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Current's The Pub

Current's biweekly podcast about news and trends in public and nonprofit media.
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Current's The Pub
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May 31, 2018

When Sarah Delia at WFAE in Charlotte, N.C., got the idea for what would become the new investigative podcast "She Says," she wasn’t sure what form the project would take, or even whether the person at the center of the story would be willing to participate.

But as Delia followed the story of a woman she calls Linda, her reporting sent her on a deep dive to find out more about how the criminal justice systems handles sexual assault cases. Listeners will hear about Linda’s case, still unsolved, even though the survivor says she knows who’s to blame.

The podcast launches Thursday. I talked with Delia about how the story found her and what listeners can expect.

May 22, 2018

Podcasts are a nearly perfect vehicle for narrative storytelling. The episodic nature, the way each chapter is delivered to the listener’s personal device, the inherent intimacy of audio, advertisers’ interests in reaching a connected audience over several episodes, and the human nature for hearing and sharing stories all make the platform ideal for delivering narratives.

But narratives are hard to find in news. We may call everything we file a “story,” but it’s rare that a school board meeting or anything else that happens day in and day out will have the type of beginning-middle-end arc that makes for a great story.

And when you’re tasked with reporting the news, but your heart — and the audience — wants narrative … what do you do? You can’t try to put an arc on a story that doesn’t have one — that would change the nature of the story. It’s narrative bias. But it’s unlikely you can just pass on covering stories that don’t have a rising action and resolution.

This episode is all about balance. First, consultant Judith Smelser, who has written on narrative bias in public media, talks about dealing with narrative dreams in a daily news world. Great stories and good news coverage are not mutually exclusive, but getting it all done means making some hard choices.

And Stephen George of Louisville Public Media talks about The Pope’s Long Con, a short-run podcast series that just won a Peabody. George shares how he knew his team had a story fit for a series and how they got it done without giving up on their local news mission.

“We needed, and got, the absolute buy-in from our entire newsroom on this project,” George said. “That is a big part of this that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. We had to have a situation where every reporter in the newsroom was willing to step up and cover an extra event for the day’s news or pitch in and help their colleague out on this or that or the other, or delay some other thing they were working on to help out with this.”

Apr 19, 2018

If you work in public radio, you might just be on a sugar detox right now. And no, that’s not a comment on the stereotypically healthy diets of public media staffers.

Public radio folks across the country recently took part in the 6th annual Public Radio Cake Week. The tradition started at Vermont Public Radio when several staffers’ birthdays fell around the same time in April. Rather than have one cake to celebrate, the station leaned into the sugar consumption and celebrated with a week of cake. As other member stations learned about the sugar binge, the event took on a competitive quality.

Stations spend all week baking, with each day centered around themes like news story of the year, historic events depicted in cake, “this is not a cake,” station pride and public radio stereotypes. This year a record number of stations participated with cakes that were as visually impressive as they were hilarious and, one can assume, delicious. On this week’s episode of The Pub, we hear from four Cake Week winners about their sweet victories and why they think the event is so special. See their cakes at current.org/thepub!

And there’s no use having a surplus of cake if you have no utensils to eat it with. We hear from staffers at two public media stations who recently found themselves short of forks and spoons at their stations. They took to Twitter to complain and got packages from a little utensil fairy at NPR.

Please subscribe to The Pub in iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a rating and a comment! That will help boost our search results and allow people to find the show more easily.

We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me on Twitter; Current’s digital editor, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or on Twitter.

If you’d like to offer a comment to be used in the program, please send on-mic tape (recorded in a studio, with a kit, a smartphone, anything) to annie@current.org either as an attachment or through Google Drive. Please keep it short!

Apr 5, 2018

If a major issue is affecting your community, chances are its impact reaches beyond your town line. That’s especially true of the opioid epidemic in Pennsylvania, where the drug overdose rate is more than twice the national average. Earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolf even issued a disaster declaration for Pennsylvania’s “heroin and opioid epidemic.”

