Ignorance is surely a form of bliss. Before September of 2005 I knew nothing about and I knew no one in public radio. Like all people who are both ignorant and disconnected, I did not care except in some weak and intellectual way about public broadcasting in America. All I knew was that I quite like WGBH TV, which is on our cable feed on PEI, and that I was getting tired of their never ending appeals to my guilt to support it.
But then I got a call from Jackie Nixon and my life changed.
As I traveled the country and met so many people, I fell in love. I fell in love with an idea. The idea is that public radio could become a vital force for the renewal of society and of democracy in America. I fell in love also with a community. I had no idea that such a wonderful and vibrant group of people existed as do in Public radio.
That's my problem. When I knew nothing and no one, I did not care. But now I do. Like any true friend I worry about my friend. Will she make the right decisions. Will she be OK?
I fear that I have become the archetypal "Jewish Mother" often fretting and carping. So I ask your indulgence. My fretting and carping is a product of my own lack of control. You do what you do. I sit in another country and worry.
But while I worry and I fret, I also am seeing signs that give me hope. I wonder if I had been looking in the wrong place for the first moves that would start to unlock the system?
His premise is that system change is impossible at the centre. In his great book Foundation published in 1951, he tells the story of Hari Seldon who, knowing that the system was in terminal decline, sets out to establish a place for Renewal far away from the centre.
Silly me! Naively I had thought that change would begin in Washington.
But now I wonder. What about the edge of the public radio system?
What could we learn from the edge? What if I was to talk more to those that lived out there? Whom could I call that could shed more light on the central blocks for progress - making a shift in relationships between stations and in speaking directly with the listeners?
So I called Todd Mundt in Des Moines. As he talked to me about Iowa, I could not help but to think of all of you.
Judge for yourself.
Is IPR wrestling with the inter station issues? Is IPR wrestling with how to develop a direct relationship with the listener? Is IPR setting up the local conditions for deepening its relationship with those that can support it? Is IPR's story - your story?
In 1997 Todd Mundt left Iowa thinking that he had done all that he could there. Iowa Public Radio and TV was doing an excellent job as broadcasters but Todd wondered if there was something more. So he left home to discover more about what could be possible.
But while he was away, there was a stirring back in Des Moines.
They began to wonder if IPR and IPTV could become meaning makers?
Could IPR and IPTV become an active agent in helping Iowans improve their own society?
They began to wonder what might happen to IPR and IPTV, if they could establish this deeper relationship.
The Return and the Plan
So why did you return home Todd?
"I wanted to be part of something that was important. I saw that there was a serious effort underway to create a new kind of relationship with the community. I could see that many other stations were also starting to struggle to find this as well.
There were no guarantees but I felt that we had a good shot. I thought that it would be easier to do it at home with people that I trusted than in a bigger more impersonal system."
"Do you have a game plan that you can share with us?"
"Maybe not a plan but we have an approach. It has two parts. We have to build a strong inter-station platform and we have to build trust. Trust with the listeners and Trust with our staff.
Relationships between the Stations
The foundation for everything had to be the quality of the relationships between the stations in Iowa.
In spite of the fact that all our stations are part of the Iowa system, they were in practice often competing with each other. We had to make a shift from competition to cooperation."
"Sounds like the situation in much of Public Radioland?"
"Yes- It is hard enough inside one state with one owner - so I can see why this is very hard elsewhere. To have a chance of being effective and of being trusted, we had to eliminate the inter-station friction. We had to be one united family. -
If we could do this then we might have a chance of changing our relationship with the listener. So at the moment this where a lot of our energy is going.
At the same time we began to change our relationship with the listener."
So how are you doing this? What are you seeking and how do you intend to get there?
"We started by by listening. We set off with a project to connect to Iowans and to get their opinions.
Over 6 weeks we talked to over 2,000 people. We used interviews, meetings, surveys - every way possible - to get a feel for what Iowans were looking for. This was more than the usual market research, we wanted to get the pulse and we wanted to open up channels that could continue on after this project as an ongoing way of staying connected. We learned a lot. (Here is a snip)
'We’ll have a much more complete report on the Listening Project in a few weeks and we’ll post it here so you can read it for yourself. But allow me to list a few conclusions I have about what I heard:
- Consolidating public radio in Iowa makes good sense. Doing so will allow us to operate more efficiently, use your dollars more wisely, and focus more of our resources on programs for and about Iowa.
- We need to invest more in quality news and public affairs reporting. So many Iowans have told us that newspapers aren’t giving them enough depth and perspective on Iowa news. You expect us to fill the gap - our statewide reach makes this possible. Right now, you’re telling us that our news isn’t that much different than what you’re finding in the newspapers. So we’re going to have to put more resources into our news reporting.
- You’ve told us that you appreciate our local programs - like The Talk of Iowa and Midday - but you don’t think the shows are the best they can be. Just as we need to invest more in news, we need to invest more in our programs. The investment includes some money, but it’s also going to be an investment of time and hard work and people. I think you’re telling us that we need to be rigorous about what we present on our programs - our hosts need resources so they’re well prepared, our topics need to be carefully chosen, our guest experts need to be the best we can find.
