Thank you for Alaska, Joe McGinniss

I was very sorry to hear about the death of writer Joe McGinniss. He had a large, and unexpected impact on my life, though we never met (but I did once see him at Bernie’s Bungalow in downtown Anchorage). He’s a big reason I moved to Alaska briefly in 1996, and again for a much longer 12-year stay starting in 2001. He wrote Going to Extremes.

Published in 1980, Going to Extremes was a sort of journal McGinniss kept as he traveled around the state, from southeastern Alaska to Barrow on North America’s northern edge, from Bethel to Anchorage and Fairbanks and along the pipeline — everywhere. He visited at the end of the 1970s and traveled like a local, using the Marine Highway (the ferry) to travel up from Bellingham, Washington and then ride with a gregarious salesman in a new pickup truck into Canada and back down to Anchorage in the dead of winter. He flew in small planes, tasted the bitter petroleum ice smog of Fairbanks, discovered the depression and racism of Barrow, and the culturally enticing yet isolating communities of the Y-K delta. He watched midnight sun baseball and recounted rampant drug abuse in Juneau at a time when the State was rolling in new oil money and didn’t really know how to govern itself.

I read this book back in the mid-1990s before moving to Alaska in the summer of 1996, after a failed attempt at teaching high school. I was drawn to the land of extremes, the world of possibilities that an Alaska re-invention represented. I left at the end of that summer, returning to reality in the Lower 48. But the romantic notions of the Last Frontier never left me.

I took my girlfriend to Alaska in March 2000 for a brief vacation and proposed to her in the back of a flightseeing plane after landing on a frozen lake. That wasn’t as romantic as it sounds, however, due to the drunk guys also in the little plane. But you know, Alaska and alcohol have a long history together. 😉

After the dot-com crash of 2000, things slowed down at my job and we looked west for adventure, for something new. I stumbled across a job in Anchorage, took my fiancee with me on an interview trip, and by February 2001 we were packed into a Honda CR-V with a dog, a cat, and a lot of stuff, heading north from Louisville, Kentucky. We figured if we didn’t try Alaska then, while we were younger, we’d never try it. We thought we’d move there for 2 or 3 years, then move back.

12 years later we finally left Alaska. But in those years we explored the state and hosted friends and family that wanted to sample the adventure. We were hugely separated from family most of the time, but we found a new community while there, one we’re not finding so easily now that we’ve returned to the Lower 48. Anchorage is a city of transition for so many, and we fit in there. Not so much down here.

Sure, McGinniss wasn’t the only reason I moved to Alaska. But that book had an effect. And I can tell you his perspectives from the late 1970s still apply today. Alaska is indeed a land of extremes, whether it’s the dramatic swings of day and night, of heat and cold, of ice (glaciers) and fire (volcanoes), the earthquakes, the political insanity (McGinniss also wrote a book on Sarah Palin), and the many cultures across the state. I even asked a friend in Bethel whether he’d met any of the characters described in McGinniss’ book. He had. Were the descriptions accurate? They were — absolutely. Some people were proud to have been in the book, while others thought the descriptions were unfair.

Naturally, I recommend the book, and I’m sorry to hear McGinniss has passed away. His writing fired up my imagination and allowed me to experience the romantic draw of a life on the modern frontier — a place where you can start over, where you can define yourself, and where you live in a community so small it’s naturally close-knit.

He’s better known for other books, but to me he’ll always be the guy that captured the spirit of Alaska like no other writer before or since.

What’s high in the middle and round on both ends?

Downtown Columbus

BIG NEWS. I will be leaving Alaska at the end of July. I’m headed to the Columbus, Ohio area.

I’m moving south to be closer to family, especially my parents, who live in the Toledo, Ohio area. After the move I’ll be 2.5 hours away from them by car, instead of 12 hours away by nearly-$1,000 airplane flights. Meanwhile I also have family in Louisville, the Twin Cities, western Massachusetts, and Florida. Columbus is a good location for being closer to all of them, not to mention it has a great mainstream American culture and diversified economy. I’m also sorta-kinda from there, having completed high school and graduate school in the area.

I’ve been in Alaska for over 12 years now, which is amazing, because I always thought Alaska would be something I’d try just for a couple years. But those “couple years” kept extending as I got to do some meaningful work in my career, met some great people, and learned how to live in the Land of Extremes.

I will leave in the closing days of July, driving down the Alaska Highway (a favorite experience of mine). My wife Stephanie will follow in the early fall. I’ll share more about the move, my career changes, and so forth in the days to come, both here and over on Google+.

Farewell Alaska. Hello St. Louis!

Announcement Time!

As of this week I accepted an exciting new position with public service media company KETC in St. Louis, Missouri. Starting in early March, I’ll be their new Director of Digital Engagement.

