Make Your Nonprofit a Media Empire

Using soap operas and talk shows to mix entertainment with financial education

“Sex, Lies and Money Tips” was how National Public Radio’s Morning Edition show described Nuestro Barrio, the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina’s new telenovela, a Spanish language soap opera with beautiful people, drama and trauma and financial advice woven throughout. Coverage on NPR is rare media attention, but rarer still is that a community-based nonprofit is producing a nationally distributed television show.

For those who know CRA-NC from our street theatre, which we use to protest predatory lending practices, or from our research on Home Mortgage Disclosure data, producing a television mini-series might be a real surprise. But quite frankly, nonprofits just aren’t cool these days unless they have their own blog, television or radio show or book deal going on. Video and radio communications technology is becoming cheaper and easier, allowing organizations to increase the impact and scale of their advocacy beyond the traditional means of policy reports, press conferences and protests. If you feel your newsletter is accomplishing your communication goals, your aim is too low.

Organizations like ours whose mission is to campaign on issues such as community reinvestment are challenged by the shifting political and cultural environment, which has resulted in fewer public resources to fight poverty and a greater resistance to progressive policies. Democracy is a marketplace of ideas and we have to compete effectively to win. To be more successful, we must reach a larger audience and place an issue in the context of broader cultural values. We can then build support for the more specific arguments of policy. Media, from radio and video to books and the Internet, act as a megaphone that amplifies the power and impact of our message.

On the Airwaves and Online

CRA-NC didn’t start with a Hollywood bang. We started small and slowly built our radio and video capacity.

Our first video project in 2003 was Payday Lending, The Musical, which has become a cult classic. We wrote a rap song about a payday lender and borrower and shot it using my home video camera. We included interviews with advocates, borrowers and policy makers and, like Michael Moore, tried to interview a bank president conducting payday lending. The camera itself became an organizing tool as we interviewed other activists to tell the story of how payday lending works. Through direct outreach, we showed the video to state legislators in North Carolina and Georgia and federal regulators like the OCC and FDIC. The public saw it on cable access channels in North Carolina and Ohio, where we were organizing against specific payday lenders. In addition, the Delaware Community Reinvestment Action Council showed the video several times on its own local cable access show in the payday lender’s hometown.

In 2004, with funding from North Carolina fair housing groups, we produced The Other Side, based on Jacquelyn Woodson’s children’s story about two girls, black and white, whose parents won’t let them cross the color line to play with each other. The children overcome society’s segregation to become friends. The video won an award from the San Francisco Black Film Festival and was distributed by the National Fair Housing Alliance to fair housing groups across the country. It was aired on cable access across the state. As an organizing tool, it provided a coordinated statewide strategy with local groups to increase awareness of civil rights and the number of fair housing complaints generated.

In 2005 and 2006, with funding from Freddie Mac, we produced Nuestro Barrio, a 13-episode miniseries that combines the entertainment of soap operas with financial literacy on buying a home, opening a checking account and dealing with evil predatory lenders. The show is in Spanish with English subtitles, and will be commercially distributed on both English and Spanish language channels across the country through 2007. Though national in distribution, the show used all local cast and crew, building a diverse community in its production. Nuestro Barrio has become a tool for the community, as our Freddie Mac bank partners distribute it with accompanying educational materials to local nonprofits and consumers.

In 2005, we began producing The Richard Brown Radio Show, a progressive African-American radio voice for all of North Carolina. The weekly show is a venue for dialogue about the connection of race to other critical issues such as education, financial justice, health care, slavery, art and military life. The show provides a media outlet for the intellectual and social fabric of the African-American community; it’s also very useful for mobilizing listeners to action.

Currently, the show is recorded at a local 100-watt community radio station. Its broadcast barely reaches the town limits. But via Internet webstreaming and podcasting from our Web site, the show is reaching hundreds of listeners with powerful and compelling dialogue. We anticipate moving the show to state and regional broadcast distribution in the next year.

Another piece of our media strategy is on the Internet. We post our positions and actions on a number of national sites, because that is where the traffic is. Our own Web site is a source of information and marketing, but on others’ sites and blogs our story and calls to action reach a much broader audience. For example, the liberal Web site dailykos.com has three million visitors per day; by contrast, CRA-NC has 2,900 unique visitors per month. When we post an alert on a boneheaded regulatory decision to that site, the number of eyes seeing it increases dramatically.

Beyond Policy Papers

CRA-NC is producing a coffee table book called This Trailer is My Home to be released this fall. With professional photos and interviews with residents, park owners and policymakers, we are telling a story about the people and policies of land-lease manufactured housing communities. Why publish a book? Because the policy piece we wrote and published in a government journal is boring. I can’t even get my board members and staff to read it. The book is a way of presenting compelling human stories that frame a problem and offer solutions to what is generally an invisible issue. Having it bound and published will give it a longer shelf life, and greater weight than a newspaper article. Maybe Oprah will feature it in her book club. At a minimum, we will market it through an alternative book distributor and host a book tour to national community development conferences to tell a compelling story.

This is an example of how our media advocacy projects start with envisioning the distribution of the product. Who will see it? How will it be shown beyond our family and friends? Obviously we believe in the value of the content, or we would not be doing it. The challenge to our liberal bias is whether it is relevant and entertaining beyond the circle of people who already agree with us.

Progressive advocacy groups consider it a media victory if they get coverage of a new policy report in the newspaper. Meanwhile, the conservative right owns a national television network and multiple radio outlets and shows. What is wrong with this picture? To compete, local groups need to do more than write a good press release.

Media work should be integral to a nonprofit’s mission and agenda. As our work demonstrates, nonprofit media production doesn’t have to start with a national product. In the future, it will not be the exception, but the norm to use self-produced media for organizing and mobilizing. You too can be a media mogul.

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