Opioid Coverage Demonstrates Power of Local Public Media

April 1, 2019

APTS Summit

(Congressman Ben Ray Luján, center, received the CPB Strengthening Civil Society Thought Leader Award in a program that highlighted how public media has raised awareness of the opioid crisis. Also pictured, from left, Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, co-founder of the SAFE Project; CPB Board members Elizabeth Sembler, Laura Ross and Ruby Calvert, and CPB President and CEO Pat Harrison. Photo courtesy of APTS)

Long before opioid addiction was declared a national crisis, public media stations across the country were raising awareness of the issue in their communities. As part of gathering of more than 350 public media leaders in Washington, D.C., the Corporation for Public Broadcasting demonstrated the power of public media locally and nationally by highlighting the wide variety of ways public media has addressed addiction.

“When we look at solutions for addiction, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there is a common thread, and that’s education – something public media is uniquely positioned to provide,” CPB President and CEO Pat Harrison told attendees of the 2019 APTS Public Media Summit. “This is a great opportunity for us to look at the growing power and effectiveness of public media’s connection to community and why it matters.”

Public media stations in all 50 states have produced local coverage of the opioid crisis, adding up to thousands of hours of broadcast and online content and hundreds of town halls and other events. Locally, regionally and nationally, public media has addressed addiction through documentaries on FRONTLINE and NOVA; statewide public collaborations examining the problem and connecting people with community resources; award-winning coverage by CPB-supported journalism collaborations; and Rock and Recovery, a radio format with upbeat rock music and affirmations created by WAPS-FM in Akron, Ohio, for those in recovery and their loved ones.


Harrison shared a preview of the Independent Lens documentary “The Providers,” which explores the relationship between healthcare professionals and their patients in rural Espanola, New Mexico, which has had one of the highest overdose rates in the country.

And she awarded the Strengthening Civil Society Thought Leader Award, recognizing American leaders who affirm the essential services public media provides, to Congressman Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico.

Luján praised public broadcasting for providing thoughtful, in-depth news coverage and for telling the important local stories that helped create a sense of urgency needed to get legislation addressing the opioids crisis across the finish line.

“It’s an honor to be presented with this award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an institution that we all know is a cornerstone to our democracy,” Luján said. “When we look at the opioid epidemic, it would be easy to focus on the aggregate, the huge numbers, the broad policy. But what ‘The Providers’ did and what public media has done in so many important ways is show the human side of this epidemic.”  

Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, who was featured in NOVA’s “Addiction” documentary, talked about the perfect storm of factors causing the opioid crisis and shared the story of his son Jonathan, who died at age 19 of an overdose of fentanyl-laced heroin. His son’s death motivated Winnefeld and his wife, Mary, to start the Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic (SAFE) Project, a nonprofit organization to fight opioid problem.

SAFE takes a multipronged approach to reverse the epidemic, and the first aspect of addressing the problem is public awareness, he said. Awareness is needed not only to marshal the public and private resources needed to fight the problem, but also to lower the stigma associated with addiction, he said. “The stigma is public enemy No. 1 for solving this epidemic, and what you do every day can help us overcome that,” he told the public media leaders. “So whenever you in the important work that you do, air a program like ‘The Providers’ or like Sarah Holt’s  remarkable film ‘Addiction,’ you are helping us — you’re helping the country solve its problem.”

Fact sheet: Public Media Partnering in Communities on the Opioid Crisis