My formidable cousin Connie loves to hunt. She’d been tracking a good-sized buck for some time out in the woods of her property in upstate New York when, she recounted to me recently, she caught up with him. She had him right in the sight of her Sako .243 rifle, finger on the trigger and, good hunter that she is, ticked down a quick mental checklist before making the shot: Feet steady, ground level? Breathing OK? … Don’t hold breath! He’s on top of that hill … perfect! What’s behind him — a rock? Tree? No backstop!? What’s the trajectory? … Uh-oh.
“In a moment,” she told me, “I realized if my shot were to go through that deer, the bullet might likely end up in my neighbor’s living room.” The deer had another day.
We were having this conversation in late August, two days after Jeffrey Johnson shot his former co-worker in front of the Empire State Building. I asked her what she thought about nine people getting hit by the police in the crossfire. “Situational awareness,” she matter-of-factly replied. “The cops didn’t have time to think through the situation. They had to react. If that deer had turned and pointed a gun at me, I wouldn’t have had the luxury of remembering Mrs. Bransford sitting in front of her TV set.”
Telling a story is like doing an out-loud situational awareness check — minus the gun — and subject to the influence of time, circumstances, and the intention of the storyteller-mediator. It is not one thing, there is no fixed meaning, and the relative power of a story is bound to this wider context of time and place.
Right now, there is a run on storytelling in public media. We’re seeing a pervasive, competitive focus that promises “reinvention” of the form — with radio as a strong generating medium, from NewsPoets on ATC to deeper, exploratory style (”The Story“), live, stand-up (”The Moth: True Stories Told Live“) and, a grandparent of the live format, “Selected Shorts: Let us tell you a story“). Then there are variations on the one-hour magazine format bringing “storytelling with a beat” (”Snap Judgment“) and, perhaps, the darling of all, “Radiolab.” With this rush underway, “This American Life,” which launched nationally in 1996, no longer stands alone as a reinvention of storytelling, though many of the newer, emergent programs echo back to it. These are, of course just a few of the many boundary-pushers working at stations, the networks and home studios across the system, comprising a whole new phase of evolution.
Why now this renaissance? What’s our situational awareness checklist? For one, just like those New York police officers, public media is arguably in a life-or-death situation. It’s clear that the continuing threats to eliminate funding are part of an ongoing reality we have to contend with. CPB’s own assessment offers an alarming picture, with a projected 365 of 1,200-station interconnected networks at significant risk and public media services to 15.5 million Americans lost or severely diminished. But like cousin Connie, we have a little time to consider the situation. And, in such circumstances, what do those working at the creative center of the industry do?
_“Well, broadcast TV is … living on borrowed time. It’s not going to be long before it goes the way of vinyl records and eight-track tapes … Well, so, why not just let this die a natural death?”_—Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Oral argument, FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. (06/21/2012)
Author and teacher Greg Sarris (Kashaya Pomo and Miwok federated tribes) is invested in proper interpretation and preservation of Native American culture through its literature. He describes storytelling as a living practice that “embodies the indeterminateness, structural looseness, multivalence, and richness of the culture itself.”
Storytelling has emerged as a safe zone that allows media practitioners to circumvent, or at least loosen up, some of the traditional boundaries that may be confining the industry during a time of great change. It is, in part, a way for us to flex and experiment on the edges of the often strict parameters of journalistic practice and the fixed broadcast medium that defines much of what we do — sort of like the Casual Friday versus Monday to Thursday in a workweek.
The existing public broadcasting system is built on the proposition that a certain portion of the broadcast spectrum should be set aside for media with a public mission. However, the emerging craft that is defining full-spectrum public media recognizes that the field of play has expanded tremendously. We are working in accordance with the fact that citizens are not only consuming radio and television over the air, they are downloading, creating, remixing, and sharing all kinds of media on small and large screens, and increasingly, in the street via mobile devices. Multimedia installations once confined to museums are now sprawling out into public spaces exclaiming “this is public media!” Text, image, audio, video and dynamic user-generated submissions are all converging, spawning dynamic new media life forms. Our policies have yet to catch up with this lived practice.
If we understand stories to be reflective of a particular culture at a particular time, and if we then carefully consider the iterative flow of storytelling down the public media pipeline, those concerned with the viability of the industry should arguably be questioning whether we are capturing a broad enough range of American culture.
While not all agree, let’s suppose, for a moment, that we are, in fact, presenting through our contemporary storytelling a relatively narrow range of the American experience. Some of the questions we ought to be asking are, is it enough to maintain the same formats, as we have, and try to entice more/different storytellers? Do we need to expand our awareness in some way to consider more broadly the particulars of this time, this particular space, and who is involved? And, fundamentally, what is it going to take to go further, to do more?
