Laura Walker: Public media can be ‘a haven from divisive rhetoric’

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Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act into law, the American media landscape has transformed in ways that visionaries, pioneers and advocates for nationally funded “public telecommunications services” scarcely imagined. Yet their ideals for a system that takes “creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences” endure. In a special series reflecting on this milestone anniversary, essayists with insight into today’s public broadcasting system share ideas for carrying the legacy into the future.

Fifty years ago, at the dawn of the Public Broadcasting Act, E.B. White penned a beautiful letter that envisioned the vast potential of public media. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author said that public broadcasting should

arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills. It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky’s, and our Camelot. It should restate and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle.

That vision encapsulating the mission of public media not only remains relevant half a century later, it has never been more pertinent.

Today, Americans are increasingly sorting themselves into like-minded communities. They are influenced by media outlets that are attuned to their own ideological views. Rather than challenge entrenched mindsets, they reinforce them. As a result, citizens with different points of view have become increasingly estranged.

Yet how can we understand what motivates someone to support a candidate or position we oppose if we never talk to them? Our democracy depends on that understanding. Only through dialogue can we hope to find common ground. At New York Public Radio, our mission is to serve our entire community. And our audience is as diverse as the city we call home. We have a place at the table for everyone.

This is truly an inflection point for local journalism in America. Amid a torrent of “fake news,” local newsrooms are shrinking, along with their budgets. In the last decade, an astonishing 40 percent of journalist positions have been eliminated, mostly from thousands of local newspapers that have consolidated or shuttered.

When news budgets are slashed, two crucial elements of a healthy democracy begin to crumble: local reporting that holds those in power accountable and a civil public discourse that engages communities and addresses the impact of current events.

But public broadcasting is stepping in to fill that local news void. The nearly 1,500 public radio and television stations across the country reach 99 percent of U.S. households. In fact, for many Americans public radio is their only source of local news.

Over the past year, public radio’s audience has increased dramatically.

Why? Because it serves as a public square: We convene, tell stories, share information, debate — even argue. Rather than cater to one point of view, we try to keep minds open and conversations going.

In the words of E.B. White, we clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle.

Listeners across the country respect this. In a 2017 Harris Poll EquiTrend study, NPR and the public radio member network were cited as the most trusted and loved brand for news. The future of public broadcasting depends on keeping that trust and convening listeners, communities and partners within that public square.

What does that mean, exactly? It means building a collaborative news model that can be replicated across the country, one that brings together newspapers, television, public radio, nonprofits, investigative news and digital sites within a local network that shares resources, data and skills.

Tectonic shifts in the journalism landscape underscore the urgent need for such change. Change that pushes us beyond our terrestrial radio mindsets to reach people where they are — on their digital devices. As a pioneer in on-demand content, public radio is well placed to lead this effort.

Like many of our public media partners, New York Public Radio is working to develop a local network, convening nonprofits that can form the foundation of a new journalism ecosystem. We collaborate with communities and organizations with limited resources to scale ideas and build capacity from the ground up. Included among our partners are the Center for Investigative Reporting, Harper’s, New York Daily News, the Guardian, The Nation, the New York Times, the New Yorker and ProPublica.

Across the country, public media groups are spearheading this change and drive toward collaboration. At the beginning of President Trump’s first 100 days, New York Public Radio joined American Public Media and over 170 local public radio stations to launch Indivisible Radio. The idea was to use those 100 days to get people talking and bridge the ever-widening divide laid painfully bare during a particularly rancorous campaign season. For 10 weeks, Americans of all stripes and political leanings had a chance to talk and listen to each other.

American public radio producers are already the largest source of podcasts nationwide. Our popular roster of shows — including Freakonomics, Fresh Air and On The Media — are not only downloaded from coast to coast but as far afield as Australia!

How can we use the popularity of our podcasts and digital content to grow the reach and impact of our reporting? By adding ingenuity to our digital presence, forging editorial partnerships and driving a strategy that pulls audiences down the funnel from digital to public radio platforms.

Walker

This is a transformative moment not just for local journalism, but for our entire country. Never have so many people retreated into their ideological bubbles. Yet never has it been more critical to listen to one another.

Public media is especially crucial now, both to seek objective truth and to envision a sustainable model for the future of local journalism. It has the potential to be a haven from divisive rhetoric. By using all the tools at our disposal, we can be the public square for America, one that — as E.B. White envisioned half a century ago — arouses our dreams, satisfies our hunger for beauty and takes us on journeys.

Laura Walker is CEO of New York Public Radio, the largest public radio station group in the U.S., reaching an audience of 26 million monthly.

This essay is adapted from Laura Walker’s remarks during an exploratory meeting on the future of public media, convened in June by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Bill Baker, president emeritus of WNET in New York City and director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at Fordham University, organized the meeting. He is overseeing Fordham’s publication of a booklet of essays by meeting participants, which Current is republishing with permission.