Station Ovation: TPT's Open Air Millennial Manifesto

by Jen Carter, PBS Digital

You know you’ve heard of them… millennials … you've probably seen them watching cat videos, wearing big glasses, weird hats, and something called skinny jeans, oh, and of course they are always drinking some sort of hot beverage.

Courtesy of
Well, we are happy to report that doesn’t describe all millennials (nor do you have to have been born in the early 80s-early 00s to wear skinny jeans, in case you’re planning on doing some shopping later). There is actually a large portion of the millennial population that is looking for great content from trusted resources (and some don't even like hot drinks).

How is public media responding to this culture shift? Some stations are taking charge by creating initiatives centered on this excitable and fresh audience base. One such initiative is Open Air from Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) in St. Paul, MN. Andi McDaniel (@tptandi), Manager of the Open Air Initiative, recently spoke at the 2013 PBS Annual Meeting about Open Air and the outreach TPT has and will continue to preform to grow this base. We sat down with Andi to discuss this initiative.

1. What is the mission of the Open Air initiative?
The mission of Open Air is to bring public media to life for a new generation, one that’s come of age in a dramatically different media landscape. We believe that, despite changing media consumption habits, public media still is a cause worth supporting—but we have to demonstrate our relevance. We have to show up where people are—and be willing to take ourselves a little less seriously.

2. How did it begin? What is the overall goal of the initiative? 
Three years ago, TPT underwent a strategic planning process and, as a result, decided to focus on three key audience areas: 50-plus, kids and their caregivers, and “Net Gen.” The Net Gen piece set the stage for Open Air. Essentially, we had already decided we wanted to dedicate resources to reaching an audience that traditionally doesn’t engage deeply with public television—we just weren’t sure how to do it. With Open Air, we’re testing out some ideas we have about content and events that this audience will find valuable—but we’re also really asking them to help us shape it. We’re approaching it with openness, transparency, and a sense of collaboration.
The goal is to take the essence of our station’s mission and give it a new incarnation that smart, young, creative audiences in Minnesota find inspiring and worthy of support.

3. How did you become involved in Open Air? 
I joined TPT in 2011 as part of the early editorial team getting Next Avenue up and running. Later, I moved into our Interactive Media area as a multimedia producer, and then gradually became more involved in coming up with our strategy for Net Gen—partly out of interest, and partly because it quite naturally lined up with my experience in new media. Also, I am passionate about making public television something that resonates with my peers. About 6 months ago, I was asked to lead the initiative, and we’ve been going at top speed ever since. By the way, I’m quite lucky to work closely with a group of emerging leaders from around TPT, who serve as Open Air’s advisory team—we are all guiding this vision together.

Courtesy of 2013 PBS Annual Meeting Presentation
4. Why focus on millennials?
First, because public media is for everyone—and while we do a great job of meeting the needs of kids and their caregivers, and we have many fans over 50—it’s also important that we find a way to meet the needs of the group in between. The second reason is related—over half of our financial resources as a station come from individual contributions—and yet, we only have around 200 members between the ages of 18 and 34. In other words—our support base is aging, and if we’re thoughtful about our future, we know we need to demonstrate our relevance to a younger audience in order to have their support down the line.

5. What are some of the tactics Open Air uses to reach out to millennials?
We have a short list of qualities that are guiding our work: humor/play, authenticity, collaboration, and digital innovation. As for tactics, we’re essentially creating events and content that are fundamentally educational and smart—but feel more playful, utilize digital tools, and invite users to collaborate and really be a part of.

6. How is digital and social media leveraged as part of Open Air?
Well, we’ve got the obvious stuff—a presence on Facebook and Twitter, and a website—we’re really using the website as a sort of “lens” on PBS by reviewing and previewing upcoming content through the filter of our particular audience. But really, our digital strategy is about integration—it’s about approaching live events and content in such a way that our live events always have a digital piece, and our digital engagements always have an opportunity for face-to-face engagement. As we learn more about producing live events, we’re realizing it’s truly another form of content creation. Therefore, our storytelling expertise needs to translate not just on air and on the web, but through a thousand other audience touch points.

7. What has been the biggest surprise to you related to Open Air?
I’d have to say it's that so few other stations are venturing into this space. Perhaps that proves we’re foolhardy—but I’d like to think it indicates we’re really thinking ahead.

8. If you could share only one piece of advice for stations looking to create their own outreach initiatives what would it be?
I’d say: Identify the young leaders within your organization and find a way to put resources, energy, and strategy behind their ideas and passion. In other words, find your champions and empower them. I’ve been really lucky to have great mentorship at TPT, and I’m confident their investment in me will pay off.

Andi McDaniel, Manager Open Air Initiative, has been at TPT for 2.5 years. For Andi’s full deck presented during the 2013 PBS Annual Meeting, view presentation:

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