When those interested in the evolution of contemporary storytelling consider our current time and place, the lens opens to the industry’s quest to capture the best uses of technology to expand our audience and advance the public service mission at the heart of everything we do. At the AIR, where I’m the executive director, our own multi-city Localore production teams are working now to define a new, converged, space where broadcast, digital, and street platforms coexist. We call it “Full-Spectrum” public media.
The latter — “street” — platform is especially key, since it represents public media makers moving beyond the traditional approach of going out into the community with a microphone or camera to capture a story, edit it into shape, and send it into distribution. This is where our producers are providing new, often intimate points of access for public media in the physical space of the community — portable booths, installations, moving onto porches and into backyards and haunts familiar to people living in a neighborhood — as a way of extending our base of operations beyond broadcast and allowing citizens to become documentarians of their own lives. Few things are truly new; neither is this street dimension. There’s David Isay’s groundbreaking “Ghetto Life 101“ — putting microphones into the hands of two young boys living in a Chicago housing project — and years before that, the legendary Bill Siemering cut his teeth taking his radio station, WBFO, out onto the porches, waterways, and storefronts in Buffalo, N.Y., experiments that informed and eventually led to his enduring creation, “All Things Considered.” Six months into our yearlong Localore production cycle, we are seeing promising new forms growing out of our Full Spectrum approach that expand the perimeters of contemporary storytelling even further.
For Localore and our efforts to define full-spectrum public media and experiment with a new storytelling practice, our field producers are beginning to yield some useful results. For one, Justice Alito’s notion of a post-broadcast world becomes meaningless — broadcast is not going to disappear but is, rather, realigned in the expanded converged paradigm. In a similar way, the distinctions between approaches to craft — audio versus video, for example — are also converging, but remain absolutely distinctive and, if anything, take on even greater importance. Zeega’s Jesse Shapins, in his May 2012 Idea Lab piece, “How the Indie Audio Community Is Transforming Storytelling,” draws some clear lines, speculating that audio makers are “more open to redefining and experimenting with boundaries” because they work within a “relatively fluid genre that operates in so many different contexts at such varied lengths (broadcast news magazines, long-form series, live performance, ‘listening rooms,’ etc.)”
Rutgers Professor Ellen Goodman convened a gathering on behalf of the Ford Foundation this summer to consider “public interest in digital communications at a time where communicative power is distributed.” She introduced Justice Alito’s perspective as a way of provoking a wider conversation about how present uncertainties are challenging media policy-makers. We talked about the role of what she described as “trusted intermediaries” in the contemporary media landscape — stations, networks, and organizations. Goodman has been researching new models for networked public media for the past few years. (See her provocative 2011 article and the video that she put together with AIR Media Strategist Jessica Clark, which appeared in MediaShift last March.) Her model notes that infrastructure is one key element of public media. But it places equal value on other public media functions: curation, creation, and connection.
It’s vitally important to go to the root and consider the agency of journalists and producers as among these very intermediaries who harvest the stories — consider their agency in adapting new technologies to exploit the full spectrum and bring new meaning and shape to the emerging space that welcomes in citizens that have, until now, been beyond our reach. These are the storytellers — and story-gatherers — who can help American culture reflect upon itself in a time of tremendous transition. A powerful field of development work for our strongest makers is market-to-market, where the degree to which local public radio and television are able to extend out further to more citizens will determine, in large part, the future success of the industry as a whole.
It is more than I hoped for. —Jennifer Ferro, GM/KCRW, Commenting on Localore’s Sonic Trace
Localore was AIR’s open call last fall for public media radio and television stations and producers to “go outside” traditional approaches to story gathering and craft, “go outside” reporters’ typical mindset, and physically “go outside” into the streets to open up new channels of access to those who aren’t usually reached by public media service. The intention of the initiative, and the work of the 10 stations and selected producers is to exploit this moment in time to plant seeds — develop new models — for public media to serve all Americans.
There are more than 120 station-based, community, technology, and field producers operating out of our station hubs. The work underway recognizes the full spectrum. From a storytelling standpoint, there are multiple access points for citizens to not only experience, but to contribute as documentarians of their own lives. One operating principle for our work is that these access points should be identified, at least for a time, “outside” the current public broadcasting structure — both physical public media buildings (onto the “street” plane) — and also outside the broadcast space.
