Outreach: Public broadcasters adopting activist role
What stations are doing this year for families and youth
Adapted from an article published in Current, March 18, 1991
A few years ago, Sharon Griggins would have to explain "outreach" every time she spoke up for the new formulation of public TV's community role.
"Now it's in everyone's vocabulary, and even if they're not doing it, they're thinking about doing it or know that they should be doing it," says Griggins, who is the Seattle-based western regional director of the Public Television Outreach Alliance.
Here and there, public TV has always done what is now called outreach, but now it's an established part of most stations' agendas. In its sixth year, the outreach alliance is leading a nationwide exploration of family and youth issues called All Together Now.
Building on the Chemical People anti-drug project led by WQED, Pittsburgh, eight years ago, the alliance has given "outreach" a meaning in public TV and the community groups that are its outreach allies.
Ricki Wertz, who pulled together the Chemical People project and is now directing All Together Now, spiels off a series of phrases that begin to define outreach: "the programming behind the program ... extending the impact of the program...a call to action that results from the broadcast ... we make something happen."
The term seems to apply to any benevolent effort a station undertakes in its community and any means to accomplish it.
In some ways, outreach resembles traditional promotion: the target audience must be lured to the TV screen, even if word of mouth is the only way to make contact as Maryland PTV discovered three years ago when it reached out to intravenous-drug users at risk of contracting AIDS.
"I've always thought of outreach as a fountain of ideas," say the alliance's western coordinator, Sharon Griggins, at KCTS, Seattle. "People are taking our ideas and looking at what's going on in their own communities and finding ways that linkages can be made."
But is that a job for public broadcasters? Some doubt they should wear the hat of a social worker or activist. Jim Lewis, vice president and director of programming at KPTS, Wichita, Kan., believes public broadcasters have no business dabbling in advocacy, no matter how noble the cause.
"It is our job to provide information, not solutions," he says. In the illiteracy problem, for instance, there are many possible solutions. "Our charter does not give us the mandate to select one solution over another," Lewis says.
But many more public broadcasters place outreach squarely within their public-service mandate. "It seems to me, outreach is the essence of public television," says Cherryale Burge, Maryland PTV outreach director. "In Maryland, public television came into existence to serve children in the classroom; the outreach component is an extension of assisting kids through the stages of development."
In effect, the station uses its prominence and its airwaves to facilitate community action. "My job is to bring in the resources from the community, to the community itself," says Ferne Barrow of WETA, Washington, who is the alliance's eastern regional outreach director.
The community results can be impressive, as in the case of public TV's longest-running outreach effort, Project Literacy U.S. (PLUS), a joint effort with Capital Cities/ABC. According to the outreach alliance, PLUS and the 450 local task forces it spawned helped increase the nation's pool of volunteers in adult basic education by 109 percent between 1985 and 1988.
Stations also benefit by reaching out to community people. "One bottom line is they will become viewers and take action," says Maryland PTV's Burge. "Another is that they will become members and support public television with their dollars."
Outreach also maintains PTV's ties with state legislators, says Burge. "With the beginnings of outreach, we've really galvanized their willingness to listen to us and meet our financial needs. It translates into money."
"We want to make the station more approachable, to have a friendlier image," adds Cathee Clausen of WVPT, Harrisonburg, Va. She finds too many people still think PTV is "for the elite."
Yet the practice of moving from one cause to another AIDS, the environment, literacy, drug abuse may give public TV the look of a do-gooding dilettante. To some outreach workers, a year isn't long enough to have much effect. "We need to sustain it much longer," says Burge. The "family" theme is broad enough to let stations continue their literacy, anti-drug projects under its banner, she observes.
"Every station is doing something around kids and family," says Wertz. "`We left it very generic so we could bring in whatever they're doing. Things that would fit in Philadelphia would not fit Albuquerque or Utah."
