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CPB asks: Can outreach reach higher?

Originally published in Current, Sept. 11, 2006
By Karen Everhart

CPB is preparing to unveil a major public awareness initiative this month, aiming to advance public broadcasting's work in “community engagement,” a buzzword for what public TV veterans have traditionally called outreach.

A major thrust of the work, to be shaped by research findings and consultation with stations, will be to try new ways to engage potential audiences and underscore the institutional value of local public stations.

With veteran public relations executive Patricia Harrison as its president, CPB is casting a wide net as it rethinks its approach to community engagement, an endeavor that traditionally has taken a back seat to public TV's broadcast-centered activities.

CPB may also seek to promote public broadcasting's reputation by connecting it more effectively with its outreach work. Harrison has repeatedly said the field needs to do “a better job telling the public-service media story,” as she remarked July 27 at the Public Radio Development and Marketing Conference in New Orleans. “As you are connecting on a local level, we must tell this story on a national level, in a way that resonates with decision-makers and purse-string holders, influencers and average Americans.”

In a request for proposals that closes today, CPB solicits ideas from companies outside the field to adapt techniques used by “other kinds of community organizations” in pilot projects with at least 12 stations. The RFP points to the growing possibility that audiences will bypass local stations by finding content on new-media platforms and seeks proposals that involve both public radio and TV stations.

“What we're trying to do is develop opportunities to perform outreach not on behalf of public TV or radio, but to have an impact on the system as a whole,” said Ernest Wilson, a CPB Board member and former U.S. Information Agency official who chairs a committee overseeing the initiative. “We want to increase knowledge of the system as a whole and enhance the benefits that public broadcasting brings” to local communities.

The RFP — along with delays in renewing CPB's contract with the National Center for Outreach, the coordinating unit for public TV outreach — have put public TV leaders on notice that CPB's expectations and funding may shift. CPB announced in late August that it will renew NCO's contract for one year, instead of the three-year terms previously negotiated, while consultants from Booz Allen Hamilton assess the center's effectiveness.

NCO, based at Wisconsin Public Television, won CPB support in 2000 after the corporation, then under different managers, defunded the Public Television Outreach Alliance, a five-station consortium with regional offices that began coordinating the field's efforts in 1987.

“We're in negotiations now about what they would like to have us be doing in the next year,” said Maria Alvarez Stroud, NCO executive director. “It's a natural progression for CPB to be looking at their investment and whether they are doing what they should be doing and supporting what they should for the best of the industry.”

“They want to see if there's something to be learned from outside the field that can be translated to public broadcasting, which is an interesting idea,” Stroud said.

CPB spokesman Michael Levy said Harrison is “attuned to and interested in CPB and public broadcasting having the most successful, most advanced outreach initiative possible.” Harrison wants to examine “how we encourage the stations, what resources we give them and how we train them.”

“That is why we're looking everywhere and why we have the open-ended RFP out,” Levy said. “We will not restrict the possibility of having the best model or best information
from whatever source.”

Outreach has traditionally been anchored in public TV, with its desire to attract a broader audience, reach targeted populations pertinent to program topics and raise relevant issues despite long production cycles. It has helped stations extend the reach and value of TV programs with in-person events, educational materials or other resources geared toward specific community needs.

PubTV outreach projects coordinated with high-profile public TV shows have supported efforts to improve adult literacy and preschool education, for example. They have also supported families struggling with Alzheimer's disease and childhood cancer. Although many big stations have full-time outreach staffs, smaller stations assign their education specialists, publicists or programmers to create outreach campaigns, often tied to major national programs.

Although CPB awards some outreach funds to producers or stations for high-visibility projects, it primarily supports community engagement activities through NCO.

CPB provided funding to establish the center in 2000 as a national clearinghouse for community engagement activities tied to public TV broadcasts. NCO's six-person staff organizes annual professional conferences, publishes an extensive website with planning tools and other resources, and awards grants to stations' local projects. A recent priority has been implementing PlanIT!, an online tool that helps stations set and track benchmarks for evaluation of their outreach projects.

CPB backs the center with $1 million to $1.4 million a year, according to Stroud. NCO redistributes roughly a third of the CPB money, up to $450,000, to local projects.

NCO came into being after CPB withdrew its support
from PTOA, created 13 years earlier to organize each year's national outreach campaign around a single issue and a related major PBS broadcast. CPB opted to move away from this approach after a consultant recommended major changes to PTOA's operations and governance. Now NCO offers stations a menu of dozens of outreach possibilities a year.

Six years later, public TV stations appear to value NCO's work. “Its leadership is very strong, and the conference is really a must-attend for anybody in outreach,” said Mary Bracken, communications and outreach coordinator
at Iowa PTV. “They do a great job with the information on the website, and the staff is accessible.” NCO is bigger, provides more resources and has greater stature than PTOA did, she said.

“I get no sense from stations that there's dissatisfaction with NCO — just the opposite,” said Skip Hinton, president of the National Educational Telecommunications Association. When concerns about NCO's contract came up at a recent NETA Board meeting, Hinton said, a CPB executive reassured station execs that the contract would be renewed.

“There was a general concern that NCO is providing a valuable service to stations,” said John Hesse, president of HoustonPBS, who recently completed a term as NETA chairman. “Our hope would be that that service
could continue.”

“My sense is that CPB is concerned about how well we tell our story,” said Ron Pisaneschi, broadcast director at Idaho PTV and president of the Public Television Programmers Association. “We're doing all these wonderful things in outreach to extend what we do on the screen . . . but we don't do a good job of telling that story” to the public at large and policymakers. “The folks at CPB are frustrated by it,” he said.

NCO has also made “telling the story” a priority. By year's end, the center will publish a new Annual Impact Report that compiles information on local station projects. It will tell “the national story of what kinds of efforts took place, giving us a peek into what we're able to do once enough stations are using PlanIT!,” Stroud said.

Web page posted Sept. 27, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

Patricia Harrison, CPB president


For more than a decade, foundations that back docs and related outreach projects have encouraged formal evaluation of their effectiveness.

A project on end-of-life issues in 2000 spent as much on outreach as on the Bill Moyers documentary.

Stations got a positive response to outreach activities connected with the Alzheimer's disease program The Forgetting, 2004.


National Center for Outreach website, with its outreach planning and assessment toolkit called planIT.

CPB's RFP for assessment of outreach (PDF), issued in May with contract award scheduled a month later.

CPB offers grants for public TV stations' outreach projects. Next deadline: Dec. 14, 2006.