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The WGBH Laboratory

By Elizabeth Angell

WGBH Laboratory
By Elizabeth Angell

Like all "old media" veterans, Boston’s WGBH must face that fact that technology is changing at a dizzying rate and audiences are demanding new things from TV, radio, print, and even the internet. The WGBH Laboratory is their response to that changing media landscape. WGBH has long set itself apart from its commercial cousins in television and radio. For more than 50 years it has produced quality programming engaging important questions of the day. Like networks and newspapers, the station has excelled in the world of top-down media production--a small group of well-informed experts making first-rate television or radio shows. Though the authoritative, highly produced programs that have won the station plaudits still make up most of its output, WGBH finds itself facing serious challenges: from an aging and shrinking audience base to transformations in the ways that media is being produced, received and experienced.

Denise Dilanni, the WGBH executive in charge of Boston Media productions, who oversees the Lab, has set herself the task of attracting new talent for WGBH and exploring new ways to create and consume content, without sacrificing the substance and integrity on which public television and radio pride themselves. As she points out: "The push has become the pull: instead of media giants pushing content at consumers, consumers pull the content they want when and how they want it."

Do independent media makers need public media?" asks Dilanni. "Right now, I don’t know that they do. Independent makers may not need public media, but they sure as heck should want it, because of the safe space it creates for content."

The Lab is currently hosting three experimental projects:
The Filmmaker In Residence program allows three or four independent, unaffiliated documentary filmmakers with funded projects to use the resources of the WGBH offices to make headway on a project. This program is designed to bring talented, independent filmmakers into the WGBH fold, along with their new ideas and innovative methods.

Open Call is a competition that awards $2.500 grants to media makers producing content for "small screens" – cell phones, PDAs, podcasts, VOD, and television.. "We wanted to cultivate a younger group of people who share the values that we have, and bring them opportunities in public broadcasting," says Stephanie Stewart, Dilanni’s second in command at the Laboratory and a longtime WGBH producer.. The competition is judged both by an internal panel, and interactively by anyone who chooses to go on to the project’s website and vote.

The Sandbox will make a small amount of WGBH’s archival documentary footage available to the public, free of charge -- provided users allow WGBH to see the results of their experimentation.

Through these programs, Dilanni and her staff seek ways to reconcile public broadcasting’s underlying values with those of a new generation of media makers and their audiences. As the Lab’s Executive Summary puts it, "The WGBH Laboratory offers a crucial virtual and physical space for innovation and experimentation in this new media democracy. [It] bridges the gap between the traditional, fully supervised editorial processes� and the unruly me TV frontier of anything goes."

The Lab, Dilanni says, "is about independent voices--non-commercial, non-corporate, independent voices, voices you don’t hear other places. And it’s about substance, credibility, and civility." But the Lab is also about forcing WGBH to think of itself as responsive and flexible, and as profoundly vulnerable to this new wave of technology and social change so that it will make its case to the next generation to noncommercial production.

WGBH public media pioneer
WGBH has its roots in a 19th-century bequest by John Lowell, Jr., whose family had made a fortune in the New England textile industry. Lowell wanted to create an Institute that would provide free public lectures on philosophy, natural history, and the arts and sciences. He believed that all of Boston’s citizens, whatever their background or socioeconomic class, deserved a place where they could hear about and participate in the most exciting ideas of the day.

In the 1940s, the Lowell Institute began broadcasting its lectures over the radio and launched the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council (LICBC) in partnership with several of the region’s leading universities and colleges. The LICBC’s first shows were 30-minute radio programs broadcast on the city’s commercial radio stations. Eventually, the Council raised enough money to obtain its own radio station, and in 1950, the FCC granted them a license to operate WGBH, the call letters of which stand for Great Blue Hill, the location of the station’s transmitter. The LICBC established a notfor- profit organization, the WGBH Educational Foundation, aimed at using the station to bring cultural and educational resources to a broad audience.

The Laboratory is not the first time WGBH has worked to bring new voices into the fold and pry open the insular world of public broadcasting to independent producers. In the late 1960s, WGBH established the Artists-in-Residence program. Funded primarily by the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, this groundbreaking initiative enabled artists to work with expensive equipment and skilled technicians to pursue their interest in film and in the emerging medium of video. Among the program’s alumni is pioneering video artist Nam June Paik.

In 1974, WGBH created the New Television Workshop, which produced and broadcast close to one hundred video programs over the next 19 years, all of which emphasized originality of technique, content, and vision. "The lab stands on the shoulders of the New Television Workshop," says Dilanni. "That program really invited people from outside the media to come in and tell us what they knew. It was about innovation, about using video when everyone else was still using film. And it was a magnet for talent and new voices."

WGBH Laboratory
By 2003, Dilanni, a WGBH veteran, had convinced the organization that it needed to revive that pioneering spirit for a new generation of filmmakers and media technologies. WGBH had developed an extensive online presence, and many staff producers were looking into new ways to share their content, but Dilanni felt that there was a need for a program devoted to innovation and to seeking out new talent. "We were doing ad hoc work with independent producers and that effort needed to be rationalized and organized," she says. So the Lab began as a "conceptual" space, "A statement that WGBH stood behind new voices," says Dilanni. "I thought of it as almost a call to arms."

The Filmmaker in Residence program came first. In late 2003, Katrina Browne became the first to set up shop in the WGBH offices. She and her crew spent two years there polishing her first documentary, Traces of the Trade. The film documents Browne’s ancestors’ involvement in the American slave trade. "New England participated in slavery in countless ways, most of which are not remembered in the history books or most people’s consciousness," says Browne, "My film is a hybrid of a personal narrative and a historic documentary that opens up this myth that New Englanders were abolitionists, not slave holders."

