their communities.

Education — One of the challenges here is that we’re a system that defines itself as an educational service, and yet the business model for formal educational services is really found in a smaller group of stations, primarily school licensees or state licensees. So we were looking at those and also looking at how that might be extended and where that might be viable for community licensees.

With the re-engineered and re-energized PBS Learning Media, there is now a reservoir of content that is available to stations across the country in a way that there never was before. And we heard stations talk about that. Kentucky is just a phenomenal example of a state licensee that has a strong commitment to education — that is probably the single factor that ensures their state funding on a regular basis — but that has also managed to go out in the community and nationally and generate funding for major initiatives around early childhood and especially around the GED. So a really interesting story about being part of a state system but also looking beyond that.

The other place that we found a lot of entrepreneurial thinking is Las Vegas. GM Tom Axtell is licensed to the school board, and they are very intentional about meeting the needs of that school district, but they have also built initiatives beyond that, including workforce training. And that had its own business plan, it had a fee for service, it was intended to be a sustaining enterprise.

Did you find models that were tried and were not working?

I don’t think we approached it that way.

But I would say that we have a really strong national service that is absolutely key to the health of public stations across the country. In some ways we took that as a given, but it’s not something to overlook; that gives you the base to operate off of. But stations have to take that and go further. If you’re simply relying on national, that will work to a degree. But the ability to leverage that and to take that further, if you look to the health of the stations in the community, that’s absolutely key.

What were the surprising revelations in your research?

The intent was to find what was working in our system. Sometimes when we gather the natural tendency is to talk about the challenges that we face, which are real challenges. But to actually focus for six to seven months on what’s happening in our system, what are stations doing, what are the service models that we’re seeing that look as if they are sustainable now and can be sustainable in the future, and also are ones that we can learn from and leverage working together — it was really eye-opening to see what stations are doing.

There is energy in the system. This is not a dying system; this is a system where a lot of people are working hard and working creatively, and I think it gives hope for the future.

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