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California Arts Council Report Announces Reinstatement of $200,000 Nonprofit Media Grant Program

Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: Beyond Museum Walls"
The California Arts Council's “Nonprofit Media Coverage of the Arts in California: Challenges and Opportunities" report

A look into the operations of public media organizations who report on art and culture, the “Nonprofit Media Coverage of the Arts in California: Challenges and Opportunities" study was published by the California Arts Council on November 2, 2016. Artbound regular contributor Matt Stromberg authored the report. Below, read a breakdown of the key findings illustrated within it.

The field of journalism, especially arts journalism, is currently undergoing the greatest transformation it has seen since perhaps the invention of moveable type. More people than ever are enjoying a wider selection of content on multiple platforms, but the financial models that have supported the countless writers, photographers, and producers who create that content are facing a major disruption. These changes affect commercial and nonprofit media alike. A report released earlier this week by the California Arts Council, “Nonprofit Media Coverage of the Arts in California: Challenges and Opportunities,” aims to take stock of both the current issues and favorable factors facing nonprofit media coverage of the arts, and delivers recommendations for how funders can better serve this dynamic field.

In 2013, the California Arts Council, a state agency that provides grants for arts-related nonprofits throughout the state, created the Arts on the Air grants program. Intended to support nonprofit television and radio coverage of the arts, the program ran for two years, investing $350,000 overall, with awards ranging from $28,000 to $75,000 being given to seven grantees including KQED in San Francisco, KCET in Los Angeles, and Radio Bilingüe in Fresno. Despite the program’s successes, the council decided that it was not serving the field as best it could, based on feedback from applicants and peer review panelists. One issue was the way impact was measured, which tended to favor larger stations with more robust audience numbers, not taking into account the strong role that smaller stations can play in their communities. In addition, the plethora of ways that audiences now consume media further complicates attempts to gauge audience engagement. In response to these concerns, the council chose to suspend the program in 2015.

Artbound still image from documentary "Artesanos/Artisans"
KCET Artbound's documentary "Artesanos/Artisans" uncovers the stories of Mexican artisans whose labor serves as the backbone of high-end design and retail in Los Angeles.

In June of 2016, the council convened at a daylong summit in the headquarters of Youth Radio in Oakland, inviting more than a dozen participants from a wide array of public media organizations to discuss the current state of public media and the arts in California. The results of this summit, along with additional research and interviews with funders, were published in the “Nonprofit Media Coverage of the Arts in California: Challenges and Opportunities” report. The study outlines key findings before going on to suggest recommendations for ways to more effectively serve the field. After reviewing the report, the council voted in September in favor of renewing an arts and public media program, with a commitment to invest $200,000. The revamped program is slated to start in 2017.

The findings published in the report included the aforementioned problems with quantifying audience data, the different challenges faced by rural and urban environments, and small and large stations, and the needs met by nonprofit media sources that are neglected by their commercial counterparts. “We are finding stories that may have been lost otherwise,” noted KVIE arts producer Marinda Johnson in the report.

View of Dublab's 2015 Creative Cultivation Fundraiser
Dublab's Creative Cultivation Fundraiser Salon, April 2015. | Photo: dublabrat [Yoshihiro Makino]/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Another notable finding was the role that public events can play in deepening engagement with communities beyond on-air programming. “We’ve done so many events that they in some way have eclipsed out radio programming,” said Alejandro Cohen, director of online radio station Dublab. “Events are the perfect way to bring your online presence to audiences.”

The emergence of new platforms was a significant topic discussed at the summit as well. In addition to television and radio broadcasts, most stations have programs available on their websites, and increasingly on social media sites like Facebook. Additionally, Facebook was more often cited as the primary platform that drives traffic to webpages and where content is increasingly consumed, therefore producers are creating programming specifically for it. The irony of a commercial company hosting public media was not lost on summit attendees. “Facebook is a private company that makes its money off ad sales and clicks,” said USC professor of communications Josh Kun. “What was a disruptive economy is now a new version of an old school media monopoly.”

A KCET Facebook post promotes "Tending the Wild," a series produced in partnership with the Autry
A KCET Facebook post promotes that multimedia series "Tending the Wild" is streamable on various platforms including Apple TV and Roku. The show was produced in partnership with the Autry Museum of the American West.

Also discussed was the important role that partnerships can play for nonprofit media stations. These include both content sharing and mentorship partnerships between stations, as well as those between media outlets and different kinds of arts organizations, such as museums, symphonies, or performing arts centers. “It’s a win-win situation,” said Juan Devis, KCET’s chief content officer, “because they get the benefit of our audience and our broadcast, and we get the benefit of having access to content and to a project that otherwise we would not have been involved in.” 

In addition to these findings, the report made a series of recommendations regarding ways in which funders can best support the field in the future. These include:

Develop new methods for measuring success. 

Sheer audience size should not be the only metric for success. Depth of engagement should be considered, as well as the wider network of platforms through which audience members now engage with content.

Vary the size of grants.

The first two years of the Arts on the Air program were only able to support a small numbers of applicants due to the size of the grants. If smaller grants were incorporated into the program, a larger and more diverse pool of organizations could benefit.

Foster partnerships and networking.

In addition to financial support, funders should explore “initiatives that foster content exchange, resource sharing, and consistent networking.”

Utilize the existing breadth of expertise and diversity in the field.

Along similar lines, the report recommends advocating “mentorships and other opportunities for direct organizational interchange.” 

Embrace the role of innovation and new technology.

Funders are encouraged to recognize the potential of new technologies in the way content is produced, delivered, and consumed. 

Encourage participation of nonprofit media organizations in broader grant programs.

Finally, the report recommends that funders encourage awareness of the wide range of grant opportunities available, outside of those specifically focused on nonprofit media coverage of the arts, for which nonprofit media organizations are eligible. 

Utilizing the findings and recommendations from this report, the council will be reviewing guidelines for the new arts and public media program at their December meeting, before opening the program next year. Although the report was produced to help inform the work of the California Arts Council, it is intended to be used and useful for the wider community. As Caitlin Fitzwater, the council’s communications director states in the report’s foreword: “We hope the findings will be a helpful resource and conversation starter for all parties who are invested in the success of the public media field and its engagement with California’s cultural communities.”

Click here to view the “Nonprofit Media Coverage of the Arts in California: Challenges and Opportunities" report in its entirety.

Top image: Still from KCET Artbound's documentary "MOCA: Beyond the Museum Walls." The episode was produced in partnership with MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles).

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