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September 24, 2019

How Reel South connects local voices to national reach with southern storytelling

This case study on how Reel South supports southern filmmaking is from the Wyncote Foundation’s 2019 Building Stronger Communities Through Media report. It is the seventh in a series on innovations in local journalism, public media and storytelling we’re republishing with their permission and the permission of the authors.

What opportunities can public television stations create for filmmakers and audiences by supporting documentaries with a deep connection to place?

Reel South promotes independent southern filmmakers
Production still from Eat White Dirt, directed by Adam Forrester.
(Image courtesy of Reel South)

The public television series Reel South promotes independent southern filmmakers and embraces the rich tradition of southern storytelling through curated seasons of documentaries. Featuring a breadth of perspectives, topics, voices, and histories, Reel South brings films exploring the complex fabric of the American South to regional and national audiences.

Local roots, national reach

In 2016, UNC-TV Public Media North Carolina, South Carolina Educational Television (SCETV), and the Southern Documentary Fund partnered to pilot the first season of Reel South. The program responded to substantial challenges—a lack of outlets for local filmmakers, a dearth of southern stories on national public television, and misrepresentations of the South on mainstream platforms.

We don’t talk a lot in our social media, promotion or marketing
about independent film. We talk about southern storytelling

Rachel Raney, Reel South executive producer

The series has been continued by UNC-TV and SCETV with added open submissions calls and resources for license fees and post-production. The program has showcased over four dozen documentaries, from five-minute digital shorts to sixty minute films, with archives of past seasons online. Intentional selection of films and filmmakers has created a diverse roster of stories, featuring female filmmakers and filmmakers of color, rural communities, and almost every state in the Southeast.

By its second season, Reel South had achieved national reach, with carriage in all 10 top markets, over 3,000,000 broadcast viewers, and 250,000 digital streams. The momentum continues with stations in Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana joining the producing partnership for season four in 2019.

Storytelling for local audiences

Rachel Raney, UNC-TV’s director of national productions and executive producer of Reel South, stresses the importance of remaining accessible
and compelling for local audiences even while expanding to national audiences. “We don’t talk a lot in our social media, promotion or marketing
about independent film. We talk about southern storytelling,” she explains. “That’s intentional because we want people to…watch Reel South that don’t necessarily even think that they like documentaries, but they want to watch stories from their region.”

Likening Reel South to a reliable mutual fund, Raney notes that a curated series can suit grantmaking foundations who hesitate to fund individual films. With Reel South, “Grantmakers have seasoned curators vetting films that you can bet will be seen by millions of people.”

At a Glance

  • Organization Type: Public television collaboration
  • Operating Budget: approximately $500,000 per season
  • Key Funders: National Endowment for the Arts, South Arts
  • Contact: Rachel Raney, Director of National Productions and Original Content, UNC-TV Public Media North Carolina, rraney (at) unctv.org

Related Links


About Wyncote Foundation

The Wyncote Foundation’s Public Media and Journalism Program is a place-based philanthropy in Philadelphia that works to further a thriving public media ecosystem that is vital to animating and sustaining democracy’s public sphere.

About the Author

Sarah Lutman writes about people and organizations making journalism more democratic

Sarah Lutman is founder of 8 Bridges Workshop, a St. Paul-based consulting and program development firm, and serves as senior advisor to Wyncote Foundation’s Public Media and Journalism Program.