Charles Meyer, Exec. Director, NCME
Public Broadcasting Management Association Conference
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Good afternoon everyone. Thank you, Kevin for that introduction. I want to also thank PBMA and CPB for inviting me to be with you. And I’d like to further thank the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. They fund NCME on your behalf to help public media engage more people in more meaningful ways. From what I understand about this group, you have significant responsibilities and influence over how your stations are run and I deeply appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today.
As you finish your dessert and coffee, I invite you join me in reflecting on three things: 1) the absolutely fascinating state of the world at this moment in time; 2) Why I believe that world presents a tremendous opportunity for public media going forward; and 3) how you can seize that opportunity in ways that merit future investment from your community.
I’ll also leave some time for questions and conversation with you at the end.
Let’s begin by reflecting a little on the fascinating state of the world in June 2011. It feels a little topsy turvy. All of us are trying to do more with less. I recently opened a Chinese fortune cookie and the fortune read: “If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”
I’ll repeat that: “If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.” This sense of urgency to change direction is not unique to public media. From what I read and from the people I talk to, it seems that everyone – the federal government, the states, public education, corporations, media companies of every kind, and on and on – nearly everyone in every sector, in every corner of the nation seems to be feeling a similar urgency to change direction – without fully knowing exactly where we are headed. And while it’s become a bit cliché to marvel at the relentless pace of change in the world, there is quite understandably a great deal of angst about this perfect storm of digital, generational, global, technological and economic change.
About all of this, Seth Godin, the entrepreneur, public speaker and author of 11 books said in a recent interview with media expert Mark Ramsey (and I quote):
“Our economy has changed. The Internet has changed it, outsourcing has changed it, evolving technology has changed it. So that it’s now really clear that if you’re doing a job that can be described in a manual, if you are sitting there using somebody else’s playlist, reading somebody else’s script, and doing somebody else’s bidding, it’s impossible for you to create real value."
In other words, the old ways of doing things may not be as relevant or as sustainable as they used to be.
On top of all that, I think demographic change has to be added to our understanding of the situation we’re in. You’ve seen the reports by organizations like the Population Reference Bureau and others that remind us (quote) “The U.S. is getting bigger, older and more diverse.” That means the communities we serve are changing in some fundamental ways. One of the most interesting is the aging of the baby boomers and the rise of their Millennial children.
I think it’s fair to say that the boomers generally see the world and consume media and information in traditional ways. Their Millennial children, on the other hand, see the world completely differently. They consume media and interact with the world in new ways.
But the Millennials are here and they possess, according to research done by the Pew Center, some very interesting and unique characteristics, of which I’ll highlight just two:
- Pew tells us that Millennials are the first generation in history who regard behaviors like tweeting and texting, along with websites like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Wikipedia, not as astonishing innovations of the digital era, but as everyday parts of their social lives. Like breathing air and drinking water, these things just are.
- The Pew research also tells us that Millennials are more inclined toward trust in institutions than were either of their two predecessor generations – including Gen Xers (like me and my 40-something peers) and Baby Boomers when they were coming of age.
One of the by-products of these demographic and digital changes is that the public has come to expect they can engage you – that they can participate or interact with you in some way. People want to be part of something larger than themselves. They want to belong to a community and they want to participate in that community in ways more meaningful to them than simply writing a check, though they’ll do that, too, so long as they have a relationship with you and trust you.
We have an opportunity to earn their trust, but it won’t necessarily be through the old ways of doing things.
So what do we do? I recently saw a clever cartoon. It was a single panel with a cave man and a cave woman. They’re wearing leopard print animal skins and they’re knuckle-draggers, so they’re all hunched over standing outside the mouth of the cave. Nearby, a young cave-boy is walking along perfectly upright. The cave man looks at the cave woman and says “Oh, the kids these days and their upright walking!”
This is not to imply that any of us are knuckle-draggers – in spite of what my wife sometimes says about me. I simply mean to point out that things change. And while we don’t always understand where we’re headed, it’s generally wise to think about how to evolve with the context and the times.
In public media, we’ve already evolved several times over. There was a time when public radio had programs like “University of the Air” and non-commercial TV sometimes featured a guy at a chalkboard teaching fifth grade math. Our history is one of evolving to meet the times we’re in. And we will continue to do that even during these challenging times.
Here’s where I see tremendous opportunity for public media going forward.
Our communities feel all the same pressures and angst as we do. More than ever, they need us to play a critical role in community life. In many cases, they already perceive and trust us as neutral conveners and facilitators of the public dialogue.
We have an opportunity to leverage our assets and evolve from organizations that create, curate and push out content to organizations that do all of that and work closely with others to address community concerns and issues. That’s what I mean by engagement: collaborating to discover, understand and address community needs and aspirations.
Some stations have already begun that journey.
Stations address teenage binge drinking in North Dakota, supported New York’s Haitian community after the earthquake in Haiti; keep kids fit in Las Vegas, support workforce development in west Texas, lead the quest for science literacy in the Bay area, and connect seniors with financial advice in Arkansas.
Many stations have stepped forward to make a difference in their communities through the CPB-funded American Graduate initiative. We have an opportunity locally and nationally to make a real difference in the drop-out crisis affecting this country and I encourage you to get involved and participate in that initiative.
