Freelancing new ideas in radio is hard. NPR has its own substantial staff to generate ideas and projects, and most individual radio stations lack the resources or infrastructure to support many new ideas. So when the Association for Independents in Radio launched a project called Localore in late 2011 with the goal of helping a vibrant network of independent radio professionals create interactive, multimedia experiences tied to individual locations, it faced a number hurdles. Localore began with $2 million in funding, which helped — but how could it get stations interested in making a long-term investment in their ideas, even after the day the initial funding ended?That day arrived, in February. But remarkably, seven of the 10 projects funded are continuing on in some form or another; an impressive percentage have found alternate, and in some cases permanent, sources of funding. Two, Sonic Trace and Black Gold Boom, are expected to continue via funding from the Independent Television Service; while others are cobbling together a number of smaller grants, from organizations including MacArthur, Knight, McKnight, the Minnesota Legacy Fund, the NEA, PBS, and more. Across the field, 21 full-time staff have been devoted to the continuation of Localore member projects; in both Austin and Chicago, the member stations have fully embraced the Localore projects; KUT launched a new music station in conjunction with the Austin Music Map, and in Chicago, Curious City has been brought fully into WBEZ’s operating budget as well as won further grant money from Knight.
In a field where new projects often dry up the moment the money does, that’s a victory. AIR director Sue Schardt says that when she looks at the way Silicon Valley tech accelerators operate, she sees a lot of parallels to the lightweight, innovative, networked structure she’s been trying to create in the world of broadcast. AIR is in the process of evaluating the success of the project, and determining what the next steps — and round of funding — should entail. Schardt says she’s increasingly interested in building a fast and light system of financial support around those projects as the ideas grow beyond the original partner stations.
“We could just go and do another Localore, we could go and get another ten stations, or 20 stations, assign producers, and do this work again. There would be plenty of producers interested in doing it,” she said. “The other side of it, that seems more compelling, is to take these successes and lift them up — scale this up in a way that has broader impact.”
In the end, Schardt says Localore has come to serve a secondary function as a funding network with grants of diverse sizes, from very small local opportunities to national contests. With over half a million plays and downloads of their streaming media alone, and over $1.2 million of the $2 million given directly to producers for content production, Schardt says the experiment has been a success, and she gives an enormous amount of credit to the individual producers.
“Producer-led innovation — it’s not just a simple phrase,” she says. To become a Localore member, each candidate had to offer a combination of enthusiasm for technology, savvy for negotiation and, of course, talent for producing great media. Ultimately, whether the projects sank or swam depended on how well the individual producers and projects were able to juggle all three of these spheres.
More than anything, Schardt credits the delicate balance of interests in the original contracts between member stations, AIR and the producers for Localore’s success. Right off the bat, she says, stations were eager to access the talent — and funding — that AIR was offering. “It was a beautiful and rare moment where producers are leveraging in the negotiation ,” says Schardt. “We had the money and we had the resources and we had the talent. Who wouldn’t want the deal?”
But in order to get it, they had to make a demonstrate serious commitment to the project. “We said, when we were choosing our final picks: You know, this is about transforming your station, this is about transforming your relationship to your local community — are you really, really down with this?” she says. “If you’re not, it’s okay, but you have to sign on the dotted line that says you’re down with it.”
In this case, being “down with it” meant providing financial support, managing with an eye towards longevity and sustainability, allowing the producers control over any expansion of the project to other stations, and generally giving producers the control they needed to foster innovation. In return, the stations got total ownership of the content produced. Says Schardt, “We didn’t have editorial control — we divested that to the stations, which is one reason it was able to move so quickly. It was very light in that way.”
That lightness enabled the team at AIR to be constantly available to Localore producers for advice on negotiating with management and other issues of leadership. Delaney Hall, whose Austin Music Map lives on in Texas, says she learned early on that encouraging station employees to collaborate on the Localore project was key to align her work with the goals of the station. Jennifer Brandel, of Chicago’s Curious City project, said she learned to promote her work in meetings by using language she knew the station used when talking about strategy and opening the project up as widely as possible.
Having producers that understand the importance of these skills is especially important as Localore projects begin to be prototyped for national expansion. While AIR would ideally see all 10 projects continue forward, Schardt says the hand-holding period is at an end. She’s looking to focus resources on those stations, projects, and producers who have honed in on a work flow and structure that is sustainable and productive.
