Arkansas PBS is bringing public television stations across the South together with a collaboration promoting its new series, Southern Storytellers.
Premiering July 18, the three-part documentary series created by filmmaker Craig Renaud aims to explore Southern identity through the eyes of 18 of the region’s contemporary storytellers. Each hourlong episode features a mix of Southern authors, poets, songwriters and screenwriters from across the region.
To reflect the regional approach, Arkansas PBS is collaborating with 11 other public media stations across the South to promote the series with local events and a dedicated Instagram account.
Arkansas PBS CEO Courtney Pledger and her team began reaching out to stations early last summer. Working with other stations across the South felt natural, she said, since the series features individuals from across the South and elements that were “in each station’s backyard.”
The collaborators on the project are Alabama Public Television, Georgia Public Broadcasting, Kentucky Educational Television, Louisiana Public Broadcasting, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Nashville Public Television, PBS North Carolina, South Carolina Educational Television, South Florida PBS, Virginia Public Media and WCTE in Cookeville, Tenn.
Once the stations were on board, they applied for and received a $326,285 grant from CPB to support the project.
Leaders at GPB didn’t hesitate to join the collaboration when Pledger approached them, said Emmalee Hackshaw, the station’s VP for community engagement. Working together offered a chance to localize the national series and highlight Georgia’s storytelling community, Hackshaw said.
“We’ve got this great series that Arkansas PBS has put in all of this work and thought and intention, and we’re able to build on that in our own way, and what that means for communities in Georgia and storytelling in Georgia,” she said. “That’s what’s really powerful, and that’s what’s really appealing to us as we partner with other stations.”
The collaboration and the series’ celebration of Southern storytelling are part of the “beauty of public television,” said Nashville Public Television CEO Becky Magura.
“For a local station to be able to be a part of that national footprint and to also own that same series, in a way, is what makes it different,” Magura said.
Pledger said she and Lindsey Ingram, Arkansas PBS’ head of audience, wanted to make the collaboration a digital “learning experience” for stations. Arkansas PBS first set up a Southern Storytellers Instagram account separate from its primary account. That’s rare among PBS stations, Ingram said, since most usually lack the time and capacity to maintain dedicated accounts for series.
With the dedicated account, the station aimed to draw more viewers to Southern Storytellers, so Ingram said she wanted to ensure that promotion of the series didn’t get buried within the rest of the station’s social media content.
To populate the account, Ingram worked with the participating stations to develop a campaign using Instagram’s Reels, which are 90-second vertical videos.
“It’s a way for us to test the waters and see, can we be effective at telling the quality of a PBS story in 90 seconds?” Ingram said.
The account will not only host promotional Reels including storytellers featured in the series but also host a catalog of Reels compiled by the collaborating stations, spotlighting their local storytellers.
GPB has produced two Reels, one with local poet and playwright Jon Goode and the other with the producer of a GPB show about community artisans and farmers. Hackshaw said the localized Reels gave the station a chance to amplify its local community partners at a national level.
“We were able to build on existing partnerships and highlight one of our own local productions,” Hackshaw said. “So it was valuable to us to be able to do that through this project.”
The stations plan to begin posting their local Reels to the series’ Instagram account July 4. So far, the account only features photos of the series’ storytellers and quotes from them, as well as Reels of storytellers speaking at the PBS Annual Meeting. After posting to the account feed every one to three days, Arkansas PBS has gained 10 new followers a day on the account since its launch at the end of April.
“We’re hopeful,” Ingram said. “… It’s an experiment for us, and it’s an experiment for CPB, but they were gracious enough to give us that leverage just to see if this would work because it’s something new and it’s something different.”
Arkansas PBS will continue posting content to the Instagram feed after the series ends in August and will keep it live until July 2024.
Storytelling on and off screen
In addition to the Reels, the station used the CPB grant money to fund promotional events for the series. The stations wanted to do more than local preview screenings, Pledger said, so they turned to storytellers in their communities to tie in the events with the series. The stations paid the storytellers using grant funds.
“The natural thing was to partner with local storytelling organizations, of which there are many,” Pledger said. “They’re kind of community magnets, and every state has their own versions of storytelling groups.”
Each station has organized an event in June or July. Events include Nashville Public Television’s panel of local storytellers hosted at the Tennessee State Museum, PBS North Carolina’s virtual Q&A with storytellers, and Arkansas PBS’ open-mic storytelling session.
Pledger said upcoming events have already gained the interest of their communities, even when the events did not feature well-known storytellers. Space for Arkansas PBS’ June 29 event filled up three weeks in advance. She attributed its popularity to an interest in storytelling that she also believes will attract viewers to the series.
“It just resonates everywhere,” Pledger said. “The best stories are universal. It doesn’t matter where they’re set.”