On Monday, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg hosted a live recording of one of the most popular shows circulated by NPR, WAMU’s 1A, whose name pays homage to the First Amendment.
The live-recorded show drew hundreds to the USFSP’s University Student Center, thanks to a collective effort of the Open Partnership Education Network (OPEN), WUSF and the Poynter Institute. But the story of the morning was less the show itself and more the impressive showcase of guests, a veritable parade of talent and expertise local to St. Pete, who shared their perspectives on some of the most pressing issues of our time.
Hosted by Joshua Johnson, a native of West Palm Beach, Fla., 1A comes out of Washington DC and is the legacy of the Diane Rehm show, an NPR staple call-in program that ran from 1979 to 2016. According to Johnson, “1A is a national program that for 10 hours a week tries to create a space for Americans to have the kinds of conversations that are really tough to have.”
“When Diane chose to retire after the 2016 election, we knew that Americans were going to need a place to come talk, no matter who won the election,” Johnson explained Monday. “I think the last few years have certainly born out the fact that civility and civil discourse is as necessary or more necessary now as it ever has been.”
The two-hour program was broken into two segments, with the first first hour focused on fact-checking and journalism, appropriately titled “Burning Pants And Bottomless Pinocchios: Fact-Checking In 2019.” It featured Kelly McBride, Media Ethicist & Vice President of Academic Programs at The Poynter Institute; Aaron Sharockman, Executive Director of Politifact; and Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of South Florida and creator of Hoaxy, a platform for tracking online misinformation.
The second hour focused on climate change and sea level rise, titled, “Storm Clouds And Sunshine: How Florida Prepares For Climate Change.” It featured St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman; University of South Florida Associate Professor Rebecca Zarger, who studies the anthropology of climate change; and University of South Florida College of Marine Science Professor Don Chambers.
The expert guests were each impressive in their own right. Each of the conversations can be streamed above. But it left this reporter wondering: How did all of these realms of expertise land in St. Petersburg, Florida, of all places?
The origin of that story can be traced back to the late 1960s and ’70s, when Nelson Poynter, Jack Lake and a handful of other prominent business leaders founded St. Pete Progress, today known as the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, a visionary organization to advance the interests of the city. Check out Episode 39 of SPx with Past President of St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, Peter Betzer to hear the full oral history of St. Pete Progress.
Nelson Poynter, the owner and chairman of the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) founded The Poynter Institute in 1975 as a small journalism school called the Modern Media Institute. He sought to equip journalists with the tools to improve their craft, to help their communities and democracy as a whole. Today, The Poynter Institute has risen to prominence as a world-renowned training institute, resource and convening place for journalists everywhere. It is home to the International Fact Checking Network, and the owner of the Tampa Bay Times (willed to the organization after Nelson Poynter’s death in 1978) and the non-profit fact-checking organization Politifact.
Poynter was not just foundational to the history of exceptional journal in St. Petersburg, but also to the city’s development as a whole. According to Peter Betzer, “Nelson Poynter was a person who was very interested not just in a newspaper, but in basically enriching the community.” He brought together businessmen of all stripes: newspapermen, lawyers, bankers, and more to form St. Pete Progress in 1965.
During its formation, the founders of St. Pete Progress accumulated 10 acres of the private land that surrounded Bayboro Harbor, “[T]hey quietly bought up all of the parcels of land around the North part of the Bayboro Harbor where the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg is right now,” Betzer explained. “There were welding shops, yacht repair basins, a polluted harbor and a down-and-out bar called The Stick and Rudder that were down there …
“[T]hey got 10 acres and they turned around and they gave it to the state and they said, ‘Look, we’ll give you this land to the Internal Improvement Trust Fund as long as you guarantee us that this becomes a university.’ And they did.”
That land made the Partnership’s first project, the location of a University of South Florida campus within St. Petersburg, possible. It is on that land where the USFSP campus now sits. As if to say his work here was done, Poynter passed away just a few hours after the groundbreaking ceremony for the campus.
Part and parcel to the location of what would eventually become the University of South Florida St. Petersburg was Poynter and Lake’s emphasis on the possibility of marine science for St. Petersburg. Betzer came down to St. Petersburg in 1971, a newly minted PhD in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island. Poynter and Lake wanted the university to recruit more smart people like Betzer, both as students and faculty, and saw the return to the community that prominence in the area of marine science could provide.
Betzer worked with St. Pete Progress to bring the first grant from the Office of Naval Research to USF, a PhD program to the College of Marine Science, endow a faculty position for marine science ($600,000) and bring in a $400,000 matching grant from the State of Florida. St. Pete Progress was also responsible for the relocation of numerous government research agencies to Bayboro Harbor, including United States Geological Survey.
The USF College of Marine Science is now one of the top 10 marine science programs in the country. It is situated in the Innovation District, among one of the largest marine science hubs in the country, home to not just USGS, but National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, the Florida Institute of Oceanography, SRI International, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and the US Coast Guard.
While it may have appeared a happy coincidence of good fortune to have so much expertise baked into one city. Nelson Poynter and St. Pete Progress – The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership – is in many ways responsible for the hub of genius and expertise showcased on Monday.