The producers behind NJ PBS’ 21 have devised a simple way to highlight inspiring people: There are 21 counties in New Jersey, so the series of digital short films tells 21 different stories about changemakers in the state.
One example is Jay Fischer, founder of the organics recycling company Ag Choice. Fischer’s company works with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to collect and compost leaves, food and other waste products. In addition to its compost site, Ag Choice operates a warehouse that specializes in recycling single-serve coffee capsules.
“Being able to take these food-waste items, keep them out of a landfill, and through what happens naturally transform them into this rich, earthy soil, it’s so satisfying,” Fischer said in one episode. “Most people look at food waste as a problem. I want to educate people and get them to look at these items as resources as opposed to waste products.”
Fischer of Sussex County is one of 21 subjects featured in the online-only series that highlights people who are passionate about improving their communities. So far, 12 of the eight-minute shorts have been released with plans to finish the series next year.
The idea for 21 came from Brad Barber, creator of the national project States of America. Barber said he dreamed up States of America in 2009 with the goal of producing short documentaries about one person in each of the 50 states. After initially self-releasing the shorts, Barber got a distribution deal with KQED in San Francisco that led to World Channel airing the first part of the series.
His concept found its way to NJ PBS through Susie Hernandez, a former executive director for KQED. After Hernandez became senior director of programming at the WNET Group in New York, NJ PBS’ parent company, she approached NJ PBS’ Jamie Kraft about working with Barber on a New Jersey–specific series.
“I was thinking about how we can expand our reach,” said Kraft, EP for 21 and senior managing editor of NJ Spotlight News. “ … There’s so many communities that we just aren’t able to touch because of the daily news cycle and the grind.”
Finding unique people
The concept behind States of America was to ask subjects why they lived in a particular state. But the essential question behind 21, according to Kraft, is “Does where you live affect how you live?” Kraft said that question is a perfect “jumping-off point” for discussing important issues, like education, the environment and public health, in ways that are unique to each county while still connecting the stories to what is important statewide.
NJ PBS procured $485,000 for the docuseries with help from corporate and private foundations, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Public Service Enterprise Group. They got approval to start working on the series in February 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed their start to spring 2021. Kraft thanked and credited the foundation partners for not abandoning the series and pulling funding during the crisis.
The subjects of the first few episodes that rolled out earlier this year included Cookie Till of Atlantic County. Till, a restaurateur, acquired 80 acres of farmland to help serve the state’s food deserts. In Bergen County, single mom Rhona Vega formed Parent Matterz, an organization that helps parents prepare their children for college. And in Ocean County, Christian Kane, whose son had a traumatic brain injury at 19 months of age, is working to create more inclusive communities for people with disabilities.
Kane co-founded the RWJ Barnabas Health Field of Dreams, a playground reserved for people with special needs. “There are so many people that stay at home rather than going out. They feel that they’re getting stared at, so they stay home,” he said. “The idea of the Field of Dreams is to give those people who have a special need a place to go to.”
The production team gets help with deciding which stories to tell from NJ Spotlight News Production Manager Chloe Motisi and Production Assistant Katie Cameron, who research issues affecting New Jersey’s counties. NJ PBS also encourages members of the public to nominate people in their community.
Kraft said the team does not always pursue the “number one” problem in each county, but rather the goal is about finding “unique people … creating change.”
“We do several pre-interviews. We go out and meet them and make sure they can hold their own in a seven- or eight-minute documentary,” Kraft said. “We’ve been really lucky. I thought for sure we would hit a roadblock and not be able to find that character, but we just keep raising the bar with each one.”
A model for stations to borrow
Producers film episodes as they get ideas for subjects. After NJ PBS’ NJ Spotlight News team films interviews, Barber, who is based in Utah, works with his team of editors to finish each episode. The plan was always to keep the episodes brief but informative, which lends itself to a run time under 10 minutes.
“I feel like it helps to watch a few at a time,” Barber said. “It starts to form a mosaic of this rich, diverse, beautiful state with all these different challenges and the people that are addressing them. Once they’re all up there, it will be even more enticing to click around and learn about what’s happening in different parts of the state.”
Kraft said community members have responded positively to 21. Viewers have also given positive feedback about interviews with people featured in 21 on NJ PBS’ nightly newscast, NJ Spotlight News with anchor Briana Vannozzi.
Vannozzi “can’t wait to do these interviews,” Kraft said. “She just comes back from the studio after the interviews and says, ‘Oh my God, I feel like I’m not doing enough in my life right now … I need to engage in my community more.’”
Joe Lee, GM for NJ PBS, said one of his favorite episodes of 21 so far is about Fallon Davis of Essex County. Davis, who aims to make the city of Newark a cultural hub, is advocating for more arts and educational investment in a community that has been marred by poverty. “You have to change your community that you live in, so that people want to wake up in the morning, so that people want to be alive, so that people want to learn,” said Davis, who founded the nonprofit STEAM Urban.
Lee, who has lived in downtown Newark since becoming the station’s GM last year, said watching Davis show Newark in a positive light through their selfless commitment to their community exemplifies the impact 21 can have.
Lee, Kraft and Barber all said that other public media stations could replicate the concept behind 21. They said it would be especially useful in states with vast coverage areas and underserved communities.
“Brad and I hope to take this to other PBS stations and sort of say, ‘We can do this in every state in the country.’ It would be such a great concept,” Kraft said. “All it is is just trying to incite conversation and get people talking again about stuff that’s going on in their counties.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Jamie Kraft and Brad Barber raised the funding for the docuseries. The funding was procured by the station.