Public television stations there are responding by collaborating on focused coverage of the crisis. The stations are working together to produce a series they call “Battling Opioids.”

The collaboration kicked off last month, and has already yielded cooperation from state agencies and won the support of Gov. Wolf.

On The Pub, I talk with Kathleen Pavelko, president and CEO of WITF in Harrisburg; David Solomon, EP at WQED in Pittsburgh; and Tom Currá, president and CEO of WVIA in Pittston.

Please subscribe to The Pub in iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a rating and a comment! That will help boost our search results and allow people to find the show more easily.

We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me on Twitter, email Digital Editor Mike Janssen or contact Current by email or on Twitter.

If you’d like to offer a comment to be used in the program, please send on-mic tape (recorded in a studio, with a kit, a smartphone, anything) to annie@current.org either as an attachment or through Google Drive. Please keep it short!

Mar 23, 2018

What are public media’s classical stations doing to innovate? For one station, the answer involves a throwback to an earlier broadcasting era.

Back in the day, radio and TV stations all had jingles. But thet tradition has fallen out of fashion — few stations have their own dedicated theme. Up until last year, KMFA in Austin, Texas, didn’t either.

On The Pub, KMFA Director of Broadcasting and Content Anthony McSpadden shares the story of how the station commissioned local composer Dan Welcher to write a theme to commemorate KMFA’s 50th anniversary. Other composers have written variations on the theme. It’s just one of the many ways KMFA is active in Austin’s vibrant music community.

Please subscribe to The Pub in iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a rating and a comment! That will help boost our search results and allow people to find the show more easily.

We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me on Twitter; Current’s digital editor, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or on Twitter.

If you’d like to offer a comment to be used in the program, please send on-mic tape (recorded in a studio, with a kit, a smartphone, anything) to annie@current.org either as an attachment or through Google Drive. Please keep it short!

Mar 8, 2018

It was only a matter of time before public media had its own #MeToo moment. And it’s had more than one over the past six months, with hosts and senior leaders changing roles or no longer in their jobs following a range of accusations about harassment, bullying and inappropriate workplace behavior.

Such allegations have a particular sting for public media’s listeners and employees. Newsrooms that hold public officials and other organizations to account for such behavior seem to be unable to effectively deal with the problem in their own shops. And even as they respond, some staffers say they’re too late.

On this episode of The Pub, we look inside what one writer described as a culture of bullying and exploitation at WNYC in New York City. Boris Kachka’s article about the station was published by New York magazine.

Kachka told me the station “was almost a punchline” as he spoke with WNYC staffers. “It was like, ‘I’ve never seen a worse culture than this, and I’ve worked at’ name-your-horrible-big-media-conglomerate.”

Please subscribe to The Pub in iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a rating and a comment! That will help boost our search results and allow people to find the show more easily.

We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me on Twitter; Current’s digital editor, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or on Twitter.

If you’d like to offer a comment to be used in the program, please send on-mic tape (recorded in a studio, with a kit, a smartphone, anything) to annie@current.org either as an attachment or through Google Drive. Please keep it short!

Feb 22, 2018

You’ve done your interviews, written your script and filed your story. But did you do one last fact-check?

No longer just for magazines or long-form projects, some public media newsrooms have begun to apply more robust fact-checking to their daily and feature work.

Our audiences expect our stories to be accurate, and on top of that, they expect our journalists to hold newsmakers to account for falsehoods that come out in interviews.

But how do we balance the need for rigorous fact-checking with the daily pressures of filling newscasts and covering our communities? WFPL News Director Erica Peterson shares what her newsroom has done to avoid errors big and small.

What is your newsroom doing? Share your fact-checking tips (or horror stories) with me at annie.m.russell@gmail.com.

Please subscribe to The Pub in iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a rating and a comment! That will help boost our search results and allow people to find the show more easily.

We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me on Twitter; Current’s digital editor, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or on Twitter.

