PBS American Portrait creators Bill Margol and Jon Kamen discuss how they’re using crowdsourced stories from people across the country to explore what it really means to be an American today.
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Charlie Melcher: Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher and I'd like to welcome you to the Future of StoryTelling podcast. Today I am thrilled to have on our show the producers behind one of the most ambitious storytelling projects in recent memory. PBS American Portrait is a nationwide project that prompts people across the country, people of all persuasions, backgrounds, and walks of life to share their stories and participate in a larger conversation about what it means to be an American today. As our country faces the double threat of the COVID pandemic and the extreme political polarization of a presidential election year, we have never been in more need of a project that can help us mend our social fabric and that reminds us of what we have in common as Americans.
Joining me to discuss the project are its creators, Bill Margol and Jon Kamen. Bill is the senior director of programming and development at PBS, where his work focuses on orchestrating nonfiction projects, such as the 2017 Emmy winning documentary series, A Year in Space. Jon is the founding chairman and CEO of Radical Media, a global trans media production studio that creates groundbreaking work in a variety of formats, from film and television, to live immersive events, to multi-platform digital work. Having both Bill and Jon together with me is a wonderful privilege and an amazing opportunity for us to get a peek behind the curtain on this large scale project, from the original inspirations and collaboration, to the challenges and multi-platform opportunities, Bill and Jon have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with us today on this episode of the FoST podcast.
Jon and Bill, I'm so excited to have you here on the Future of StoryTelling podcast. Thank you for joining me.
Bill Margol: No, this is great.
Jon Kamen: This is quite a future.
Charlie Melcher: So, you two are largely the powers behind this PBS American Portrait project. And we're really excited to talk about that today, but I thought before we'd get into it, Bill, I'd ask you a little bit about the mission of PBS.
Bill Margol: Well, the mission of PBS was charted way back in 1967 when the Public Broadcasting Act was originally signed. I'm hard pressed to quote exactly from it, but essentially the mission of PBS is to make sure that communities have access to information and education, and that's done in an entertaining way. The real mission of PBS is to be providing content that serves the nation, but also really serves local communities and is an opportunity for the local broadcasters, the local PBS broadcasters, to really connect with the people in their communities and connect with the issues. It's something we take really seriously. Everything we do, we look at it through that lens. Is it a project that does the core mission, which is to inform and to educate and entertain, but does it also serve our larger and local communities? And that's really key to what PBS is.
Charlie Melcher: I didn't realize it till I looked into it, but there's a hundred million people who watch through those affiliate networks. And not just watch, but like really consider PBS a trusted source for information, for entertainment, for education.
Bill Margol: Yeah. I mean, I'm sure our PR department would shoot me for not having the numbers at our fingertips, but I know PBS ranks every year in the survey they do of trusted brands. And it's true, we're in every household in the nation. You don't need cable, you don't need satellite, you don't need internet. You need a TV and a good old fashioned pair of rabbit ears. Thankfully these days people access PBS in all kinds of ways, through the air, through broadcast, through their cable systems and satellite systems, and through the internet more and more, as well.
Charlie Melcher: Well, great. First of all, thank you for being part of PBS and for the great work PBS does. And so let's talk a little bit about this project, PBS American Portrait. I'm interested to know the origins of this and how the idea came about.
Bill Margol: Sure. Well, shortly after the events in Charlottesville, internally, PBS, we pulled together a group to talk about what our response as a public broadcaster, as the nation's public broadcaster, how do we deal with this? How do we let people have a voice? We talked about things like town halls, we talked about all kinds of different things. And ultimately we came out of this brainstorm with a question and that question was what does it really mean to be an American today? And I think that's a really interesting question.
Originally, the question was what does it mean to be an American? And we paused for a second and we said, "Well, that's a really politically loaded question." But if you define it in a different way, "What does it really mean to be an American today?" It puts a different idea on it, which is it digs a little deeper and it also talks about where we are at the moment. We had been playing with a bunch of ideas that were in the user generated field of getting people to submit stories, and then our good friends at Radical Media at the same time, and I'll let Jon Kamen take it over in a second, were thinking of much along the same lines. They had some ideas they were working through and we came up with this really compelling idea of American Portrait.
Jon Kamen: Charlie, from our perspective, we were developing this concept of a user generated, or crowdsourced, platform to create a project that I had always dreamed about contemporizing, based on the inspiration of the book, The Family Of Man, and what The Family Of Man meant in 1955. For many of you who are not familiar with The Family Of Man, it was an extraordinary project that was organized by Edward Steichen and Carl Sandburg, in 1955, as an exhibit of photography at the newly built Museum of Modern Art here in New York City, demonstrating the universality of man through photography. And I grew up with that book. Many of us knew that book. It inspired me to think about how could we contemporize that project today and what would it look like today?
