When public television released “Sesame Street,” co-created by University of Arizona alumna Joan Ganz Cooney ’51 and first broadcast in 1969, characters like Big Bird and Cookie Monster helped educate Gen Xers and prepare them to move into the classroom.
“Public media started out as educational radio and television back in the 1950s, supporting instructional activities largely for schools and universities,” says Jack Gibson, the CEO of Arizona Public Media. According to Gibson, KUAT Channel 6 began operations in 1959 as Arizona’s first public station. In Tucson, unlike much of the country, radio came after TV, largely as an outgrowth of initiatives like “Sesame Street,” with KUAT-AM offering classical music to local audiences in the mid-1970s.
Today, AZPM is a not-for-profit organization serving the Southern Arizona community as a service of UArizona. Recent years have seen the advent of digital programing created specifically for digital and social media platforms in response to rapidly changing audience needs and preferences.
Gibson has enjoyed 47 years in the industry and 18 years at AZPM, where he has overseen the production of 23 original documentaries, four community interactive multimedia events and more than a dozen special television projects and series. Among them, “Arizona Illustrated” is one of the longest-running series on public television anywhere. He also has led several original radio news programs and online educational projects.
Gibson says it’s the local stories he remembers most — programs like “Phoenix Mars Mission: Ashes to Ice” and its sequel, “Onto the Ice,” “Arizona’s Dust Bowl: Lessons Lost,” and “Arizona and the Vietnam War.” He recalls meeting Holocaust survivors last year at a local screening of Ken Burns’ “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” which aired nationally on PBS.
“It stunned me that there were a number of survivors in the audience,” he says. “They were children at the time and survived under harrowing circumstances.”
AZPM quickly put together a series capturing their stories: “Children of the Holocaust,” a living-history project, included 19 first-person accounts of the Holocaust from survivors living in Southern Arizona. Their recorded stories are now available in perpetuity for school groups and for use by Tucson’s Holocaust Museum, as well as available online at azpm.org.
Although AZPM’s primary focus is community service, disruption in the media landscape — including how we watch, listen to and make content — has changed how the organization works. Add in a pandemic, and the media group has continued to shift its priorities. For one thing, while AZPM has always been involved in journalism, Gibson believes it’s going to increasingly become the centerpiece of public media — a place where audiences can trust the information that’s presented. “Our role isn’t to convince you of anything, but to lay out the facts so that you can make informed decisions and understand issues at their core,” he says.
Leslie Tolbert agrees. She recruited Gibson to the university in 2005 and is now the volunteer host of the radio show “Arizona Science,” where she regularly shares five-minute interviews with UArizona researchers. The show airs during breaks in NPR’s broadcast of “Science Friday.” “There’s no question that AZPM, NPR and PBS are trying to be neutral arbiters of complex stories,” says Tolbert, former senior vice president for research and Regents Professor emerita in neuroscience at UArizona. She recently concluded six years of service on a board overseeing academia at her alma mater, Harvard University, where she says she was proud to represent the University of Arizona as a public research entity.
“We’re an international university, but our community ties are very strong,” she says, adding that she loves sharing science stories with the public. “AZPM is bringing the science of UArizona to our local community. People in the grocery store will say, ’I heard you the other day talk about what’s happening with water in Tucson.’ I love that.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, AZPM quickly shifted to provide educational programming, with a focus, Gibson says, on “What can we do to help the community?” In the early days of the pandemic, the organization stopped all documentary and magazine series production to focus on helping the community understand what was going on. They developed and produced public service announcements in real time, partnered with UArizona medical and public health researchers to educate the public, created learning programs for school-age children to help families whose kids were suddenly at home, and broadcast those programs on the three television channels at their disposal. One channel targeted preschool to elementary school learners, another focused on middle school curricula, and the third focused on content for high school students. All programs were based on standards set by the Arizona Department of Education.
The pandemic also advanced changes in streaming services. When streaming entered the marketplace, Gibson says, it was predicted that the amount of streaming would be on par with the amount of broadcast television by 2024, but it has already far surpassed that. At one time, AZPM averaged 500,000 minutes of content streaming a month; today, it supports more than 4 million minutes a month.
