Feature article from the July 2009 AIRblast

Producers "Actually Doing It"

… weaving a new public media web between stations, networks, and diverse local communities

By Julie Drizin

Julie Drizin is the talent manager for MQ2, the CPB-supported initiative aimed at encouraging the blending of traditional broadcasting and new digital platforms.

A few years back, a clever display ad in the Washington City Paper caught my eye and captured my imagination, so much so that I felt compelled to rip it out and post it on the daily story board in our production suite at WETA-FM. The ad was for an improv theater group, and the fancy-fonted copy proclaimed, "Classically Trained in the Fine Art of Making Sh*t Up." This little phrase would soon become our staff mantra.

I had been hired at WETA-FM to launch a daily hybrid program that would blend news and talk, online and on-air, and create a sense of place and common ground for the diverse communities of D.C., Maryland, and Virginia that make up the Washington metropolitan area. We called it The Intersection. At the time, without a model to imitate, we had to mold and chisel it ourselves. And each day, our diverse team of producers invented a new show guided by local news events, but ultimately about whatever sparked our own liveliest conversations. And so, we considered ourselves, indeed, to be specialists in this business of making sh*t up. “classically trained in the fine art of making sh*t up.”

That seems to be the essence of independent production: a blend of vision, imagination, and gumption. You create something where there once was nothing. You've read about MQ2 in this column before. I come to it with a fresh lens and great excitement because And that’s this is what the Public Radio Makers Quest grantees are all about, with their DIY spirit invigorating public radio and birthing new forms in an emerging "public media."MQ2 officially launched last fall, with a competitive nominations process. Winners were notified after the new year; producers honed their concepts and got to work by spring. But now, MQ2 producers are in the final throes, working madly to unleash their content by the end of August. Those of you working in public media, and AIR members in particular, can readily imagine the impact these high-pressure, short turn-around projects are having on the producers: the inspiration and perspiration, the see-saw of self-esteem and self-doubt, the lonely burdens of responsibility, the all-nighters, the ideas that beget ideas that beget ideas. It's all part of the creative process.But so is collaboration. MQ2 producers are not flying solo. They are paired up with stations, shows, and networks that are "incubating" them, providing, variously, editorial guidance, a platform, or a megaphone. In this era of rapid technological change and downsizing, I wondered what effect these projects might be having on the incubators themselves.
At a recent conference, one public radio veteran admitted to his audience, "If I hear the word innovation one more time, I think I'm going to throw up." It's true; the word is more overused than understood. But one thing I know for sure: Independent producers deliver on that "i-word" over and over again.

Once upon a time, as news director at Pacifica, I, too, consistently found that the most memorable and edgy productions came from outside the office, from the wider community independents who pitched stories that raised both the quality and authenticity of our shows. It seemed that producers in the field were that much closer to the stories and the people, outside the Beltway bubble and away from the sausage factory.

So, let's take a look at some of these MQ2 projects and find out more about the impact they're having on the institutions of public radio.

Got Street Cred?

WWNO is the local incubator for Open Sound New Orleans (NPR is incubating the project nationally). It's a project that aims to collect and map the quintessential character of the city — its ambiences, voices, and music. It's the brainchild of recent transplant Jacob Brancasi and longtime resident Heather Booth.

"We hear these amazing things everyday," says Jacob, "It's the stuff of our life. It should be shared; locals respond to it; this project is about the continuation of a public culture."

WWNO General Manager Paul Maassen says MQ2 (and other independent producers) are key to helping the station connect and interact with the community.

"We need to become part of the fiber of what's going here," says Maassen. "We're used to asking listeners for money at pledge time, now we're asking for much more: content. Heather and Jacob created a gathering place for these sounds and a way for people to contribute. And we bring the ability to raise awareness and put it on the air."

Open Sound New Orleans is also building a bridge to the city's growing Latino population post-Katrina. The project is working with a group of ESL students who are seizing the opportunity to tell their stories and unpack misconceptions about immigrants.

WWNO's Maassen sees the interactivity of Open Sound New Orleans as a potential model for the station's future local production. At present, WWNO doesn't have a staffed news department. Maasen says "We're not interested in the big news items of the day; we're looking for stories of the communities. That's where this project could be a model for the future."

In Seattle, Jenny Asarnow has launched another MQ2 project that's taking public media to the streets. The Corner is a public art installation and interactive audio archive where people can share their stories, feelings, and memories about The Central District, the Seattle neighborhood she's called home for the last four years. It was once an entirely African-American community, but it's been gentrifying. The installation at a busy city intersection includes stunning photographs of community members sure to catch the attention of pedestrians, bikers, drivers, and public transit riders. The Corner is being incubated at KUOW, which is airing promos and pieces using audio contributed by listeners and passersby.

Jenny recently hosted an art opening of sorts — a barbecue in the plaza at The Corner of 23rd and Union — to celebrate the project and get folks in the community engaged. "What ended up making it more awesome was I found a woman named Miss Helen who used to own a soul food restaurant on that exact spot for 30 years, so I got her to cater it. And Chris, the guy who owns the barber shop, isn't even open on Sundays, but he came by, opened his shop, and brought lots of people in." Jenny says nearby churches also helped spread the word about the event to longtime residents. "It attracted a really wide mix of people; crack addicts even stopped in to have food; artist friends showed up. Everyone was mingling. It was a nice summer day; everyone felt comfortable and everyone got along."

