Articles

Sue Schardt: The Power of Radio

Sue Schardt, AIR’s executive director, gave the following remarks on Dec. 4. at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab, where AIR had convened the 15 Localore: Finding America teams for the first of two Public Media Labs.

 

SueSchardtMy father was a radioman. He started out working at a small commercial radio station in Cortland, New York, with a live noontime show called “Question of the Day.” It was 1947 or 1948, and he’d stand on the street corner, plug his machine into an outside plug of the building, and he’d stop people walking by each day … talk to them for the live broadcast. It gave me great pleasure to remember my father’s beginnings as Jennifer Brandel’s Curious City began to take off in Chicago.  

It was a time when commercial broadcasters had a deeply held public service mission … it was a requirement of their license. They were closely tied to their local communities, before the Great Nothing of Clear Channel decimated the culture and substance of the commercial spectrum. I have early memories of my father coming home from work, standing in the middle of the kitchen holding a beer with the radio on, rocking on his heels, listening to commercials, or announcements, I’m not sure. There were eight of us kids. He’d stand and hold us in that listening space.

Fast forward to when I was nearly 30. It was actually my mother— a registered nurse — who most influenced my move into broadcasting. She’d talk about “the power of radio …” with reverence in her voice. She was a prayerful woman, my mother, and taught me, too, about the power of intention.

I am invoking both my mother and father as I share these thoughts with you today.

There are three things I’ll talk to you about today: the nature of the places you are working, transformation, but first — this:

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 4.14.09 PM

You’ve arrived here after an unusual journey and after a rigorous selection process. This paper is what hung on my wall as Adriana and I had our final conversation with you, as we made our final decisions. We asked ourselves if your idea, and your plan for executing it, carried the potential for each of these things:

First, a new model. We asked, does this producer understand the nature of the “full spectrum” assignment; their job will be to exploit existing digital technology, radio and television broadcast, and “street” platforms together in new ways?

Does the idea they’re proposing have the potential to endure beyond the term of our nine-month incubation?

And finally, Repose. This is perhaps the most radical idea we’ve planted. Each of you is immensely gifted as audio documentarians, teachers, journalists, filmmakers, social media experts, yet we’re asking you to suspend what you do best and enter this “far corner of the local community” and first … observe and absorb. If you’re to build a new model that involves using existing technology in a new way, then you must study what is happening in this new place. What is the rhythm and flow? Who are the magnetic personalities? What means do people use to generate their “social media?” It may not be Twitter or Snapchat. It may be a drum circle, or church activity, text messaging, or a central gathering place where news is exchanged. Whatever it is, you must take it on board your planning and build around what is actually happening there. You must enter first, not with lens or microphones pointed forward, but with great humility. This is how we will build a new public media model. Repose is our byword.

Next, we know that transformation comes from the outside. We were very deliberate in pairing you – an outside, lead collaborator with an ‘inside’ ‘station producer. Our independent lead producers are coming from the outside — they are working for AIR— to introduce disruption to the dominant order at the station. They are change agents.  

First, I honor the commitment you’ve made to take on this work. Some of you are making real sacrifices, leaving your families — small children, spouses, your lives — for nine months to take on this production. Thank you.

There are a few things I want you to know and remember. This is uncomfortable work. You are moving into places you’ve never been before — physically, and also in the realm of making. You don’t know what the outcome will be. It is supposed to be anxiety provoking. If you aren’t experiencing discomfort, then something’s not right. Remember you are in the lead. We are following where you go. And with that, I want you to be courageous. If something is not working, admit it. Let it go. Trust your gut and don’t overthink. And make a change, even if you don’t know what the alternative is going to be.

Now, you station producers. I want you to seize this moment. You are our anchors. You are leading us to those “far corners where public media doesn’t reach.” And you are in an extraordinarily rare position, with gravitas. You’ve been authorized by the station to do something entirely different; to help create a new space that doesn’t exist. Your GM signed on the dotted line … you read the language. You signed it, too. I am counting on you to be tenacious. You will be the shepherd of what we create. Others working at stations across the country are watching you.

When all our choices back at AIR headquarters were complete, when we finally had all of you and your project descriptions laid out in one-sheet, it became clear that Finding America is remarkable portrait of a contemporary America. A country defined by disparity and inequality as never before.

You are entering the margins of communities — riding buses with commuters who can no longer afford to live inside the city where they work, walking the dissolving shorelines of Alaska with Yupik elders, standing at that gate of the military bases where just 1 percent of our population serves. You are moving into spaces that today, are understood by the bold lines drawn down the middle; daily headlines that tell us of another unarmed teen “shot in the back,” of a woman who put her newborn in a paper bag at the side of a road because she felt she had no options, our prisons that hold more black citizens today than did South Africa’s at the height of apartheid. We live in a world of suffering. And the nature of our media news cycle today reinforces this despair. We hear these stories and feel helpless. What can we possibly do?

There’s something paradoxical about Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 mandate for a public broadcasting system bringing “enlightenment to all the people of the United States.”

It goes two ways. With this work, we are seeking, yes, to bring hope to the people in these far corners of the community … to the overwhelming majority of citizens in your local community for whom public media has little reach or meaning. But perhaps even more-so, you are moving into that margin, entering where that bold line is drawn, and opening it up wide to bring forward a new and rich human dimension. You will reveal for us, I know, lives of extraordinary endurance, worlds of joy, and — through public media and led our most creative makers — you will build us something surprising based on the rhythm and flow of these places you are going where the “others” live. This is the paradox, that you are illuminating for those people already familiar with our work to worlds just up the road.

In this way, you will help us pull from one side, to the other … to bring these disparate and divided parts of our communities together into an integrated whole. To tie. To bind. Indeed to heal. This is what my mother meant. The power of media.

You are ninjas. You have all you need. Mind, body, spirit, and soul.

This is an extraordinary time. What an extraordinary opportunity. You are planting seeds that will grow over time. Fifteen years. Twenty-five. Forty years. A public broadcasting system that serves all of the people.

Make it real.