How will we use our inventions?

AIR Executive Director Sue Schardt was invited to speak at a leadership breakfast hosted by American Public Media at the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in Denver, Colorado, on July 11, 2014. PMDMC is the largest gathering of public media radio and television stations – 1,100 attended this year. Here are her remarks, “How will we use our inventions? Thoughts on the future of public media”:

SueSchardtWe are in the midst of the most inventive, exciting period of our careers.

I don’t need to tell you that it’s also the most challenging time most of us have experienced.

I want to share some new ideas about engagement as strategy that will carry us through – specifically, about

  1. what it makes to build a culture of Research and Development,
  2. the role of talent and collaboration, and
  3. our mission.

I want to start, though, with a basic frame of understanding.

We are in the manufacturing business.

Every month of every year, every day of every week, indeed, every minute of every hour, we – together – are making stories.

Every one of you in this room is in the storymaking business: talking to donors, writing promo copy, negotiating contracts. We are all manufacturing stories.

I’ve got the greatest job in the world. I lead a network of nearly 1,000 producers working across the U.S. and 25 countries worldwide. This is a rich and growing talent ecosystem, one we foster with our collaborating organizations like Third Coast International Audio Festival; Transom; PRX; Sally Jo Fifer and ITVS, our “sister organization” on the public television side; the diverse producers in AIR’s own New Voices program.

Together, with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, we are working to support and cultivate diverse, independent-minded talent working on the front lines.

Together, with you, we are all making story.  Each of us has our part.

So,  “How do we create a culture of R&D – of research and development?”

R&D is one of the biggest challenges we face.

We’re a mature industry in the midst of change.  We have plenty to do with a day’s work – 24/7 cranking out the sausages.  Most of us are short on time, staff, or resources for the experimentation we desperately need now.

I don’t run a station, but over the last several years, I’ve worked closely with our 10 Localore incubator stations, a dozen lead producers, and 200 collaborators across the U.S… a national, pop-up skunkworks. Our teams created exciting new change models and we will soon begin spreading some of them to others across the system.

What I do know that we won’t find our answers sitting in a board room. We won’t find them sitting in a studio.

“Go outside” is our R&D mantra. It’s exciting to see what’s happening at WYEP in Pittsburg, and Radio Milwaukee. KCPT in Kansas City, WWOZ New Orleans, KALW in San Francisco, with Sally Kane and the other community radio stations she now leads with NFCB.

There is a movement under way to take public media outside, physically, to discover new corners of our communities.  Get close to the ground.

This is the “R” part of “R&D.” Go outside. Observe. That is step one.

The “D” comes after the “R.” Develop strategy and design technology on what you find – with the people you meet outside.

R&D is a human endeavor.

And that brings me to talent and collaboration. Let’s talk more about that.

Successful collaboration is about shared risk.

We’re operating in an environment that is entirely unpredictable.  This makes it quite frightening at times. Our talent is first over the trench.

Our job, those of us who control the resources – are in positions of power and authority – is to have their backs. We must create an environment where our talent can do their best work.

If we do our job well, our talent will take us where we need to go.

And in this environment, talent is not one thing.

You will hear in a few minutes from Peter Clowney, who is the mad scientist in APM’s Program Lab.

We know him, too, as a talent whisperer. He’s worked at one time or another with our most gifted talent, mentoring and collaborating on new projects. He knows how to bring out the best, how to give talent wings.

He’s one among a special group inside public media – inside the stations: Andi McDaniel in the Twin Cities, Karen Frillman at WNYC. Jennifer Brandel in Chicago, and many news directors across the country.  Mentoring, collaborating on new projects.  These people have the gift for bringing out the best in producers.  They give talent wings.

And they are working inside a large, institutional infrastructure to instigate change from the inside out. It’s hard work. Who is your Peter Clowney?

And you’ll meet Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, one of our most gifted and exciting independent producers. AIR sent her to Jennifer Ferro’s station – KCRW in Los Angeles – in 2012. Anayansi will tell you about her work and her vision for taking public media to the far corners of the Korexico neighborhood, where public media hadn’t reached.

These are people of passion. Determination. Commitment.

See them. Step out of their way.

Now, about mission.

Any good business strategy solves a problem, addresses a need.

What is the need your new strategy is addressing?

On Nov. 7, 1967, LBJ signed the Public Broadcasting Act at a time, believe it or not, of great, dynamic technological change.

Just one month later, surgeon Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant.

The U.S. was two years from putting Neil Armstrong on the moon – and hearing him in real time describe the first step all the way back on earth.

Here is what LBJ said at the signing ceremony for the Public Broadcasting Act:

Today, miracles in communication are our daily routine. Today our problem is not making miracles but managing miracles. We might well    ponder … how will man use his inventions?

He went on to say,

Public broadcasting will be free, and it will be independent, and it will belong to all of our people. Today we rededicate a part of the airwaves for the enlightenment of all people.

LBJ spoke with a fantastic idealism.

Well, these are not ordinary times.

Many of you in this room today are the architects of public broadcasting.  You manifest LBJ’s vision – made real the words he spoke that day in 1967.  In 50 years, we’ve built a tremendous infrastructure.  An interconnected network of 1,200 radio and television stations.  A news journalism franchise that is significant.  Brilliant ingenuity. We have more technology than we know what to do with.

We have a solid core audience that is predominantly white and affluent, those with agency and power.  It took 50 years for us to cultivate this cohort of core investors in our industry.

Our task now is to reach back to that founding vision, to take all the resources we have cultivated and turn with determination to realize the founding vision of a public broadcasting service for all the people.

This is our new frontier.  A new understanding of public service media.

We live at time when there is such disparity… in wealth, in opportunity for education, in parents being able to feed their children. We bring hope – and, indeed, we bring enlightenment.

We know how to do that.

This is the need we address, and in today’s world, this is the heart of our new business strategy.

Heart guides imagination. It guides our minds, our plans, our invention as we make a new story of America.

I don’t know what it will look like when we get there.

I don’t know how long it will take.

I do know who will help take us there.

I do know what it takes to put us, together, on the path.

A public broadcasting that truly serves all of America.

Now is our time.

This is our purpose.

Let’s make it real.