Seeding Innovation at the CPB Public Media Thought Leader Forum

March 25, 2019

CPB Thought Leader Forum

(Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, center, presents the proclamation declaring Public Media Week in Utah at the CPB Public Media Thought Leader Forum. Pictured, from left, CPB Board Member Elizabeth Sembler, CPB President and CEO Pat Harrison, Lt. Governor Cox, Utah Education Network Chief Operating Officer Laura Hunter, and KUED General Manager James Morgese. Photo by Dan Nestel, Digital Bytes)  

Hundreds of public media leaders gathered in Salt Lake City for a CPB Public Media Thought Leader Forum at the 2019 National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) Conference earlier this year. The second annual forum connected attendees with leaders from business, philanthropy and education to reinvigorate public media’s educational content and services through innovation and engagement with new audiences.

Keynote speakers, interactive presentations and hands-on master classes helped station leaders explore new ways of thinking and engaging with their communities.

“Together, we’re going to create a road map to a very innovative future,” said CPB President and CEO Pat Harrison said. Drawing upon John Kao’s definition of innovation as the ability of individuals, companies and entire nations to continuously create their desired future, Harrison stressed the importance of diversity and inclusion as stations innovate by thinking locally and scaling up. “When is the best time to plant an oak tree? 20 years ago,” she asked. “When is the second-best time? Right now!”

After the 2018 Thought Leader Forum, CPB awarded 50 education innovation planning grants to help stations take the first steps to turn ideas into action. At this year’s forum, general managers Vickie Lawson of East Tennessee PBS and Tom Axtell of Vegas PBS, along with Rhode Island PBS Education VP Jon Rubin, described how they used their grants in response to needs expressed by their statewide and regional audiences on projects including video ACT tutoring, a curriculum on water conservation and an educational virtual reality field trip.

Among the speakers were anthropologist Nat Kendall-Taylor of the FrameWorks Institute and museum director Nina Simon, author of “The Art of Relevance.” They made dynamic presentations about effective communication and community engagement, followed by master classes for participants to develop practical applications.

Public Media Week declared in Utah

Recognizing the countless contributions public media stations have made to our nation’s civic life, Governor Gary Herbert declared a Public Media Week in Utah. Lt. Governor Spencer Cox presented the proclamation to CPB along with host stations KUED and the Utah Education Network. The Lt. Governor thanked the gathering of public media professionals for their work and spoke about the impact of public media on the country. “We need public broadcasting to bridge the gap and remind people of shared facts. We can’t afford to lose you,” he said.

Pat Harrison, CPB president and CEO noted that, “Utah leads the country in state funding for public media, both in direct funding and per capita spending. I wish all our public media stations could experience the same level of support.”

Keynote speaker Sarah Smarsh 

Keynote speakers Tim Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics and chairman of CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning), and Sarah Smarsh, best-selling author of “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” both addressed the hardening of political divides in this country and the important role public media can play in bridging that divide.

Shriver pointed out that people across the country are deriving their stories largely from the media rather than personal experience.

Smarsh, a native Kansan who got a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York City before moving back to rural Kansas, said that we are a country divided “not by two essentially different kinds of people but by different information sources, different life experiences and different cultures.”

She spoke about the collapse of local news, making rural places all but invisible in mainstream media. Smarsh noted the importance of having an on-the-ground presence to report on and from these places with deeper understanding of local issues and culture.

She praised public media for getting deeper stories beyond the soundbites and affirmed the importance of non-commercial educational programming for viewers like her father, who tuned in to public television because it was free and discovered its educational value.

“There is no more important work than what those in this room are doing,” she said. 

Panel discussions focused on ways public media producers are reaching younger audiences. WOSU Chief Content Director Nick Houser, ideastream Chief Content Officer Mark Rosenberger and ThinkTV Chief Education Officer Gloria Skurski described the collaboration on “Talking Jobs With Ohio’s Next Governor” a first-of-its-kind digital forum for youth to ask gubernatorial candidates about education and job creation. This pre-election digital forum was a product of American Graduate: Getting to Work grants, which all three stations received from CPB.

Executive producers Ellen Doherty of Fred Rogers Productions, Adnaan Wasey of WGBH and Annelise Wunderlich of KQED Education talked with moderator Myles Bess, host of the KQED/PBS Digital Studios YouTube series “Above the Noise,” about the importance of balancing educational content and engaging younger audiences through digital media.

Feedback from Forum participants described how it provided inspiration and a renewed sense of purpose. “The format of this conference really connected with our team. The speakers were connected to our challenges and opportunities,” observed Jack Galmiche, President and CEO, Nine Network.

Noting how many ideas for innovation were planted, Mark Leonard, General Manager and CEO of NET said the Forum was, “A home run event with acorns scattered everywhere. Thanks to CPB for challenging us all in such meaningful ways.”

Videos from the 2019 Public Media Thought Leader Forum are available on YouTube and on NETA’s Facebook page.