Feature article from the January 2010 AIRblast 

We Can because You Do

By AIR Executive Director Sue Schardt

In May of last year, I gathered my thoughts in advance of AIR's Virtual Annual Membership meeting, putting them to paper as "There is a Great Reshaping Going On." Writing about the impact of the economic downturn on pubradio's talent pool and the tension between new and older technologies, I called on AIR members to envision ourselves as "bottomless fonts of new ideas." Today, I sit down to write this piece more convinced, than ever that we should "focus relentlessly on the things that inspire us" in the belief that these things that will carry us forward, even if the way ahead is unclear.

Have we made progress in the last year? What are the challenges ahead? What new lights are there on the horizons to pay attention to? To begin, I'll lay out here a few markers of our "reshaped" world.

Almost exactly a year ago, in the span of about six weeks, we saw the unraveling of the key public radio platforms for independent and diverse work. The story is familiar now: Weekend America, Day-to-Day, News and Notes canceled; funding for Barrett Golding's Hearing Voices, gone; the already fragile economy of independent public radio production weakened further still. Over the subsequent months, major station and network programs, beset by economic challenges, reduced or eliminated their acquisition budgets for independent work or else changed their rate structure to cope with shrunken program budgets.

The ability of public radio to retain and cultivate its talent pool remains compromised, and there is no clear resolution in sight. This is a significant crisis, not only for AIR, but also for stations, the networks, CPB, and all concerned about the viability of the industry going forward.

But 2009 brought movement as well as retrenchment. For example, a re-energized Third Coast International Audio Festival is rising to 501(c)(3) independence after budget cuts last year forced WBEZ to step away from its stewardship. The idea for a Public Media Corps, modeled after AmeriCorps, was conceived this year. This initiative of the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) is expected to launch in 2010. It envisions a new role for producers, and sets its sights on a diverse and more accessible world of public media.

There are also the remarkable achievements of the MQ2 producers, who took an extremely difficult assignment handed to them by AIR and CPB — invent new ways to produce at the margin between traditional and digital media — and accomplished it with only five months and $40,000 each. They worked in faith with AIR, on behalf of its members, on a great experiment: to help transform public radio into public media. In doing so, they demonstrated the power of individual makers and the wisdom of investing in them.

The MQ2 project is one approach AIR has taken to bring producers forward and to find new opportunity in the midst of change. MQ2 is a pilot project, designed as a first-stage model for the way ahead. MQ2 enjoys broad support from the stations and networks that incubate the projects. It demonstrates the powerful role of producer as inventor, as DIYer, during a time when the industry is badly in need of new ideas and, yes, inspiration.

In 2010, we expect to take MQ2 in a new direction: positioning producers to have an even broader impact on network and stations and influence the shift underway in media.

With the pace of economic recovery still uncertain, it's more important than ever to know where we — AIR and producers — fit in. The "big picture" of what we are up against is that the public radio industry and the economy that supports it is hardwired to the station-network dynamic. The revenue for public broadcasting, including the 25 percent of the $406 million congressional appropriation that comes to radio ($90.5 million)*, flows principally between stations and the networks. There is no set-aside for radio producers. There have been, and continue to be, debates among producers about the trees in the forest, so to speak: $100 versus $75 for a tape sync, or whether changes to the tier payment structure at NPR works to the disadvantage of senior producers. These are worthy discussions. But the fundamental change — if there is to be real change — must happen at a higher level.
This is the principal challenge, for AIR, for producers, and for all who share our conviction of the vital importance of a strong producer-driven culture. We must not simply ask, or expect, or demand. It is on us to do. The more and better you, producers, do what you do, the more and better those of us working on your behalf can do as well.

Calls for a New Public Media

In the last year, we've seen outside constituencies emerge to throw down gauntlets challenging the basic tenets of the Public Broadcasting Act, which was last reviewed in 1992.

These groups have laid out a new vision for public media. The recommendations from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, The Reconstruction of American Journalism from Columbia University's J School, and Free Press's recommendations presented in Public Media's Moment call for a restructuring so that that public media, and the taxpayer dollars that support them, are better focused to meet the needs of citizens.

Digital technology has put into question the mediating role of the reporter, the producer, the network, and the local station. It is the age of "I" and a seemingly infinite choice about what to listen to and what information sources to rely on. This is happening across the media spectrum. Newspapers across the country are failing after a long decline. Many fear that these changes spell a weakening of traditional journalism.

But while the economic downturn has affected corporate underwriting, public radio continues to see growth in audience.

The decline in corporate media and the relative strength of public media are the reasons, in part, for the new challenges we're seeing.

Free Press, in particular, takes an activist role, strongly advocating that a White House Commission be convened to consider various recommendations on the table for a "new" public media, including greatly expanded government funding.

There is growing pressure on CPB and on industry leaders at the networks and leading stations to come together in order to formulate a common vision for a "new" public media; to define the road ahead or risk having someone else define it.

