KALW’s Key to Station Greatness (on a Shoestring)

Holly Kernan (image: Knight)

I didn’t need to know about News Director Holly Kernan’s Murrow or Sigma Delta Chi to understand that there is something special going on at KALW News. Week after week, KALW is churning out (and uploading to PRX) oodles of well-crafted stories — stories that may take place in San Francisco, but are captivating no matter where you are. As a curator of Public Radio Remix, I can’t get enough of them. Yet, KALW’s newsroom has a tiny budget and a staff of only nine: Holly, her cohost, two engineers and five producer/editors.

In the following interview, KALW News Director Holly Kernan told me how KALW does (and doesn’t) make it all work.

How are you pulling it all off?
Oh man, it’s not easy.  We are all overworked and underpaid.  But it’s just that we’ve put together this stunningly creative team here.

We started this newsroom from scratch in 2004 to try to fill the void in local media left by shrinking commercial outlets.  A couple premises were at the center of it.  One was that arts and creativity would be at the center of our news coverage.  Another was that we would strive to have the highest possible quality reporting and production, even though we had no staff — I think we started with me as a half-staff.  So our formula was to have professional editors and a newsroom with community volunteers and student reporters in our training program.  We try to help them skate the creative edge and do really high quality work; and our newsroom ends up looking like the community we serve.

What are you prioritizing in your newsroom? How do you decide what to cover?

“Don’t give me an issue.
Tell me a story.”

Stories, stories, stories! We prioritize those delight and discovery stories that connect us.  We don’t cover all the beats that we’d like to just because of money, but we prioritize stories and topics that other places might be reluctant to cover, like criminal justice and education ­­­­­— because we think that’s part of the mission of public radio.  And because we’re local, we’re trying to tap into the ‘what’s your neighbor doing,’ How can I meet that neighbor through this connective tissue of radio?

One thing that stands out for me is how easy it is to take your stories and rebroadcast them for a national audience.  How are you balancing or framing local vs. national storytelling?
I’m doing the happy dance from what you just said!

My sense is that usually a good local story is a good national story, but frankly we decided not to give a damn about national, because our mission is to report on this local community.  But we are looking for great stories, right! That’s one of the things that we constantly drum into people’s heads: don’t give me an issue.  Tell me a story. Maybe it’s a story that will help me understand an issue or a topic, but I want a story.  And stories are about people doing things, not about issues.  So maybe that’s it.

You guys are doing so much on such a small budget.  Can you talk about how you make your budget work?

“I buy lottery tickets.
I really do buy lottery tickets.”

We don’t! When we started this in 2004, I thought that if we could be successful ­­— and from all of the things you’re telling me and all the awards we’ve gotten, we have been successful — somebody would just drop 5 million bucks on us. I was so naive. That didn’t happen yet.  I buy lottery tickets.  I really do buy lottery tickets.

But really, my priority is paying people.

You must save money by working with students and volunteers, though?

“Our experience is that when you
hold people to high standards,
they meet them.”

Yes.  We have about 20 community volunteers who are rotating through all the time.  We don’t have our volunteers making photocopies and transcribing things, we have them producing for us.  We’ve created this environment that is so fun to be in and it’s such a creative place. People keep coming and coming and wanting to work with us.  A lot of them eventually go on to other places like NPR, KQED (one of the other San Francisco public radio stations), and KPBS (the major public radio station in San Diego).

How do you make sure that what you’re going to get from all of these volunteers is good quality?

Well, we train them for a long time.  We teach them how to get hot tape, and we do heavy, heavy editing.  The quality varies somewhat but our standards are very high — and our experience is that when you hold people to high standards, they meet them. Some people look at student work as less than professional, and our expectation is that you can do professional quality work. We do triple sourcing, and we fact check everything.  And we guarantee broadcast, which also forces us to really be rigorous.

What kind of programming or projects do you dream about doing, regardless of funding, say 5 or 10 years down the road?
You know I’d love to map the cultural and artistic geography of this place: something interactive with an iPhone app, with stories that could pop up anywhere you were.  Where you could touch a screen and hear a story about your local bookstore, or upload your stories. I’d love to be able to collect stories better and then produce them.

And then, to be able to cover public education in a sustained way, with young people leading that coverage.

I could keep going!  If someone has that 5 million, I have some ideas!

What’s brewing at KALW now that we should be looking out for?
We just started a partnership with Youth Radio that we’re really excited about.  We’re hoping to expand our daily show Crosscurrents from a half-hour to an hour, using more local youth radio content.  Also, we’re located inside of a high school and we’re going to start a training program for high school students, having them produce new stories from new perspectives for us.

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