The Association of Independents in Radio is preparing to roll out its next iterations of Localore, the 2012-13 innovation initiative that paired indie producers with local stations to test and launch models of multimedia production and community engagement. Producers who want to expand their Localore projects to other stations and partners are applying for grants from AIR’s new foundation-backed enterprise fund, and grantees will be announced this fall. AIR Executive Director Sue Schardt is also securing grants to launch Localore 2.0, a $3.3 million initiative proposed to expand the pool of talent and stations working together to research and develop models of local public media. Schardt recently talked with Current about the paths she’s charting for Localore and where they intersect with the craft and mission of public media.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Current: You recently described the culture of research and development — or, more specifically, the lack of it — as one of the greatest challenges that public media faces. Why is that such a problem? It can’t have always been this way.
Schardt: There’s such a need and a demand for us, as an industry, to be reinventing who we are, what we are. And creating a culture of R&D is incredibly important right now.
Progressive changes have been going on within the industry for some time, mostly at the network level: Public Radio International and NPR don’t operate in the same way as they did five or 10 years ago. We’ve seen a lot of movement in leadership and in the workforces of stations and the networks. On the public TV side, spectrum issues are threatening the ubiquity of service. And if you step back and take a big view at public radio, the audience is flat.
So in this context, what had been our strength is part of our weakness. Essentially, we consolidated public radio programs around a core audience, brought discipline and focus to our formats, and grew into this important news journalism franchise. But we’ve got to have R&D to grow beyond that. We can’t leave behind what we have become; we have to grow new wings and foster a new vision for the future of this industry. The only way to do that is through researching, experimenting and developing new formats and new programs.
When I talk about the importance of creating a culture of R&D, I point to the roles of talent and collaboration. And at the heart of it, there has to be a new understanding of what it means to be in the business of public service media today. And I think this applies across the field. Everyone working in public media is implicated around this idea, around R&D.
Current: One element of public service that has been noticeably lacking — not that people haven’t been trying to address it in various ways — is the mission to serve all Americans, not just the core audiences of stations and those who support them financially. Of the Localore projects that you’ve led so far, have you found tactics or practices that could help address that, if they were implemented on a wider scale?
Schardt: If I had to sort of zero in on what we’ve learned from the stations — and what it takes — some of it is just simple dollars and cents. Some of the textbooks say that a business in the midst of change should be devoting 10 percent of its resources to R&D. That’s what I’ve been proposing — and we’ve definitely seen that investment at some of our stations.
But it’s a barrier in many places. You have general managers who are fully committed to other priorities that involve capital campaigns or other very important pressing priorities for fundraising. But what I’m proposing is for stations to think about 10 percent as a goal. Maybe you get there in three years or five years. But the point is that you begin investing in research and development, and you have a budget it for it, and that you are very intentional about it.
The other thing that we’ve learned about this environment is that collaborative talent has real cachet and a real value. We’re in an environment of change, and collaboration in this environment is about shared risk. I think of talent as the first over the trench, and they bring great value because of that.
From the conception of Localore, we’ve acknowledged that talent has more appetite for risk. They can move quickly; they can adapt to the new tools.
Recently we worked with Public Radio News Directors to set a new framework for local stations to work with our talent in new ways. It includes a contract and a new rate structure. It’s the very beginning — a baby step in what I think could be a much richer environment for direct collaborations between stations and our independent producers. But again, it has to be resourced.
The resources aren’t there to really fund significant work. But we saw through our work with news directors that there’s recognition of the value that independents could bring to strengthening the local value proposition of public stations. We found that the average station has about $12,500 to work with for outside acquisition.
We are working on a number of levels, through Localore and our other programs, to strengthen the culture that we’re trying to propagate here.
Current: So it goes beyond bringing independent producers with specialized projects into stations that want to test new content strategies. You’re talking about bringing indies into newsrooms to contribute in potentially new ways, or in ways that may complement the existing news team?
Schardt: It’s about bringing the outside in, and also freeing up people from within. In this environment, being an independent is as much a state of mind as anything.
Upwards of 20 percent of the producers in AIR’s network are based at stations. We’re seeing a lot of movement there and opportunities for stations to work in different ways with the talent they have already in their shops.
We took some significant steps with Localore, but we also know our work isn’t finished. We brought forward a new class of socially conscious producer entrepreneurs, and we’ve inspired others in the system — both stations and producers — with new models for how to work in new corners of their communities. We’ve attracted and given encouragement to those who are going outside, our mantra to go outside to the far corners.
