Join National Conversation
Juan Fine Mess (Posted December 2010)
Earlier today we sent this note to SRG members. We thought we would share it with you and a few other colleagues, too.
Last week was a bit of a wreck for NPR. And the rest of us, too.
There is some comfort in pledge drives that met and exceeded goals – the reports we are hearing are very encouraging, reflecting public radio’s steady growth in service and value. And amid the calls voicing anger or dismay over the Williams affair were important messages of support or understanding.
But public radio took a hit. “Mistakes were made,” as the saying goes, at a cost in trust and affection that will be more than fleeting.
So how do we make this week, and those that follow, better?
GET READY FOR THE REAL DEBATE
We must get out of the swamp and onto higher ground. Quickly.
In seven days we will have a national election with uncertain outcomes for control of both houses of Congress. Whatever the final tallies, we will emerge on the other side with a bitterly divided, highly partisan national legislature. And if a flock of Republican Congressional leaders have their way – cheered on by a crew of visible and vocal Presidential aspirants – what better setting for a debate about “defunding” public broadcasting?
This is the stuff that that energizes the base and puts markers on the political landscape, that plumps up mailing lists and stirs many a political soul.
Our last full-tilt conversation with Congress, in 2005, reaffirmed federal support with a pivotal vote by the full House of Representatives. And a decade earlier the ballyhooed “glide path to zero” never happened. But neither were easy fights. We must take nothing for granted and the times, they do change. Past champions on both sides of the aisle have left the marbled halls and it is not clear who rises to take their place.
Perhaps the current outcries will produce little more than a really uncomfortable hearing for Vivian Schiller. But it is more probable that we are in for a more sustained and significant confrontation for which we – all of us in public media – are not as prepared as we should be.
NPR will be a lightning rod for criticism. These are times that heighten the liability of public radio’s principal news producer also serving as its principal advocate in national affairs. NPR will be challenged to move the conversation from small mistakes to larger accomplishments and from its own circumstances to the significance of our field as a whole.
APTS, the Association of Public Television Stations, has played a vigorous role in key Congressional debates. But it is currently without a permanent CEO and its war chest is stressed by the fiscal woes of public television stations whose dues support its work.
CPB has veteran players in both senior management and on its board. But it has limits on its role – both a prohibition on CPB lobbying and the fact that, in any debate on “defunding” public broadcasting, it is CPB itself that would be eliminated.
And our stations?
How many stations have sharpened their own compelling message about the indispensable roles they play in their communities? Do our messages align with each other in a coherent, reinforcing way? What is the most important role of federal funds in stations’ work going forward?
With Grow the Audience public radio made genuine progress toward a shared narrative of building use and value. We now need to turn that work, which largely spoke to those of us inside the field, into an accessible, public-facing case.
How well have we cultivated allies in our communities – both individuals and organizations? When these debates heat up, stations go looking among their many friends for those who would be the most effective supporters with members of Congress. Why not do that now – refresh the connections and listen to their views and advice as well as sharing your own.
Our challenge in all of this is to look relentlessly forward – proud as we are of what we have done – to the difference we will make in peoples’ lives, in the health of our communities, in the strength of our culture and our democracy.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GOOD WORK
On Sunday we received a note from a station manager asking “how we make amends with the public.” There is no easy step to do the trick.
Earnest as it may sound, the best way we know is through rededicating ourselves – at all levels of our field – to the good work that we do, and to engaging with our communities around the substance and meaning of that work.
Last week we shared several station messages about NPR and Juan Williams on SRGList. We received more over the weekend, from which we would like to pass along a couple of excerpts. The shared theme in these selections is turning attention to what matters.
Ted Krichels, Director of Broadcasting at SRG member WPSU, shared a response to a deeply concerned board member. He opened by noting:
“As the chair of a national initiative seeking to clarify editorial standards in this new media age, I am sensitive to NPR's desire to separate opinion from reporting and analysis. I believe that separation is essential for any news organization that wants to be a trusted source of information.”
He offered a candid critique of how NPR had handled aspects of Williams, but then returned to the larger issue:
I continue to believe that NPR is the most trustworthy source of news we have. Like you, my concern is that we not let that be undermined. It is why I greatly appreciate having board members like you who are supportive, but also willing to be critical when appropriate.
When Bill Davis wrote to his Southern California Public Radio board of directors over the weekend, he closed his note with this message:
“I want to assure you that none of this controversy will affect SCPR’s efforts to provide the highest quality news and public affairs programming in the Southland. Listening to KPCC this weekend reminded me that no other broadcast news station in Southern California can match our ability to connect the dots between what’s happening internationally, nationally and here in LA. . . . if you feel the need to reinforce your commitment to this mission—just tune in or log on. You’ll be amazed by what you hear, what you read and what you see. Let’s not let this episode distract us from what’s really important and what is truly meaningful to the communities we serve.”
Highest quality news and public affairs programming . . . connect the dots, internationally, locally, and here . . . separate opinion from reporting and analysis . . . most trustworthy source of news . . . what is truly meaningful to the communities we serve.
That’s how we earned trust, affection, and support. It is how we strengthen it. It is the main thing we need to be doing and talking about.
–Tom Thomas and Terry Clifford
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