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Feb. 19, 2015, 9:30 a.m.

Newsonomics: Texas, vast Texas, aims to set a new standard in statewide public media news

Texas Standard, a new public radio collaboration, aims to knit together a state both unitary and diverse.

Texas Standard debuts with a snap, crackle, and pop.

David Brown, its daily host, “brings us the snap of Marketplace, which he used to anchor,” says KUT general manager Stewart Vanderwilt, who has the fun of acting the impresario in the launch of a new one-hour, five-day-a-week public radio news program, going statewide March 2. The crackling conversation is already in evidence if you listen to the pilot Texas Standard programs, bringing in voices from Houston to San Antonio and the smaller burgs of the republic. Those pilots have been airing on Vanderwilt’s own Austin-based public radio station since last week. Its dailyness provides pop; a live hour of Texas Standard can take off from the day’s news, produced live.

Vanderbilt is a native Texan, “born in Cleburne, or as most people say in my era, Johnson County.” He believes that Texas is uniquely conducive to such a program: “This one works in Texas because of our unique features. Texas is so damn big. It does have an individualized and collective sense of self.” Global issues can have a local impact — think Eastern European oil and gas production changes that affect the state’s economy, or the resettlement of Middle East refugees, given Houston’s large resettled communities. “Because Texas is so big, there’s very little overlap — almost non-existent — station to station. So doing something like this isn’t a zero-sum game for the stations. It makes collaboration additive for everyone, and not subtractive for anyone.”

We can call on John Steinbeck to remind us that Texas exceptionalism proves long-standing:

I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.

Now public media hopes to tap that apparently singularity. Sixteen stations – “from Commerce to Marfa with Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio in between,” exults Vanderbilt — have signed up to carry the program, giving it statewide presence out of the gate. Can a state create its own version of NPR’s Morning Edition or All Things Considered? While national public radio and national digital news media have been growing audiences over the last 15 years — and newspapers have been massively cutting their reporting capacity — we can compare and contrast what we know nationally to what we know locally.

“I find myself very well informed by The New York Times and NPR. You get out of your car and that’s what you talk about. There’s little to start a conversation around local,” CALmatters founder Simone Coxe told me this week, as she prepares for her own state-encompassing effort (“What are they thinking? CALmatters wants to shake up California statehouse”). Add in the wealth of intelligent journalism added to our lives by the Quartzes and Voxes, and I think that hits the nail on the head. The gulf in reporting — and reporting excellence — yawns wide as we look at the difference between the national bounty and what’s available about our own states, even the ones as big as California and Texas.

As a first-of-its-kind effort, if Texas Standard works, it will set a standard for a number of larger states, and perhaps attract the kind of new funders that public media needs. To be sure, many of the top public radio stations have built their own collaborations. What distinguishes Texas Standard, says Oregon Public Broadcasting general manager Steve Bass, is “having a group of stations on board before they launch. There are instances of stations within a state picking up the show from another station, but that usually happens after the fact and isn’t part of the plan. OPB’s Think Out Loud covers issues throughout the state and region, but only is carried by other stations only occasionally”; KUT staff visited OPB in preparation for Standard. In the New York area, WNYC actively works a number of collaborations in New Jersey and in Philadelphia, with WHYY.

What will be critical here is how much Texas Standard can smartly use the growing resources of Texas’ big four public media. If you add up the newsroom staffs at KUT (with 20 staffers), Houston Public Media, Dallas’ KERA, and San Antonio (Texas Public Radio), you get the round number of 50 working journalists. They’ve all got full-time jobs, but drawing smartly from their talents will tell us whether a statewide program can match the excellence of an All Things Considered or Morning Edition. Expect that Houston and Dallas will contribute multiple stories per week.

In digital terms, consider Texas Standard a “statewide platform,” as Vanderwilt calls it. For KUT, and maybe for others, Texas Standard provides a “signature program.”

In addition to its public radio assets, you have to like the pedigree of Texas Standard. KUT has engaged some of the brightest wits in the state, including Evan Smith, Emily Ramshaw, Ross Ramsey, and Alfredo Corchado, as it has formed partnerships with Texas Tribune, Texas Monthly, and The Dallas Morning News that will bring the state’s personalities regularly on air. Like its national models, Texas Standard borrows expertise from the state’s working journalists and academics, via interview, and promotes audience interaction, through Twitter. In its early programs, it offers a liveliness that should win audience.

Nine people make up the Texas Standard staff, funded on $800,000 a year. Philanthropic gifts lead the way, and underwriting or sponsorship is expected to grow. Texas Mutual Insurance is a launch sponsor. At this point, distributing stations don’t pay anything for the program.

Is Texas Standard part of a great renaissance of statewide news? That’s certainly premature. But it’s refreshing to see this effort, CALmatters, and a couple of others. We’ll see how much coverage Politico adds state-by-state as it revs up its non-national initiatives (“Newsonomics: From national, Politico expands into global — and local”).

Clearly, though, the initiative marks the further harnessing of radio, broadcast, streamed or podcast, as a news medium of the future. Texas Standard joins Reveal, the to-be weekly public radio investigative news program (“Meet ‘Reveal,’ the show that could be ’60 Minutes’ for our century”), as well as the growing news programming coming out of big metro stations from Boston to San Diego. That’s a news development that’s music to everyone’s ears.

Photo of Luckenbach, Texas (“with Waylon and Willie and the boys”) by Mobilus In Mobili used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 19, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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