To follow paths charted by Localore, consider these ‘new realities’

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This commentary is the second of two adapted from the Association of Independents in Radio’s recent report on Localore, the 2012-13 public media innovation initiative that tested new models for multimedia production and community engagement.

It almost wasn’t Localore. Back in the summer of 2011, when AIR was designing its initiative pairing independent producers with local stations, “Purple Mountain” was one of the names proposed by a branding company; it captured the idealism, civic intention and long view of what the core production team was focused on as we laid out Localore’s interconnected parts.

But the words “local” and “lore” spoke to both the problem we were addressing and solution we were proposing — taking local stations outside of their comfort zones by creating new integrated storytelling models to carry public media to new corners of their community.

The sprawling network of 10 skunkworks and 200 collaborators that eventually emerged was part multimedia production, part community-development blueprint, part new talent cultivation engine. From this new ecosystem, which now stretches from big cities to small towns of America, we see hopeful signs that the seeds we’ve planted to inspire change have begun to take root.

We’ll soon announce new support for Localore producers who seek to spread the models they’ve created, and we’re planning for another round of producer-led innovation that will be tweaked into a different shape from the lessons we shared in What’s Outside? Public Media 2014.

That report, published this year and excerpted in Current and on, distills insights for stations, for producers and for a public media system challenged with adapting to one of the most profoundly disruptive periods in its five-decade history. Jessica Clark, who led a team of station-based impact liaisons throughout the production, developed this analysis with the intention of helping stations and producers position themselves for what we see as a long game of developing innovative local service models for public media.

If you spend time with each of the local productions, you may find it difficult to comprehend how they and their approaches to storytelling fit together. Our unifying intention is to help instigate station change and spread public service media to new places. Our efforts have also given producers new and meaningful roles that, together with local public media hubs, will help move us towards realizing a public media that serves all Americans.

This complex and ambitious production revealed a set of difficult new realities for system leaders aiming to take public media into the 21st century. Along with “A report from ‘outside’: takeaways from AIR’s Localore,” we elaborate on five key challenges the national production team observed and lessons that might help others seeking to follow in Localore’s footsteps.

1. Many stations aren’t able to support ambitious experiments and must shift both their mindsets and resources to succeed.

In general, AIR found that stations would do well to beef up their digital technology staff, even modestly, to deal with the ongoing disruption of shifts in the media marketplace. Technology is innately volatile; glitches and new versions are the norm in social media and digital development. Staff and contractors should have core competencies not in a single platform or programming language but in anticipating and responding to continual changes in tools and platforms.

One key lesson is to keep experiments simple. The sophisticated transmedia platforms created with AIR’s technology partner Zeega were quite beautiful and inspiring but in most instances not practical for stations charged with sustaining them. Core takeaways along these lines include:

  • Dream big, but then build small. Find targeted ways to test and refine both technologies and new forms of reporting or storytelling before committing to a large-scale plan.
  • Establish points of connection between your station’s existing workflow and new production processes. You don’t want to create standalone projects that will be isolated and age in place.
  • Don’t spread projects too thin across multiple platforms. Figure out where users are and learn those tools inside out.

Even with this iterative approach and a strong tech team in place, sustainability is the nut to crack. From the start, producers, stations and technologists must be thinking together about how to maintain full-spectrum projects beyond the first burst of creative inspiration. Not only does technology change, but as a project evolves, so do the producer’s responsibilities and the users’ expectations.

Stations should support producers in their fundraising from the get-go, and producers will succeed best when they work closely with stations to make sure that what they’re inventing can be woven back into daily production and technology routines. Expect even the most successful projects to generate unforeseen costs and challenges.

2. Building a creative culture that’s eager to reach beyond station walls requires a sustained commitment.

Creating and maintaining new forms of communication is not a plug-and-play proposition. Localore producers who proposed new ideas sometimes found themselves stymied by existing structures and priorities.

Bigger isn’t always better — producers based at the larger stations found the biggest challenge was integrating their projects. Competing fundraising priorities and difficulty adapting quickly were primary obstacles.

Some naysayers within stations saw Localore projects through the lens of previous or ongoing innovation efforts and more easily discounted the attempts at trying something new. In contrast, producers placed at smaller stations — most notably KVNF in Paonia, Colo., and WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio — established closer ties to station leaders; they were able to connect more deeply with station culture and have greater impact.

Stations considering this kind of work might begin by creating internal “go-teams” to pitch and consider inventive ideas, as Twin Cities Public Television did with their Rewire unit, which was inspired by their Localore project, Ed Zed Omega. WYSO turned to their existing Community Voices program, which provided a clear context and a healthy cadre of volunteers to collaborate with producers of Localore’s Reinvention Stories.

Multimedia production calls for different working styles and expectations that can be at odds with a station’s dominant production culture. Communication is key, and so is making sure the right people are at the table. This often means overcoming some institutional barriers within a local station. We were surprised to see how little the editorial and digital staffs at some stations interact and collaborate.

