KCUR will lead $1.9M CPB-backed ‘collaboration of collaborations’ on election coverage

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MINNEAPOLIS — CPB announced Wednesday that KCUR in Kansas City, Mo., will lead a collaboration among public radio stations to cover the 2020 election. 

The project, titled “Election 2020: Listening to America,” will launch community engagement activities across the country that will inform local reporting on various platforms, said Kathy Merritt, CPB’s SVP of radio and journalism, at the Public Radio Program Directors Association conference.  

“This initiative capitalizes on public media’s strengths” and will provide audiences with “the information they need to better understand each other and be better prepared to vote,” Merritt said.

Donna Vestal, KCUR’s director of content, discusses “Election 2020” at the Public Radio Program Directors Association conference Wednesday. (Photo: Tyler Falk/Current)

Donna Vestal, KCUR’s director of content strategy and leader of “Election 2020,” told Current that the project will be a “collaboration of collaborations,” with KCUR working with public radio collaborations such as statewide and regional partnerships among stations, some backed by CPB.

The 18-month, $1.9 million grant will support KCUR’s hiring of seven full-time staffers. The team will work with the collaborations and provide funding for community engagement initiatives that could include surveys, community listening sessions and other efforts. Resulting content will “bubble up” on national programs in addition to appearing locally and regionally on station platforms, Vestal said. 

Details about specific coverage plans are sparse at this point, which is “by design,” according to Nico Leone, GM at KCUR, told Current. 

“This is not directive,” he said. “It’s more coordinating, aggregating best practices, understanding on the ground where we can apply resources to really help stations and collaboratives with what they’re trying to do.”

About half of the grant will be funneled to existing collaborations, Leone said. KCUR is in the midst of a listening phase to better understand collaboratives’ needs. It will make “sub-agreements” with collaboratives to provide funds for “a range of uses,” Leone said, including staffing, events, tools and technology.

After KCUR’s central team is hired, it will create a “playbook” of best practices for collaboration and community engagement and share it with stations, Leone said. 

The idea was sparked by Jon Abbott, president and CEO at WGBH in Boston, who told station leaders before a Station Resource Group meeting last year that public media should improve its election coverage and step up collaboration, according to JJ Yore, GM at WAMU in Washington, D.C. 

Other station leaders endorsed the idea, and Yore joined Jim Schachter, former VP for news at WNYC in New York City, and Dave Kansas, COO at Minnesota Public Radio, to form an informal committee to advance the project. The group hired consultant Sarah Lutman to develop a CPB proposal, which was written with feedback from news directors and station-based collaborative editors.

The original group expanded to include KCUR, Oregon Public Broadcasting, ideastream in Cleveland and WUNC in Chapel Hill, N.C., in a governing board, Yore said. Stations were interested in the project because leaders felt much of the national media “missed a lot of the story” during the 2016 election, Yore said.

According to Yore, they also agreed that with its national corps of journalists, public media is “better positioned than any other media enterprise in the country to cover [the election] authentically and accurately.”

KCUR became the central hub because “the group kind of agreed that there was a lot of power in running this out of the middle of the country,” Leone said, “and not from the coasts, because that’s what we’re used to.”

The project is meant to be complement collaborative projects at NPR and national shows, such as 1A’s “Across America” project, Leone said. “It’s more intended to … add context and texture and voices at a very granular level that they can’t get to that we can help bring into the conversation and connect to them,” he said. 

CPB is also talking with national producers about election coverage, Merritt said. “We do anticipate making additional grants,” she said. 

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Abbott as WGBH’s GM. He is president and CEO.

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