At the start, Localore’s relationship with web-interactive-content-production startup Zeega gave the project a heads up in terms of technology. While the producers were meant to think digitally, they were not the technologists themsvles, and in the majority of cases they came to rely on Zeega’s design and editorial process to bring their projects to life.
Kara Oehler, Zeega’s editor-in-chief, said working with Localore was integral to her understanding of how a tool for editing interactive productions could work. Oehler, who launched the open editing tool in January, says Localore’s Black and Gold project out of North Dakota is a good example of what a Zeega member could build on their own. (Justin Ellis wrote about Black Gold, which was then called Rough Ride, for the Lab not long ago.) But Oehler says the greatest lesson was that the next stage of the web can be intuitive if you give people tools that are easy to use. “Never let people say, ‘You tell me, you’re the web experts,’” she said. “People know what they want.”
Schardt says that finding creative journalists with an awareness of what technologies are available to them is half the battle. The advancements themselves outpace the average newsroom’s awareness and ability, but funding continues to be overwhelmingly aimed at furthering these platforms — while journalists struggle to keep up.
When that happens, Schardt says, “You sit at the altar of the coder and say, ‘Oh, please!’ Again, no one’s bad, but things are being done in reverse. There’s so much fuel going to technology, and it’s so far out front of what we really know what to do with it.”
For Localore, this turned into a problem when Zeega, so supportive during the grant term, moved to California to focus on building revenue and other projects. With Zeega no longer available to provide support to the member projects they helped build, Schardt says some of the stations are experiencing growing pains: “They’re having to grapple with: They have these properties, how are they going to maintain them?”
Even so, some stations have pushed through to interesting methods for growing and nurturing innovation. Andi McDaniel of Twin Cities Public Television said that when she first started working with Ken Eklund, the outside game designer/producer who brought Ed Zed Omega to the station, most of their colleagues had no idea what they were working on. A project with no broadcast element being worked on in a corner of the TV station made no sense to them: “It was like they couldn’t even say the name.”
What McDaniel took away from that experience was the importance of constant prototyping. So she came up with the idea of Open Air, a safe space for in-house innovation that is now a permanent fixture at TPT. “Innovation requires illustration,” she says. “Do something in a corner, and then be able to point to it.” Even just a little reprieve from the daily demands of a newsroom can help journalists find the time to master, and maybe even disseminate, new skills.
Once they were running meetings and talking tech like entrepreneurs straight out of Silicon Valley, however, the successful Localore members still had to blend those skills into the original mission — immersive storytelling and, ultimately, journalism.
At the start, Julia Kumari Drapkin, who found a home at KVNF in Colorado, was looking to capitalize on what she thought she knew about audience behavior. When she first flew out to Paonia, Colorado — a place she had never even seen before — to launch iSeeChange, what she wanted to create was crowdsourced environmental reporting, by getting local ranchers to text their observations about changes in weather into a central database.
Drapkin soon found that, while the contributions she did get put her weeks ahead of traditional news outlets, few residents of rural Colorado were comfortable with communicating that way. Instead, she found there were much more vibrant conversations on the topic happening on Facebook, and that ultimately the best stories were consistently discovered through face-to-face communication.
Even though she was surprised by the information consumption and dissemination behaviors of the people that she met, Drapkin succeeded in building an online, crowdsourced tool for farmers and scientists alike. The Almanac layers qualitative information about the experiences people have on a day-to-day basis (including photos) over quantitative information (time, inches of rainfall, temperature). Curation is minimal — Drapkin highlights the posts she finds most interesting — but she says it’s already become a robust tool at the nexus of science, public media, and the audience.
Schardt says overcoming these obstacles has prepared iSeeChange to be the kind of adaptable, lightweight prototype that could be a success across the country. Whether it’s ranchers in Colorado or CSA farmers in western Massachusetts, Drapkin has built something capable of having an impact that goes beyond a single station.
“There’s value in independent work. There’s a creative, outside component that they value,” Schardt says of how the system views freelance radio producers. AIR appears to have had some success capturing that value without squelching it. As the organization continues to figure out how to grow these projects, Schardt says the goal is to continue to be as much of a resource for the Localore member network as possible. A briefing book on what they’ve learned and best practices going forward is in the works, and AIR is weighing a variety of publishing options for disseminating that “sharing resource.”
“We’re interested in keeping the porch light on,” she says.