Another example: here in Nashville, Nashville Public Television’s Next Door Neighbors project builds trust and understanding across diverse cultures and neighborhoods in Nashville. Over the last few years, Beth Curley and her team have learned to operate a little differently – taking the time to build relationships and listen closely to the community – sometimes without recording anything at all, but just having conversations and listening to build trust.
They and other stations that engage well have cultivated what we at NCME call an engagement ethos – the mindset and culture for engaging community.
This way of being in the world doesn’t always come naturally to us as broadcasters. We’re accustomed to creating content and then putting it out there for people. We haven’t always been good at interacting with the public except to gather news or talk about how we’re doing. We’re not accustomed to collaborating. But, as with any challenge, there’s an opportunity.
There’s an opportunity for us to shift our thinking, to turn outward toward our communities.
There’s an opportunity to listen actively and appreciatively to what real people in our communities have to say – and then help the community address its needs and realize its aspirations.
There’s an opportunity to cultivate and sustain relationships, to partner and collaborate with others toward shared goals.
At NCME, we’re working closely with stations to help them capitalize on these opportunities. We’re also partnering with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation to make opportunities and resources available that will help stations evolve.
In doing all of this, there’s an opportunity to provide valuable service and perhaps bring additional resources to the table.
A recent Wall Street Journal article quoted Maxine Clark, founder of Build-a-Bear Workshop – that’s the store in the mall where you can buy and stuff your own teddy bear and then buy clothes and other things for your bear, and more clothes, and more, and more - not that I have personal experience with this. In the interview, Maxine Clark said, “In retail, people worry about transactions, when they really ought to worry about interactions. I wanted to create interactions with guests that turned into transactions.”
Maxine Clark is selling teddy bears and she knows that meaningful interactions and relationships have value. There’s a compelling argument to be made that the kinds of changes I’m talking about for public media not only help us serve our communities better - they make good business sense too.
You might be familiar with Corporate Social Responsibility (or CSR) programs. Most big corporations, especially those with local outlets, have some kind of CSR program. Historically they’ve focused their efforts on philanthropy and charity.
But over the last few years something interesting has happened. Corporations increasingly use their local CSR programs to focus on building local relationships, engaging communities, and collaborating to achieve outcomes (engagement!). Last I checked, Home Depot organizes local home building and repair projects for the needy. If large corporations like Home Depot, 3M – even WalMart - think engaging communities has impact and value - meaning some kind of return on their investment, surely those of us in public media can too.
I’d like to tell you a brief story about the best five bucks I ever spent. To understand the point of the story, it’s important to know that I’m, um, frugal. A number of years ago, someone gave me tickets and my wife and I took our then three or nearly four-year-old son to the Shrine Circus. Now, if you’ve never been to the Shrine Circus, it’s the kind of environment where, from the second you set foot in the building, there are people relentlessly hawking an extraordinary array of trinkets: plastic swords, light up glow-sticks, stuffed animals, just an unbelievable amount of plastic goodies. So we get inside and, sure enough, the vendors are almost constantly coming out of nowhere laden with impressive amounts of stuff. We manage to get to our seats and make it through the first act. At the intermission, the vendors come back out in full force and they have elephant and pony rides down on the main floor. And all I can think about is how I can get outta here without spending any money. Sure enough, the family we’re with says they’re going down to the main floor - just to check things out and, of course, my son and I end up tagging along. Down on the floor of the arena, things are a bit chaotic. There’s a lot of people and really loud circus music and the overwhelming smell of elephants. Before I realize what’s happening, the other dad is buying his daughter a ticket for a pony ride. And I realize that I’m sunk. My son looks up at me with big eyes and says “Daddy can I have a pony ride?” I grudgingly fork over five dollars and hoist my son up onto the pony. The ride starts. And I swear to you, my son spent the entire ride doing this: “Yeeeeeeeeeeeeee-hah! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yeeeeeee-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah! Woooooo-hoo-hooo-hooo-hooo!” It was, without a doubt, the best five bucks I ever spent.
When I invested my five bucks, I had no idea it would lead to a moment of sheer joy and utter exhilaration. I didn’t know we would create a memory that I’ll likely cherish forever. I had no idea I’d tell this story of impact over and over and over in the years to come. I took a small chance and invested in something different. You can too.
You are in positions to help transform local broadcast stations into deeply engaged local institutions. Maybe you set budgets or otherwise influence resource allocations. Maybe you’re in a position to hire or screen for people with the right characteristics for building relationships and collaborating in the community. Maybe you’re a decision maker and can set an engagement strategy or encourage or require innovation. You can start with small things that don’t cost much – like simply spending more time outside the station getting to know and understand the community, their needs, their aspirations and sense of the direction they want the community to go. Start listening.
Because if we don’t change our direction, we’re likely to end up where we’re headed. But if we embrace change – shift our thinking and turn outward to engage our communities, we can evolve into deeply engaged organizations that play a vital and valued role in community life. That is an exceptionally strong way to both fulfill our public mission and merit investment from our communities. Along the way, we may find ourselves standing tall – walking upright – heads held high with the realization that we’ve worked with our communities to create conditions and experiences that make people say “yeeeeeee-hah!”
Thank you for your time and attention. I’ll gladly respond to your questions.