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Public Media Initiative Seeks More Inclusivity by Encouraging Rural Voices
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Summer sunset with a red barn and mountains in rural Montana

Young children in rural Kentucky learned how to capture their lives using a camera. A photographer taught them decades ago how to tell their stories through pictures. Forty years later, they came back together as adults to reflect on this experience in the POV documentary “Portraits and Dreams.”

Sharing such stories ensures that a sometimes underserved and misrepresented segment of the population is being seen. This is at the core of the PBS editorial principle of inclusiveness.

“PBS strives to contribute to informed debate by presenting, over time, content that addresses a broad range of ideas, information, and perspectives,” the PBS Editorial Standards state. “Inclusiveness means that content should reflect views from different backgrounds”—not only with respect to race, ethnicity, and gender but also including such differences as a person’s geographic area.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting also recognizes the value of this type of inclusiveness and is trying to encourage more stories about rural communities through its “Coming Home” initiative.

As part of “Coming Home: Connecting to Community,” CPB has provided grants to 10 public media stations to research their local communities and develop proposals for national programs about life in rural America.

“‘Coming Home’ reflects the sharing of the values and experiences that connect or bring people together, rather than divide,” CPB said in a statement. “CPB decided to support this collaborative idea to showcase the diversity, traditions, and richness of small towns and rural life, and expand the narrative about rural America.”

The idea for the initiative came from a group of station general managers who serve rural communities, many of whom returned to their hometowns to lead a public media station, said John Celestand, CPB's director of engagement. The GMs wanted to increase access to local stories from rural America.

About one-fifth of Americans live in rural communities, which are “sparsely populated, have low housing density, and are far from urban centers,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau. These areas make up 97 percent of America’s land.

“Our diversity is going to look different,” Jeff Tucker, the general manager of Idaho Public Television, said of his station’s coverage area. “That was the idea—to celebrate the diversity that we see in our state.”

Tucker has partnered with colleagues at Montana PBS, Wyoming PBS, and PBS Utah to propose “Coming Home: Intermountain West.” The project would consist of a 4-part series, weaving together 30-minute documentaries from each of these states.

“It’s just going to be the tip of the iceberg for what kind of stories can come out of it,” Tucker said about the CPB initiative, which has assembled advisors and experts to help review and evaluate local proposals.

Laura Dick, director of digital engagement at Montana PBS, said she wanted to partner with the other stations because the land is a common thread that lures people out West. The reasons people move to rural, wide-open spaces differ greatly, though, and that’s what the Intermountain West partners want to explore.

In Montana, for example, there are areas with little to no cell phone and internet service, but people often come there to escape from urban life and find somewhere peaceful, Dick said. Kids who grew up there are returning as adults to help revitalize their hometowns.

After brainstorming, the stations found that along with land, there are four other themes they have most in common: residents struggling to find reliable internet access; schools overcoming geographic isolation; delivering healthcare to low-income patients who are self-reliant; and communities reinventing themselves following the decline in natural resource-based economies like ranching.

Member stations already tell these stories at the local level, but this partnership gives them a chance to expand their coverage and share the stories nationally.

“Rural-based stories have always been a cornerstone of what we do. We connect Nebraskans through our coverage, telling stories that help people find common ground, find hidden gems in parts of the state they don’t visit, explore shared history, and more,” said Nancy Finken, chief content officer at Nebraska Public Media.

Nebraska Public Media’s proposal is to produce “HomeGrown Life,” a pilot project for a limited local to national series consisting of three 30-minute television episodes. Finken explained that the episodes would focus on “surprising stories of rural Americans who are choosing to ‘come home’ because they don’t want to live a big city life”—e.g., rural entrepreneurs such as a woman running the family cattle ranch and a farm-to-table meat business, and twin brothers trying to keep their family farm competitive.

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