Icon (Close Menu)


KUAR’s Startup Arkansas Public Media Aims High

6 min read

Just over two months ago, Bobby Ampezzan was announced as the managing editor of Natural State News, a new public journalism project based at KUAR-FM in Little Rock. As it happened, he worked for NSN for a very short time.

Ampezzan’s new job didn’t change; the network’s name did.

“Yes, it’s now Arkansas Public Media,” said Ampezzan. The multimedia startup, funded by a grant of $287,300 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, hired Vanessa McKuin in mid-June as partner-manager to concentrate on fundraising and administration.

Ampezzan and McKuin recently talked about the project from their offices at KUAR near the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, describing the network’s goals and the challenge of building from scratch a regional reporting collaboration dedicated to delivering high-quality reportage on radio, the internet and public television. The CPB grant identified three target subjects for reporting: energy, health care and education.

“There’s a lot of plate-spinning,” said McKuin, who took the job after eight years as executive director of the historic preservation nonprofit Preserve Arkansas. “The grant was written as Natural State News, but we decided that Arkansas Public Media was a more inclusive name for all the types of media.”

Ampezzan, formerly editor of the Sunday High Profile section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said the network hopes to expand news coverage in Arkansas “with the kind of thoroughness and structure and format that you might hear at the National Public Radio level.” He said while most of the stories would be heard on radio and seen online, “there is in the grant a specific goal to work with public television to produce segments both for the web and for AETN,” the Arkansas Educational Television Network.

Arkansas Public Media will employ three reporters led by Ampezzan — one based at KUAR and the others at fellow public stations KASU in Jonesboro and KUAF in Fayetteville. Those outlets, along with KTXK in Texarkana, are radio partners in the project. Other content partners are AETN; El Latino, the Spanish-language newspaper; the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies; and the UALR Institute on Race & Ethnicity. KUAR News Director Michael Hibblen will be among the partner representatives on the network’s editorial board.

“Along with the reporters we plan to hire here and at ASU [Arkansas State University], we’re really happy to have Jacqueline Froelich based in Fayetteville,” McKuin said.

Froelich, a news producer and investigative journalist for KUAF since 1998, has been a station-based national correspondent for NPR, winning eight national and state broadcast awards.

“Jacqueline is the senior Arkansas radio reporter for NPR stories,” Ampezzan said. “So having her on board is like having a power forward who could also be your coach.”

Ampezzan and McKuin hope to begin interviewing prospects for the other two reporting jobs soon. “The job here is already posted on the UALR jobs website,” said Ampezzan, a Detroit-area native who has a background in radio producing, including a seven-month stretch as a contributing producer at WNYC in New York, “one of the biggest partner stations in public radio.” There, he helped produce “The Leonard Lopate Show,” a popular daily arts and culture call-in and talk program.

A Beat Mentality

The first news priority, Ampezzan said, will be to develop a beat mentality. “The nature of this news operation I hope won’t be general,” he said. “I hope it’s specific, and that the reporters do their work like a beat reporter would go about doing her job. Eventually, we’ll talk about doing some projects and series, but I think we’re still a few months off from that.”

Ampezzan has already been prolific, producing APM segments on Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s highway plans, the overhaul at the state Department of Human Services, Central High School’s graduation and a little-known corner of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences known as the Historical Research Center. Those stories can be seen (and heard) at ArkansasPublicMedia.org.

“KUAR has set up a rudimentary landing site for us that goes to a place where the pieces that Jacqueline and Bobby have produced can be seen,” McKuin said. “Soon we’re going to have a social media presence. Arkansas Public Media will have its own logo, and its own look and feel, but that’s going to take a little bit of time. We have a budget for web development, but it’s small.”

‘Community Engagement’

Both Ampezzan and McKuin said their new jobs are not as foreign as they may seem. “One strong component of the grant focuses on community engagement,” McKuin said, noting that part of her job at Preserve Arkansas was to build communities by connecting Arkansans with their heritage. “We’re trying not to just get people to listen to Arkansas Public Media, but also to engage people in the news reporting process by getting story leads and sources, and talking to them to figure out what stories are out there.”

McKuin, a graduate of Hendrix College in Conway with a master’s from the Pratt Institute in New York, is also adept at fundraising. “Radio is a different area, but at Preserve Arkansas I did a lot of fundraising and sponsor management. We’ve got this grant for two years, and that’s mostly funded on the front end. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting funds decrease next year, and by the third year we’re supposed to be fully sustainable. So there is going to be more grant writing and handling of underwriting and various other means of fundraising.”

“I think the job is what I expected,” said Ampezzan, who has a degree in environmental studies from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Arkansas. “The folks here at UALR are super happy and hospitable with us. The fact that we’re having to get things up off the ground is also what I expected. I look at it like driving across the state, and there are all these roads. But 200 years ago, they were just paths, and 200 years before that they were just trees — not so much as a path there. We’re at a place where we kind of have a path before us, but we need to build a road. Now, you’re going to use all these terrible metaphors, aren’t you?”

Ampezzan said the “entrepreneurial mission and project” didn’t technically start from scratch. “Vanessa came in and had a computer and file cabinets. I’ve got a computer and field reporting equipment that I borrowed from KUAR. Again, Jacqueline’s up in Fayetteville with access to all the things she’s always had available. We have use of the studios. There are procurements we’re in the process of making, but for now we have all that we need to produce a radio story.”

The project is looking for story pitches, Ampezzan said. “We’re interested in Arkansas. There are some areas that we’re directed to make a consistent part of our coverage — health care, education and energy — but our stories are going to have range, and I hope people will reach out to us. We have really easy email addresses, Vanessa@ArkansasPublicMedia.org and Bobby@ArkansasPublicMedia.org.

“This is a great opportunity to really add texture to the media landscape and journalism statewide,” Ampezzan said, and McKuin offered an echo: “We’re hoping this will be a vehicle for a stronger connection.”

Send this to a friend