CPB, which subsidizes the alliance, deliberately keeps its outreach efforts applicable to numerous themes, says Rozanne Weissman, v.p. of corporate communications. The recently published CPB booklet promoting self-esteem "goes across age groups and well beyond a particular outreach topic," Weissman says.
National programs provide a skeleton of issues to be raised, progressing from at-risk children (Bill Moyers' documentary "All Our Children," to be aired April 10) to "regular kids doing remarkable things" ("Cool Moves Teens Together," airing May 1) to child nutrition (the Children in Poverty series later this year) and comparative childhoods worldwide (Childhood, a six-part series coming in the fall).
"Initially we were looking at doing the elderly, but after the great success of the environment, we feared it would be difficult to sustain a year-long campaign with the elderly," says Angie Krusenklaus, regional outreach coordinator for the South. "We looked at the pipeline from PBS and saw lots of good programs coming about the family, so the theme grew from the elderly into the whole family."
As in previous years, stations can choose from the alliance's toolkit of proven activities such as organizing contests, sponsoring charity footraces and publishing civic directories.
Some stations, particularly smaller ones, adopt these "turnkey" projects planned by the alliance. Yet the implementation, and the results, are strictly localized. When a station in a small rural city asked students to conceive a public service ad campaign, many touted environmentalism or even "obeying rules." But in Pittsburgh, most of the entries focused on child abuse.
Less common are the stations that invent big campaigns on their own, such as Project Crossroads, a major effort by KERA, Dallas, to improve race relations in its region.
The scale and vigor depend in large part on the degree of commitment by station leaders. "Once you have top management behind the project, obviously more resources and more people and time are put into the project," Krusenklaus observes.
A sampling of
Maryland PTV: Volunteer drive
If valuable and quantifiable results are an objective, volunteer recruitment drives are one of the most successful outreach activities. Last year's Project Reach Out telethon, aired by Maryland PTV and Baltimore commercial station WJZ, netted more than 200,000 hours of volunteer time statewide actual hours of work, not pledged hours. The statewide telethon doubled its 1989 results, says Cherryvale Burge, the state network's outreach director. The third annual Project Reach Out will be held in September.
During the two-hour entertainment telethon, viewers called an 800 number and described their skills and credentials, explains Burge. The information was given to state Department of Education workers, who matched up volunteers with the needs of nearby schools for tutors, chaperones, teachers' aides and mentors.
In keeping with the alliance's family theme, Maryland PTV is preparing a documentary on foster care that aims to show potential foster parents that they could take that responsibility and enjoy it, says Burge.
Other outreach projects span the family topic: a documentary, "Black Men: Uncertain Futures," which aired nationally in February, gave viewers a look at positive achievements by black men; a quiz to assess how much parents know about parenting; coverage of the state geography bee and the Maryland's Kids convention; and "Too Young to Parent," a teen-pregnancy documentary repeated from last year;
WVPT: Hiring mascot
Like many small stations, WVPT, Harrisonburg, in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, considered, culled and adopted ideas from the outreach alliance.
The station is participating in a local and national storyboard competition in which secondary-school students plan short video spots telling "How I Can Change the World," says Cathee Clausen, WVPT public relations coordinator. The station has produced and will air three winning entries. The national competition is co-sponsored by the outreach alliance and CPB.
The station adopted another alliance suggestion to hold a Youth Recognition Week. Ten outstanding young people were selected last week to be profiled on-air May 13-17.
Clausen has also been casting to fill a new job: station mascot. To counter an onslaught of Ninja Turtles, WVPT plans to promote its children's programs including Reading Rainbow with personal appearances by an overheated person in a bear suit. She recently chose an especially cuddly-looking bear suit among 10 found in catalogues.
KET: Kids behind camera
Kentucky ETV added a new twist to the local outreach production. High school students will direct and produce Totally Radical Teenage Videos, an adolescent's perspective on a host of family issues.
Among the five high school classes working on the production are students from the Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville, says Marianne Mosely, promotion and outreach manager at KET. Student-produced segments on family topics will be interspersed with "student on the street" interviews and a panel discussion among Lexington high school students, Mosely says.