Historically KETC has been, and to this day is, a public television station in a TV market of roughly 3 million, broadcasting national PBS programming as well as locally-generated shows, some of which are distributed nationally on occasion. Amongst public TV stations, KETC is one of the oldest on record. Seriously — check out their amazing timeline going back to 1954, a full 13 years before the Public Broadcasting Act. Now that is history.

Yet for all that rich history, KETC is becoming something very new today: a public service media company, not simply a broadcaster. Over the past few years they’ve embarked on a remarkable transformation, developing closer relationships with their community and using media to solve problems.

It started with outreach around The War, in which KETC set the national standard for gathering local veteran stories and integrating it with the Ken Burns documentary.

This new way of working and thinking culminated with the local, then national, Facing the Mortgage Crisis, in which the station literally networked nonprofits, government agencies, banks and homeowners in a united effort to slow or even stop the wave of foreclosures hitting the area following the financial meltdown. The project included social media, broadcast, old-fashioned networking, live events and lots of online work. The accomplishment in St. Louis were so impressive the CPB expanded the program to selected stations nationwide.

Now a new project is beginning; one focused on issues around the topic of immigration. They’re even remodeling part of the building to house the new local nonprofit news service — the St. Louis Beacon — and the cross-functional multiplatform digital media team… all together in the same space. And I’ll be there to help.

I can’t tell you how exciting this is. I’ve watched KETC from afar, oftentimes through consultant Rob Paterson‘s postings. This is an opportunity for me to put up or shut up on digital engagement and public service media. And I will do my best, for the good of St. Louis (a town I knew as a child, as it turns out), and hopefully for a broader public broadcasting community looking to understand how to move into what CPB’s Rob Bole calls “public purpose media.”

Sadly, this means I will be leaving Alaska very soon indeed, having lived on the Last Frontier for the past 9 years. The departure is made all the harder because I must leave behind a vibrant social media community I helped create over the past year. That community has gone on to raise money for a friend in need, form a local Ignite chapter and, from what I’m told, a wedding may be in the works. 🙂

So farewell Alaska. I will miss your Chugach mountain skyline and the warm embrace of entertaining and thoughtful friends all too soon.

And hello St. Louis! Let’s make something meaningful together.

Alaska public media falling apart

Updated 16 Sep 2011. Updates at the bottom of the post.

Things are tough all over the public media world these days. But if you think you’ve got it bad, you should try working in the Alaska public media world. It’s brutal.

In case you hadn’t heard or figured it out, I was fired from APTI back in March, along with our news director, ostensibly for failing to “align” with the CEO’s preferred — and secret — strategy of merging all the public radio and TV operations in the state into a single company (there are roughly 25 separate companies). We were firings #3 and #4 from a management team of 7, all in less than a year. The GM hired a personal friend to replace us literally the next day. Oh, and the rest of those 7 managers? Only 1 is left, and that position was demoted below management level last year.

So if you’re feeling down about pay freezes, furloughs or being laid off, just be glad you’re not living with this series of unfortunate events (and these are just the ones from memory)…

August 2008

  • APTI (Anchorage): Reorganization – General Manager (GM) fires Communications/TV and Development directors; no one hired to replace them

December 2008

  • APTI (Anchorage): Award-winning and beloved statewide program, “AK” is canceled, staff terminated

February 2009

  • APTI (Anchorage): GM decides a statewide merger of all public radio and TV stations into a single company is the strategy of the future; GM doesn’t announce his intentions to the rest of the company or the other stations in the state — stations that have been suspicious Anchorage would try this one day
  • KTOO (Juneau): It’s revealed — privately — that the Juneau-based stations are roughly $250,000 in the hole due to falling underwriting sales and other issues
  • KUAC (Fairbanks): It’s revealed — privately — that the Fairbanks stations and statewide TV service (AlaskaOne) lose roughly $1,000,000 per year, but the University of Alaska Fairbanks fills in the financial hole annually

March 2009

  • APTI (Anchorage): Strategy change! News/content and broadcasting/web directors fired; GM’s personal friend hired to replace them (a print journalist and professor with no broadcast or public media experience)
  • KUAC (Fairbanks): GM quits to take a job out of state; he’s not replaced

May 2009

June 2009

About that last item… I met with and worked with KYUK’s GM a few times. He was one of the good guys. He resurrected the station’s finances and dealt with the privations of living in rural Alaska — a far cry from his decades of work in the Lower 48. I won’t name him here as that’s not really my right to do so — you can look him up if you’d like. But I can say I sure wish he had taken the GM job in Anchorage back in mid-2007. Things could have turned out very differently for a great group of people that have persevered through so many challenges in the last few years. They don’t deserve the chaos they’ve inherited.

Crystal Ball Time

I have no idea what the future holds for public media in Alaska. Public radio — of the rebroadcasting NPR variety practiced in Anchorage — is probably pretty safe, barring straight-up mismanagement. Pubradio gathers a good chunk of change in Anchorage and the cost structure is comparatively light. Public TV is another story. The cost of merely rebroadcasting prepackaged material is excessive and traditional TV production is out of the question for pretty much all the stations in Alaska (without special project funding, which goes to outside contractors anyway).

