Women in Public Affairs to Know: Jayme Swain

May 18, 2021

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This interview is part of a series on “Women in Public Affairs to Know,” by the McGuireWoods Consulting Women in Public Affairs initiative. To learn more about the initiative or recommend a woman for a future interview, please visit our website.

Jayme Swain is CEO of the Virginia Foundation for Public Media and President of VPM, Virginia’s home for public media. At a transformational time in its history, Swain oversees VPM, a network of PBS and NPR stations across Central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley that connects nearly 2 million people to insightful programming in arts and culture, history, science, news and education. Under her leadership, VPM has strengthened its position as a trusted source of information for Virginians and a powerhouse distributor of multiplatform, award-winning content for national and international audiences.

Swain has launched a number of impact-driven initiatives, including the expansion of original educational programming with a focus on children in underserved communities and an increase in digital storytelling and distribution across the web, social media and podcasting. As leader of the Virginia Foundation for Public Media, she manages the stewardship and advancement of an endowment to support VPM’s mission and vision, ensuring the future of public media in Virginia for generations to come.

The interview below was conducted by Laura Fornash, co-lead of McGuireWoods Consulting’s national education team and senior vice president on the Virginia state government relations team.

Question: Public media has continuously had to reinvent itself, especially as technology has brought in new ways to reach people – and more competition. How have you had to innovate at VPM?

Jayme Swain: The media landscape continues to change at warp speed – and with it, consumer expectations. The technological advances over the last decade have afforded consumers with much more control over their content experiences. Audiences can now watch what they want, when they want, and they can do so across a variety of screens and platforms.

At VPM, we are both a local NPR station and a PBS station. Our business has traditionally been both television and radio broadcast. Those platforms remain important because there are so many people who don’t have broadband, but we also need to reach audiences where they are. More and more viewers are streaming video, and this has accelerated over the last year as people stayed home during the pandemic. I used to tell my team that in the next three years streaming would outstrip broadcast watching, and it’s almost like those three years were erased.

Viewers can find VPM across a variety of platforms, through the PBS and the PBS Kids apps. Locally, we’re investing more in strengthening our digital presence, including our website and social media. We’re also creating a lot of digital first content. We’ve begun experimenting with podcasting since more people are listening to audio on demand – particularly younger audiences. Innovation is critical to our survival as local public media so we will continue to evolve as technology advances and consumer expectations continue to change.

Q: The disparity in broadband access has become even more apparent during the pandemic. Can you talk about VPM’s efforts to provide a short-term bridge to broadband?

Jayme: Over the past year many families wrestled with at-home learning during the pandemic because they didn’t have access to broadband. At VPM, we reimagined how to use our broadcast in two distinct ways to help address this disparity. First, we turned one of our broadcast channels into a learning channel that was programmed to air instructional content for kids in grades pre-k through high school.

The second thing we did was to start thinking about how to leverage our over-the-air broadcast signal. Most people think about our signal as a way to get their favorite VPM or PBS shows, and if you grew up like me, you may remember the rabbit ears on your television and antennas on your home. A lot of us now get content through cable or other means, but many people still use the antenna. Not only can we send audio and video programming over our signal,  we can also use the same signal to deliver files, which we call datacasting. I think it can be a piece of the puzzle as we try to find ways to bridge the digital divide – especially as it has come to the forefront over the past year, and we see so many people without access.

Education is a good potential use case for datacasting. Imagine there’s a teacher in a rural area who doesn’t have broadband and is teaching students who are all at home. The teacher wants to send his/her students some reading materials and a quiz. Right now, students may have to drive to a hot spot — maybe in a parking lot somewhere — to use their own phone to get and download those materials. With our over-the-air technology, we can actually have those materials sent over the air through our secure spectrum to any student who can receive our signal via antenna. We can hit a wide range of students and families in homes across our viewing area and in areas where broadband may be difficult to reach. On the student end, the student would need both an antenna and a device to store the content being sent over the signal. This is technology that’s being developed right now and has already been deployed in states like South Carolina and Pennsylvania.

We can do datacasting now, but what’s even more exciting is that broadcasters are switching to a new broadcast standard called ATSC 3.0, also known as Next Gen TV. With Next Gen TV we’ll be able to send even more data through our over-the-air signal, including files that are based in internet protocol, which mimic what people might see on a website. This would allow a student to see information just as somebody who has broadband.

Right now, datacasting is a one-way delivery system where we can efficiently send data to a wide range of people, costing less than if you actually sent the same data via wireless. VPM is working on a pilot in hopes of being part of the solution to bridge the digital divide in Virginia, especially since it will likely take a long time to provide both the access and the affordability of broadband.