With old-school public radio (that is, 20 or more years ago), average, interested citizens could walk in the door, volunteer, and get a show for the asking. That was the portal for a number of those working at the highest ranks of the industry today. In the present day, it might be Jenny Asarnow’s full-block installation on The Corner in Seattle where participants encounter a media project; KQED and the Kitchen Sisters’ toll-free mobile phone number inviting stories for The Making of …, or La Burbuja, a new KCRW storytelling booth in Los Angeles, conceived by Localore producer Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and designed by Hugo Martinez — all clearly identified and labeled as “this is public media” or “this belongs to you.”
In each case, the placement or location of the access point must be chosen with a clear mind about who the intended audience is. This approach informs design, language — any elements that will help strengthen the “meeting” between the media makers or institutions and the public they seek to invite and reflect.
Ask and Tell
Let’s go a little deeper into the full-spectrum storytelling R&D currently underway:
Who gets to tell the story? If it’s the story about the crisis in American education, the Ed Zed Omega “thought collaboration” incubating at Twin Cities Public Television is being played out over three months across social and mobile platforms by eight fictional characters: Mary Johnson — a guidance counselor who’s fed up with the drop-out rate — six teens entering their final semester of high school, and one homeschooler. Game designer/creator Ken Eklund directs the narrative thread from behind the scenes as it unfolds, exploring “What is school supposed to accomplish?”
Who gets to ask the question that begins the story? Lead producer Jennifer Brandel set out to subvert the standard practice associated with editorial agenda-setting with her Curious City. The project crowdsources questions about Chicago, its culture, and its environment through one of eight participatory documentary sites being developed by our technology partner, Zeega. The winning “asker” gets his or her question assigned to a reporter who sets out to answer the question. Since launching its interactive site three months ago, the project has thoroughly infiltrated Chicago Public Media and sent new green shoots into the city, involving more than 58 staffers, 25 reporters assigned to questions from 53 winning contributors, and more than 250 questions posed by citizens across the city as of mid-September.
What is the question? Todd Melby is living for 11 months in one of the “man camps” sprung up in North Dakota, communities where imported workers who are manning the oil boom live. Melby, too, is an interloper, and one of the most difficult parts of effective engagement is finding the right question that will get people to the hypothetical “yes” and open up to tell their story. As he puzzled over how he’d get workers to contribute as documentarians of their own experience to his Black Gold Boom he noticed one popular mode of communication was bumper stickers. “Welcome to North Dakota. We don’t give a bleep how you did it back home” for one. And “I Came for the Cash Cause I’m Oil Field Trash.” He jumped into the fray, devising two lapel stickers of his own — “I Love the Boom” and “I Hate the Boom” — which have yielded some gems of stories like this one.
After the Renaissance
Marshall McLuhan, in his “Understanding Media,” described the inherent nature of radio as possessing “subliminal depths … charged with the resonating echoes of tribal horns and antique drums.” Its power, “unheeded by the script writers,” he writes, is “to turn the psyche and society into a single echo chamber.” Powerful language in an industry dominated by narrative forms incessantly feeding the right side of our brains.
This renaissance underway won’t go on forever. While it’s here, we will do best if we open ourselves to all possibilities, think beyond storytelling, and consider, for example, pushing the boundaries of full-spectrum public media — as a strategic necessity — to incite imagination and vision, to draw on music and sound in new and broadly appealing ways; transcend the narrative.
Now is our time. Those of us working in public media have the potential as never before to expand and deepen understanding, tolerance, and common purpose among a broadly diverse citizenry. The degree to which we work with clear intention to reimagine and push ourselves further into the new space that’s opened to us and out into the far corners of the neighborhoods across the U.S. will determine how well we’re able to preserve and strengthen public-service media. Changing our craft may, in turn, lead us to reflect the lives of more Americans in powerful, new ways that we haven’t yet conceived of. And, if we succeed, it might help change the stories that the public and politicians tell about public media, pulling it out of the rifle sights.
Let’s celebrate the fact that, during this time of crisis, ours is, at its heart, a creative industry driven top to bottom by makers. And, indeed, for now, we are doing what we do best: reinventing. Like crazy, we are reinventing.
Sue Schardt is the executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio, Inc. She assumed leadership of AIR, a growing, 860-member organization in September 2007. AIR marks 2012 with the launch of Localore, a producer-led national initiative designed to strengthen station innovation capacity and plant seeds to take public media to more Americans funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Wyncote, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Schardt also serves as a Director on the Distribution and Interconnection Committee of the NPR board, sits on the advisory board of Native Voice One — the Native American Radio Service — and is an Artistic Advisor to NPR’s From the Top. She is a long-time music DJ on MIT’s free-form radio station WMBR in Cambridge, MA. Follow her @AIRmedia.