And the media industry remains in flux. In February, NPR announced that it would lay off 10% of its workforce — at least 100 people — and eliminate most vacant positions. In announcing the cuts, NPR CEO John Lansing cited the erosion of advertising dollars, particularly for NPR podcasts, and the tough financial outlook for the media industry more generally. Meanwhile, locally, the Arizona Daily Star reduced its newsroom staff by 25% in April.
“Tucson is in real danger of becoming a news desert,” Gibson says. “It really puts the pressure on us to step up our journalism game. And to do that, we’re going to have to have the resources in place — both financial and physical resources — to be the journalists of record in this region if necessary.”
At the moment, AZPM is housed in a basement and sub-basement of a classroom building on UArizona’s main campus. The location, limited space and outdated technology make it difficult for AZPM to expand its public service mission, engage the community and recruit talent and donors. But a much-needed upgrade to its physical space is in the works: The Arizona Board of Regents recently approved a plan to build the Paul and Alice Baker Center for Public Media at the University of Arizona Tech Park at The Bridges. The new facility, which will be 100% donor funded, is scheduled to break ground in February 2024.
The Baker center, named for alumni who are longtime supporters of the university, will accommodate an audience of at least 200 people, provide space for community forums and lectures, and expand on-location production capability with digital and emerging technologies. In AZPM’s current facility, “the acoustics are not at all sufficient for what we’re trying to do,” Gibson says. “Air conditioning kicks on during interviews and makes audio production much more challenging. The goal is to make the local productions easily migrate to national stages. In terms of the current facility, that’s been a challenge.”
The strategy is to create a physical space that staff, students and donors can be proud of and that will attract commercial clients. It will house AZPM’s team of more than 100 professionals and 30 to 40 students. Since 2011, AZPM staff members have won 218 Emmy Awards. AZPM also won the coveted Overall Excellence Award in 2015 and the Governor’s Award in 2016.
“Think about our students, and what an opportunity for them to come in and work on a project for a commercial production company shooting at our new facility,” Gibson says. “What a great thing for their résumé and an opportunity to learn how commercial production differs from public television and radio production.”
AZPM’s student employees (who make up 25-30% of the staff) work alongside the professional staff, some editing on their own, directing productions, and scripting — performing tasks significantly beyond entry-level work. Several AZPM student employees have been recognized with Emmy Awards in the four-state Rocky Mountain region.
Jordan Chin, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism and who will enter the university’s master’s program in bilingual journalism this fall, began working at AZPM as a student in January 2019. At the time, he was a computer science major, but he had dabbled in television and was interested in returning to it.
Chin was the first recipient of Olesen Davis De Dios’ Carol & Cecil Schwalbe Science Multimedia Scholarship in the School of Journalism, and in 2021 he was recognized with his first Rocky Mountain Emmy for an Arizona Illustrated segment called “Hearing Isaiah” about Tucson environmentalist Isaiah Haley, who is a “cause for hope and optimism about a clean, safe, and more sustainable future,” according to the summary on AZPM’s website.
Chin was nominated for three Emmys that year, and he says he didn’t expect that story to win. “I would have liked the one called ’Reconciliation on the River’ to win,” he says. That segment was about naturalist and conservationist Angel Breault and a team of volunteers who cleaned up trash, removed invasive species and reseeded native plants on a stretch of the Santa Cruz River near downtown Tucson.
“That was the story that that made me want to switch majors,” Chin says. “I was shooting that day. The producer, Mitch Riley, says, ’In a minute, we’re going to set up to interview Angel and, Jordan, you’re going to ask the questions. You’re going to interview him.’ I was thrown, I wasn’t prepared, and I was really nervous. But I did it. I didn’t do a great job, but I did it.
“But then I started having this conversation with somebody about why they do what they love. And that was the spark.” Less than a week later, he changed his major. Today, he plans to continue working at AZPM as he pursues his master’s degree and a career in broadcast journalism.
Long after he started in public media, Gibson is looking to the future, too. “I’m humbled and honored to be part of building a new space,” he says. “But the objective of the new space is not the building: It is what this organization will be poised to do from that space that drives me forward. What I want to see in the rearview mirror when I retire is sustainable growth and something we can all be proud of. I hope to continue to be AZPM’s No. 1 cheerleader.”