- We need to be more engaged in our communities. Many participants in the Listening Project talked about the importance of community, and they saw some kind of connection between what public radio is doing, and their efforts to make their own communities a better place to live. I see an important area of action here for us. Journalism isn’t about advocating for a particular point of view - that’s called bias, and it’s not what we’re about. But Iowa Public Radio can make a commitment to making Iowa a better place to live, and here’s an example of how that might work: we could bring Iowans together to discuss important issues among themselves, assemble experts to offer their views, report in-depth on how other communities in Iowa or around the country are tackling those issues. See what we’re doing? We’re not advocating, but we’re providing information and detail that helps Iowans weigh the options available, consider how others deal with similar issues, and ultimately decide how to solve community issues. In the end, we’re more informed citizens, and when we have more information, we make better decisions.
As I said earlier, we’ll have much more to say about the Listening Project, and this project is just beginning. We’ll be listening to everything you have to say to us.'
This is why we have launched the Blog as well. We decided that if IPR was going to have a relationship with people, we had to be real and we had to offer them a real person to get connected too. No one can talk to IPR but they can talk to me."
You have used very personal language - You always say I and not we. You use active verbs and not the passive. This is a personal message from Todd not a memo or a news release.
Here is how you talked about the big change in programming that lead to a firestorm of protest -
"It was a difficult decision. “On Point” has attracted a following in eastern Iowa over the past 2 years.
As we launched the new service, we wanted to create the strongest possible schedule for news and information. The decisions were hard, but we tried to base them on audience data (which is helpful, to a point), what listeners have told us (many positive comments about On Point, but also a number of requests for Diane Rehm), and also experience elsewhere around the country. (Elsewhere, large numbers of public radio listeners like Diane Rehm and are very loyal to the show.)
So there are the reasons, but at the moment you flip the switch, so to speak, it’s never a certainty. We think that, over time, the majority of public radio listeners in Iowa will come to feel that the Diane Rehm Show solidly covers the news, and offers thoughtful analysis.
What happens if we’re wrong? We’ll change. I want to give the show a little time so listeners can get used to Diane, can hear the kinds of topics she covers, the kinds of guests she has on the program, and the kinds of callers. But I promise to be responsive if, over the next six months, we get a groundswell asking for something else."
Not many people in decision making roles use the word "I". They use 'corporate speak'. Not many express doubt at the outset that they may be proved wrong."
"Well I feel that Iowans cannot connect to an institution.
Actually, I don't think that any people can connect with an institution. My bet is that, if I speak for myself and if I hold myself accountable and if I allow people to reach me and that I engage directly with them - then Iowans will accept me for doing my best."
Well then what was it like when you asked for feedback and you got it?
"It was humbling - but everyone could see that a real case was being made not just between me and those that complained but also between listeners and listeners. (Have a look here at 77 comments in one string to see what Todd means by this)
So when I finally decided to go back - as I had indicated I might if I was proved wrong - then it was no surprise. People could follow the discussion. The real point was that they had experienced a democratic decision being made in the full light of day! (Please have a look at the 50 comments in this post - see how the overall relationship has been strengthened) I think that we have passed the first test of Trust."
I see what you mean. Many stations announce a major decision out of the blue and some even change their minds also out of the blue and no one sees any process. Classical - News - Classical?
"Yes - Who feels good about being dictated too? As we go into the 2008 campaign, imagine if, instead of a grueling public process, a party made a back-room decision on the candidate? But I regret that that is how we were brought up to make decisions in public radio."
"Well I think that we are afraid to appear that we don't know everything.
Maybe it's a sense that we have to be perfect? So we keep all our planning inside the organization and then announce the big decision. Or worse fake it by announcing and then asking for comments.
I am discovering that being in a real conversation is better. Start with your best shot but have some legitimate doubt - try it and see.
As a result, you get good advice and you get real engagement. Isn't that the point? Isn't getting a better decision and becoming truly engaged with the public the essence of the new public media?"
So what is this radical transparency feel like for you Todd? (The link takes you to a discussion about Chris Anderson's ideas that surround this term)
"I have to tell you that it is emotionally painful some days but I think that this is better.
I am not a puppet. People know that I speak for myself. I am easy to find. Anyone in Iowa can tell me directly what they think. I have nothing to hide and I stand in public. So I am feeling better. For I am learning all of this for the first time too.
A big lesson has also been learned. That we can talk about difficult things in public and that it is OK.
This is an essential lesson if we are going to meet our true goal. If Public Media in Iowa can help Iowans come together and safely discuss our greatest problems - where we are divided by ideology, by class and by geography. Then we have to know that we can provide the safe place (I call it Trusted Space) where people can be open. If we can do this, then we can shift gears and indeed become not interesting. Not important but essential to those that we serve - our community. All Iowans.
Thank you Todd.