If you’d like to offer a comment to be used in the program, please send on-mic tape (recorded in a studio, with a kit, a smartphone, anything) to mike@current.org either as an attachment or through Google Drive. Please keep it short!

Feb 8, 2018

So your favorite podcast has a new host! Do you keep listening? We certainly hope so.

I’m Annie Russell, the new host of The Pub. I’m an editor at WBEZ and a stand-up comedian. As I navigate this new role, I wondered how a new host goes about taking the reins of an established program. It looks like I’m not the only one facing that particular question. Researching this episode, I found that quite a few public media programs and podcasts have experienced a changing of the guard in the past year or so.


Russell
For new hosts: How do you fill your beloved predecessor’s shoes while still honoring the longtime audience? When you inevitably make changes, will they run for the hills?

Nobody knows this challenge better than journalist Robert Costa. He’s a reporter for the Washington Post and took over as moderator last year for PBS’ weekly public affairs program Washington Week. Costa describes how he approached what could have been a tricky transition after the death of previous longtime host Gwen Ifill.

Plus, I check in with food writer and host of public radio’s The Splendid Table, Francis Lam, who made the jump from filling in occasionally to taking over the program permanently.

As The Pub’s new host, I hope to continue to have meaningful conversations with folks who work in public media — and I hope to hear from more of you. Please don’t be shy! Write in with a segment idea or a topic suggestion. What’s a question your station or newsroom is grappling with? Whose important voice have we not heard on The Pub?

Please subscribe to The Pub in iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a rating and a comment! That will help boost our search results and allow people to find the show more easily.

We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me on Twitter; Current’s digital editor, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or on Twitter.

If you’d like to offer a comment to be used in the program, please send on-mic tape (recorded in a studio, with a kit, a smartphone, anything) to mike@current.org either as an attachment or through Google Drive. Please keep it short!

Jan 3, 2018

Whether they’re talking to your kids or to Congress, the hosts and characters of public media children's programming are powerful. They promote understanding, inclusion and education. Plus, they’re really entertaining.

But is children’s programming the future of public media?

Mel Kramer and Betsy O’Donovan say it is. In a white paper for the Knight Foundation, they argue that all of public media’s public funding should be spent on content for kids. And not just shows. O’Donovan and Kramer make the case for multimedia, easy-to-access content that reaches young viewers wherever they are. This not only makes for happy kids, they say, but for better citizens.

And it seems like it’s an urgent time to rethink children’s media. Strange, sometimes disturbing videos aimed at kids are winding up in front of impressionable eyeballs, thanks to some nefarious gaming of the YouTube algorithm. One critic puts the blame on the profit motive. Could this plan solve the growing problem?

But not everything online is dangerous. Facebook admits that the psychological effect of its service can vary based on how you use it. In the Opening Shot, we look at the contrast between positive and negative on social media.

Dec 6, 2017

Terry Gross listens to tons of podcasts — including The Pub — and her own NPR show, Fresh Air, is also one of the most popular podcasts around. And yet, she remains committed to radio, both as a host and as a listener.

“I don’t want a world of just podcasts. I don’t want a world where everything is boutique-y and fragmented,” Gross told me on The Pub. “I want a world where there’s an All Things Considered and a Morning Edition — the kind of things you can only do with the kind of model that NPR has.”

In this, host Adam Ragusea's final episode of The Pub, he has a wide-ranging conversation with Terry Gross about all of the big issues facing public media; also, she turns the tables and asks Adam more than a few questions, because — duh — she’s Terry Gross and that’s what she does.

Also on the show, we take the occasion of the Public Broadcasting Act’s 50th anniversary as an opportunity to drill a live audience in Washington about what public media’s fundamental purpose is supposed to be — to raise the bar, or to fill the gaps?

Nov 20, 2017

Should a journalist take to the mic to share a personal story? The short answer: Maybe.

Whether you’re a news host who wonders how much to reveal about yourself in your interview questions or an independent podcast producer hoping to mine your family history for material, you’ll want to tell your own story in a way that also serves your audience.