 Jayme Swain

Q: You’ve worked for a number of large media companies including CNN, Fox Sports, and U.S. News and World Report. How have you grown both personally and professionally from each of those positions and what lessons do you bring to your current role?

Jayme: I have traditionally worked in journalistic institutions, and I am passionate about fact-based journalism and giving people the information they need to make decisions. 

Working in commercial media, I learned how to produce a story with limited time, how to write effectively and efficiently, how to work in high pressure environments and how to multitask. I also learned much of the 101 of journalism – how to get the facts, gather the story and share it with an audience.

While I appreciate everywhere I’ve worked and have learned so much at each of those organizations, over time I did become disillusioned with the commercial side of journalism because it’s driven by attracting eyeballs and making a profit. I had the opportunity to work at PBS and was attracted by the chance to focus on serving people with content that’s not only educational, but also entertaining and inspiring.

I spent a decade at PBS and came to VPM two years ago because I was excited to make a local impact and grow our local news coverage. We’re at a time when local news is struggling across the country, and at VPM we are investing more in our local journalism to provide fact-based, context-rich, trusted news and information, which I believe is foundational to an informed community. Having worked so long at national media outlets has helped remind me of the importance of local news. So many decisions that are made locally affect our everyday lives, and I think that became even clearer over this past year as we dealt with the pandemic and conversations about racial justice. So much of that is very hyper-local, and I think that this is an area that public media can really step into and bring relevant news and information to our communities.

Q: You’ve often spoken about the importance of VPM to the community. Can you talk about how you foster an environment of engaging with the community as CEO?

Jayme: Public media is unique since we are often one of the last locally owned media outlets in communities. We’re more than just broadcasters. We really think of ourselves as members of the community. We tell local stories. We highlight voices that are not often heard. And, we act as conveners around important topics. Our model is different because we rely on people to support us. To earn that support we need to listen to the needs of the people that we serve and create relevant content that is responsive to the issues that matter most. We also need to reflect the communities that we serve in everything we do.

Over the past ten months we have been focused on creating a VPM diversity, equity and inclusion strategy and roadmap to ensure that people in our community really see themselves in our organization and everything we do. To me, this is foundational as public service media. To be effective, all VPM employees, starting with me as the CEO, need to look for opportunities to listen to community leaders and fellow citizens and participate in local events and activities. Our mission statement is to use the power of media to educate, entertain and inspire, and our vision statement is more connected, informed and empathetic Virginians, and to really do that, to drive that empathy, requires intentional listening and participation in the community. 

As CEO of VPM, I see my role as being accessible to people, but also reaching them where they are by being out and about in the community. Pre-pandemic I used to spend a lot of time out of the office.  That’s been difficult over the last year, and I look forward to reengaging in-person across our region, which stretches from Richmond to Charlottesville to Harrisonburg and the Shenandoah Valley. I look forward to the months ahead of getting back out, talking to people, listening and creating that two-way engagement so that VPM can be a voice of the community and serving the community’s most important needs and issues.

Q: VPM has become an even stronger community partner through a number of programs throughout the pandemic. Can you talk about how you pivoted the organization to develop new programs to meet the needs of the community?

Jayme: VPM has had a strong relationship and partnership with both the governor’s office and the Virginia Department of Education, and I think that it solidified during the pandemic.  Both the governor’s office and the VDOE reached out to us early in the pandemic to see how public media stations could help. The first thing we did was to bring all of the PBS stations in the state of Virginia together to create VA TV Classroom. This was not just PBS content for students, but also instructional content we created and content provided by WHRO in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area. VPM created a number of new series and programs working with educators, targeting students who don’t have access to broadband.

Another example of working together was in May 2020, when it was clear that students and families wouldn’t be able to come together in-person to celebrate graduation. We partnered with the VDOE to create a virtual graduation, where we pulled together celebrities and interviews with students to stream on social media and through our broadcast channels. We created a moment that people from across the state could come together and celebrate a very important milestone in a student’s life. It was just a great example of how public media can partner and work with our government offices to serve the needs of our constituents.

Finally, First Lady Pam Northam reached out to VPM as parents and caregivers were struggling with how to talk to young children about the very scary topic of the pandemic. Her office wanted to create short video content that would be a helpful tool to facilitate those discussions. VPM reached out to Fred Rogers Productions about the opportunity to use  characters from “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”, who could help deliver somewhat complex messages to young children. Daniel Tiger and Katerina Kittycat visited the governor’s mansion and met with the first lady, and together we created content where she talked with the characters about hand washing, the spreading of germs, how to stay healthy and how to socially distance. Topics that might be scary or confusing to young children were made fun, accessible and warm by the first lady, Daniel Tiger and Katerina Kittycat. We were very proud to partner on that effort and create these videos that were used as a resource across the state.