Friday, March 01, 2013

Self Help for a Helpful University

March 1, 2013, 11:00 a.m.

See also on this topic: "Are the Iowa Universities' Stations No Longer 'Educational," April 2, 2013; "War On Sabbaticals Casualty of Iowa Public Radio; Universities Should Use Their Stations to Tell Story," December 13, 2010; "Commercializing Non-Commercial Radio; IPR's 'Enhanced Underwriting,'" November 19, 2010

A University That Wants to Be Helpful . . .
One of the things that we’ve spent some time with ... is looking at pockets where we may be less favorably viewed, and that’s where I’m going to spend a lot of time and attention. A lot of them are west.

I need to do the best job I can to deliver a message that says we are a university that wants to be helpful to the entire state.

-- University of Iowa President Sally Mason
"U of I's Mason on Other Topics," Des Moines Register, February 11, 2013
. . . Back In Its Own Backyard
Oh, you can go to the East
Go to the West
But someday you'll come
Weary at heart
Back where you started from

-- Billy Rose, lyricist, "Back in Your Own Backyard" (1928); Lyrics from
As interpreted by Dean Martin:

You can probably understand why a blogger who went to the East (Washington, D.C.), went to the West (Berkeley, California), and 30 years ago came back where he started from (Iowa City), and then named his blog "FromDC2Iowa," would perhaps choose those lyrics.

But what does "back in our own backyard" have to do with the University of Iowa's problems?

Because I can imagine how Jon Stewart would describe the UI dilemma on "The Daily Show":
"You're what? You're trying to figure out how to get the University's story to the people of Iowa and their elected representatives?!" And then, mugging, raising his voice, and looking incredulous, But you OWN a statewide radio network that blankets the state with 21 frequencies, broadcasts 24/7/365, reaches 200,000 opinion leaders, and is worth tens of millions of dollars!! Why aren't you using THAT?"
(The FCC's Web site lists the licensee for WSUI-AM as THE UNIVERSITY OF IOWA and for W0I-FM as IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY. Bear in mind, these are licensed to be "educational radio stations," with the special privileges that status carries. [Photo credit: WSIE-FM.]

WSUI, originally 9YA, was one of the first radio stations west of the Mississippi when it began broadcasting 100 years ago this year, in 1913. Ironically, it was soon doing what I am now advocating -- using the facility to bring information about the University to the people of Iowa. WSUI was also an early innovator in the use of educational television, video broadcasting from the University's classrooms in the 1920s, if I recall correctly. "Early History of WSUI." And see, "Statewide Iowa Public Radio Service," Engage the Audience: Iowa Public Radio Annual Report, 2011, p. 11, and "About Us," Iowa Public Radio.)

In fairness, we've tried everything to get our message to Iowans except for using our own radio stations. We hired an extraordinarily well-paid Vice President for Strategic Communications. We have a Faculty Engagement Corps, a traveling busload of faculty sent out to discover that there is more to Iowa than "the People's Republic of Johnson County" -- while demonstrating for our fellow Iowans how human professors really are. We have a Web page, numerous publications and news releases.

We've even tried commercials during our football games:

An irony you may have missed in that fast moving bit of video is the fraction-of-a-second portrayal of one of Iowa's most distinguished, accomplished, and energetic professors: Dr. Jerald L. Schnoor. (Among a great many other things, Jerry holds a chair in the College of Engineering, is a professor of both Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Occupational and Environmental Health, Co-Director of the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, Researcher in the Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing, and Editor-in-Chief of the Environmental Science and Technology Journal.)

Why the irony? For two reasons. (1) Unlike the University itself, Dr. Schnoor is using radio broadcasting to serve the people of Iowa; and (2), because the University's use of its own radio network (for university purposes) is lying fallow, he has had to use a loose network of over 200 commercial radio stations to carry his broadcasts.

I sometimes listen to the radio in the middle of the night. On one occasion, when I'd already heard the BBC's news two or three times, I started scanning the commercial stations and caught one of his one-minute "programs." When I asked him about them, he was quick to credit Iowa State Senator Joe Bolkcom for his early participation in the idea, and journalism students who help with production. But it's Professor Schnoor's voice and energy and commitment to the environment that radiate along with those broadcasts.