We talk about what happens when a journalist tells a personal story with Sally Herships, the producer behind “As Many Leaves.” Produced for BBC Radio 4, the documentary tells the story of being unexpectedly left by her husband. Herships and Alan Hall of Falling Tree Productions gave a presentation at the Third Coast International Audio Festival about the process of making the story.

Oct 31, 2017
What is a public media station online? In many cases, its identity is its call letters followed by dot-org. But why? On-air, most stations are a mix of national, international and local programming. So why make the only digital home for those stories share a brand with something that many people in the market think of only as a source for NPR, BBC or PBS programming?
 
"There's no website in the world that will solve every problem for every person," says WHYY digital product manager Rebecca Smith. 
 
Seven years ago, WHYY decided to offer its audience different websites for different purposes: The station put its local news under the URL newsworks.org. But this month, they consolidated it back under WHYY.org. Why? That's what we explore in this episode of "The Pub," with Smith and Gabriel Coan, WHYY's VP of digital strategies and services. 
 
And in the Opening Shot, a question about geography, and what we get wrong when we create names to put on a map. Where is this "Trump Country" that we've been hearing about for two years? Is it near Flyover Country? Does it share a border with the Old, Weird America? In light of Brian Mann and Ken Stern's debate in these pages, guest host Gabe Bullard gets out the atlas and points out that maybe "here" and "there" really aren't that far apart.
 
Oct 16, 2017

You got promoted! Great. Now what? Years of journalism training haven’t necessarily prepared you for the art of managing people. You might even find yourself supervising your peers. Before you know it, you stop getting those invitations to happy hour. You are the boss.

Judith Smelser and Michael Marcotte have seen this scenario and many, many others. Both are consultants and former news directors who train public media managers around the country. On this episode of The Pub, we talk about how a new manager learns to be the boss.

Smelser and Marcotte have tips on everything from time management to planning for crisis coverage, all while dealing with challenging personality types in the newsroom. Spoiler: Reporters are difficult to manage.

Also on the show: Is public media taking the right kinds of risks?

Oct 2, 2017

A radio reporter who recently accepted a new job paid for the move by launching a GoFundMe campaign — and not for the first time.

Should public media be offering more help to its greener employees to avoid creating a class barrier? On this episode of The Pub, we talk to the people most affected by these decisions: the employees.

 

Also, how you can donate to help get Puerto Rico's public media stations back on the air.

Sep 18, 2017

Digital producers on public radio talk shows have found many ways to reconcile the difference between a show that's supposed to be appointment listening and a platform that's always available. In this episode of The Pub, we look at a few of those techniques with guest host Gabe Bullard, senior digital producer for the show "1A."

Some producers use digital tools — social networks (of course), Hearken, text messages — to bring listeners into the planning process and shape their shows. Others treat the web as a place to put translations of shows — articles, lists and explainers that make sense online and are fueled by the conversations a show creates. Some producers see digital platforms as fan service more than editorial tools. And at least one show is using its online audience to dig so deep into topics, scientists are asking to see the results.

When there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything, how can a producer choose what’s right for their show? That’s what we get into on this episode of The Pub.

Sep 5, 2017

Jesse Thorn is an accomplished guy — he’s the host of NPR’s Bullseye and proprietor of the Maximum Fun podcast network. And yet, he feels a little insecure about having never attended journalism school.

So this summer, Thorn organized his own journalism academy of sorts and let everyone else listen in. He’s just completed the 15-episode run of his podcast miniseries The Turnaround, a show co-presented with Columbia Journalism Review in which Thorn interviews various legendary interviewers about interviewing, including such public media luminaries as Terry Gross, Brooke Gladstone, Audie Cornish, Ray Suarez, Anna Sale and Ira Glass.

“My goal was to learn tips and tricks,” Thorn told me on The Pub. “What I learned was that you cannot be anything other than yourself.”

On this week’s episode, Thorn reflects on what he got out of interviewing his interviewing heroes. Plus, the question of what public media should become in the next 50 years leads me down a reporting rabbit hole where I try to quantify just how much money public broadcasting stations are worth. (It turns out it’s way less than I thought.)