It's clear that The Corner has the potential to connect KUOW to communities that have traditionally felt alienated by public radio. Arvid Hokanson is the station's assistant program director. He says the beauty of The Corner is its accessibility. "I am really impressed that when so many of us are enamored with social networking, anyone can contribute to The Corner. A resident of the neighborhood can walk to the corner and make a free phone call using a pay phone and then hear audio spots for free on the radio. This is an excellent model for reaching and engaging a targeted neighborhood."

Arvid says that while there's a lot of talk among media people about the need to develop a hyperlocal focus, The Corner is actually doing it: The project has a terrific Web site and a vibrant online community with more than 1,100 Facebook fans, but it hasn't lost its grounding in the real world.

Positive Poditude

CyberFrequencies: Life on the Web is the offspring of Queena Kim, who produces the podcast with collaborator Tanya Miller. The project is about buzz: It digests, dissects, and serves up online content that captures the culture born of emerging technologies. Recent hot topics on the cast and the blog included a discussion of the copyright infringement trial against The Pirate Bay, an international file-sharing site; a Mexico City blogger's perspective on media-fed swine flu conspiracy theories; and coverage of the use of Twitter to sell medical marijuana in California.

"Nimble" is the word Queena uses most in describing the heightened flexibility needed to make programming that's in synch with the rhythm and speed of the Net. "I've started calling it the CyberFrequencies Laboratory," shared Queena in a recent conference call with her MQ2 cohorts, advisors, and members of the talent committee. "You've given us the liberty to play and try different things. Some things are going to work well and some things aren't. We haven't blown anything up yet, but stay tuned."

CyberFrequencies' incubator is KPCC (aka Southern California Public Radio) and Off-Ramp, which Queena produces and which was recently named the best local public affairs show by PRNDI. Off-Ramp host and producer John Rabe says CyberFrequencies recognizes how tech trends are part of everyday public discourse, so it's "vital in letting the public know that we connect with them, that we aren't your father's stodgy public radio."

John says Queena and her co-hosts "sound like regular people, asking basic and in-depth questions. They're not regular people, of course; they're alien super-geniuses." The fact that CyberFrequencies is a podcast gives Off-Ramp and KPCC "broader reach into a somewhat different community. "We could have started a regular on-air segment called CyberFrequencies, but it wouldn't have the impact of a podcast that we also happen to broadcast. Its being a show-within-a-show on Off-Ramp somehow carries more weight, is cooler, easier to explain, and fits better."

John says the MQ2 project is helping to cultivate a spirit of spontaneity and creativity in-house. "Off-Ramp is really into trying out stuff without over-thinking it, assembling a focus group, killing all of the good parts of the original idea, and then being surprised it's dull and unpopular. If other good podcasts show up, we could try them out, too. If they work, they work. If not, we stop. (Note to independent producers: no promises!) That also sends a message to the rest of the workers at the station that if they come to us with a creative idea, we might actually listen to it."

Content Management

NPR has embraced the Makers Quest with open arms, thanks largely to Davar Ardalan, the supervising senior producer for the network's Saturday and Sunday morning news programming, Weekend Edition. Davar also served on the talent committee that helped recommend projects for funding. "We live in times when the architecture of public radio has to be shattered if we are to survive," says Davar. "Together at Weekend Edition, we are tearing down traditional barriers and building new virtual spaces where our listeners can personalize their experience with Scott and Liane, the news, and with NPR. Although we have always believed that radio was intimate, we now need to cultivate a platform where our listeners and users can interact with us."

Davar is finding that platform in four MQ2 ventures: the aforementioned Open Sound New Orleans and CyberFrequencies, plus Place + Memory and Mapping Main Street.

Shea Shackelford's Place + Memory invites listeners and Web social networkers to share reflections and recollections of local places that were once important them but which no longer exist. Even in this fleeting era of digital detritus, technology can re-create what time has taken away. The project's attracted more than 1,300 Facebook fans. [See "How Many Friends is Too Many?"]

Kara Oehler's Mapping Main Street deconstructs this all-American symbol by documenting the economic and social realities of people who inhabit the over 10,000 Main Streets across the U.S.

So this summer, Weekend Edition is becoming a virtual Incubation Central, and Davar is excited about the user-generated content MQ2 projects will bring to NPR. "In the realm of public radio, we traditionally have walked up to people at a bus stop, at a street corner, at a town hall meeting and asked them to give their opinions on one thing or the other," explains Davar. She says all four of the MQ2 projects allow the audience to be more than just "vox." "By tagging and uploading their own photos, text, and images, our listeners and the online audience become part of the show."

Knowledge Networking

As producers feverishly work to wrap up their projects before Labor Day, a great deal of learning is happening as a result of this ambitious foray into birthing a new public media. At the end of the day, Davar says she hopes that both independent producers and incubators will "have a sense of what it takes to carry out a multiplatform production across radio and Web within a fixed budget."

David Krasnow of PRI's Studio 360 is the key pubradio incubator for Lu Olkowski's MQ2 project, InVerse, a collaboration with Virginia Quarterly Review that engages poets and photographers in creating storytelling-rich multimedia reports about the working poor.

As of this writing, InVerse content hasn't launched yet on-air, but speaking from the Aspen Ideas Festival, David says he's looking forward to assessing the outcomes. "One of our great challenges has to do with how do we really use the Internet to build out and bring more people in. We're curious to see what kind of audience the extended media brings us, beyond just the audience of stations that carry our program."

We at AIR are watching these projects unfold and plan to share the lessons learned with all of you. And the academic world is also taking notice. The Center for Social Media at American University will be studying the MQ2 projects as part of its Future of Public Media project. Its findings will be shared widely with the larger community of media makers and thinkers.

Longtime public radio producer Julie Drizin is the new talent manager for MQ2.