The network has assigned a director, producer and associate producer to blend the three segments into the Totally Radical hour-long program that will follow the national outreach documentary "Cool Moves Teens Together."
KPBS: Targets dropouts
The San Diego station recently launched the Challenge of Diversity, a long-term outreach project to promote intercultural understanding.
KPBS also has adapted the family theme to the problems of high school dropouts. "We tied it in with the family because most of the dropouts get no support from anyone, including their families," says Patricia Finn, advertising and promotion director for KPBS.
The station's half-hour documentary, "Before It's Too Late," allows dropouts to tell their own stories, encouraging students to stay in school. County officials joined a round table discussion on the problem of dropouts, and targeted educational and parents groups with mailings and posters paid for by health-care provider Kaiser Permanente. The program was screened at a parents meeting of the San Diego Unified School District.
AETN: Video contest
Arkansas ETV is combining outreach activities with the network's 25th anniversary, says Outreach Manager Darla Bartos.
The network has challenged Arkansas families to submit their versions of everyday family life in videos of approximately two minutes length.
"We're interested in a view of what the family is here in Arkansas," Bartos says. The network will award makers of the top 10 entries and broadcast the winning videos later this year.
WMFE: Testing parents
The Orlando station is co-producing the "National Parent Quiz" with Oregon Public Broadcasting. The hour-long program, slated for a national feed next fall, marks the final year of "Crackdown," a three-year project on drug abuse prevention in Florida.
The quiz audience is expected to extend beyond parents to all care-givers, such as older siblings, daycare workers and grandparents, who look after children between the ages of six and 12, according to project coordinator Terry Fife.
The quiz is "a combination of vignettes of child-parent situations and discussions by experts," says WMFE Director of Promotion Barbara Gibson.
WUFT: Valentines to troops
The Gainesville, Fla., station kicked off 1991 by inviting families to record video greetings to relatives in the military overseas. Approximately 20 families taped video valentines, says Station Manager Lynn Ganz.
WUFT also is marking the year of the family with locally produced specials on topics such as minorities, single parents and foster care, Ganz says. The station is putting together a resource brochure on families that will be offered to the community around the April air date of the centerpiece outreach documentary "Cool Moves Teens Together."
KOCE: Open house
As part of a Backstage at KOCE project, the Huntington Beach, Calif., station invites representatives from different community, ethnic and interest groups to the station for an introductory program four to six times a year.
About 50 participants meet at KOCE for an evening including a reception, station tour, light supper and a welcome by station officials. A volunteer also speaks and some programs are previewed. "It's good, all-around acquaintanceship" says KOCE's outreach coordinator Pat Adams. "Basically, it's an awareness group, strictly based on the community."
In preparation for Black History Month, black leaders from the Orange County area visited the station. Asian-American groups have been to the station recently, and a group of Hispanics will soon be invited.
"It is not mass marketing," says Adams. "It's really one-by-one, grass-roots marketing, leading people by the hand into the station," she adds.
KOCE also participates in national outreach themes by setting up county-wide progams, inviting state legislators, regional decision-makers, community groups and educators to attend teleconferences and discussions on the topics.
KCTS: Creative kids
KCTS in Seattle sponsors a yearly public service announcement competition for middle and high school students. Entrants draw storyboards for spots based on the year's outreach issue, and winners take part in their production.
Plans for the station's fall project include a series on child development, to be coordinated with seminars conducted by a local health co-op at its clinics and at KCTS following each segment.
Prairie PTV: Town meetings
Using a town meeting format, Prairie PTV in North Dakota offers its resources as a forum for social change.
"Program promotion often masquerades as outreach, but there is no way a program can affect social change by itself," says Tom Rendon, promotion/community relations manager for the network. "The key is to bring together local organizations working on the issues."
This year the network organized four statewide "town meetings" that combined special reports, a panel of experts and audience participation. The topics were: waste management, school consolidation, economic development and human services.
