First year of Indiana TV show on education brings bigger budget, wider reach

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WNIT’s Monica Murphy interviews Jan Cervelli, president of Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind., for "EducationCounts_Michiana."

A weekly TV show produced by an Indiana station is zeroing in on innovation in education with help from a broad array of community members.

WNIT in South Bend launched EducationCounts_Michiana in November. Each episode of the half-hour show features reports about innovative educational programs in the station’s viewing area and how educators are tackling challenges in their field. The show also includes interviews with visiting speakers and other guests.

WNIT already produces five local weekly shows. But GM Greg Giczi said he had long wanted to add programming about education to the station’s lineup. That became a higher priority after Giczi spoke with the head of a local education nonprofit who said local media was lacking reporting on education issues.

“I believe all stations are educational institutions,” said Giczi. “I believe strongly that public stations need to be advocates of education, and even more strongly, stand for education.”

WNIT executives and EducationCounts producers meet monthly with a steering committee of 14 education and business leaders who help generate ideas for the show. They also meet every six months with an advisory group of about 50 representatives from local education and government to discuss broader plans for the show and its content.

In August 2016, WNIT invited local educators and business leaders to its studios to gauge community interest in the show. The event attracted about 50 attendees, more than WNIT’s community room could hold.

WNIT launched the show on what Giczi calls an “accordion budget.” The show debuted with a talking-head format and a budget of about $50,000. As WNIT raised more funding, EducationCounts incorporated more preproduced segments. It now has a budget of $150,000, exceeding the station’s expectations for its first year by $25,000.

The station hired two reporters to provide the show’s coverage. Monica Murphy has a background in print and freelance journalism, and Karishma Desai is fresh out of graduate school. Each reports two segments a week for EducationCounts_Michiana.

Topics covered by Desai and Murphy include the increase in students taking summer classes at college to graduate earlier and a struggling local elementary school that started a music-education program after researching ways to help students focus.

“We always strive to highlight educational challenges — the ‘why’ — and how those challenges were addressed with a specific program or approach,” said Corinne Straight-Reed, a producer for EducationCounts. Though the show focuses on positive innovations, it doesn’t overlook the challenges institutions face, Straight-Reed said.

“When our organization does parent training this fall, I am going to refer them to the EducationCounts website so that they can get a sense of what they can do with their children’s education,” said Kathy Guajardo, executive director of the Head Start consortium in Elkhart and St. Joseph Counties.

The show’s web content draws more than 5,000 pageviews per month, more than double the traffic for any other local program.

According to WNIT, representatives from eight schools have said that EducationCounts has inspired them to adopt best practices. One episode showcased how schools in Indiana’s Plymouth County incorporated laptops and tablets into early childhood education. Another showcased the success of an elementary-level robotics program.

Going forward, Giczi hopes to find funding to pay a writer who could create versions of EducationCounts segments for local newspapers. He also wants to host events where WNIT will engage with viewers and help spark a cross-pollination of ideas within the education community.

“The goal is to raise the quality of education in our region,” Giczi said. “The more we can do, all boats rise.”

This article is the latest in our series Local That Works, an initiative highlighting innovative and replicable content, engagement and revenue strategies of local public media stations.