Funder Conversation ’12

At our annual Funder Conversation we examined philanthropy’s role in supporting innovations that are paving the way for a renewed public media sector, and sustaining the kind of public media system that our country and our democracy require.

Kicking off the day, we sought to ground our discussion in a historical context, reflecting the fact that we met in Philadelphia in the 225th year of the U.S. Constitution. Our host for the event, David Eisner, President of the National Constitution Center, observed that his institution held one of the first pieces of media to promote civic engagement in the American experiment – the first newspaper printing of the U.S. Constitution. Before digging into the substance of our conference, we paused to hear a musical meditation, the touching Ashokan Farewell, an iconic tune from the Ken Burns public broadcasting masterwork The Civil War.

We often think of the current explosion of mobile media and Internet communications as a relatively recent development. But it was interesting to hear from President Johnson in his remarks on signing the Public Broadcasting Act 45 years ago, in which he called for public media to become a network for knowledge that prefigures our current multi-media experience (listen to his remarks in the attached file below). Building on that theme, Craig Aaron, President of the media policy reform group Free Press, spoke about the new report, Greater Than the Sum: Creating Collaborative and Connected Public Media in America. In the report, Free Press offers a broader definition of public media, going beyond the traditional powerhouses of National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Craig suggested that the biggest obstacle to bigger and better public media isn’t money, but political will.

Our first plenary panel, Public Media and Investigative Journalism with Robert Benincasa (NPR), William E. Buzenberg (CPI), Elizabeth Christopherson (Rita Allen Foundation), and Paul Mason (LinkTV) discussed enormously successful collaborative projects including Poisoned Places and the State Integrity Investigation. The panel talked about the kinds of foundation partnerships that help news outlets do hard-hitting reporting that can make a significant impact and the need to balance risk and reward.

The Keynote interview between Terry Gross (NPR’s Fresh Air) and David Fanning (FRONTLINE) covered everything from the impact that FRONTLINE documentaries have had, like Hunting Bin Laden, to how the organization weathers complaints about its reporting, its long tradition of transparency and fairness, keeping the firewall between funders and journalism, and Fanning’s own background growing up in Apartheid South Africa.

Rounding out the morning, we divided into three breakout sessions. In the discussion focused on Documentary Film Impact and Outreach, Jennifer Hoos Rothberg, Director of the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust spoke about her organization’s close partnership with tolerance education experts at Facing History and Ourselves in supporting the development and outreach efforts of the popular new documentary, Bully. And filmmakers Pamela Yates and Paco de Onis, spoke about their path-breaking work in using film to advance human rights, such as the film Granito, which had its national broadcast premiere on PBS just that evening.

Other breakout sessions focused on public media efforts to collaborate with new online news services, including the partnership between New Jersey Public Radio and the New Jersey Spotlight online news service as well as a discussion of the expansive efforts to deliver broadband access to diverse communities throughout Philadelphia.

Our second plenary panel, The Metropolitan Opera Goes Digital with Renée Fleming (opera sensation live from Paris via Skype), David Devan (Philadelphia Opera) and Elena Park (Metropolitan Opera) discussed the ways new media have changed opera, audience outreach and engagement, by greatly expanding reach and enabling a relationship between the audience and the artist. Elena spoke about the Met’s Live in HD as a great way to reach out to new audiences, reaching over 10 million people since its introduction, including 3 million in just the past year. Renée spoke about the changing relationship between the artist and the audience, through the more interactive nature of new media platforms. But she also spoke about the importance of organizations like the Opera Company of Philadelphia in presenting live performances of new works, to keep opera from becoming a museum art form. Far from a museum piece, we closed the session with an uplifting clip of the Hallelujah Chorus presented in the form of a flash-mob, a Random Act of Culture sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that has reached an astounding 12 million views on YouTube.

In our afternoon breakout sessions, we presented a lively discussion on ways to measure media impact and engagement, focusing on an initiative being led by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Knight Foundations. Also under discussion in this session, we heard about a new effort by the Foundation Center and Guidestar to track and map media grants. There was a session on efforts to expand the reach and diversity of public radio, focused on the local alternative music station, WXPN, as well as the hip new sounds of Vocalo, a station run by Chicago public media powerhouse WBEZ. On the other end of the wattage meter, Brandy Doyle from the Prometheus Radio Project talked about the exciting opportunity on the horizon, when the Federal Communications Commission expects to grant hundreds of new licenses for community low power FM radio stations. In the breakout session about Cultural Organizations as Digital Content Producer, Sarah Lutman talked about the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s breakthrough efforts to open up the ensemble’s vast vault of recordings to make them publicly available, challenging the orthodoxy of classical music organizations, which have traditionally held their recordings as a scarce and expensive commodity. Likewise, Judith Dolkart from the Barnes Foundation described the exciting new museum’s efforts to make their audio tours freely available online and via mobile applications, to make it easy for visitors to understand how to view this exceptional collection in its dramatic new home. Judith also invited participants and members of our network to feel free to visit the museum as a guest. For funders interested in this special opportunity, please contact us and Media Impact Funders will help you facilitate your visit.

Reflecting on the discussions of the day, Craig Aaron and Louis Massiah (Scribe Video Center) discussed public media in democracy and Scribe’s work to involve communities in content creation and how that addresses the democratic information needs of a community, as well as the need for public media to become more diverse.

Closing takeaways were provided by Andrew Sherry (Knightand Steve Engelberg (ProPublica). At the end of the day, Andrew asked, “What are the useful models?” He pointed out that there’s a call starting to emerge for foundations to work in a more concerted, systematic way to fund nonprofit media. But it is not yet clear, what form that collaboration should take. One useful starting point will be the collaboration between GuideStar and the Foundation Center, working to develop comprehensive database of who is funding what in media, as well as the efforts to come up with evaluation metrics.

Steve remarked that it was interesting to know that LBJ was “the original multi-platform guy” and even more amazing to imagine what it would take today to get a president to offer an ambitious vision to create a national system for knowledge sharing.

He also marveled at the new opportunities available in old media, with the vast potential of 1200 new low power FM radio licenses, as well as the exciting new ideas coming out of Vocalo, suggesting that philanthropy needs to support experimentation and tolerate the bumpy road to success. As Steve said, “If you’re going to ask people to innovate, you want to be prepared for the possibility that it won’t all work.”

We were fortunate to have a lot of media clips throughout the day to illuminate our discussions, and we closed with a touching remix from Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, in which the late master educator offered a simple maxim for all of us. “It’s good to be curious about many things.”