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“Public Broadcasting has a future and its all about YOU,” tweeted Jonathan Coffman at the close of this weekend’s bustling Public Media Camp.

Coffman, the product manager for PBS Engage, was a key organizer of the event, along with Andy Carvin, a senior strategist at NPR’s Social Media Desk, and Joe and Peter Corbett, two brothers who run iStrategy Labs, a “digital word of mouth agency.” American University’s Center for Social Media, where I work, served as the host of the event.

But while the organizers did present over the course of PubCamp’s two days, the bulk of planning was left up to the 250-plus attendees. They spent each morning honing topics for dozens of sessions, from “Getting Seniors and Underserved Communities Online,” to “What the Heck is Drupal & Why Should We Care?” to “Epic #Fail,” which surveyed a range of new media projects that had dramatically tanked.

This unconference format, which creates a “blank slate” for attendees to identify shared issues, projects and learning opportunities, wasn’t the only unusual feature of the PubCamp. This represented a new approach to problem-solving in this sector.

Public broadcasting as a whole has been slow to adapt to the participatory media environment (after all, Time magazine declared “you” the Person of the Year way back in ’06). As a sign of the changing times, all three of the 10-ton gorillas — PBS, NPR, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — supported and endorsed this event. CPB also underwrote scholarships for attendees from 10 stations who promised to hold their own local PubCamps in the coming months.

“The year everything changed”

“People will remember 2009 as the year everything changed,” predicted NPR CEO Vivian Schiller in her opening remarks, fresh from the previous week’s NPR Digital Think-In.

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Vivian Schiller

Of course, top-down attitudes still creep back in from the leaders of outlets better known for producing trusted broadcasts than Wikipedia-style collaboration. At an “unpanel” moderated by MediaShift’s Mark Glaser, both John Boland and Jason Seiken of PBS faced tough questions about their arms-length attitudes toward user-generated content. This theme was picked up in a parallel session on the relationship between citizen and professional journalists. As attendee Jessie Newburn noted, this conversation revealed changing generational dynamics:

When the blogger said emphatically to the well-paid, entrenched traditional media lady who was assuming that a blogger would want to volunteer under her organization’s terms of providing content, ‘We don’t want to volunteer for you. We want to be in partnership with you.’ I knew then that the tides had shifted…GenXers have moved away from asking for attention and respect, vis-a-vis their ideas/visions/Web 2.0 activity and new problem-solving and are moving on, with or without the institutions.

This can-do vibe animated PubCamp’s sometimes chaotic and often lively sessions. Freed from the doldrums that drag down so many traditional journalism and public broadcasting conferences, innovators from across the country sat down with like-minded techies and public media enthusiasts to discuss what’s working, what’s needed, and what to do next.

“It’s really refreshing to hear people with good ideas pushing them forward,” said Katie Kemple, who works on the Economy Story collaboration.

Emerging Projects to Watch

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Several of the emerging projects discussed at PubCamp demonstrate the sort of cross-system, cross-platform thinking that can help transform public broadcasting into Public Media 2.0:

  • A session on disaster response explored how stations could work with community members to swiftly cover breaking events using social media tools. The 2008 Hurricane Information Center is an example of this approach. (Attendees noted that simulated zombie attacks might be just the thing to serve as drills, so keep your eyes peeled for shambling hackers in rags!)

  • Julie Drizin of the Association of Independents in Radio presented highlights from Makers Quest 2.0, citing these productions as examples of “new media lifeforms.” Spearheaded by independent producers, these multi-platform projects aired on a variety of national programs. They also branched out to the web, iPhones, and beyond.
  • A packed room full of developers shared tips and critiques of social media tools. A few clear winners included comments management tool Disqus, and collaborative writing tool EtherPad.
  • A conversation about how to attract and retain volunteers spun off a new concept that two attendees promised to make happen: creating a series of meetups for singles who are also public broadcasting fans.
  • Christian Ugbode of the National Black Programming Consortium workshopped a proposal for a Public Media Corps. The Corps would train community members to work with stations around the country on participatory projects that engage underserved audiences.

“The big thought I came away from PubCamp with was that [public broadcasting] needs to think of itself as an open source community, and begin to work like that,” blogged Shane Guiter, who fundraises for PBS in Austin. “Why should we all spend tens of thousands of hours working on the same issues separately?”

Local PubCamps Being Organized

Generating new tools, models and volunteers for under-resourced local stations can’t happen soon enough. Just this week yet another report, The Reconstruction of American Journalism, pegged public broadcasting as an important part of the solution to the news crisis.

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“Public radio and television should be substantially reoriented to provide significant local news reporting in every community served by public stations and their websites,” recommend the report’s authors, Columbia journalism school professor Michael Schudson and former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, Jr.

If the local PubCamps proceed as promised, you will have an opportunity to help. Stations in Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Mississippi and Florida have already begun planning their camps.

The guide for future events stressed the “10 Principles of PublicMediaCamps,” including, “It’s all about strengthening public media through collaboration with the public” and “there is no audience, only participants.”

Photos of attendees and Vivian Schiller by Mark Glaser. Photo of PubCamp schedule board via Shane Guiter

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media project at American University’s Center for Social Media. There, she conducts and commissions research on media for public knowledge and action, and organizes related events like the Beyond Broadcast conference. She is also the co-author of a forthcoming book, “Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media,” due out from the New Press in December 2009.