What’s Now: AIR President’s State of Our State

David FreedmanThis month’s spotlight features remarks given at the September 18th AIR Mingle in Atlanta by David Freedman, longtime AIR member and general manager of WWOZ in New Orleans. David was first elected to AIR’s board of directors in 2004 and has been president since 2009. Before he steps down in November, he wanted to share reflections on his tenure and offer a message for AIR producers.

Feature article from the September 2013 AIRblast

They tell the story of a man looking for something under a streetlight. A curious passerby asks: “What are you looking for?” “I dropped my ring about half a block from here,” the man says. The passerby replies, “So why are you looking for it here instead of over there?” The man says, “Because there’s more light here.”

That may be the story of my life. Back in 1971 in Santa Cruz, I built one of the very first community radio stations — KUSP. At the time, I was driven by the vision of offering “alternative radio.” Poetry, unbridled politics, music top-40 never dared to play. My problem, as it turns out: I was looking under a streetlight for something that hadn’t yet happened — the Internet. I thought I was a broadcaster, but there was nothing broad about it. Reaching a niche audience in an area limited by the reach of a transmitter’s signal is not broadcasting. Over-the-air mainstream programming is broadcasting. National public radio is broadcasting. But still, it is only a fraction of the possible content for only a portion of the population. I was a niche-caster before my time, lacking the kind of technology best suited to niche-casting.

AIRsters came out of this background. We, too, grew our muscles in radio. That’s where we honed our audio chops. And we’re damn good at it. Buddhists might call it “radio mind.” It’s our strength. But radio mind does not automatically transfer to our current radio-plus-Internet world where listeners’ choices are no longer limited by the 40-or-so signals in their area, a world much more driven by content producers. 

Perhaps that is why WWOZ is succeeding so well in this new environment. We’ve always thought of ‘OZ as a producer station, not a consumer station being fed by the network. WWOZ is a community of 750 volunteers, wildly diverse creatives chasing and embracing new technology, the youngest and brightest folded into a crew of seasoned veterans, attracting a worldwide following and collaborating with dozens of pubcasters around the country. 

Wait a minute! Am I talking about WWOZ or am I channeling AIR? — a network also consisting of a huge number of wildly diverse creatives, more than 1,000 of them, in fact. AIR’s community was born in public broadcasting, but most of them work as independents, kind of in and out of the system, like ‘OZ. AIR has been quick to respond to the challenges posed by the Internet. And has not just responded to those challenges, but embraced them, raising millions of dollars to encourage content makers to expand their very understanding of new media’s possibilities, while keeping an anchor in the power of broadcasting.

AIR couldn’t have had more humble beginnings: a group of some 10 independent audio producers huddled around a kitchen table in Manhattan 25 years ago, declaring they would unite in mutual support and advocacy. 

And now, look at us: the largest membership organization in public media! A respected leader in our field, forming a worldwide community pointing the way in a difficult, exciting brave new media world, attracting the youngest and the brightest to the ranks of seasoned content makers. 

So much talent, so much passion, energy, and sense of possibility — my soul dances to it. As my career in public radio winds down, I wake up every morning re-energized by the wonder of it! Now I know we have found what I was looking for back in the ’70s. 

One of the things of which I am most proud is AIR’s fashioning new ways for independent producers to work with stations, introducing them into public broadcast operations formerly accessible only to the happy few. We’ve accomplished this through our Localore collaborations; we’ve also introduced new ways of relating to the major networks: our partnership with BBC in 2012–13 to help launch Real America in support of producers and international storytelling; working with APM/Marketplace and NPR to strengthen pipelines for new talent and a more favorable rate structure.

We’re pleased to have a rich and diverse network of organizations working with us — Third CoastTransomZeegaPRXSoundCloudHindenburgStoryCorpsGreater Public, and, of course, PRPD. Together with our producers, we sustain and expand the creative culture that is so important to the future of the industry. 

