PBS is celebrating 50 years of broadcasting in October 2020.
“One thing that struck me as I have been reflecting on our history is the role that radio has played in the advent of public media, and I think MSU saw the potential of broadcasting early on,” says Susi Elkins, director of broadcasting at MSU and general manager of WKAR Public Media at Michigan State University. “They saw it as a force to improve the lives of Michiganders, and I don't know if a lot of people know this, but they began an experimental radio broadcasting service in 1917. It wasn't until 1952 that broadcast television spectrum was set aside for educational purposes.
“Once again, Michigan State University was very innovative. In 1954, we launched one of the first educational television stations in the United States. We do have a really strong, long history and it becomes intertwined with PBS' a little bit later. We started creating wonderful content here on campus to fill that programming schedule. It all goes back to the land grant colleges and Michigan State's mission, and MSU has been a pioneer in this area for a long time.
“Once people saw the benefit of the educational stations that were cropping up, they really saw a need to take a look at the where mass media was heading. A lot of the early legislation was making it very commercialized and trying to bring audiences to advertisers. It became clear we needed to solidify educational programming, make space for it, and make sure that every citizen in the country had access to free educational programming over the air. That’s really what started the mission for PBS and we have stayed true to those roots.”
As the missions of PBS and WKAR have evolved, viewers and listeners are consuming WKAR’s product in more ways that just traditional over-the-air broadcasts. Elkins describes the American Portrait project and talks about her role on the board of PBS.
“There's so much change happening, so we're always talking about change and how we need to adjust and make sure that we're continuing to be relevant for audiences and bring them what they need while always doing that with that core mission in mind, meaning that we serve all Americans. We serve everyone in every unique community. It's an interesting juxtaposition as a broadcaster. We broadcast from one to many via mass communication. However, our mission states that we want to serve individual voices and really personalize and localize the experience. It's okay if we have smaller ratings if we're telling a story that fewer people are tuning into. Those who are tuning in are being impacted positively and cared for and served in a unique and interesting way.
“On the board, we're always thinking about how to balance those things, and we're trying to innovate and take advantage of new technologies while always negotiating and keeping the local station at the forefront. That can be challenging, in all honesty, but it's worth it. It's worth every drop of sweat and every tear to try to figure out how to do it and I think we've been really successful. PBS has a long history of innovating. We created closed captioning, we had the first satellite uplink system, we had the first broadcast facility in digital, and so we just continue to innovate and find new ways to serve audiences.
“We also have really been talking about our role in helping the country grapple with legacies of systemic racism and inequality in our country, and we've been committed to leveraging the unique strengths we have as a public media system to manage and encourage conversation around difficult topics. Part of our mission at WKAR is to affect positive change. We don't shy away from difficult issues and difficult topics.”
Elkins and her team recently produced a stakeholder report.
“We talk all the time at the station about how grateful we are to our donors, our members, our listeners, and our viewers. We have so much support from the university. The MSU Federal Credit Union has been incredible, and Consumers Energy has been with us since the beginning with Quiz Busters and now Curious Crew. We just really wanted to put together a report to show folks what their contributions have meant to our community. It was a big project, but one that we felt was important. We've been excited to share that with our stakeholders and others who sometimes don't know everything that we're doing. We’re not just putting out programming, but providing engagement events and community screenings and working with the university to make sure that the general public understands the role of research and how it creates positive change in communities.
“I think we are as important as we've ever been. Occasionally, people say, ‘In a world full of media choices, there's a plethora of information and news and music, and I can get it anywhere I want whenever I want, and so why is PBS needed today?’ I am a firm believer that PBS is needed now more than ever because of the plethora of news and information out there and the trust that WKAR and PBS have built means that we aren't beholden to anyone else. We are only serving those in our local community. As the last locally owned stations working to extend the learning from our educational programming, we convene those conversations. That is at the heart of our mission.
“There is no one else doing that. There's no one else cutting through the noise in the way that we are with our community. And we can only do it because of the support of our community. I personally am so grateful to live in a community like ours where people are interested, engaged, and involved. They want information and they want cultural programming, and so it's a pleasure to serve this community and I'm just grateful to everyone.”