Bill Margol: The same way The Family Of Man was response to the nuclear age, this is a response to, "Hey, there. We're a divided nation right now and let's look at that, for both to find the commonalities and also just to recognize the things that divide us. Let's not try and sweep those under the rug in a rose tinted, kumbaya kind of moment." Yeah, certainly the goal is to hopefully recognize that there are more things that unite us than divide us, but that's not always the case. Sometimes there are some very real divisions, and what we knew we wanted American Portrait to be is a very real look in that case. And to let people speak their minds to the issues and to the thoughts that they have.
Charlie Melcher: Let's take a second, just describe what the project is itself so that people listening will understand. Can you tell us how it works?
Bill Margol: American Portrait's designed to be a multi-platform initiative. At its core is a website that the team at Radical has built and implemented. And it's an incredible website, pbs.org/americanportrait. There's the plug. We have a series of prompts on the website and those prompts are designed to provoke a story, to start people out. And what we ask is that we ask people pick one or more of the prompts and they respond to it with a video or with a photo or series of photos or even a text. We wanted to set a low bar for participation as possible to let people participate in any way they want. And the prompts are things like provocative ideas, like "I was raised to believe." Or, "When I step outside my door." Or, one that we've added recently in the face of the COVID-19 crisis is, "I never expected." And the prompts serve as a way to start people out.
Jon Kamen: Beyond the broadcast, one nice thing about PBS is there's always a long tail to PBS programming. It lasts on the network a long time. They have 330 member stations, and will use it in their local communities. That long tail gives us an opportunity to not just stop a project, but to continue the project well into 2021 digitally. And to even look forward to where it might grow in 2022 in print form and exhibition form, and other platforms that we are already beginning to envision.
Charlie Melcher: I love that this, unlike most broadcast, which comes from the broadcaster down to the people who tune in, this is a project that's coming from the ground up. In fact, it's literally, we the people contributing our stories that will then move up to influence what programming or shows you create to then bring it back to us through broadcast. It's really so contemporary in that way.
Jon Kamen: That's what's most exciting to us. It's different for us. At Radical, often we're producing programming and documentary films that speak to the people. This is one in which we're asking the people to share and to contribute.
Bill Margol: American Portrait takes it a much more raw approach, which we put the lens in the hands of the people themselves, and so there is no intermediary. They shoot or submit their content, and it goes up on the site. Together each little piece, together starts to form that portrait. The thing I've talked about in the past, over and over, is that I'm reminded of Surat and the paintings made of dots, little, little dots. Each one of the submissions is a dot. When you step back from it, you get this incredible portrait.
Charlie Melcher: I've read so many on your site that are so emotionally honest and raw and powerful. I'm amazed that these are coming from people in all 50 States across the USA. And in most cases they're absolutely not professional storytellers, so look at how capable amateur storytellers have become.
Bill Margol: I think people have become more comfortable in the age of social media, in the age of YouTube and of speaking out more. It's an interesting time where the technology has gotten to a point that lets people tell stories, and by extension has made people feel more comfortable being on camera or typing their feelings out into a text. I think in some ways American Portrait couldn't have happened earlier than it's happening now.
Jon Kamen: Well, obviously, these are extraordinary times, and bear in mind, we began developing this in probably 2018 and spent the better part of 2019 organizing it. And actually didn't launch it until pretty much while we had it built at the end of this year. We never anticipated that these would be the times that we're living in and talking about empowering people to be able to tell their stories, we've turned on a dime and have used this as a very unique platform for all 50 States and people to really have a way of telling their stories.
Charlie Melcher: And just think about it. I mean, the timing couldn't have been more prescient. How many people are socially distancing and have a story to tell and are sitting home alone and don't have an outlet, or are already using these digital platforms to be able to communicate with people. And now they can really communicate. You're literally providing a public broadcast service for people's stories.
Bill Margol: When this whole thing happened with the pandemic, we quickly realized that there is an opportunity here to provide people a platform to talk about their feelings, to connect. And we intentionally added a new prompt, we came up with a new prompt and that prompt was, "I never expected." And with every prompt that we have, it's designed to be evergreen. So, it's not subject specific, and we've had responses to the I never expected prompt that are not about the COVID-19 process. We've had responses that are I never expected for my brother to go to prison, things like that. But the majority have been about where we are right now and people coping with the current situation. It's been really gratifying to see people reach out and to tell their stories using that prompt. And now we're going to be adding another one, that's, "When this is over." To allow people to tell a different kind of story. And those prompts will continue on. And again, people may not always tell stories about the COVID-19 pandemic using those prompts, but it's been a great platform for people to do that.
