CPB Celebrates Local Stories at PBS Annual Meeting

June 11, 2019

Jon Meacham

History has to be told through stories, historian Jon Meacham told public television station leaders at the PBS Annual Meeting. Photos by Scott Henrichsen.

Locally owned and operated public media stations have long documented the richness and diversity of the country through storytelling. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting celebrated the stories told by local public media stations at a breakfast program, “Local Strong, Local Matters,” as part of the PBS Annual Meeting held recently in Nashville.

“Our content, reporting and engagement connect us to one another through true civil discourse -- an essential element of a civil society,” said Pat Harrison, president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “This is where public media excels, as we tell America’s stories, through diverse and authentic voices, reminding us of the citizens we are meant to be.” 

To help strengthen public media’s unique connection to local communities, unmatched by commercial media, Harrison announced an upcoming initiative called “Coming Home: Connecting to Community,” in partnership with PBS and public media stations serving rural America. Through content and engagement, stations will explore the richness of rural communities and expand the narrative of America’s smalls towns through authentic local voices and regional/national distribution opportunities.

“‘Local Strong, Local Matters’ is really the heart of public media,” Harrison said. She introduced videos from former Arkansas Governor, U.S. Senator and CPB board member David Pryor and Sarah Smarsh, author of “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.” They affirmed the value of having people who live in rural areas define themselves rather than have others define them. Both applauded public media for lifting up local voice and sharing local stories. 

A special video featuring Senator  Lamar Alexander welcomed the group to Tennessee and urged public media to create a new “American Homecoming,” a nationwide version of a 1986 Tennessee Homecoming he hosted as governor that helped 3,000 communities define and rediscover what made them special. “I believe public media can help tell those homecoming stories that help remind us of who we really are as Americans and what are our real values and differences,” he said. “Public media can create a new American homecoming that can help us learn how to deal with the changes we face, and do so on America’s own terms.” 

Keynote speaker Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author, described growing up in Chattanooga, finding Civil War Minié balls (rifled musket bullets), in his yard. “For me, history was always a tactile thing — it was not some clinical, intellectual exercise; it was what happened in your front yard.”

Meacham’s childhood home was close to both Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s headquarters and the home of Chief John Ross, the head of the Cherokee Nation – “physical embodiments of the twin original sins of American life – African American slavery and the Native American removal,” he recalled. “To me, history was not entirely heroic. It was always complicated, always conditional, always contingent. And I would suggest that history would always be that way, because all of our lives are like that. Why would the national story be any different than our own?”

Meacham moved back to Tennessee seven years ago with his family after several decades living in Washington and New York. He has found that what drives people in Tennessee is what drives people everywhere.

“Southern vices and the Southern virtues are in fact American vices and virtues, often at a slightly exaggerated scale. But there is nothing that has unfolded here for good or for ill, that has not unfolded, for good or for ill, in the country itself,” he said. “My experience is that local is universal. We all have the same perennial characteristics: Pride and envy and malice and love and grace and grit. … Aristotle taught us this long ago: In the particular there is the universal.”

Country Music Luncheon
CPB President and CEO Pat Harrison, right, joined PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger, left, Ken Burns and WETA President and CEO Sharon Percy Rockefeller to preview Burns’s docuseries “Country Music,” presented by WETA on PBS this fall.

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