Hearing (New) Voices

An innovative financing model may change the face of public radio.

New Media Fellows 2013

By Jina Moore

November 25, 2013

Also published by Columbia Journalism Review

Sue Schardt wants to mess with your mind. Specifically, she wants to mess with how you think about public media. A public radio veteran, Schardt is the executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio, a network of nearly 1,000 indie producers (disclosure: including me) whose voices keep you company on your commute.

Schardt is also the mastermind of Localore, a $2 million, 12-month initiative to support 10 independent producers to partner with local public media stations and test out the topics, and digital tools, that might help remake journalism.

The easiest way to understand what Localore does is to watch and listen to—or participate in—the programming its grantees have created.

But the behind-the-scenes work Schardt has done to help transform the financial model is as powerful and innovative as Localore’s programming. “From a money standpoint,” Schardt says, “public radio is a subsidized economy, so it’s a closed economy.” That has its benefits, but it also has its inefficiencies. One of those is the way the subsidy trickles down: Fully 75 percent of the $445 million Congressional appropriation to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting goes toward television. Of the quarter left for radio, Congressional legislation requires that most of be spent on program licenses; in practice, local stations spend the vast majority of their funding (from CPB or elsewhere) on licensing national shows, like All Things Considered or Morning Edition.

Localore, on the other hand, presents stories, voices, and perspectives that don’t always make it onto the NPR airwaves. Here are three examples of the Localore look, feel, and sound:

iSeeChange, “a socially networked weather almanac” (or if that gives you too much brain cramp, “a community climate journal”), based out the Western Colorado radio station KVNF. A pastel site with a McSweeney’s aesthetic, iSeeChange is the brainchild of Julia Drapkin, who’s been covering climate change more traditionally for years. Anyone can hop on and leave a note about the day’s weather; more importantly, perhaps, they can write about how weather changes are affecting their lives and businesses and jot down tough decisions they’ve had to make in response.

Black Gold Boom, from producer Todd Melby and Prairie Public, the public radio and TV station in Fargo, about oil in North Dakota, is a visually rich project. A short, interactive documentary, navigable by chapter and distributed through YouTube, feels like centerpiece of the project. But you’re unlikely to see anything quite like this film on PBS. Some parts are all narration, some are non-narrated, some let users choose who to hear next; there photo galleries and an interactive representation of the spectrum of opinions on North Dakota’s oil. The documentary feels more like a narrative visual essay. A simple, clean website, meanwhile, collects more traditional stories published out of the initiative, including substantial national media coverage of the project. And because there’s no cutting-edge internet these days without crowdsourcing, users can add their opinions on the oil boom—and even better, browse the many other opinions Melby’s collected like a busybody with a wedding guestbook.

Curious City, at WBEZ in Chicago, asked its listeners to share questions, oddball or otherwise, about their hometown that they’d always wanted answers to. WBEZ reporters then set out to find the answers, in some cases taking the original questioner along for the reporting.

“Localore is demonstrating the vitality of outside agents—producers who are equipped to lead, and to bring disruption to, the institutional structure,” says Schardt.

Localore has laid an infrastructure for outside investment in public radio, and one big lesson of the project, Schardt says, is the importance of bringing in local investors. “That fires up local networks, and the radio station becomes a hub for churches, small businesses, libraries, and bars,” she says. “Localore [and] these networks, within local communities, had a shared value proposition, which totally redefines what the radio station is. It becomes a leader, in some ways, of urban rebirth or revitalization.”

Delaney Hall’s Austin Music Map is one good example of this. Her idea wasn’t only to build a beautiful Web experience cataloging the many sides of Austin’s music culture, but to get out in the streets and connect with people who don’t think of themselves as public media nerds. So she built a music festival in a part of Austin, as Schardt describes it, “where public media doesn’t exist,” invited teenage punk performers, rappers, and aging folk musicians, and hoped a crowd would turn up.

It ended up being so successful that the local public radio station is planning to repeat the festival in 2014. That alone, Schardt says, is a game-changer.

“The fact is, they’d never done anything like that,” she says. “Most stations are really hermetically sealed. They’re focused on Morning Edition and All Things Considered; those two shows are what the entire [radio] economy is built around. Everything else is window dressing; that’s been the model for 30 years.”

Some of Localore’s projects have found outside funding to continue, from places like independent documentary incubator ITVS and the MacArthur Foundation. Others are being absorbed wholesale by local stations that will continue the work; Curious City, at WBEZ in Chicago, is going to become a regular feature, one Schardt hopes can be adopted by other stations.

One lesson of Localore is that when it comes to technology, less may be more. Nearly 75 percent of the participating host stations said they didn’t have the staff or resources to keep up the tech end of the projects they incubated, but Schardt says her producers have also seen that light and lean tools are easier, and more replicable, than custom-built platforms.

The numbers suggest she’s on to something. Localore has generated nearly 30 million interactions—that’s the language of public media 2.0, where not only listeners, but sharers, streamers, aggregators, and responsive content creators are counted up to measure impact.

“We found that we don’t need to invest in technology to really activate the stations,” she says, “and to really give producers tools and elements that they can use to drive change.”

Jina Moore is a New Media Fellow of the International Reporting Project.