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been four years since I assumed the presidency. At that time, our board had just hired Sue Schardt to reinvigorate a rather listless organization aspiring for some 20 years to advocate for independents. AIR was sort of a guild, a surrogate shop foreman speaking up for the rights of the very heart and soul of public radio — the independent content producers — who seemed to get more awards than rewards, more credits than cash. 

Just four short, long years ago AIR was operating on a nano-budget with a staff of not-quite-one and a static membership of fewer than 500 content producers, all of whom were in the bull’s-eye of fast-approaching disruption. It was time to reinvent AIR. And we did just that — we started reorganizing at the top. With deliberate intention, we strengthened the caliber of our board. We created real working committees and revised our bylaws to make them workable. Throughout it all, we maintained the spirit of AIR as a membership organization — a board dominated by content makers representing their interests. We concentrated on our budget, insisting on rigorous fiscal discipline. We held retreats; worked up strategic plans; redefined AIR as a vibrant and inventive production network, the research and development arm for public media and a growing resource for those with specific talent needs. And of course, we soared on the vision and relentless hard work of our brilliant and indefatigable CEO: Sue Schardt. 

The tipping point came this year with Localore. There are so many successes to come from those 10 productions — and its predecessor MQ2. I can’t list them all. But this is the work I continue to talk about and be inspired by. 

Localore has now logged more than 28 million impressions across dozens of platforms, reflecting AIR’s goal to actively fit the envelope to the shape of its network, 68 percent of whom now self-identify as audio producers moving to integrate new forms of craft. 

At the same time, we continue to cultivate audio production — our core strength. AIR’s training and mentoring programs are unique to the field. Tapping our rich brain trust, we provide professional development to hundreds of producers across the country each year.

AIR has grown and its Board of Directors has grown: I am honored to work with such extraordinary producers as Amy Mayer, Claire Schoen, Jay Kernis, Lu Olkowski, Tena Rubio, and Laura Starecheski; with Ellen Rocco and Jennifer Ferro, station managers pushing the envelope and front edge of the industry; with Keith Brand and Rob Rosenthal, established trainers and teachers of our craft; with Julie Shapiro, one of the founders of Third Coast; with Hyo Choon Lee, Director of Administration for Radio and TV at WGBH; with KUT‘s Business Manager, Bob Cross; and, on our board until recently, attorney John Crigler. 

This is a serious board — respectful of one another and of process, committed to furthering the cause of producers and AIR’s effectiveness. Active and engaged, they truly care and their work shows it.

In one of the foundational stories of Western culture, Genesis — Beginnings — Abraham was told, “Lech lecha: Go Forth, leave the old idols, enter a strange land and discover a much larger world.” But interestingly, there’s a second reading to the Hebrew: not just “Go forth,” but “Go to yourself.”

Essentially we are asking our most creative element to imagine the unimaginable: to abandon the safety of an audio-only, radio-centric comfort zone; to choose from an overwhelming array of tools, many of which we do not yet much understand — in fact, the exercise here is to discover how these tools can be used.

It may well be that in this new media Easter egg hunt launched by AIR, we will have the good fortune of finding not just a golden egg here or there, but the Goose, itself, that lays those golden eggs! In the assemblage and reassemblage of all of our media assets, in our drive to democratize and be inclusive, in our privileging inventiveness and innovation, immediacy and ubiquity, we are actually reordering our understanding of mass media and, thus, public media. 

It has already taken place, it is still taking place, and it will continue to take place. Without our marking the exact moment, radio-as-we-knew-and-loved-it will truly be redefined. Not replaced, but displaced from all its hegemonies — as a more collaborative medium in a much wider media mix. 

Every new discovery, every new insight, every new platform is piling up and we do not yet know the ultimate shape of it. And no one on the creative side of things, such as the 1,000 producers of AIR, can afford to miss out on it. As I step down from a leadership position at AIR, I urge you, AIR urges you, with urgency: Go forth! Go to yourself! — with “beginner’s mind”!

By David Freedman, AIR President