We also exposed some of the limitations that are inherent in digital-only content strategies with Localore. That brought a clearer focus to what differentiates our work as public service story makers from others working in media.
These are the things that I think we’re prepared to build on going forward.
Current: How would you characterize the qualities that differentiate public media makers and their content?
Schardt: It’s about mission and the idea of public service media as the stepping stone from our past to the present and into the future. I talked about this at the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference this summer.
The mission of public service media is evolving. It’s not stagnant; it’s living and breathing. Once we recognize that we’re in this environment that calls for a new strategy, we need to decide: What is the problem that we’re solving? What needs are we going to address?
In preparing for my PMDMC speech, I went back to President Johnson’s remarks at the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act. One thing that struck me about his speech was the similarity between those times and these times, relative to technology. We tend to think that we’re in the midst of the most brilliant and amazing time. But it’s relative.
LBJ signed the Public Broadcasting Act about two years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I remember when that happened. We heard Armstrong speaking from the surface of the moon after he made his first step. The sound and images were beamed back to earth in real time and broadcast. It was revolutionary.
In his speech on public broadcasting, LBJ spelled it out very clearly: “Our problem is not invention or making miracles, but managing miracles.” And he asks explicitly: “How will we use our inventions?” That was an important question at the beginning of public broadcasting.
That same questions is front and center for us now. To what purpose will we put all of our inventions, all of our ingenuity?
Another part his speech has direct relevance — I see it as defining for us today. His vision was that public broadcasting would be free and independent. He said it would “belong to all of our people.” This is what we have to look at now, when we have fantastic idealism as about the miracles of our invention. And we have to recognize that beyond this technology there’s need for an enlightened and evolved people.
If we fast forward to where we are today, we see a tremendous need and a new vision defined by inclusion. This is at the heart of our new understanding of what it is to have a public service media mission. It’s about inclusion.
We built the core audience for public radio. It’s predominantly white, affluent, highly educated and powerful. It took us 50 years to cultivate this core audience.
We did it in a very smart way. We cultivated this cohort of the people who called in during fund drives. They are our core investors. They value us more than anybody else in dollars and cents.
Does that let us off the hook for the founding vision of inclusion? No. It gives us perspective on where we need to go next. Inclusion is our new frontier; this is where the need is. I’m going back to the idea that every good business strategy addresses a need.
This need is very human. Citizens everywhere — rich and poor, from all walks of life — have a need to understand they’re not alone. All people need to understand that they have options, that life has promise. These are really simple, basic human needs.
For those of us in public service media, it’s the art and craft of story making that enables us to translate stories of being alive in a world of ups and downs, in a world that has opportunity and promise for every one of us.
That’s what I believe LBJ was talking about when he talked about enlightenment of all the people. The need is still there. It’s there more than ever. And we still have to find ways to go to achieve this.
This is at the heart of our new business strategy, of our mission as public service media makers. It starts in our hearts and guides our imaginations, and then our inventions, our plans and our intellects. It follows this human understanding that begins in our hearts.
I came to realize some of this through our work with Localore, by homing in on what it is we’re here to do, what our mission is.
AIR is doing our part of this work through Localore. We’re working to line up funding to launch another round of Localore in 2015. At the heart of what we’re doing with Localore, and with all of our programs, is our role to successfully create a throughline from our independent, creative, passionate, determined and public service–minded talent to the benefit of the public media system and, by extension, to the American public.
Current: There are two different threads to this: An enterprise fund that’s offering grants of as much as $100,000 to producers from the first iteration of Localore; then an expansion that will fund new producers for what you’re calling “Localore 2.0,” which you’re planning for next year. Let’s start with the enterprise fund. Are all of the Localore producers competing for grants to carry their work forward?
Schardt: We’re calling it the New Enterprise Fund for Story Makers. It was created with the support of the Wyncote Foundation, and I hope to be able to grow this fund.
For this first round, we’re focusing the grants on our 12 Localore lead producers. This is our way to help support and make good on the original vision of Localore, which was twofold: To build a new asset and R&D capacity at our partner stations; and to create models that our independent producers would export to other stations.
Without this fund, we wouldn’t be able to follow through and make good on supporting the producers who have exportable models and the appetite to take this next big step. It’s a big commitment for each of them.
None of our Localore producers had done this sort of work before. Each one of them responded to a new calling in their careers when they signed on for this. It’s not a small decision for them to start a new enterprise and spread their model to the rest of the system.
The goal of this fund is to support independent producers who are looking to expand public service media and public broadcasting to all Americans.
