Feature Stories

Peabody turns 75

A revolutionary chef with a passion for French cuisine. A seasoned journalist trusted by Americans to bring the news of the day into their homes each evening. Families of all shapes, colors and sizes. Comedians, artists and activists.

The common thread linking these may not be immediately evident, but dig a little deeper and there’s a connection: All are in the elite club of recipients of a George Foster Peabody Award.

Perusing the list of winners reveals a who’s who of media and culture — from Julia Child to Walter Cronkite, All in the Family to The Simpsons, Carol Burnett to Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and Spike Lee.

Since its founding 75 years ago, the Peabodys have been issued under the auspices of UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. What originated as a desire to acknowledge the best in radio has become an award that reflects compelling storytelling across all forms of electronic media. The carefully curated awards support the university’s stature as a pre-eminent institution of learning, often serving as catalysts for change across the globe.

In his third year as executive director of the Peabodys, Jeffrey Jones is committed to bringing the awards program into an expanded media landscape while maintaining its core credential: to recognize excellence in storytelling.

“We feel that if the story matters to us as citizens, then it will receive a Peabody Award,” said Jones, who also holds the Lambdin Kay Chair for the Peabodys. “For us, it’s to recognize that media can be an important voice, and shape who and what we are, if we pay attention to the best that media have to offer.”

During his tenure, the awards program has undergone several changes. The entry process was streamlined to receive digital submissions. Initial screening committees now include media experts from across the country, broadening the university’s outreach and invigorating the awards selection process.

Jones also created a formal advisory board of 25 upper-level media and entertainment industry executives, including CEOs, television and radio programming heads, entertainment lawyers, talent agents and others, who serve as consultants offering their assistance in furthering the interests and increasing the prominence of the awards.

He also struck a deal with the television network Pivot, part of Participant Media, to carry the awards ceremony, reimagined from a midday lunch to an evening event replete with a red-carpet walk. Last year’s gala at Cipriani Wall Street included guest presenters like Tina Fey and Charlie Rose, with Fred Armisen as emcee.

The changes are a necessary reflection of the times as well as a way to call attention to the worth of the Peabodys, according to Jones.

“There’s a lot of competition. There are new awards shows all the time, and we can’t just rest on our laurels,” he said. “What we do matters, and we need to push that out there.”

 ‘A diamond in the rough’

The status of the awards is only part of the story. As the clearinghouse for entries since the awards began, UGA has amassed the third-largest media archive in the country, behind the Library of Congress and the University of Southern California-Los Angeles.

For years, much of the archives languished in storage due to a lack of exhibit space on campus. When the university’s Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries opened in 2012, it included a permanent gallery for the Peabody Collection, which includes artifacts and interactive kiosks with clips from awards ceremonies and entries from over the years. The building also features 30,000 square feet of climate-controlled storage to house materials.

Ruta Abolins, director of the Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection, credits the building with raising the profile of the archives and its importance as a cultural touchstone.

“I don’t know any place where you can get a slice of media history like this,” she said. “The real benefit is looking at an entire year of programming — it shows the real flavor of the year in the U.S. and abroad and what was important.”

The archives are also a record of technology and how media have changed over the years, with the Peabodys highlighting innovative programming or delivery methods — from blogs to podcasts to interactive websites — long before they reach the public consciousness.

The challenge is making the archives more accessible by digitizing files for the current electronic environment — currently just 7 percent is available in digital format.

To raise awareness about the “tremendous reservoir” housed in the Peabody Collection, Jones and his team have hosted the first of two academic conferences that focus on the scholarly potential of the archives. The results will be preserved in the inaugural volume of a book series dedicated to the Peabody Archives and produced by the University of Georgia Press.

“It’s a way to recognize that this is a treasure trove we’ve not fully mined,” he said.

Continuing the legacy

Students have long been a part of the Peabody Awards, serving as ushers at special events and the awards ceremony. The experience offers a behind-the-scenes education in the industry and event planning. Savanna Thompson, a senior mass media arts major, appreciates the experiential learning opportunity and being a part of the prestigious event.

“Just being in an environment with that many incredible minds was humbling,” she said of the 2015 production. “There’s a lot of passion, and it was inspiring to be around.”

Thompson is chair of the newly formed Peabody student honor board, which Jones has charged with serving as the eyes and ears of the future by identifying innovative storytelling across digital platforms. Students will cull through websites, seeking out the best in digital narratives for a Futures of Media Award to be issued prior to the Peabody Awards ceremony in May.

For Jones, involving students is a way to keep a pulse on new forms of storytelling but also to cultivate a relationship with the younger generation, showing them what matters in the onslaught of media at their fingertips.

“We want University of Georgia students to be engaged in the same thing that the Peabody does, but recognizing media that is more infiltrated in their own lives,” he said.

As electronic media continue to evolve, there’s no way to tell what the landscape will look like in 10 or 20 years. But the Peabodys, and stewards like Jones who guide it on behalf of the University of Georgia, will be there to take a measured look.

“And that’s the power of what Peabody does,” he said. “We realize it doesn’t matter in electronic media where you tell your story, it just matters that you’re telling your story and it’s powerful, and it matters to us now.”

— Margaret Blanchard

Published Tuesday,