What happened to public media’s great pandemic pivot

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Matt Martinez, formerly director of content for KNKX in Tacoma, Wash., and Current Executive Director Julie Drizin during a July webinar.

Unprecedented. Lockdown. Pandemic. These are some of the 2020 “Words of the Year” chosen by leading English-language dictionaries. One year ago, Paul Jacobs of Jacobs Media predicted that the American Dialect Society would bestow its annual honor to the word “pivot.” They voted for “Covid.” But “pivot” did come out on top in a poll by the Association of National Advertisers.

Pivot sounds technical and mechanical. But it also conjures up images of basketball players and ballet dancers who are strong, graceful, agile, fast on their feet, high-performing, precise, professional.

2020 was the year of the Great Public Media Pivot. The pandemic forced you to adapt, make changes, let go, go home, strike a balance and ramp up your service to your community. Public media pivoted. And so did Current.  

Friday the 13th of March 2020 was our last day working in our office. Forever. We’re a lean operation that really cannot afford to pay rent for space we do not use. That’s why we downsized our oversized office to a small suite in the basement of WAMU barely six months before the lockdown began. It’s why we ultimately gave up our brick and mortar space for good. There’s loss with any transition, but also gains. We all now know the many benefits and drawbacks of remote work. WFH works well for me and for Current.

In the face of coronavirus, Current pivoted in other ways. As everyone and their grandmother got super-comfy with Zoom, we launched a series of webinars called “Building Resilience.” And that webinar series itself pivoted after the killing of George Floyd. As attention to public media’s racial inequities moved center stage, Current and our partners ­— Greater Public, PMJA and PRPD ­— produced a popular, well-attended series of conversations on the Imperative of Inclusion in public media.

Instead of panels and plenaries at pubmedia conferences, Current’s annual Local that Works project went virtual. In October 2020, we produced an online awards celebration that enabled you to participate, get inspired by your peers and vote for the contest winner. We’ll do that again later this year.

In the meantime, Local that Works has also evolved into a monthly webinar series, produced in partnership with Poynter, PMJA, Local Media Association and the Agora Journalism Center’s Gather community of engagement journalists. The Local that Works webinars are creating a space where public broadcasters, legacy newspapers, digital startups and nonprofit news sites can have a cross-sector dialogue about civic journalism – that sweet spot where accountability reporting, community engagement, and collaboration converge to produce impactful local service. Our next webinar in that series features WFAE in Charlotte, which has been attracting national attention for its inclusive news/content strategy. You can sign up for the June 8 webinar “Listening Up” here.

But wait, there’s more …We’re doing even more events in 2021. Our managing editor Karen Everhart is hosting webinars that focus on the key themes of our in-depth coverage this year. At our next webinar, “The Way We Work Now,” two public media executives will share their experiences leading stations through the Worst. Year. Ever.

Caryn Mathes of KUOW-FM and Amy Shaw of Nine PBS will tell all (well, maybe not all) about how their staffers pivoted and rose to unimaginable challenges. They’ll share what their stations got right and wrong. We’ll hear about changes the pandemic forced that actually made their stations stronger and better … and made them stronger, better leaders.

I hope you’ll join us Wednesday, May 26, for a conversation that looks back and forward, as the masks come off, our stations reopen, sponsorship revenue makes a comeback and many of you come back to your motherships. Register for The Way We Work Now webinar.

For years, experts in the digital transformation of legacy media have said that Current should produce events because we are uniquely positioned to bring together people from across our industry to tackle challenges and share best practices. Besides our popular Public Media Virtual Career Fairs, we’ve resisted getting into the events biz in part because of our own limited capacity, but mostly because public media has an alphabet soup of associations with about a dozen conferences each year. But COVID-19 made it possible —­­­ even necessary ­— for us to carpe diem and change that mantra. We’ve entered Zoomlandia and there’s no turning back.

It’s our great pandemic pivot. Nearly 3,000 people have signed up for our webinars over the past year. Now all we need is for sponsors to pivot with us. Like everyone in public media, we welcome (ahem, need) our time-intensive events to generate revenue. Basketball or ballet anyone?

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