We have exciting proposals in the works, and I expect we’ll have announcements sometime in the fall.
Current: How many of the 12 Localore producers are participating? And how many are continuing their work with the original partner stations?
Schardt: There were 12 lead producers in Localore. The fund is open to them; it is for the producers, not for the stations. We hope that the anchor stations will help us export the models through this new funding, but the RFP went to the 12 Localore producers.
There were a total of 10 Localore models created with anchor stations, and eight of them are actively evolving with their anchor stations in some form or another.
Current: Was sustainability not built into the first phase of Localore? I know it was very ambitious the first time out of the gate, and you created new production design models in many different communities. Was sustainability something that you just couldn’t get to in the midst of that, or am I misunderstanding the expectation?
Schardt: For the first round of Localore, each collaboration agreement was between AIR, each lead producer and the anchor station. AIR hired the producer, sent them to the station, and together we built a new sustainable asset for the station. The sustainability of what we built is on the station.
Each station has the responsibility to grow the asset, and to change it if they need to. For example, Ed Zed Omega, the model designed at Twin Cities Public Television, was a three-month experiment. It did not continue as it was conceived, but grew into Rewire, the fantastic unit that Andi McDaniel now heads up. They have sustained and devoted resources to the experimentation that was seeded by Localore.
Current: Is Ken Eklund, the lead producer on that project, still involved?
Schardt: Ken doesn’t have a role with the new production. It was never our intention to necessarily have our producers involved at stations on an extended basis. The deal was: We go in, build it and pull out after a year.
Certainly stations had the option to negotiate with the producer and get them to stay on. In some cases, the producer was hired into a staff or long-term contract position. This happened with Jennifer Brandel of Curious City and WBEZ, and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, who created Sonic Trace at KCRW. But that’s just the way those projects evolved.
Current: So in the case of Ed Zed Omega, Ken Eklund can apply for the enterprise fund, but not Twin Cities PTV?
Schardt: Yes, it’s limited to the 12 producers that AIR hired to create the Localore production.
Our intention is for the producers to continue to grow the local enterprise they designed and executed. Part of what we’re looking for are matching funds from within each community brought by the anchor station; that will allow the stations and producers to continue to strengthen the roots laid down at the anchor station while at the same time lifting the model up and out.
We are challenging the producers to design a business strategy for taking what’s most successful in one location and exporting it to other places. What would it take to make that possible? A knowledge-sharing network? A technology prototype? Or a best practices manual?
We’re doing this because there has been a real demand and a real appetite for some of the productions. Julia Kumari-Drapkin, the producer who created iSeeChange, is involved in the White House’s Beacon partnership. This is part of the Climate Data Initiative announced by the White House in July.
There’s recognition that she created a powerful model to match data about climate change to storytelling about people are living in of all types of communities across the United States.
Jennifer Brandel’s conception of Curious City is popping up as curiosity desks and curiosity units at stations across the country. She has many stations interested in what she’s doing, based on just the power of what she created in Chicago.
Andi McDaniel of TPT’s Rewire unit has been invited to talk to other stations that want to understand how to create an innovation unit that brings the outside into the studios. This summer they had their first foray with something called TV Takeover, where they turned the airwaves over to local community groups.
Anayansi Diaz-Cortes of Sonic Trace and Todd Melby of Black Gold Boom are now funded through our partnership with ITVS to produce independent documentary films out of their projects. They’re both radio producers who had never picked up a camera.
One of the big demonstrations from Localore is learning how audiocentric independent producers adapt. They are not abandoning their craft; they’re growing their chops of being able to negotiate, collaborate, work with a variety of approaches to media, multiplatform and visual. They’ve had the chance to expand their toolkit immensely through their Localore experience.
Current: Localore 2.0 is proposed as a $3.3 million initiative, and you have a grant request pending with CPB. What potential do you see for broader participation from public TV stations this time?
Schardt: I see fantastic potential. These stations are on a different trajectory. They have some of the same impediments as those of us in radio who are trying to foster a new culture and are constrained by a legacy business model. In some cases they’re bigger, and it’s more difficult for them to move as quickly. But I’m seeing really very hopeful signs of change.
Sally Jo Fifer at ITVS totally gets what we’re doing with Localore; her focus on inclusion as a content strategy is without question. The folks at KCPT in Kansas City and at Boston’s WGBH have made huge organizational shifts over the last several years. And I see some of the things we’ve talked about in radio — the importance of independent talent and the opportunity to exploit the local franchise — are starting to resonate in public TV.
