Public Radio Gears Up for Hyperlocal News Innovation

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Jessica Clark is a guest author. If you’d like to submit a guest post, click here.

Los Angeles public station KCRW is one of a rising breed of stations taking on the challenge of reinventing public media from the ground up.

“This is a place where people come for an authentic experience,” says the station’s general manager, Jennifer Ferro. “The people who listen want to hear something truthful, authentic, original, interesting, something that enriches your life.”  The station strives to reflect a broader picture of Los Angeles as a creative community through a variety of original programs, as well as strategic investments in independent producers.” It is “one of those stations that other stations look up to,” says Jad Abumrad of popular public national program Radiolab.

Public radio and TV stations already boast a huge local footprint, with a total of more than 1300 stations serving an estimated 170 million users around the country. In many cities and towns, they serve as indispensable local hubs for news, engagement and education.

But, too often, they lack capacity to experiment with new digital platforms or reporting tools. This makes them strong candidates for partnerships with hyperlocal reporters and entrepreneurs, who can help them expand their reach beyond their core listeners and platforms. In return, such partners stand to gain visibility, credibility, and valuable lessons in crafting hybrid business strategies that involve both commercial and noncommercial income streams.

Federal, private and individual donors are all supporting myriad local and hyperlocal reporting experiments based at stations. Some of these are centered on a particular station, such as WHYY’s participatory NewsWorks project in Philadelphia, or the customized station apps that the Public Radio Exchange is building, which capitalize on the content strengths of each station. Other experiments involve networks of reporters, producing both on-air and online content, such as NPR’s Project Argo, or the Local Journalism Centers.

Results of these initiatives have been mixed. Stations struggle to both move beyond broadcast assumptions, and to reach community members that have not been well served by traditional public affairs programming. Better and more replicable models are needed for cross-platform storytelling, participatory reporting that brings in a broader range of perspectives, and narrative forms that more closely reflect the shifting media consumption and sharing habits of younger users.

However, the Localore project we’re working on at the Association for Independents in Radio (AIR) demonstrates, many stations are willing to step up in a new way when invited help figure out how public media can better engage communities. An open call for producers excited about transforming public media, Localore will bring more than $1 million in CPB funding to support 10 producer-led teams in developing new storytelling and reporting tools that increase stations’ capacity for R&D. The deadline for both stations and producers is November 10.

In order to be eligible, stations must reveal themselves in an unprecedented fashion: by submitting a 3-5 minute piece of media to the Station Runway that shows their station culture, aspirations, and what distinguishes their local community. We’re anticipating media from more than 20 stations, but even the dozen who have submitted so far are providing surprising and often moving glimpses into the diverse public media ecosystem, and the creativity and passion of staff, volunteers and listeners. Watch the videos below, or read on to catch a glimpse:

For example, the video from Pittsburgh’s WQED explores the station’s forays into new platforms. “We’re not just a television station,” says Vice President for Content Darryl Ford Williams. “We’re a multimedia company, and we have been for years: television, radio, interactive, education. WQED, I think, is one of the leaders in this new area we call transmedia. Everything we do has an integrated, interactive platform—an engagement platform that extends the life of what we do on air.”

The video also showcases Pittsburgh’s geographical and cultural diversity, with 59 languages represented in the community.

Station Manager Ellen Rocco describes North Country Public Radio (NCPR) as offering the best of both worlds. “We have the creative, we’ll-try-anything character of a community station, but we have the professionalism and the chops of the best of the public radio stations,” she says. Located in Canton, New York, the station serves communities across a vast swath of the rural north of New York State, from Glens Falls in the south, to Ontario in the north, to Tug Hill in the west, to greater Burlington in the east.

“I get to travel all over the United States, and when I do I listen to public radio everyplace I go,” says author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, “There’s no station in America that manages to combine serious, professional newsgathering and thought and analysis and everything else [with] a deep, visceral, homey connection to all the people around it.”

KGLT in Bozeman, Montana relies on volunteer power to keep their sound fresh, varied and local. The station’s video features author and former station DJ Sarah Vowell, who is now a popular contributor to This American Life. “Listening to the radio these days it has been so commercialized and so computerized,” she says. “Everything is such a ghetto of genres, it’s all so compartmentalized.”

These are only a few of the many stations around the country actively seeking to reinvent themselves. They’re asking many of the same questions that commercial hyperlocal outlets are — about which platforms to use, how best to incorporate user-generated content, and how to sustain high-quality reporting in the absence of clear business models. Those running hyperlocal sites should see the stations in their community not just as competitors, but as possible collaborators.

Jessica Clark is the Media Strategist at the Association for Independents in Radio (AIR), and a Senior Fellow at American University’s Center for Social Media, where she led the Future of Public Media Project from 2007-2011.