Now in its fourth year, recent items included "No Plastic Bag Ban for Iowa City," January 7, 2013; "Drake University Aims to Become a More Sustainable Campus," January 14, 2012; "Des Moines Gets Greener," January 21, 2013; Governor proposes plan to reduce [Iowa's impact on the Gulf of Mexico's] dead zone," January 28, 2013; "Sierra Club complaint leads to cleaner air in Iowa," February 4, 2013; and "University of Iowa Uses Local Pine Trees as Biofuel," February 11, 2013. This project's Web site, where you can find both audio and transcripts of the programs, is "On the Radio," Iowa Environmental Focus. (The home page for Iowa Environmental Focus, of which "On the Radio" is but one of many projects, is Iowa Environmental Focus: Environmental News and Analysis with an Iowa Focus, A Project of the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. The Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research has its own story well worth telling.)

But it is not the point of this blog entry to discuss environmental policy, Dr. Schnoor, the Iowa Environmental Focus activities, or the content of recent broadcasts from its "On the Radio" project. The point is that this project is proof that Iowa's state universities not only can, but in the case of Iowa Environmental Focus already are, demonstrating, with radio, what it means to be, in President Mason's words, "a university that wants to be helpful."

To "deliver a message that says we are a university that wants to be helpful," or to run 30-second commercials during football games reminding viewers that the University of Iowa is engaged in at least some additional activities elsewhere than in its hospital or on the football field -- and that, by the way, we really think we're a pretty great university -- is not going to cut it. It's not messages, or commercials, or information and brags (e.g., "About Iowa", and "Facts at a Glance"), that the University needs to win the hearts and minds of Iowans -- any more than our drone strikes are winning the hearts and minds of Pakistanis and Afghans. ("Home Grown Drones," February 16, 2013.)

As Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics to My Fair Lady's song, "Show Me," put it (albeit in a somewhat different context):
Never do I want to hear another word
There isn't one I haven't heard
. . .
Say one more and I'll scream

Sing me no song, read me no rhyme
Don't waste my time, show me
Those Missourians to the south of us are not the only ones who say, "show me."

So, let's show 'em. What do we have to show? How about starting by our reviewing one of our Web pages that is already available but seldom viewed, with its seven categories of "Resources for Iowans"? Better yet, the expanded "A-Z Resources for Iowans" list of over 140. Almost every one of those is a story to tell, along with some specifics as to how Iowans can go about benefiting from it.

I've posted on this blog my own evaluations of Iowa in general and the University of Iowa in particular from time to time; portions of them may also be of some use in explaining how we can be, and are, helpful to the rest of the state. They may also be helpful in providing those UI faculty, staff and students who come from out of state (or whom we are urging to do so) additional insight into their new home. "Taking the Bloom From My Rose; Another Perspective on Stephen Bloom's Iowa," December 16, 2011; "'We're Number One!' What's Your City's Ranking? And Why Rankings Are Silly," December 22, 2011; "What Do You See . . . When You Look at Iowa," December 27, 2011.

A few years ago I urged the University to abandon its old black-and-white "news releases" for a full-color Web page/email delivery more like what the big boys use in the 21st Century. I doubt that suggestion had any impact on anyone, but we now have a format more to my liking -- and hopefully that of other Iowans and the news media. Of course, much of the University news in "Iowa Now" is by, for and about UI faculty and students. But not all. It wouldn't require that much additional effort, staff and money to pluck the stories of relevance to all Iowans, those describing the help we're offering them and how they can get it, and put them into an additional "publication" we could send to the county weeklies all across the state.

When I was a Washington official I was a fan of Sarge Shriver, who was somehow capable of running both the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty for President Johnson. One of the very successful things he did in winning congressional support for his programs was a model I used then, and the University of Iowa could use (more than it does now) with the Iowa Legislature. The announcements of newly accepted Peace Corps volunteers came, not from his office, but from the office of the Member of Congress from whose district that volunteer came. The President, and Shriver, would of course notify ahead of time, and include, Members whose districts they would be visiting. I, or a member of my staff, would notify Members before I would be doing TV interviews, making speeches, or otherwise involved in their districts, and ask if there was anything I could do for them while I was there. (President Johnson told his presidential appointees that the most important appointment they would ever make was their congressional liaison.) Presumably, Iowa legislators would be equally appreciative of such attention, and county weeklies would (at least some of the time) be interested in running news about local residents with UI ties.

In fact, it turns out we have quite a bit of information about the University's presence in Iowa's 99 counties, available through our "Outreach" Web page. To try it out, I picked "Ida County" in northwest Iowa, because that was home for my mother's side of the family (and where a cousin and his wife still live). It's closer to Nebraska and South Dakota than Iowa City, and one of Iowa's smallest counties; with a population a little over 7,000 it ranks 92nd out of Iowa's 99 counties. And yet even Ida County is receiving services from the University of Iowa -- whether its residents are fully conscious of that fact or not.