One line of thinking goes like this: Public radio is inheriting the mantle that has slipped away from newspapers. With the decline of the American newspaper, public radio stations have a new mandate ( to serve as the primary source or local, community journalism). Bill Kling, CEO of American Public Media, is the latest in a continuing line of those stepping forward with a clarion call for stations to engage citizens and help reinvent journalism. (The Future of News: Creating a New Model for Regional Journalism in America).

A More Different AIR and Survival of the Fittest

Closer to home, AIR continues to expand its ranks with an historic 760 members from 44 states and 11 countries. We have seen emerge in the last year a new face of AIR. The latest survey of new members (July–September) tells us that

•    67 percent are 21–34 years old
•    61 percent say they are just beginning their career, with 33 percent in mid-career
•    25 percent are non-Caucasian
•    30 percent work at a radio station
•    55 percent say their primary professional experience is in broadcast/radio
•    27 percent of our new members say Internet/online is where they have their most experience

The number of respondents during the three-month period we've telescoped here is relatively small, and we will continue to track and report back on what we're learning about our changing membership throughout the year.

We have seen BBC joining the ranks of our membership with networks APM, NPR, and PRI. We have, among us, upward of 15 producers and staff from each of these organizations.

These newest AIR members come into a mix that includes the industry's most long-standing and experienced producers, whose work is what drew so many of the newbies to us. The depth and breadth of our membership is one of our greatest strengths. Anyone who has participated in our mentoring program or spent time in the "inner sanctum" of the AIRdaily listserv understands this. Yet the emphasis on youth, on digital media, on inventing new formats, and the dearth of CPB funding earmarked for independent producers bring a different set of challenges to many of our veteran producers. What comes across, in talking with them, is raw determination and an astonishing capacity to move ahead in uncertain times.
As Barrett Golding suggests, "Maybe it's a good idea to just proceed blindly forward." Steve Rowland in his September 2009 AIRblast feature ponders reinvention and what he should be putting on his business card. Joe Richman (Radio Diaries) is emblematic of other established producers, putting his creative energy these days into restructuring his business, anticipating the new priorities of funders, and developing a digital media strategy while preserving the art of storytelling, which is the heart and soul of his work.

This capacity of our veterans for adaptation is an inspiring example for us all, and the list of producers taking new directions is fascinating. We're sure to see the emergence in 2010 of new and exciting models in this arena, as well. Survival of the fittest, indeed.


Guiding lights

I share here a few tenets honed over the last year that shape my (ever-evolving) thinking today as I look to the year ahead.
1.    The change underway is happening at the level of craft. The transformation of media is being driven from the bottom up, by individual producers — working independently and at organizations across the country — learning the new tools, adapting their practice, and inventing new ways to tell stories and spread their work. Our job is to recognize them, get them what they need, then step out of the way and let them lead us to the "new public media" so many are speaking of.

2.    "Just hold the space," says Jacquie Jones, executive director of the National Black Programming Consortium. The way forward is not always clear. It is sometimes enough to mark a time and a place and bring the right people to it. See #3. Capture what emerges.

3.    Put energy toward the projects, the people, the organizations, who create a positive charge, who "get" your vision. Trust your gut. Some of the markers for me as I seek them out are a) Do they ask me good questions? b) Do they have fire-in-the-belly — authentic passion for what they do? c) Do they have a vision? Do I recognize it? Get excited by it? d) Do I feel physically charged when I walk away?

4.    Keep moving. There is a lot of crazy stuff going on as organizations, funders, partners, change directions — often unexpectedly and abruptly and with reasons that are not necessarily clear. It's easy to get hung up trying to figure out reasons. Do not personalize. Don't look back. Keep your eyes ahead. Focus on forward motion.

Catching up on back reading recently
, I was struck by a concept of "radical optimism" laid out by Jan Verwoert in his essay Exhaustion and Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform. "To feel inspired essentially means to realize I Can because You Do," he says. "Any form of work that unfolds through addressing the work of others thrives on this sensation … because another person's thoughts, works, or conversation make you experience the liberating sensation of potentiality that, yes, you can also think, feel, speak, and act in this way."

Those of us behind the scenes at AIR — the board and staff — experience this inspiration through the work of the producers in our industry, those of you who, day-in and day-out, make all that the public media industry is built around. The dedication we feel for our work is inspired by the remarkable perseverance of those of you who have every reason to choose another profession. We are inspired by and dedicated to you who, when the call comes, make remarkable, surprising, and moving work. We Can, indeed, because You Do. We lead by following you.



* Of the $406 million FY09 congressional appropriation for public broadcasting, $20 million goes into CPB operations, $24 million goes into the "6 percent" fund for general system support, and the remaining is split 75 percent to 25 percent between television ($271.5 million) and radio ($90.5 million)

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