By Ronnie Agnew
Mississippi Public Broad-casting’s 50th anniversary celebration, with events on the calendar through 2020, was well on its way toward paying tribute to the extraordinary work that over five decades has brought outstanding programming into the homes of Mississippians. MPB first hit the airwaves as Mississippi ETV February 1, 1970.
In February 2020 at the Mississippi State Capitol, we received a proclamation from state senators, a much-appreciated show of gratitude, for reaching the important milestone. That same month, we debuted a compelling documentary on an understated Grammy-winning songwriter—Louisville, Mississippi native Carl Jackson —who has written hit songs for some of country music’s most famous artists.
Our year had gotten off to a fast start with such programs as Parents Are Teachers Too, an initiative from our education department that trains parents on strategies to help bridge the home instructional gap with their children. We continued to broadcast a prolific local radio lineup for an extremely loyal statewide audience. Our TV department produced our annual events—the Governor’s Arts Awards, Mississippi State Spelling Bee and the Poetry Out Loud contest—along with a couple of ongoing series and provided a feed for the state’s media during Gov. Tate Reeves’ State-of-the-State address. Two months into 2020, we were doing our absolute best to make our anniversary year memorable through programs that resonated with Mississippians, fulfilling our responsibility to inform, educate and entertain.
And then came the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impact on life as we know it. Just like that, everything changed about our year—as it should have. We have treated the change, necessitated by this cruel, deadly pandemic, as an urgent call to do more, much more, to serve a state that needs us. If ever there was a time to put the power of our broadcasting capabilities across multiple platforms into play, it is now. And that’s exactly what we have done and will continue to do, as the only broadcaster in a very rural state with the capability of reaching every household on radio and television at once.
COVID-19 has put focus on the importance and value of public broadcasting. Like many PBS stations, we changed our daytime lineup to feature shows that meet state standards in partnership with the Mississippi Department of Education. We’ve created web pages filled with educational resources that are still available for parents, teachers and students. And, with the reopening of schools uncertain, we are ramping up our distance learning services. We will add in distance learning by preparing one of our television sub-channels to host instruction from classroom teachers for students living in rural areas who lack technology and cable TV in their homes.
We added a radio show—Mississippi Education Connection—to our programming lineup to give parents a chance to ask questions to education administrators at the state level. When we learned that our kids would not have traditional graduations, we created a web page to focus on their achievements. In addition, our Summer Learning Family Fun Day, which attracts more than 4,000 people each year and was on the verge of being cancelled, was converted into a virtual week of daily instruction and activities.
We consider ourselves as playing an essential role as the state’s information source. Our news team has provided comprehensive coverage through interviews with newsmakers on the front lines of fighting the pandemic. Each day we have kept Mississippians informed on the statistics of COVID-19 at home through a new web page dedicated solely to coronavirus news and resources. While we have seen spikes in web and social media traffic and impressions, those are simply results of our commitment to serve our state by producing content that matters, including providing the media pool feed for Gov. Tate Reeves’ COVID-19 briefings.
MPB has long held as part of its mission being a place where the underserved have just as much right and access to information as those with means. MPB reaches tens of thousands of school children and their parents each year with programs ranging from school readiness to literacy to support for classroom teachers. Through our Radio Reading Service program, MPB is a lifeline for nearly 7,000 people unable to read the written word due to vision or physical impairments. This service is made possible thanks to a small army of MPB volunteers who record readings of everything from books to magazines to newspapers. During times of disaster, MPB uses the power of its technology to speak to an entire state at once, working closely with our friends at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. It’s a great example of public service.
I’m proud that MPB serves such diverse audiences through a multimedia approach. It is a place where intellectual thought meets educational mission, where, regardless of economic status, listeners and viewers participate as equals in programs that foster engagement and thought.
I’m the son of sharecroppers, who insisted many years ago that Mississippi ETV (now MPB) become a part of my daily classroom. As the agency observes its 50th anniversary, we do so knowing that our mission, through trusted information, is to do everything within our power to help our state during a pandemic that has affected every aspect of our society. Our community needs us, and we will be there.
Ronnie Agnew is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting. He can be reached at Ronnie.Agnew@mpbonline.org.