KQED: Strategic Change in a Time of Uncertainty

In my position as a qualitative researcher and evaluator, I consult with a wide range of nonprofit organizations (e.g., schools, museums, patient advocacy groups) in the areas of education, health, the arts, and public media. Staff at these organizations are still contemplating their uncertain future in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election

Initially struck with a sense of hopelessness and despair, these staff members have channeled their frustration into a rededicated sense of commitment and purpose to fulfilling their mission. They often use the term “double down” to express the importance of not succumbing to political or economic pressures, and continuing to provide needed services and information to the diverse audiences they serve. This organizational pivot from defense to offense is not seamless. It has required a continual re-examination and restatement of mission, especially given the very unpredictable political landscape, and the paucity of factual information on who will be impacted and how.

Even before the election, in the midst of substantive internal changes, KQED was faced with new and complicated challenges posed by its staff, board, and audience constituents, namely, how to respond to the perceived assault on KQED’s values and its role in society. The events of the last four months have added new layers to the inquiry, “What does it mean to be a 21st-century public media organization?” — the framing research question for this blog series on disruptive change and innovation at KQED.

A Restless Board

Especially now, everybody wants to know what we’re for, what we’re about, and what we’re standing up for. — John Boland, President, KQED

In December 2016, KQED convened its first Board of Directors meeting since the November election. The KQED Board includes many executives from some of the most successful Bay Area tech and investment firms, individuals familiar with risk and uncertainty, and generally not shy about protecting their investments. In December 2016, with the dust from the election still not settled, many Board members were openly anxious and concerned that KQED needed to vigorously respond to the many “threats” they saw to the integrity and free flow of information, as well as to the continued role of public media to provide unbiased coverage of events and individuals. With little time to process ramifications or articulate a strategy, President John Boland was asked repeatedly how KQED would take action to protect the public’s interest.

There was a lot of emotion there. All I could say then was we will hold to our values and our ethical guidelines and do the best we can with whatever the situation is at the time. I think the Board was looking for something more absolute, such as when the President says something that’s not true we will do X. I said even if you gave me a hypothetical I couldn’t tell you how we would respond to it because I don’t know now what all the factors will be at that time. — John Boland

Clearly, Board members are passionate believers in public media and at this stage right after the election needed assurances that KQED understood the gravity of the situation. How would KQED maintain journalistic integrity in the face of such growing uncertainty? Boland, a seasoned journalist, could only continue to say that KQED would be steadfast in maintaining and strengthening its core values. He could not support a position where KQED, despite attacks from a new administration, appeared to take sides. Such a scenario would most certainly challenge basic journalistic ethical principles.

Boland and other senior management came away from the meeting knowing that, while KQED and its Board shared the same concerns, it was imperative for KQED to communicate and articulate its mission and values more explicitly. Everyone, including the Board, needed to be reassured.

In a follow-up email to Board members immediately after the meeting, Boland acknowledged their interest in a more thorough discussion on several very important topics. Addressing the issue of how KQED would position itself in the new environment, Boland stated:

We are committed to fact-based reporting that is fair, comprehensive, and independent, but we cannot hypothesize about precisely how we will cover a particular issue, incident, or development that might occur in the near future because how we approach any given story depends on a range of variables. However, we can say that we will always act in accordance with our journalistic principles, in the best interests of our audience and with honesty and courage.

To underscore this message, Boland attached a related statement that he had sent to KQED staff, and another from Holly Kernan, Vice President for KQED News, which had been sent to the station’s members e-mail list.

To prepare the Board for its next meeting in February 2017, Boland and other KQED senior management developed a more focused report, outlining specific steps KQED was taking in response to concerns expressed in December. Boland opened the February meeting by acknowledging the earlier miscommunication:

At the December Board meeting, I gave the wrong impression — that we were just going to keep doing the same thing, just more so. What I meant was, we were going to stick to our values of unbiased, truthful, trusted coverage — not that we would be executing on those values in exactly the same way.

At the February meeting, addressing questions about exactly what KQED would be doing, Boland talked about instituting near-term tactical changes in response to audience needs, and longer-term strategic changes to anticipate future occurrences. Near-term changes included: hiring of additional news staff; broadening partner relationships to expand coverage of local and national issues; collaborating more closely with other PBS and NPR stations to share items of interest across diverse geographic regions; and fostering a new round of applications for the next Matter Ventures cohort, encouraging start-up ideas with an eye on the changing media landscape and leveraging technology for greater security, inclusivity, filtering content, and engaging audiences.

