Remembering the Dust Bowl: OETA Shares Survivors' Stories

by Alicia Adams, PBS Station Products & Innovation Coordinator

Recapping the moments of a past ecological disaster can lead to a better future. In the case of the Oklahoma Network (OETA), they decided to leverage Ken Burns' Dust Bowl film aired in November to pay homage to Dust Bowl survivors and simultaneously bring attention to the severe drought Oklahoma is currently facing. We spoke with Ashley Barcum, Director of Communications about OETA’s efforts.

Dust Bowl Survivors attend a Woodward, Oklahoma preview screening of
Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl.

The overall implementation strategy adopted by OETA was two-fold:
Objective 1: Honor survivors and share their stories.
Objective 2: Generate in-depth community conversation.

Talking points around the Dust Bowl included fostering sustainability with lessons learned from the Dust Bowl era, and combating consequences of drought through conservation methods.

Digital media tools served as a way to reach community members and create discussion. “We primarily used Twitter and Facebook to promote the film, outreach events, and conservation resources. We also heavily relied on the content and interactive tools provided by the film’s main site,” said Ashley Barcum, Director of Communications at OETA. The digital strategy was laid out in three stages: 1. Build Awareness, 2. Engage in Conversation, 3. Generate Tune-In.

OETA used Storify to gauge impact of outreach during the premiere. The station observed a significant spike in its audience’s social media interactions. Their Facebook page garnered 24 new page Likes and initiated good conversation. The OETA Twitter page went from 1,715 to 1,820 followers. To see some of these popular Facebook and Twitter posts, visit the Dust Bowl Facebook story and Dust Bowl Twitter story on Storify.

Dayton Duncan (Left) and Dr. Pauline Hodges (Right) at event
 in Tulsa, Oklahoma
In addition to digital media platforms, personal perspectives really brought life to the project. More than 100 survivors and 3,000 viewers attended public events where viewers told their stories. Dr. Pauline Hodges, a featured survivor of the film, attended every event as a panelist, sometimes driving more than six hours roundtrip. One memorable event took place in the town of Woodward, which is close to what Ken refers to as “ground zero” for the Dust Bowl. The turnout was over 500, including 50 survivors. At the event, OETA was able to connect generations. Participants were moved to tears.

OETA shared some major takeaways for member stations that are thinking about conducting similar outreach:
Repurpose Content: Local and national Dust Bowl-related content pieces were shared across platforms and combined with a targeted call to action from OETA’s statewide project.
Include Partners: According to Barcum, one thing that really amped up digital reach was including OETA’s partners in every post. Combined social engagement resulted in more interest and free promotion.

At present, OETA is working with conservation partners and the State Department of Education to rollout some new hyper-local Dust Bowl-related curriculum. This curriculum is based on supplemental content produced at the station. OETA is also in communication with a couple of groups about a potential digital storytelling opportunity, to collect survivor stories that have yet to be told. If you have any inquiries about OETA’s Dust Bowl efforts post below.

Last Updated 1/18/2013 at 11:40am.