Kim Spencer – Bringing the World to America

Kim Spencer at his Marin County, CA home. PHOTO: Sanjeev Chatterjee

Kim Spencer is the co-founder of Link TV and now senior programming executive at KCETLink Media Group in Burbank, CA. Link TV is an independent non-commercial network devoted to national and global issues, available in 34 million U.S. homes receiving satellite television on DIRECTV channel 375 and DISH Network channel 9410. http://www.linktv.org. This interview was conducted on behalf of mediaforchange.org by Shamina de Gonzaga.

Changing Media Landscape

SG: How would you describe the evolution of the media landscape and Link TV’s position within it?

KS: The media landscape has changed dramatically with the Internet. Seventeen years ago, when Link TV started, there was no YouTube and there were only a couple hundred channels available on American television. Americans were not very exposed to the rest of the world. As independent producers with international experience, my colleagues and I felt that it was important to provide Americans with diverse global perspectives. We had a big mission: to promote peace through a channel that would provide a variety of points of view 24 hours a day and better connect Americans with the rest of the world. That remains our mission, but media has changed and many young people no longer even watch conventional TV. When we began, I had looked for cracks in the mainstream media monoliths to see how a small organization could break through what was total control over who had access to the airwaves, and make social change. Today, there are many more channels and opportunities for people not just to watch media, but also to create content and become broadcasters themselves through YouTube, Facebook, etc. How we, as independent media makers, act in this context is the question that we all face. The technology has changed, but, ironically, there still seems to be a need for something like Link TV.

SG: In the current competitive environment where individuals can select their media more freely, do you run the risk of primarily attracting viewers who already espouse the values or interests that characterize Link’s programming?

KS: It is fair to say that the documentaries we choose and news programs we aggregate generally attract certain kinds of people, but the wonderful thing about a satellite TV channel is that 34 million homes have access to Link TV and can turn it on by chance and be exposed to our content. The kind of programming that Link TV provides would have to be described as “progressive.” However, we discovered fairly early on that we had viewers across the rainbow of demographics. Surveys continue to confirm that we have Democrats, Republicans, and Independents watching, so the viewership is not skewed in one way. The phrase we hear most often to describe Link TV is that it’s “a breath of fresh air.” Now that everybody has the ability to program their news feeds and narrow their focus to what they already are inclined to think about, our challenge with a channel that’s available to everyone is to be trusted curators who provide a diverse range of perspectives.

Link’s biggest impact happened in the aftermath of 9-11, as Americans suddenly wanted to know more about Muslim cultures and were asking, “why do they hate us”?

PHOTO:LinkTV.org

Challenges and Rewards

SG: Is mainstream media adopting content or approaches from independent media?

KS: Mainstream media is trying to figure out what’s going to sell and get them the biggest audience. Everyone is looking around to see what’s going viral. Over the years, Link has had some impact, certainly on public television. This was clear when we started broadcasting documentaries with subtitles. Part of why some independent producers became frustrated with public TV was its lack of interest in global subjects, or anything in a foreign language. I had produced a documentary on Iran that PBS was reticent to schedule in primetime, saying: “it was kind of European,” in a pejorative way, because it had some subtitles!

Link’s biggest impact happened in the aftermath of 9-11, as Americans suddenly wanted to know more about Muslim cultures and were asking, “why do they hate us”? Link TV had already been gathering the best documentaries about the Middle East and Muslim cultures, so we were able to get them into the public television sector. We started a program called Mosaic: World News from the Middle East featuring perspectives from many countries throughout the region. We ended up monitoring 40 channels each day from Iraq and Iran to Israel and Egypt, and creating a digest of news stories with no editing, just translation to English. We did this night after night for thousands of episodes and won the Peabody Award in 2005, which gave Link TV a lot of exposure. The program became a reference for many students and professors, and we learned that it was being recorded daily by the State Department and the CIA. Mosaic went off the air several years ago due to funding challenges, but now we’re bringing it back.

Cold Rush? The Changing Arctic on LinkTV

Sustainability

SG: Is there a way to get out of donor-driven programming?

KS: Not really. Funding is always an issue and as a non-commercial license Link TV has to rely on foundations and viewer contributions. With documentary film makers contributing films for free, or at a low cost, we were able to provide unexpected views of the world to people who may not have been looking for it, but we didn’t have a viable business model, so, when grants ran out, we had to suspend some of our original programming. In 2012 we merged with KCET, a public TV channel in Los Angeles, and have moved our facilities there for cost saving, which has brought us some stability — but my job is still fundraising. Most of what’s on Link TV is acquired from sources around the world; some is programming that won’t be found anywhere else, and some is original content. Earth Focus has been on for ten years and it’s kind of sad that we can claim it’s the longest running environmental program on American television…. You would think that with the importance of environmental issues, other channels would be committed to doing this, but over the years those programs have just come and gone.

SG: Is there currently an appetite on the part of public TV to merge with independent channels?

KS: There are examples of public TV stations merging with other stations in their region, as there are so many channels and few available resources. Generally there’s a lot of consolidation of big media, so that now there are only 6 major corporations that control most of the mainstream cable channels. But it’s interesting to see what’s happening at the level of independent groups that continue to be innovative and find their following through avenues like YouTube and social media.

Serving the Audience

SG: How do you promote Link TV?

KS: We have a vital Facebook page and significant following on YouTube and Twitter. It’s great to get quick feedback through social media, like with Facebook Live. In the past, you had to be a big company to broadcast. Now, you can be your own broadcaster. We had a team filming at the Democratic and Republican Conventions and sending daily reports back to Link TV studios in Burbank for editing, which generated good material, but was a lot of work. Simultaneously, we experimented with Facebook Live and, while standing on the Convention floor, had hundreds of viewers asking questions and letting

us know that they liked what we were shooting. The media of the future is such that anyone who is somewhere interesting, with something interesting to say, can broadcast. The question is how to have an impact. Link TV has always been about stimulating change, by providing access to opportunities to take action after watching a powerful documentary. These days, the ability to “like” something on Facebook can make someone feel good, but we don’t know if that leads to social change.

SG: Do you have any thoughts about how that can be ascertained?

KS: Anecdotally, through online feedback and people’s accounts about how they saw something on Link TV that motivated them to take action. We do surveys with Survey Monkey and typically receive between 500 and 600 responses. We’re looking for changes in awareness and people who are moved to get involved in issues. Our research shows that two thirds of people who watch Link TV regularly (some 7 million Americans) have taken some kind of action. And sometimes by demonstrating that Link’s viewers are activated, we are able to convince foundations that we deserve their grants.

SG: Do you believe the viewers’ level of awareness, or consciousness has somehow shifted over the decades?

KS: People are more sophisticated about media and have broader exposure, but I’m not convinced that we’ve done a good job at helping people to interpret what they’re seeing and get past the propaganda. I’m not sure the world has changed all that much in terms of media literacy; there’s just more of media to consume. What is interesting is that more and more people are becoming skilled at producing and editing video, often through their phones.

SG: That says nothing about the quality of the content….

KS: No, which is why there is a role for what we do at Link TV. We’re producers and curators — trusted guides to the best stuff that’s out there in the world, which we then find ways to package so it can make sense for our audience.

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