Harvesting strength, and a little inspiration

The Chicago-based Third Coast International Audio Festival sponsors a conference every-other year at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

At Harvest Public Media, we have some things in common with the farmers we write about. We all start with what we know and do best — in our case, radio stories. In the case of Iowa farmers, for example, often corn and soybeans. Then, we monitor developments, analyze statistics and make forays into other areas. For public radio producers, those things might be blogging, audio slideshows or social media. For a farmer, perhaps a drought-resistant corn hybrid or the use of cover crops. We gather data from our own experience next: How many stations broadcast our work? How many likes do we get on Facebook? Farmers do that, too: Does drought resistant corn give better yield? How much nitrogen does the cover crop keep in my soil?

We often don’t know how our own peers view what we are doing. A non-profit called Practical Farmers of Iowa helps farmers try out new ideas and then collates and publishes their results. Some farmers might try something new after reading about a nearby farmer who had success with it.

We public radio producers get together every other year at the Third Coast International Audio Festival conference to hear what people have been up to in different places, to share what works and what fails and to gather the strength — sometimes even the inspiration — to go back out and do what we do better than we’ve done it before.  

This year, I felt proud and sheepish to be representing Harvest Public Media at Third Coast. Sheepish, because my short association with this awesome team meant that each time someone stopped me to say how much they like Harvest, I knew they weren’t talking about anything I’d done. But proud because I’ve stepped into a young organization that has garnered tremendous respect. None other than PRX’s John Barth offered me a hearty handshake and accolades for Harvest.

The Third Coast conference can overwhelm. Ira Glass (host of This American Life) gave an opening session in which he said we are living in a “post-Radiolab” world. He meant that the innovative storytelling on WNYC’s science show, Radiolab, had shifted the paradigm in our industry. It’s the sort of thing people were saying about This American Life when I entered this field 15 years ago. Then, Radiolab’s own Jad Abumrad — a MacArthur genius award winner — gave the final send-off speech. Heady words from two of the industry’s biggest names. But also in the mix over the weekend were students, news reporters from community stations, producers of podcasts and even a third grade teacher who makes radio with eight and nine year olds.

Also like farming, public radio can be hard to break into. It’s not dependent on the weather, particularly, but it’s as much of a political football at times as the Farm Bill. And while we can all certainly live without public radio, we can’t live without farms. But it’s nice to gather every so often with folks who believe that even though we could live without public radio, we’d rather not. And to celebrate that in addition to the commodity crops — the mainstream newsmagazines that are the corn and soybeans of our business — we have our specialty crops. Radiolab and This American Life may be like the small organic farmers in Iowa. They stand outside the main, but with persistence, consistent excellence and creativity they gradually influence what the rest of us are doing.

For the first time this year, Albert Lea Seed sold conventional rye seed for the same price as organic. Organic farmers have been planting the hardy cover crop for years and the demand from conventional farmers has exploded in the past two years. That hardly means every row cropper is going the way of the small organic farm.  All Things Considered will never be Radiolab. But here at Harvest Public Media, we try to bring you the solid, reliable news you expect while also bringing a few organic grapes to the (splendid) public radio table.