Boland also described the many changes and innovations introduced over the past five years through the station’s organization-wide strategic transformation, many of which we have documented in this blog series (e.g., audience insights and engagement, Salesforce integration, KQED Lab, KQED Learning, design thinking methodologies, investment in Matter), which prepared KQED to better meet the current and heightened expectations of its growing audience.

To underscore the public’s response to KQED since the election, Boland provided some compelling statistical data;

· KQED’s radio audience reached more than 1 million listeners per week for the first time recently.

· More than 2.5 million unique visitors registered on the kqed.org website, setting traffic records on the three days around the election.

· Year-to-date (through January 2017) KQED revenue was nearly $2.5 million ahead of budget, including TV pledges that were nearly double that of the PBS station with the next highest pledge total.

By noting KQED’s actions to prepare for a fluid external environment and its audience’s response to these changes, Boland was able to more clearly reinforce the organization’s direction, while reinforcing the basic principles and mission of public media. Board reaction to Boland’s presentation was positive, leading to a more aligned discussion around strategy and approach going forward. More focused and informed strategic planning sessions will be taking place over the next few months between staff and various Board subcommittees.

Strategy and Recommitment

After experiencing a difficult and emotional two month of news gathering, reporting, and analysis, about 80 KQED staff gathered in an onsite studio in mid-December 2016 to participate in an organization-wide strategy and tactics meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to flesh out key organizational values from staff in order to inform KQED’s broader strategic planning efforts. What transpired was an opportunity for staff not only to articulate their vision, but surface their feelings, frustrations, and concerns.

In addition to the intensity of the national election, KQED staff was also reeling from the tragedy (and coverage) of the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire in early December. The profound sadness stemming from this local calamity was exacerbated by the loss of one of their own, Alex Ghassen, a freelance producer. For many staff, the combination of these two events created an anxiety not unlike that of KQED Board members. How would KQED respond to new external challenges and pressures? How could public media’s unique mission and purpose be reinforced? To this end, a number of smaller informal meetings and discussions had already taken place among staff in KQED Learning (Education) and News to consider their respective department’s role and response.

Michael Isip, KQED’s new Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, began the meeting by asking staff to “check in.” Many described the difficulty of the past year after experiencing the election, Oakland fire, and other local, national and global events. News cycles that in the past afforded staff some occasional relief were now 24/7, intensified by the public’s thirst for instant access and information across multiple communication channels.

Isip remarked that now, more than ever, was a good time to be asking a fundamental question about KQED: How was KQED going to better serve its community? In his brief introduction to staff, Isip reinforced KQED’s key values of impartiality, fairness, truth, transparency, and independence.

To help frame the discussion on strategy, participants were asked to join one of five groups focusing on five key areas of KQED’s mission:

  1. Inform Society
  2. Model Civic Discourse
  3. Serve the Public Good
  4. Engage Communities
  5. Encourage Critical Thinking

Groups were asked to “project” themselves into the year 2020 and discuss how KQED would address each of these topics by answering the questions: How did people’s lives improve in the last three years? How did KQED solve this need? What changes did KQED make?

The result was a collection of innovative ideas on ways KQED might address each of these issues. Not surprisingly, many of the ideas were influenced by KQED’s core values and mission.

It seems that reinforcing things we already know is more important than ever. Everybody on staff seemed super hungry to restate our core values. I found people have a huge craving to use phrases like “informed society,” “democracy,” “fact-based journalism,” “science facts matter,” and “civil diversity.” Almost all of these values are in our [KQED’s] mission but need to be restated and will probably have a more prominent role in our new strategic plan. I think our people want to see these values more prominently articulated and emphasized. — Tim Olson, Chief Digital Officer, KQED

A number of themes that resonated with staff included:

· Identifying catalysts that encourage community and bring people together

· Bringing diverse organizations to the table and creating innovative partnerships

· Inspiring viewers and listeners to ask critical questions

· Convening conversations with people at all levels of the economic and social spectrum to stimulate dialogue and create solutions

· Expanding the “tool-box” for initiating dialogue in diverse locations (churches, veterans and union halls, PTA meetings)

· Focusing on broader issues that underlie the cultural and political divide, such as income and equality.

These ideas reflect KQED’s aspiration to reach beyond traditional public media audiences and extend the station’s interest in, and empathy for, communities that may have been ignored or overlooked. Much like John Boland’s response to the KQED Board, staff emphasized the significance of continuing to build and grow awareness of public media’s role, highlighting the work that has been done to date, while always looking for new ways to improve outreach and messaging.

As KQED continues its strategic planning for the next two to three years, more of these conversations with staff, the Board, and community constituents are taking place, not only to inform the station’s future direction, but also to assure, learn from, and continue to build trust with audiences, both internal and external.