UNC-TV Hackathon logo

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Just a few days ago, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Tivi Jones and Cathy Dobbins of UNC-TV about the UNC-TV Design-Thinking Hackathon happening this weekend in Durham. 

The event is the first of its kind for UNC-TV, and one of the first for the public media industry as a whole. It aims to “bring together college students; marketing, business and IT professionals; and creatives and public media fans to find innovative solutions to challenges plaguing UNC-TV as a public media organization.”

Any media provider needs to know a few things, starting with who is the audience? Are they older? Younger? Where are they from? 

Then, how to reach that audience. Do they get better results with print or digital? Are people more interested in reading stories or watching videos? Is it worth creating an app or do the vast majority of users interact with media through their laptops and desktops? 

And finally, how to stay afloat. Every media company needs funding. Public media companies have an especially tough time here. Instead of creating content geared to make money for advertisers, public media groups need to generate content which convinces audience members to donate directly. So, who’s donating? Where are they from? Do recurring or one-time donations draw in more funding? What types of events seem to draw in donations? How do they better serve these ever so important donors?

Taking the time and finding the manpower to answer these aforementioned questions can be costly and difficult, but the folks at UNC-TV think it’s time for a kick in the butt. And with that admission, a hackathon was born. It’s a chance to provide a stage upon which students and industry members can prove their mettle, bring entrepreneurs and media gurus together and offer solutions for UNC-TV to better engage, program and operate.

The event is being held at American Underground in Durham this weekend, with plenty of MATI Energy flowing for the 50 or so students, marketers, public media experts and thought leaders expected to participate.  

One of my first questions when I sat down with Jones, a UNC-TV marketing consultant and Dobbins, the station’s director of educational services and grants, was what a “Design-Thinking Hackathon” means. 

They first explained that public media was a “broad but an interesting thing to hack.” They have a set of data they’re going to provide competitors, but in terms of an end goal, they’re not sure what it might look like. The data includes figures on viewership (both in terms of local broadcasts and other PBS broadcasts), donor contributions, demographics, Google Analytics and also some data points on audience engagement. It's already downloadable here.

From there, it’s up to the competitors. Similar to a Startup Weekend event, individuals will get the chance to pitch ideas and then form teams around the winning ones. 

The way Jones put it: “Here are some tools, you as the NC public. What do you think we should do with this information? How do we reach more people more intimately? How do we provide content you want to see and hear? How do we create more diverse and interesting content that can provide something for everyone? How can we be better at our jobs?”

The pair felt that while they get plenty of feedback about programming and try to be progressive and adaptive, they need to “embrace startup mentalities, be more nimble and fast” when it comes to both business and content. The face of media is changing rapidly, and instead of keeping with old habits, these women want to adapt with the times. 

A public media company should evolve with the public, and this is a passion project created to affect just that. 

Who that passion can be attributed to, according to Jones and Dobbins, is former startup founder and consultant Susan Scott

Scott was brought on as the senior director of strategic alliances at UNC-TV in mid-2015, and she hit the ground running, with one of her main goals to better emulate the agility and adaptiveness of the startup industry she spent so much time in. By creating a competitive atmosphere with mentorship from thought leaders in the area, she hopes to make UNC-TV a better connected and more informed broadcasting network. Industry members from organizations such as RTI, SunTrust, First Citizens Bank, Bayer CropScience and others will be in attendance for mentorship and possibly even participation in the hackathon.

Everyone who registers for the event will be entered to win an Apple Watch, and the winners will receive an Apple TV. Any student winners will be given priority for a paid internship at UNC-TV and any winner, student or not, will be interviewed on UNC-TV. UNC simply hopes to mine for and use the best ideas, but it won't retain any intellectual property rights. Teams are welcome to continue on with their projects after the hackathon.

Judging a Sunday afternoon final pitch event are Allie Burns, senior vice president at the Case Foundation, UNC-Chapel Hill assistant professor of design and multimedia Lisa Villamil, digital services consultant Melody Kramer and Tobias Rose, founder of the Durham branding agency Kompleks. 

They have six criteria including market fit—does it solve a real problem?; competitive fit—does it fit the media landscape of the future?; business model—can it bring in donations?; novelty—is it unique?; practicality—is it feasible for UNC-TV to take on?; and finally, presentation quality—did the proposal make sense and was it communicated clearly?

At the award ceremony at 3 p.m. Sunday, Mike Rugnetta, PBS veteran and media expert, will give a keynote address. According to Jones, as she reminded me multiple times, he’s a guy whose speech should not be missed. I know I’ll be in attendance.

Be sure to check ExitEvent for updates on the event and a short profile on the winning team and competition after the 17th.