Made for Public Media: To BIPOC colleagues, what is public media?

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In the monthly column “Made for Public Media,” Andrew Ramsammy shares observations and thoughts about the distinct opportunities that exist across the topography of public media.

February 1st and the 27 days that follow make up the shortest and often coldest month of the year. At the same time, America commemorates February, as it has in the past, with Black History Month. 

And come this February, as in so many other heritage months that celebrate diverse communities and their accomplishments, we all will focus on the outward importance of engaging audiences via content that reflects our appreciation of diversity. Engagement based on pegs like heritage months is essential but often feels one-dimensional. Why do we use such stunts as a way to drum up content, audiences and engagement, only to drop such acts the moment the month is over?

Bluntly, that’s tokenism. Victoria Jackson, a colleague of mine at Arizona State University, tweeted recently that “History isn’t some nebulous thing in the past, like a fairytale. It’s ever-present and all around us.”

This year, as a result of the pandemic, many of us will be spared the discomfort of in-person office events that subjugate our skin color or identity into one exacting hour. We will miss the trappings of food cliches, colored balloons and the outside speaker whom we all study with deep thought, wondering, “What email survey awaits when this performative play is over?”

Look at the parallels and intersections that we’re seeing at this moment. Last year’s awakening on race, meeting the spread of the pandemic and long-held systemic inequities of health care, education, housing and wealth: all of this has manifested into a historic reckoning that has challenged almost every corner of public media. 

We have seen across the system several high-profile leaders caught in the tsunami. The rising tension within many public media organizations spilled onto the streets and became public domain. Several leaders were seemingly caught off guard, thinking that protections from HR, written agreements, unwritten rules and historical politeness would keep the oppressed from speaking. But it didn’t.

Instead, we saw a rising internal coalition of the marginalized voices, who took formal names, created websites and brought their message not only to their leadership but to the masses via social media, all at personal expense. The ensuing energy was inspiring, intoxicating and ironic. The very thing that public media was intended to be became the movement’s rallying cry — a demand that the general welfare of public media “be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States, which will constitute an expression of diversity and excellence, and which will constitute a source of alternative telecommunications services for all the citizens of the Nation.”

I wish that I could say that the moment and the movement were met with a modicum of receptivity. In large part, they weren’t. But maybe 2021 can be the year? 

As we prepare to celebrate heritage months, as we collect content, produce interstitials and organize virtual events, we should pause for a moment and look at ourselves and the BIPOC folks we call our colleagues. 

I shouldn’t have to tell you what we already know about what’s in our hearts and minds. This moment isn’t an enigma. We know that we need to be better. We know that public media hasn’t fully achieved its mission because the mission will always be aspirational. But we can’t continue to ignore what stifles at least a portion of that aspirational success. It’s the very hands that craft the mission and purpose. And not just a limited set of hands — it has to be and must be all hands, of every shape, color, creed and ability.

We can’t limit the potential of our enterprise to just a few selected months. We can’t limit our reach to only select geographies. We can’t limit our service just to those who fund our mission. We must remove the governors that impede our impact and create capaciousness for growth and risk-taking. There can be no opposing opinion on racism within public media. It’s not binary. It’s real. But you don’t have to take my word for it. 

I know it’s hard to look into the eyes of our people at this moment. Yet I stare into the Zoom camera that sits on my home desk, hoping that I can. And as I do, my son, who is seven, sits in our dining room, alone, doing the very same thing with his virtual classmates. He yearns to be with them, as part of our world seems to cave in to even more fracture and divisiveness. And across this public media system, colleagues in isolation are doing the same. We all want to be seen. We all want to be heard. We all want to be understood. We all want to be valued. All while doing our paid day jobs as reporters, producers, editors, fundraisers, engineers and assistants. And then, in the after-hours, a second unpaid job emerges, the glue-work that holds us BIPOC together, happening in one-on-one conversations via text or in large affinity groups through even more never-ending Zoom calls. 

I have never seen such an influential collective of diverse leaders in my career, most of whom wear their love for public media on their sleeves, demanding respect for something that might not love them back. Empathy for their efforts seems like its own public media lesson. All of this energy without action should cue an introspective question: “What would Mister Rogers do?”

I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t have all the answers. I, too, struggle with this moment as a leader. The mix of public media messages that I’m needed, but only to a hierarchical point, is a confounding conundrum. The repeated diversity leadership development programs, stretch opportunities and mentorships seem futile when there are narrow pathways or ascension to senior leadership roles. But I’m told that I must keep pitching, batting and running, that the game is long — indeed it is. Too much investment has been sacrificed in my name and in the names of others to give up now.

So there are deep, dark, cold conversations that need to be had across this public media land. How do we emerge clearer-minded from clouded histories? How do we use this moment to reorient ourselves to our North Star, the Public Broadcasting Act? And how do those in power make amends and do the right thing?

This is the moment. And we can do it together, bound by the same shared passion that drives us all, ridding ourselves of public media’s deficiencies and embracing what makes our work so impactful, the inclusive hue of diverse perspectives.

We should choose to surround ourselves with history and its makers, not just when it’s convenient or marketable, but every day. We cannot discard what came before us nor ignore it, so we must engage on an unpaved path that all of us smooth together. We do this knowing that we walk on a road that we might not ever travel again, with the hopes and dreams that those who traverse behind us can venture even further. 

This should be the soul and legacy that drives public media forward. The question is: Will you accept the call?

Andrew Ramsammy is director of digital content for Global Sport Matters, a media enterprise at Arizona State University. He previously was director of audience strategy at Arizona PBS, founder of United Public Strategies, director of content projects and initiatives at PRI, and executive producer of The Daytripper.

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