"We also provide a viewers guide on the issues to our members, business leaders, the legislature and interested organizations. Our job is to create interest in a topic," he adds.
Iowa PTV: Reaching teens
"We are using live programming with panel discussions and call-in segments to involve our citizens in this year's campaign," says Duane Huey, Iowa PTV's executive producer of special projects. "America losing a generation of children is our thrust. We want to give voice to the Iowan perspective."
The network also produces special teen-oriented discussion programs and reports directed at secondary-school students during school lunch hour. Students at selected schools are encouraged to call in questions and comments on topics such as drug abuse, latch-key kids, teenage pregnancy and the Gulf War.
One production for the high school audience will address the issues raised by South Carolina ETV's teleconference "Making the American Dream Work for Our Children: A New Vision of School Guidance."
WMVS: Family talk
Family activities, picnics, Vacation Video Magazine and special inserts directed at children headline the outreach campaign at WMVS-TV, Milwaukee.
"We want to improve family communication by involving the whole family in our projects. Right now we are looking for underwriting to sponsor a summer kick-off picnic that will preview our summer programming for children," says Tania Jones, community outreach coordinator for the station.
WMVS produced its own supplement to Vacation Video Magazine, a children's publication from KQED, San Francisco, that contains scheduling information, local activities, games and articles that highlight outreach themes for 1991.
"We produced our own insert that encourages kids to join our Action Kids club, which promotes family use of public television and the library," she adds.
Nebraska: Ground water festival
The state network participated in a state ground water festival as an outreach project this year.
Students from 48 schools and the Nebraska governor attended the fair, where on-air personalities conducted games with a water theme.
"We're an agricultural state, and water is important," says Katherine Stephens, information director for Nebraska ETV. "We think it is important to educate our children about this valuable resource."
Nebraska ETV also produced a documentary that follows three inner-city youths, part of a group of 24, who worked on Nebraska farms as part of an exchange project.
WTVS: More than a station
Cooperating with commercial radio and TV stations, WTVS, Detroit, has established long-running community development programs.
"We can't change our focus every year," says Agnes Scott, v.p. of special projects. "Most of our community development projects have been running for years."
Yearly activities against teenage substance abuse include organizing a leadership workshop for 1,000 students from 100 high schools in the viewing area and a rally that attracted as many as 4,000.
"Community development implies more than just getting information out about programming. We think of ourselves as more than a broadcast station and less than a social agency," Scott says. "We make other people more effective by bringing them together."
"We see ourselves as part of the larger community. Our projects serve as conveners and coalition-builders," she adds.
NPR: "Prejudice Puzzle"
Public radio also has developed outreach projects. As part of last fall's Specials Project, NPR provided teachers' guides, outreach handbooks and media kits for stations carrying Class of 2000: The Prejudice Puzzle. NPR is repeating the effort April 1-6 for Class of 2000: Family Stories.
A series of reports aired during one week on All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition were one part of The Prejudice Puzzle, NPR's largest national outreach effort so far. More than 215 stations a substantial 80 percent of NPR outlets carried a two-hour call-in program hosted by Scott Simon on the Saturday following the reports.
NPR also surveyed stations and analyzed station managers' reactions to the local and national outreach efforts.
Such stations as WFAE-FM in Charlotte, N.C., WXPN-FM in Philadelphia and WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, ran local essay competitions.
More than 50 national, state and local organizations, ranging from the Boys Clubs and the National Education Association to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Indian Youth of America helped publicize the project and assisted NPR in outreach activities.
An American Public Radio program may also adopt the outreach approach. Producers of APR's Presidential Choices program, recently funded by CPB, are considering involving schools in an outreach effort, says network spokeswoman Deb Wolfer.
This article was reported by Steve Behrens, Brenda Cronin, Mark Cannon and Jack Robertiello.
. To Current's home page . Later news: By 2000, a Moyers outreach project spends as much on outreach as production.
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