Current: For the next round of Localore you’re proposing to double the number of producers who work with stations. Is it to be officially called “Localore 2.0”?
Schardt: That’s our working name. The number of producers is contingent on getting all the funding in place by 2015. We had 10 production units last time, and we hope to increase that number.
The matching of outside producers who go inside stations will go a little deeper this time. We’ll be looking not just for a station but a person inside the station who would be a co–lead collaborator. So it would be much more a one-to-one match of talent.
We will look again to create a network of pop-up skunkworks in large and small communities across the country. Based on what we learned, we want these to be faster and lighter productions.
Current: Elaborate on what you mean by “faster and lighter”: In what ways?
Schardt: “Faster” meaning probably a six-month, rather than 12-month, R&D phase. “Lighter” really implicates the digital piece.
We invested an enormous amount of time and resources in building what were exquisitely beautiful and inspiring digital platforms. We don’t need to do that again. There are many existing tools that we haven’t yet figured out how to use. For Localore 2.0, we’ll use existing tools that ideally are relevant to the community that is at the center of each experiment.
So, again, this gets back to the need for R&D. The assignment for producers will be to research and then develop: Go outside the local station, look around and find the place you want to go, get close to the ground. What are people’s habits there? What are their needs? What needs are you going to address out there? And then design your strategy, design your projects.
So the next iteration will call on producers to go outside, but the project development will be focused by what we learn.
I’m hoping that we’ll be able to design the next round of Localore so that it’s open for broad participation. We’ll have our units in place at stations, but we would be able to galvanize and activate a broader participation by producers and stations who want to contribute in some way. And that’s part of what we’re working on in principle, and designing around that desire and that intention.
If what we’re trying to do is reach all of America, we want to see movement in this work.
We had a very substantial, higher than expected impact in the last round of Localore: 28.2 million gross impressions — the majority of that on the broadcast platform. We’ll be looking for movement on our digital platforms and also significantly in the street-level engagement, which is one of the three platforms that we were developing and designing our work around.
Getting back to your question about seeing movement on the television side, my hope is that the dial has moved. Stations around the country are building on the idea of innovation units — I don’t know that they necessarily use that term.
We’re looking to spark some of what’s already in place and sort of catch the wave as it’s in motion to instigate and drive rapid movement through the talent and the resources we’re able to bring through Localore.
Current: Is there a different set of considerations for stations who may be thinking about participating in Localore 2.0? During the first phase, you said stations had to “have skin in the game,” meaning that they had to commit to financial and back-end support to the production.
Schardt: This part of the Localore 1.0 worked very successfully. We asked our station anchors to put some money on the table for a show of good faith, that they were really in it. This part implicates what good a strong culture of R&D can do, what a strong collaboration means, what shared risk means. It’s being able to draw out very explicitly the value that each partner brings to the table, and what each would promise to deliver.
Current: Your final report, What’s Outside? Public Media 2014, did mention, though, that many stations really aren’t able to support ambitious experiments technologically.
Schardt: I think it’s all relative. Without getting too geeky about it, we designed this around the recognition that stations are subsidized by the public media system. Some of them struggle mightily with financial challenges, but the bottom line is they receive subsidies. Producers do not.
I guess it’s a little bit of a pushback on the mindset of this subsidized economy, where you get things for nothing. I’m not saying it’s not bad or wrong, but stations are accustomed to getting a lot of programming for nothing. The Knight Lab at Northwestern University and the Civic Media lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provide resources for exploring and developing substantial, light, replicable tools. I see AIR acting more as mediator between these sorts of resources and our producers, and our incubator stations.
This is simply a way to shift the psychology, to say, “What you’re getting is of value and you pay for it.” This was not an issue at all when we presented it during the first round of Localore. I don’t anticipate it would be a problem now.
If anything, we’ve come further along, and stations have seen the value of the work that we’ve done and the models we created. They are eager to be one of the collaborators, one of the beneficiaries of Localore.
One challenge we are trying to address in Localore is the need to help stations get outside of their dominant mindset.
I’ve talked about this a lot because we’ve heard about it from stations. I didn’t make it up. Stations struggle getting outside of their day-to-day operations. Their resources, their staff — everything is focused on cranking out the day-to-day product.
How do you build, from inside a culture, the culture of thinking outside of the box? It’s very challenging to do that as an organization. Success hinges, in part, on the degree to which stations are able to free up people from within their organizations and give them a free hand and the resources and authority to truly invent, to truly break out of the dominant mold.