Browne had finished principal photography when she arrived at WGBH, but needed to begin analyzing and editing her footage. WGBH producers helped her cut a trailer that she used to raise funds for her project. "It just meant so much to the project to be in a collegial environment and to have a chance to interact with people in a variety of areas, from television production to legal and outreach and PR."

First-time filmmaker Heddi Siebel spent part of 2005 at WGBH working on a personal film that traces her maternal grandfather’s failed 1903 Arctic expedition. She intends to use footage shot during that voyage—the first 35 mm film of the Arctic—along with journals, letters and documents belonging to her grandfather and other members of the expedition, as well as her own paintings and drawings, to create an idiosyncratic story about exploration, failure, and disappointment. "[An unconventional structure] is the hardest thing to do, but they really understood how important it was," says Siebel. "I could have used this footage and some stills and done kind of a Ken Burns thing, but I really wanted to bring these ghosts alive and do something new."

Lorna Streeter is currently at work on a documentary about a Haitian American man who counsels violent men. She set out to tell a story about aggression and hostility from a new angle, "I didn’t want to look at survivors so much as at perpetrators of violence," she says. Like Siebel, Streeter appreciates the risk that WGBH has taken on her project. "The content and subject matter of my film is very controversial," she notes. "It’s not Masterpiece Theater and it’s not what they usually broadcast. And yet they’ve really encouraged the work. It’s a brave leap."

For their part, the filmmakers have contributed their liveliness and perspective to an established institution. "Having new people in there on an intense, short term basis brought a lot of energy into the studio where we were working," says Siebel. "I think by having us there, WGBH is tapping into the creative things that are happening outside their walls." Browne adds that WGBH might also gain a newfound perspective on how difficult it is to create content without institutional support—an important lesson if they truly want to support independent work.

While the Filmmaker in Residence Program is critical to the Laboratory’s mandate to recruit new talent and encourage institutional innovation, Dilanni notes that it can only touch a small number of people. She hopes the Open Call and Sandbox programs will do the work of broadening WGBH’s—and perhaps even public broadcasting’s—audience and changing the way her institution interacts with media makers.

Open Call
The Open Call was in part a reaction to the rapid rise of short web-based video on outlets like You tube and Google Video. Where was the platform for people who shared the values usually associated with public television—civic mindedness and cultural diversity—but who wanted to explore the possibilities of new mediums and technologies? "We instituted the Open Call to challenge people who were committed to public media’s values to come to us," says Dilanni.

Dilanni and her team hope the program will be both an incubator for new programming and a window into the community’s concerns "We really wanted to say ‘Help us ask question that we don’t know to ask,’" she says. Dilanni says the vast majority of applicants in the three years since Open Call was established have never before submitted work to public television. "We got huge geographic diversity, huge age diversity, huge stylistic diversity--animation, verite documentary, poetry."

This year, the Lab partnered with Open Media Network (OMN),a not-for-profit that allows viewers to download high quality and educational programming. OMN provides storage space and software to producers like WGBH who want to showcase their content online.The partnership with OMN is the kind of cooperative arrangement that the Lab hopes to facilitate as a way to bring new technologies and ideas into public television. Since posting the Open Call applications on OMN, hundreds of people have viewed the proposals and offered feedback. Says Stewart: "The voting, which seems like a very simple thing, isn’t that simple for public broadcasting. Letting your interested audience decide what you fund is a very different model for us. It’s usually a very protected process."

The Sandbox.
The movement towards open content has been gaining momentum, particularly since the BBC began to open some of its archives. Like the BBC, PBS and its affiliates are publicly funded, and there is widespread opinion that there should be public access to its archives – a process rife with problems of rights and ownership that are currently being addressed.

With the Sandbox, its own still-emergent initiative, WGBH hopes eventually to make its extensive collection of archival footage available free of charge. "We don’t yet know what’s feasible and workable," says Dilanni. "This is one of the biggest areas of intellectual, philosophical and legal uncertainty." A small amount of footage has been posted online for open access. Students and teachers can use it for visual presentations, and casual media makers can "play," as Dilanni puts it, with the images and audio recordings. "We’re trying to open our door and open our minds," she says "We don’t want to put too many constraints on what people might do with the materials. The only thing we’re asking back is that you share it with us."

Looking Ahead
Dilanni and Stewart are ambitious about the future of the Sandbox, as well as the Filmmaker in Residence and Open Call programs. But it remains to see how quickly— and how much—the Laboratory will grow.

WGBH has granted the Lab dedicated space in their brand new facility, an obvious commitment to the program, but Dilanni and her staff can only give small grants to a tiny number of people until they are able to raise significant funds for expansion. "We’re at this juncture where we’ve done everything so far on shoestring, hoping to prove our case and then scale it much larger," says Stewart. "But we need a major funder for that. We’re saying ‘Here’s an incubator, where we can test new ideas in a low-key way and create a breathing mechanism for the system. But if it doesn’t grow, if you can’t integrate it into the larger system and it doesn’t become a feeder, then it won’t mean much."

Dilanni’s hope is that by allowing in new technologies and independent voices through the Laboratory, WGBH will let their influence affect all aspects of programming. "I have the highest regard for the acute curatorial, editorial control does and must exercise over these branded series. We make a very particular promise to our audience about voice, credibility, and respect," says Dilanni. "But I also believe that the technology and the next generation of viewers are demanding something different, in addition to these branded series. So I’m looking for porousness and interaction between the older way of making media and a newer way."