Successful project teams take time to lay out expectations, define their terms and regularly check in on process. Strong communication and finding time for “relaxed integration” (e.g., occasional drinks after work) can help ease the way and foster a shared sense of purpose. It’s also critical that station managers and program directors show up for these meetings and after-hours events. Take time to experience the new things staff are bringing into the halls, on the screens and in the streets of the community.

For producers seeking to find a foothold inside stations, it’s important to keep a “door wide open” policy. Curious City producer Jennifer Brandel took pains to let other station staff and freelancers at Chicago’s WBEZ know that they were welcome to participate. She also recommended keeping an eye out for potential internal contributors, ambassadors and champions.

Rather than thinking in terms of scarcity, stations should recognize and reward the abundant creativity latent in their own shops — and just adjacent. AIR’s national production team and teams at local stations had to learn how to effectively allow audience members to help define the projects through the questions, stories and visual content they submitted. “Going outside” also means letting community members in.

Practice generates possibility. Committing to trying new storytelling approaches provides a valuable opportunity for stations to consider the benefits of taking on additional experiments. Even when producers or stations tried something and failed, they described it as a useful process.

3. More work is needed to figure out models for combining face-to-face and digital engagement with broadcast.

Despite prevailing assumptions about the power of digital platforms to spur engagement — using a smartphone app, for example, to attract citizens — many Localore producers discovered that physical connections held surprising power. The teams developed a number of successful approaches that generated enthusiastic participation — hosting live storytelling events, recruiting participants at local festivals, building eye-catching story-gathering booths and partnering with local museums and community spaces to create installations. We also found that investment in a new digital tool, app or platform is effective only to the degree to which a station has successfully cultivated a digital audience.

Comparatively speaking, across the production we found that engaging audiences on digital platforms cost significantly more (38 cents/impression) than on broadcast (1/2 cent/impression). “Street” — i.e., face-to-face — engagement was more expensive still, at $10.20/impression.

These numbers reflect both the breadth of national broadcast exposure for selected local stories and the lack of physical infrastructure beyond the station. The quality of interactions at Localore “street” events tended to be much higher, perhaps suggesting that offline outreach might serve as a gateway for new audiences, who can then be led to participate digitally and listen on air. The prospect of driving citizens from street engagement to broadcast or digital engagement is a new frontier ripe for exploration.

4. Stations adept at collaboration have the best shot at success.

The Localore productions demonstrated that public media stations can partner surprisingly well with other local institutions when they present themselves as community hubs with a core mission of strengthening the local community. But doing so can be a stretch for station managers who have many pressing priorities.

Museums, libraries and schools emerged over the course of the Localore initiative as trusted peer institutions that also seek to engage participants in new and sometimes playful ways. Producers and stations should build on an alignment of intention, values, user expectation and trust with such partners if they are to connect with their constituents. Learning to effectively utilize these networks can take stations to corners of the community they’ve never seen and expose them to audiences who’ve never heard of them.

It’s also important for stations to make an effort to foster nontraditional partnerships and bring outside voices into the community conversation. iSeeChange forged an impressive bond with the science community, bringing big science at NASA down to earth and tying citizen scientists back up to a national network. Partnering with venues or community members not normally associated with public broadcasting can generate memorable sparks and potentially enduring relationships.

5. The next wave of talented public media leaders look and act different.

On average, AIR’s lead producers skewed more diverse and more female than the typical news or technology innovator. In turn, they recruited field producers — both from inside the stations and from local communities — who looked and communicated more like the new audience members they were working to reach.

These demographic differences were accompanied by differences in work style — Localore producers tended to be more lateral in forming collaborations within and outside their stations, and more willing to let go of new technologies based on ongoing interaction with community members.

This shift from a top-down management culture to bottom-up development of new productions is refreshing and at times startling for station leaders and their staffs. A common refrain among the Localore teams was, “We had to make things up as we went along.” This is the nature of invention, especially in collaborative productions. Localore producers also observed that innovation came when they encountered a willingness to “get out of the way of the story” and “go as far as you can see, and when you get there, you’ll see further.”

Overall, however, stations say that they found differences in both storytelling process and subjects to be inspiring. Whether connecting with indigenous Zapotecs in Los Angeles, debating with teens contemplating dropping out of school, tracking down farmers in their fields or filming oil workers hanging off of rigs, the Localore producer-station teams uniformly reported a surge of excitement from staff and community members.

Bringing fresh faces and voices into the management and reporting mix not only reinforces public media’s mission to serve all Americans, it also enlivens coverage, creates opportunities for unprecedented dialogue and suggests new pathways for recruitment and promotion.

Changing people’s minds about public media is a long-term process: Both producers and station leaders noted that while their Localore projects took an important step in reaching beyond core audiences, more work and additional projects are needed to reach communities that don’t perceive themselves as represented by public broadcasting. Continually recognizing and elevating diverse talent is essential in bridging audience gaps.

Jessica Clark served as media strategist for Localore, and AIR Executive Director Sue Schardt was executive producer of the 2012-13 initiative. Lessons that Clark shared in this commentary are drawn from an extensive analysis of AIR’s station and producer collaborators over the last year. Localore Executive Editor Noland Walker also contributed to this report.

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