Internet effects on the business models are definitely coming to urban Alaska, as are demographic shifts that represent brand new media consumption habits for which public media outlets aren’t really prepared, at least not here on the continent’s edge. Those changes will occur slowly, accumulating quietly until, one day, it’s just too late for the old guard to meet the new challenges, and that’s when public media either gets more government funding (a bailout) or it just disappears.

For the Alaska stations, and especially APTI in Anchorage, the biggest problem remains the same one I identified when I started working there in late 2004: You must answer two questions: [1] Who are you? and [2] Why are you here?

Those questions remained unanswered for my entire career in Alaska’s public media world, no matter how many times I asked or how hard I pressed for an answer. (The current GM thinks he answered those questions with a “strategic planning” process everyone regarded as a waste of time.) But without knowing, deeply, the answers to those seemingly-simple questions, it doesn’t matter what “strategy” you have — you’ll drift, you’ll live off the good intentions of past supporters. Without those two answers your future will be created by fate, happenstance, luck and disaster rather than by coordinated effort around a shared, meaningful goal that’s relevant to the world today.

But enough of all that. What happens next in the 49th state’s 50th year? Hopefully nothing worthy of adding to the harrowing list above. Public media up here needs a breather.

And maybe, one day, new leadership.

UPDATE: 15 Sep 2011

A few weeks back, the other shoe dropped. APTI and the other Alaska stations officially gave up on merging the stations together into a unified company. They are continuing to look at unifying the TV service.

This is both a relief and a vindication.

In the months leading up to my ouster, I was clear with the CEO in that I opposed the organizational merger concept, though I agreed that the TV services should be unified since they were so deeply and unnecessarily duplicative.

In place of pursuing a merger, I specifically recommended the organization spend its energies on reconnecting with the local community, not trying to create some mythical “all Alaska” media firm. There were so many things we could do to create meaning and value locally, in Anchorage, that we didn’t need to create a bunch of new work, namely beating back the obvious wishes of those local Boards and communities we’d have to take over.

Now that the merger push is dead, Alaskans that favor local public media can breathe a sigh of relief. Too bad it took 3 years of dragged-out talks and $88,000 of CPB money to get here. I should have just charged CPB $44,000 for the advice I gave on Day 1 and they could have pocketed the other half.

The last thing still under consideration: merging the TV signals into one. This is a slam-dunk and should have been pursued years ago. Oh, wait… it was!

Many years ago (the mid-1990s) 3 of the 4 Alaska public TV stations merged their signals into AlaskaOne. Anchorage was the only hold-out — they wanted to retain local control and — the real reason — local fundraising (cha-ching!). Back then, local PBS stations were pretty localized and raised a lot more money. But over the years all the stations converged on the same schedules as PBS tightened control over common carriage and everyone gave up local production and scheduling capacity as their fundraising and ad sales collapsed.

Today, merging Anchorage into the AlaskaOne family should just be done. The schedules are carbon copies anyway. Hell, I’ve been in favor of PBS just going all C-SPAN and taking the signal national and being done with it. But that’s another story. For now, let’s hope AlaskaOne finally captures Anchorage public TV and APTI turns its attention further and further toward local media and local public services.

Well, except for all the money made by rebroadcasting NPR stuff.

Recent presentations

Well, the week of presentations is now over. Here are both of them, for reference. They may not make sense out of context, but there were definitely some links in the Twitter presentation particularly that may be of use to the APRN journalists that attended my presentation last Friday.

APRN Chaordic Organization Option

This presentation was made to several managers of public radio stations in Alaska and then again to the Board of APTI a couple days later. It concerns the future of collaborative public media efforts in Alaska. Developed in cooperation with the unequaled Robert Paterson, and using ideas pioneers 40 years ago with Visa International, it’s a proposal for starting conversations statewide about finding a new way for us to collaborate and compete in a more natural way than we’re organized today. It’s kind of hard to follow without the narration/explanation, but I wanted to share it anyway. I’m happy to answer questions.

Twitter for Stations, Programs, Journalists and Fun

This presentation was made to a group of Alaska public radio journalists in Anchorage during an annual conference. The idea was to expose them to the Twitter service and suggest they try it out and see what others around the country — especially NPR — are doing with it. The reaction was… tepid. I think Alaska pubradio journalists are really saddled with a lot of responsibilities that just aren’t present in the rest of the country, and taking on new forms of media is just so hard for them. And then journalists also tend to be a skeptical lot — as they should be, of course. Again, narration helps, but there’s lots of links in it for reference.

J-Week 2008: Web Extras Toolkit

Welcome Journalism Week 2008 visitors from Anchorage, Alaska! If you’re looking for the “Web Extras Toolkit” handout from Saturday, April 19, 2008, you’ve come to the right place.

And feel free to recommend your own toolkit additions or corrections via the site comment feature.