Aug 7, 2017

A radio show/podcast about what’s going on in podcasting? The Big Listen from WAMU and NPR is one part “best of podcasting” compilation show, one part industry-insider talk show, and a thousand parts Lauren Ober, its charismatic and affable host.

This week, on my show about other people’s shows, Ober talks about everything she’s learned from making her show about other people’s shows. (Everybody got that?)

Also this week, three simple words that will help you answer most questions you have about using copyrighted music in your programs.

 

Jul 24, 2017

Half a century after public television made children’s programming one of its core missions, public radio is finally getting into the game with kids’ podcasts like NPR’s "Wow in the World," MPR/KPCC’s "Brains On!" and VPR’s "But Why." Lindsay Patterson, a host and advocate of kids'podcasts, says there remains an enormous amount of room in the market for new children’s shows, and she has practical tips for producers.

Also on this week’s show, the inescapable reason why all opinion journalists, host Adam Ragusea included, end up sucking after a while. And on a related note: The Pub is looking for a new host/producer!

May 19, 2017

Surely one of the most effective arguments against the continued taxpayer support of public media is that public media serves a socioeconomically elite audience. What’s the point of subsidizing media for rich people who should be able to pay for what they want themselves?

There are any number of initiatives in the public media system to reach low-income people who currently aren’t listening, watching or reading, but former Michigan Radio reporter Sarah Alvarez is skeptical about them.

“I hear a lot more about projects to basically sell the same product to a slightly different group of people,” she told me on The Pub. “I think if you really want to serve a low-income audience, you might have to change your product, and I don’t know how willing folks are to do that.”

Now, Alvarez is running a new journalism nonprofit in Detroit called Outlier Media, which doesn’t publish traditional reports to any kind of traditional platform. Rather, Alvarez offers renters in Detroit actionable information about their properties texted right to their phones. It’s one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of how public-service journalists can adapt their core products for new audiences and platforms.

Also on the show: Trint founder Jeff Kofman on why his web-based automatic audio-transcription service costs what it does; a good lesson I learned about how to not write something racially insensitive; and Current boss Julie Drizin on why Current.org is getting a paywall.

May 4, 2017

Public media has an obsession lately with a certain word. As Only A Game senior producer Karen Given observes in this week’s episode of The Pub, “Just say the word ‘narrative’ and program directors and editors suddenly start paying attention. Everyone wants narrative. But what the f*** is it? I mean, we all use the word, but what does it even mean?”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had the same question. All of the hottest shows — in particular those like This American Life and Snap Judgment that seem to transfer especially well from public radio to the podcasting market — feature what is often called “narrative storytelling.” And yet most people, when pressed, probably couldn’t explain the difference between “narrative storytelling” and any other method by which reporters and producers craft stories.

On this week’s episode, Given consults with TAL producer Sean Cole, among other sources, and finally comes up with a satisfying definition of “narrative,” though her journey there is surprisingly perilous and she is forever transformed by an experience that also hints at universal themes about life. (Am I doing narrative right?)

Also on the show, Niala Boodhoo celebrates the first anniversary of her new daily talk show, Illinois Public Media’s The 21st, and she shares her philosophy on how to make an interesting, inclusive local talk show in the 21st century (yes, that’s partly where the name comes from).

Apr 21, 2017

The $1.9 billion that noncommercial stations won in the auction isn’t enough to transform the entire public media system, but it will absolutely transform the handful of stations lucky enough to have held valuable spectrum in crowded markets.

 

On this episode, we’ll talk about where the money is going and where it should be going with a station CEO who won big, Current’s Dru Sefton and Oregon Public Broadcasting CEO Steve Bass, who has a strong message for stations that, unlike his, have just received an unprecedented windfall.

Apr 6, 2017

You could not make up a better cautionary tale about the hazards of universities controlling public broadcasters than the story of Jacqui Helbert’s firing.