Charlie Melcher: I definitely found myself, I added one. Once you start to contribute, you're also much more interested in reading other people's. Or maybe it was the other way round, I read several first before I put one in. But I found myself almost in a conversation with the other people who had contributed stories. I wonder if that was intentional. Do you know how people are using it?
Jon Kamen: Everything has been intentional, but I think that we could never have imagined the time that we're in and it's profound as to how people are responding to that. Bill turned to us only a few weeks ago and said, "How could take this in an unplanned way, how could we start to take the contributions that are being made to the site and start thinking about producing something as a special for broadcast on PBS?" Our response to Bill was immediate, "Yes, we'll figure it out." And our producers and team put their heads together and immediately went to work, literally three weeks ago, to produce a half hour television special that's going to air on May 8th. I cried the first time I saw it personally, because this is in no way a typical project for us. It contributed magnificently to, not only the intentions that we have for American Portrait, but as Bill could attest, it blew us all away in terms of how it came together and that we were actually capable of producing an original show during this period of lockdown, and capturing the emotional stories that people have. Again, from all 50 States.
Bill Margol: The show is called In This Together, a PBS American Portrait story. First of all, I had the same reaction, I cried. And as we've gone through the various iterations of it and the cuts, as you do in production, every single time, I'm just amazed at the honesty and the depth of the stories people are telling.
Charlie Melcher: I was just moved by how many of the stories that I was seeing that are about today, that reflected stories I hear from other friends. In other words, each one's unique, but at the same time, they seem to be universal, or sharing something that's common amongst many people. I'd actually love to play a clip from one of them, if that's okay with you, and just let our listeners hear this.
Bill Margol: Absolutely.
Daniel: Hey, it's Chef Daniel from God's Love We Deliver. When this thing is over all I want to do is hug my mom. I haven't seen her in over a month and I miss her. It's funny how we take things for granted when we have them. And when this thing is over, I'm not going to take things for granted anymore. But the situation has re-inspired me, seeing the community come together, seeing volunteers come in multiple shifts every day. Seeing staff refusing to take off because they want to help. It's really re-inspired me and sometimes you can get disenchanted with the day to day things and your day to day life. And this has just made me appreciate what I have more so than ever. And when this is over, I'll not only be a better chef, I'll be a better person because I learned a lot from this.
Charlie Melcher: Wow.
Jon Kamen: It's unbelievable.
Bill Margol: That sort of raw emotion you wouldn't necessarily get if you had a photographer in the middle, if you had an intermediary in the middle. I think because it is a, I hate to use the word soul bearing because there's something not quite right about those words, but I think people are willing to reveal themselves a bit more because it's them, and they're either taking a picture or typing it in themselves. Whether that's in a quiet moment someplace or whatever. I think there's a really interesting opportunity for reflection that allows people to tell these little mini stories.
Charlie Melcher: I'm reminded a little bit of the book that Clay Shirky wrote, called Cognitive Surplus. He talks about how, since the invention of mass media, all mass media was unidirectional, one way. The printing press and the radio and television and film, until the internet. And he said that we used to just passively consume our media because we didn't have another choice, and it was because technology hadn't evolved to a place where we had easy two way mass media.
And so we all just thought it was natural to be passive consumers as opposed to active participants. And then the internet came and all of a sudden people wanted to share and like and comment, and that was kind of the first wave. But now people have this passionate hunger to be able to tell their own stories, to co-author, to collaborate, to be the hero in their own adventure. This project is really enabling that very human instinct that we have to want to tell our own stories and to have a place and a forum and the medium to do that. And so I think you've really tapped into something by providing this for people right now.
Jon Kamen: Well, thank you, Charlie. I have to say that the spirit of PBS and the communities that it encaptures, and the 330 member stations plus, the connectivity that it provides this country, is what makes this such an ideal home. And one that we were really proud to be able to collaborate with Bill and Perry Simon, and rest of his team. To be able to realize this project on PBS means a lot to us.
Bill Margol: Charlie, you raise an interesting point about the time we're living in and how we've had to change, how storytelling has changed. And I think to go back to your very first question you asked about, well, what is the public broadcasting? If we are to remain relevant as public broadcasters, the storytelling has to be two way, because that's the mission of public broadcasting is to find out how, and to talk to and talk with, not just talk to, local communities. And since the technology and the storytelling capability exists now for that kind of two way communication, it goes so much further to fulfill what public broadcasting's mission is, in this idea of, "Hey, we're here for you."