Alumni: 80% of Iowa's dentists, 50% of doctors, 47% of pharmacists are UI educated; 80% of the 300-plus school districts have UI-educated teachers and administrators. Ida County has 62 Iowa alums, including 4 teachers/administrators, 2 doctors, 2 pharmacists, and 1 dentist. There are 19 undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Iowa from Ida County.

Health care: at The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, 191 Ida County residents; from the UI Outreach Specialty Clinics and UI Home Care (a visiting nursing program), 14; and the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa performed 311 tests in Ida County.

President Mason correctly notes, as quoted above, that there are "pockets where we may be less favorably viewed, and that’s where I’m going to spend a lot of time and attention. A lot of them are west."

So what do we do about that?

Let's start by putting up some repeaters (cheap radio signal transmitters) in western Iowa, sufficient to put a signal from what is now Iowa Public Radio over the 35 westernmost counties. And don't tell me we can't afford it, when we seem to have multiple multi-million-dollar construction projects underway almost continually. We're not talking about additional studios and staff here, just some relatively cheap repeaters.

There would then be no limitations to what we could program -- except for the limitations of our own imaginations. We might start with one-minute informative pieces about those 35 counties (like the information, above, from Ida County), rotated throughout the week or month. I'm not talking about eliminating NPR programming like "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered," or "Talk of the Nation" from the stations, or the Iowa-oriented news programming the talented but overworked staff is already doing. I'm just suggesting at least some one-minute bits, analogous to what Jerry Schnoor is doing, for starters. Not brags about how great the University is, or scholarship that few listeners would even understand, let alone find engaging or useful. Stories conveying information about existing UI programs and services some of their neighbors are already using, and that they might find helpful.

Ideally, what I'd like to see would be some interactive programming focused on Iowa's small towns' challenges. Bring together the expertise of the University of Iowa, Iowa State, and University of Northern Iowa with remote feeds, along with selected officials and opinion leaders from one or two towns, and broadcast the discussion over the radio. Maybe as a series; maybe as a one-off on various topics, with different experts and towns. Let the towns' people pick the topics; what would they like help with from this "helping university"? Cleaning up rivers and streams? Building tourism? Providing entrepreneurial opportunities, or jobs -- especially for the young folks now leaving town? Using streams to generate hydroelectric power? Attracting doctors, teachers and other professionals? Installing, and optimizing the healthcare, educational, and other benefits of broadband Internet access? How to make their local school boards, and administrations, more effective? The potential topics are virtually endless.

Trying to do this by involving all Iowans with conferences, travel, lodging and food expenses, would be a nightmare to organize and probably far more time consuming and expensive than anyone would find acceptable. Doing it over a pre-existing radio network is essentially incremental-cost free (aside from the time of the participants). And once the word spread, any Iowan interested in the topic could follow it with a radio in a tractor, shop, kitchen, car, while walking, or wherever else that listening -- and calling in their questions and comments -- is consistent with whatever else they're doing.

The positive impact could be multiplied further if the state's major newspapers could be encouraged to provide background material, coverage, and follow-up online and in their hard copy editions. Certainly some of the discussions could be incorporated into K-12 and undergraduate instruction.

Some say this is a lost cause. I must confess, I have been talking and writing about this for years with no indication much of anyone was even listening, let alone responding; e.g., "Public Radio's Self-Inflicted Wounds," November 11, 2008; "Commercializing Non-Commercial Radio; IPR's 'Enhanced Underwriting,'" November 19, 2010, embedding Nicholas Johnson, "The Commercialization of Non-Commercial Radio," The Prairie Progressive, December 2010, p. 2 (distributed November 17, 2010); "War On Sabbaticals Casualty of Iowa Public Radio; Universities Should Use Their Stations to Tell Story," December 13, 2010.

However, with the recent departure of Iowa Public Radio's CEO, Mary Grace Herrington, Jens Manuel Krogstad, "Iowa Public Radio CEO is Fired," Des Moines Register, February 26, 2013, this is an opportunity for the University of Iowa, and the Board of Regents, to rethink how this precious asset can be put to better use.

The point is that when a public university owns, and has access to, a statewide network of radio stations that any broadcasting company would kill to own, and it feels the need to better communicate to the people of its state, one would think radio broadcasting would be one of the first things it would turn to as at least a partial solution to its problems.

It is, after all folks, a solution that is "back in your own back yard" -- as now explained by Billie Holiday (1938):

As interpreted by Billie Holiday (1938):

You'll find your happiness lies
Right under your eyes
Back in your own backyard
# # #


Nick said...

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Willis B. Cooper said...