The head PR flack for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga fired Helbert last month from her reporting job at WUTC, the university’s NPR station. That a flack had the power to fire a journalist is ethically troubling all by itself. Add to that the element of state legislators who control the university’s purse strings complaining about her work, and you have perfect storm of conflicting interests.

This week’s episode of The Pub is partially an adaptation of an article I wrote for Columbia Journalism Review. We revisit what was arguably the first high-profile case of interference with public media content (1980’s “Death of a Princess” controversy), get some dish from a WUTC insider, and discuss better ways to run a university station with Judith SmelserTed Krichels and others.

Mar 24, 2017

So what would actually happen if Republicans in Washington defunded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? On this week’s show, we try to get the most detailed picture possible of what would actually happen if the Trump administration’s stated goal of totally defunding CPB becomes a reality this year.

We also consider one argument as to why the CPB should be defunded that has been articulated in recent days by an unlikely source: sitting CPB board member Howard Husock. He comes back to The Pub to discuss his Washington Post op-ed “Public broadcasting shouldn’t get a handout from taxpayers anymore.” (For what it’s worth, Husock didn’t write the headline.)

Plus, host Adam Ragusea consults with a Senate procedure expert and a lobbyist for public media organizations who used to be a Hill staffer about how likely it is that the CPB will really get the ax anytime soon.

Mar 10, 2017

Four times during the last week of February, ThinkProgress LGBT editor Zack Ford wrote, NPR “reported on LGBT issues in ways that elevate anti-LGBT positions and normalize discrimination against LGBT people.”

I know some serious anti-LGBT people who would have a real belly laugh at the idea that “Nitwit Progressive Radio” is anti-queer. Nonetheless, Ford’s article struck a nerve with many public media people who read and debated it in a couple secret Facebook groups.

One piece Ford objected to was an episode of WAMU’s 1A, in which three guests arguing that trans people should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice were balanced with a lone dissenter. Ford didn’t think the latter guest should’ve been allowed on at all.

In my conversation with Ford, I asked him: If polls say half of Americans still think trans people should have to use the bathroom corresponding to their sex assigned at birth, isn’t one-guest-of-four the least representation they should get?

“I don’t really care if NPR comes off as politically biased one way or the other, because what I care about is that people’s lives are on the line, and that the truth is on the line,” he said. “And giving someone a platform to reinforce fears that aren’t based on facts is irresponsible.”

Not a bad argument, I thought. This week on The Pub, Ford and I hash out one of the most pressing journalism questions of our time: How do we represent views that we may find reprehensible and/or irrational?

Also on the show, Norwegian public broadcasting comes up with THE GREATEST IDEA EVER. I talk with Ståle Grut and Marius Arnesen of NRKbeta about their new system in which online readers must take a quiz to prove they’ve actually finished the article before commenting. (If you want that for your site, download their WordPress plugin on GitHub.)

 

Feb 23, 2017

When normal people quit their jobs in dramatic fashion, they flip tables, spit in the soup and storm out the door. Public radio people write earnest Medium posts.

That’s what Steve Henn did a year ago when he quit his job covering Silicon Valley for NPR; he wrote about his concern that public radio “may not get its act together to make the jump into the digital age,” adding, “I want to help.”

If Henn is right, help has arrived in the form of 60 dB, the app he’s created with his partners — two former Netflix guys. It resembles NPR One, in that it serves up a curated stream of spoken audio in response to user preferences and behavior, but it differs most significantly in that it focuses on short-form pieces.

60 dB also draws from a much wider pool of content, some of which sounds decidedly un-pubradio.

“I think there’s an appetite for intelligent conversations and reporting on a variety of topics that don’t just appeal to the core NPR audience,” Henn says on this week’s episode of The Pub.

Also on the show, host Adam Ragusea offers a review of what he thinks are the three best new services for recording high-quality audio interviews over the internet. None of them is, by itself, the answer we’ve all been waiting for. But ipDTL, Zencastr and Ringr each have their uses.

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