Programs/Publications

Feature Article from the May 2013 AIRblast 

Yes, In My Backyard, And Other Rural Realities

by Sally Kane

This past January, producer Julia Kumari Drapkin wrote an AIR Spotlight feature about her experience putting together her project iSeeChange. She wrote about how she'd uprooted herself for a  year from her home in Washington, D.C., and accepted AIR's assignment to move to rural Colorado to embed herself at public radio station KVNF in Paonia, a town with a main street barely three blocks long. Her vision is to engage citizens in new ways that enable them to document and tell their own story of change. By doing so, Julia hopes to bring new understanding of how Paonia's particular microcosm fits into the larger picture of climate change — in the U.S. and around the world.

Julia wrote about how iSeeChange is bringing together the station staff and the farmers, ranchers, scientists, hippies, and coal miners who live and work in the North Fork Valley. Now, Sally Kane, the executive director at KVNF, gives her perspective on the challenges and rewards of undertaking a project that combined big risks with big rewards.


 

I grew up with more animals than people around me. My "backyard" is thousands of acres of public and private lands that produce food and energy and supply water to communities from here to the Pacific Ocean. Counting the rainfall, measuring the snow banks, planning for the first freeze, all of those activities are woven into the fabric of my life like a fisherman knows the tides.

Another strong fiber weaving through the tapestry of my life is KVNF Community Radio. My mother helped found this station in 1979. KVNF started as a 10-watt operation in a shed. Folks were hungry for a window to the world from their own backyard, and the long winters and geographic isolation encouraged deep participation and devotion in community members. My first foray into radio happened at the tender age of 16 when I started to DJ. Fast-forward to 2013 and I have been at the helm of this station and had the pleasure of watching my own daughter sharpen her journalism skills when she was in high school here. This radio station has been a friend to me for a very long time.

KVNF has grown into a powerhouse rural service network with two transmitters and five translators and a broadcast area the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. Six years ago, we completed a major renovation of a state-of-the-art radio station facility with 8,000 watts of power. Last year was a banner year in programming for us. It included a youth journalism project called Pass the Mic, three awards from our state broadcasting organization for our two-year-old morning newscast, and iSeeChange, our Localore project.

So often we frame a national dialogue about rural communities around scarcity: no jobs, not enough resources, fewer services, etc. I had been longing for an opportunity to showcase the bounty of rural communities and to tell the stories that lift us up and make us proud. I found that opportunity when AIR put out a call to stations for Localore.

Our program director, Ali Lightfoot, who is also a filmmaker, went to work on making a runway film about our station with her colleague Todd Sheets. It turned out to be the genesis of the Pass the Mic program involving local kids. It's been one of the most effective means of engaging our often-polarized community. Somehow the kids break down the walls that build up here over the decades between the hippies and the rednecks and the old-timers and newcomers. It's not a unique situation since these kinds of polarities exist in small communities across the country, but ours has a radio station to draw it out and dig deeper.

When I got the call from Localore's executive editor, Noland Walker, that we had been chosen as an incubator station based on our runway film, I couldn't have been more excited. The producer that AIR had in mind, Julia Kumari Drapkin, wanted to do a crowdsourced reporting project on the topic of global climate change that she called iSeeChange. I wondered how we would pull that off in a coal mining town in the dry Mountain West. Julia wondered too, since she had intended her project for a larger coastal community. Still, I had my fish on the hook and I wasn't going to give up that easily; I reached out to Julia and told her about my home and why we cared about this so much. I told her that we had a facility and infrastructure to support a program initiative and we had a strong desire to try. Julia made a few calls of her own and figured out that world-class research on global climate change was coming out of Colorado and that we had weather records being broken left and right with high temperatures and drought conditions. It wasn't a coastal city but it was a story. "How do you think a conversation about climate change would go over in the community?" Julia asked. "How does open hostility sound to you?" I retorted. She laughed good-naturedly and said, "Sounds like a challenge."

The fact is, it was a challenge. The cell phone-focused crowdsourcing Julia originally had in mind didn't take. The topic triggered an attack on the station and on me personally from anonymous complainants that wound its way all the way up to the Inspector General's office at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. If there had been a tall enough pole out in front of the building, I would have been run up it. We were barely out of the gate and the gauntlet had been thrown.

I knew that Localore was designed in part to address the risk aversion that is a natural tendency of many small and rural stations. I understood the need for stations to think out of the box. I had complete faith in the tenacity of our station and the generous creative people who have tended it with such devotion over these many years. I just didn't think that risk-taking could mean our entire organization would become a target. I was thinking it would be about venturing into mediums beyond radio. Still, why are we here as a community station if we don't have the courage to convene a conversation that truly does involve life and death for the communities we serve?

I was reminded of a line from a Leonard Cohen song, "Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." Julia and I went to work on shaping a project that would convene the conversation through the lens of seasonal change. iSeeChange morphed into an online Farmer's Almanac. Local farmers and ranchers came out of the woodwork to ask questions about the weather conditions they were dealing with. Scientists around the country engaged with the citizens' questions. And much to my delight, my friends and neighbors in rural Colorado showed themselves to be rich in knowledge and highly skilled in their observation powers. How could it be any different? These are people who earn their livelihoods from the land and raise their families on the land. If there is a way to adapt to an ongoing drought, these are the folks who are going to try the hardest to find it. These are the people that the scientists most need to learn from and engage with.

iSeeChange has helped us claim the richness of our knowledge; it's helped us strive for excellence in the quality of our local programming; and it is helping us become much more strategic and creative about how we use digital technology. This work is also helping us change the way we thought of ourselves, and shift us from the internalization of being viewed as under-resourced, underserved, and undervalued to seeing ourselves as keen observers and productive and engaged citizens. In the end, iSeeChange has affirmed once again the transformative power of telling our stories. Not just for the teller but for the listener as well.

Years ago, I was commenting to my sister that I could never quite find the perfect window of time for planting peas. She quickly responded to me that you plant your peas when the lilac leaves are the size of a mouse's ear. I've shared that little gardening nugget many times over the years and I've heard hundreds more like it. Who would have known? These and countless other tidbits make up the rich catalog of agrarian wisdom that characterizes rural communities all over the country. As we move bravely onward into the new frontier of public media in a multiplatform age, let us not forget that technology is not the medium. The heart is the medium and the technology is the tool. That is where profound innovation has always come from, and that is what Localore has to teach us.

 

Sally Kane is executive director at KVNF Community Radio in Paonia, Colorado. After 10 years at the helm, Sally is moving on from KVNF and planning to continue to work in community media. Her email is kanesally@gmail.com.