Public radio has come a long way from its days as the indie alternative to mega-wattage commercial news. It’s a mainstream, mature news operation now, at least in most large markets.
Sue Schardt, executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio, is worried about public radio (and television) losing touch with its experimental roots. That’s why a new $2 million AIR initiative called Localore is out to create new kinds of public media, pairing up 10 independent producers with “incubator” stations across the country.
“We’re at a point in the history of this industry where those stations, radio and television…are at full tilt just doing the day-to-day,” Schardt told me. “They don’t have the resources, they don’t have the money — and, in many ways, even though the heart may be there, there’s not a mindset that allows them to experiment, to try new things, and to really have the space and the means to reinvent themselves.”
Twenty participating stations, including Chicago’s WBEZ, Santa Monica’s KCRW, Cleveland’s Ideastream, and a number of smaller outlets, are themselves competing to house the 10 chosen producers for nine to 12 months. Stations must strut their stuff on AIR’s public-facing “Station Runway” to qualify. Then producers have until Nov. 10 to team up with a station and submit a proposal.
Why the name? “It riffs off of this sort of contemporary notion of ‘locavore,’ which says, ‘Pay attention to where you’re getting your sustenance.’ In that case, it has to do with food, good food,” Schardt said. “Localore, likewise: Pay attention to where you get your news, where your stories come from — source them close to home.”
Localore is a sequel to Makers Quest 2.0, a similar initiative in 2008 to push public radio into public media. Eight producers were given five months and $40,000 apiece to create new, multiplatform models for storytelling. Every one of them assembled something on time and on budget, Schardt said.
One such project was The Corner at KUOW Seattle. The Corner, in this case, is 23rd & Union, a once-Jewish, predominantly black, increasingly gentrified neighborhood at the geographical center of the city. Producer Jenny Asarnow opened a phone line for people to share stories of the neighborhood; she received more than 200 messages. Some of those stories aired on the radio, many more of them in a multimedia package on the web. The project inspired an improvisational art installation, featuring larger-than-life photographs of the locals, and barbecues in the neighborhood.
“With the lessons we took from MQ2, one of the core takeaways was that we now understand that we have the capacity — AIR has this ability — to identify talent and throw it at a problem or an idea,” Schardt said. “So the question became: What are we going to direct this energy towards this time? And more deeply, how can we truly have a more significant impact on the system itself?”
Anyone is eligible to be a Localore producer, Schardt said. The project is funded by a $1.25 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which will cover producers’ salaries and expenses, as well as grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Wyncote Foundation.