Posts about publicmedia

Trouble for NPR

It looks like bad news for Public Radio and its fans: CEO Ken Stern has been forced out. It appears that the stations did him in as they gun for his digital strategy because they fear the internet will hurt them.

Well guess, what, local yokels, hate to tell you this but… You’re screwed! You bet the internet is going to hurt you. There is no need for you as a distribution arm anymore. Unless you add valuable local content and service to the mix, you might as well tear down the tower now. Or in a year or two. Getting rid of Stern et al won’t get rid of reality.

This is the problem I see in all media: They think that protection is a strategy. It’s not.

The story on NPR’s site explains:

In addition, Stern led a major push in digital ventures. It stemmed from his often-repeated conviction that the old way of doing business wouldn’t work. Other diversions — such as cable television, online news sources, iPods, books on tape, video games and social networks — are siphoning audiences away from traditional broadcasters, including public radio stations. Stern argued that NPR shows and news and cultural segments increasingly had to be available on whatever platforms people wanted to hear them.

NPR is considered a leader in news and music podcasts. And under Stern it has also struck deals to deliver its content new ways, such as through cell phones.

But that push has aggravated anxiety among local stations about their relationship to the network. NPR member stations rely heavily on popular shows, particularly Morning Edition, to generate donations. But if people can listen to them through NPR’s Web site or even their own cell phones, why would they stay loyal to stations still reliant on pledge drives?

Interviews with eight current and former public radio officials suggest Stern failed to convince local stations — and especially their representatives on the board — that he saw a clear and healthy role for them in the digital future.

That’s because there may not be one.

I said that at NPR sometime ago when I visited with other graybeards of the social media world, giving them our solicited advice. Here was my prognostication then about local radio. It was crystal clear to me at the time that the stations — especially those that served only as distribution outlets — had no viable future. I advised that they should figure out how to shift the local stations to new roles in their communities. I loved the NPR strategy — Stern’s strategy — of getting maximum distribution for programming. That, after all, is also part of the mission of a publicly supported broadcaster. Isn’t it?

And there are other models for local support. When I wrote about reverse syndication as a model for national coverage in newspapers, served up by the New York Times and its competitors, John Proffitt suggested that this could be a model for NPR.

I’ve begun to promote a similar idea, specifically in the public media world. Local public TV and public radio stations today pay hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions to NPR, PBS, APTS, PRI, APM and other content providers (with NPR and PBS being the most obvious). This has stifled the local public media companies’ ability to produce local content. They blow all their cash paying the networks.

Reverse syndication in this world, to my thinking, is to have the networks sell their content to the public (ads, membership revenue) and give all the content to the local media outlets for free — with the caveat that embedded ads pass through with the content. Local outlets could then produce local media and still pick from the best national media and arrange it into locally-relevant streams/blocks on the web, on transmitters, etc.

This would also clean up the nasty co-dependent relationships between the local stations and the networks, as it would clarify the roles of each.

That’s the kind of thinking NPR and its stations desperately need. Not protectionism of the past.

: Here‘s Robert Patterson, who brought me to NPR, on today’s news.

: LATER: I don’t understand the politics of NPR that went into this. And I know there are visionary stations doing good and new things. I just fear that defining radio around towers and their location — like defining newspapers around presses and theirs — is dangerous.

So let’s get a discussion going on what NPR can and should do now for the future. What’s your vision? I’ll pipe in more later.

: LATER STILL: See the comment by Dennis Haarsager, interim CEO, below.

Seldom do you get it from the horse’s mouth, and this will be short, but go to my blog sometime tomorrow and I’ll publish a longer version. Until mid-day yesterday, I was chair of the NPR board, and since yesterday afternoon, I’m the new interim CEO. The scenario you outlined in your opening paragraph is dead wrong and so was the first part of the Washington Post story today. It’s what happens when speculators become sources. If station management wanted to kill off or slow down emerging media, their board picked the wrong boy. Read my blog archives for the past four years. More to come Saturday at Regards, Dennis Haarsager

: A NOTE TO DENNIS: I would suggest that NPR and you should have announced this in your blogs and engaged in a conversation about this with your supporters — not just your fans, of course, but the people who give you money. You handed this story over to the press and you left your real board — the public — in the dark. The sooner that conversation starts, the better, because there are people who like NPR out here — and have ideas for its future — who are worried.

A million C-SPANs

I say we need to create a million C-SPANs made by us, the citizens, using video to open up government to inspection by all.

C-SPAN itself is, oddly, one of the most jealous protectors of copyright anywhere. That’s why they demanded that Stephen Colbert’s speech before the press corps of Washington be pulled down from online. That is why The Times writes today about confusion in Congress about what representatives can and cannot put on their blogs. The short answer is: government feeds belong to us all, C-SPAN feeds belong to them. So Nancy Pelosi was in her rights to put up speeches from the floor on her blog; that came from the taxpayers’ cameras. Yet as The Times points out:

But last week, as it happens, C-Span did contact the speaker’s office to have it take down a different clip from her blog — one shot by C-Span’s cameras at a House Science and Technology Committee hearing on global warming where Ms. Pelosi testified, Mr. Daly said. . . .

“We are structurally burdened, in terms of people’s perception, because we are the only network that has such a big chunk of public domain material,” said Bruce Collins, the corporate vice president and general counsel of C-Span. He estimated that 5 to 15 percent of C-Span’s programming is from the House and Senate floor, and thus publicly available.

“It is perfectly understandable to me that people would be confused,” he said. “They say, ‘When a congressman says something on the floor it is public domain, but he walks down the street to a committee hearing or give a speech and it is not public domain?’ “

Thus the work of our government is being trapped by C-SPAN’s cameras and business models. That may be their right but it doesn’t serve our rights. So we need to blow this up.

If Firedoglake could go and liveblog the hell out of the Libby trial, so can more of us go and tape meetings of our government and distribute that online, around C-SPAN.

We can do this not just at a national but also at a state and local level. I suggested that this is a role for local public radio (here and here) and also for local newspapers: Unleash an army of us with audio and video recorders to capture public meetings and then host what we come up with and give us the tools to edit these recordings down to their essence.

The next time you go to your school board meeting, take along a video camera and put it up on YouTube. And watch how your elected representatives behave then.

A day at NPR

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my day at NPR. Smart people, but then that’s obvious. Andy Carvin, our host, live-blogs the morning and I think he’ll put up videos from the afternoon. Dinner remains undocumented and that’s a good thing, after a few glasses of Italian-joint plonk. A few random notes:

* Maria Thomas, the impressive head of, explained the history of the organization and its relationship with member stations. It was the stations that decided, in 1971, that they needed an NPR. And when NPR almost went belly-up in 1983, it was the stations that rescued it.

I think the reality of today is that it’s NPR’s turn to rescue the stations. But I also wonder whether they can afford such loyalty. The value of broadcast distribution is bound to continue to diminish and some portion of the 300-odd NPR affiliates are mostly distributors, rather than creators. So the question is what an NPR station should become. Like newspapers, it seems they need to find their fate in being local. But what this is is not entirely clear.

* Rob Paterson, who generously put this event together (I say generously because it’s amazing that a consultant brings in other outside voices), said that after a big event across NPR and its member stations, involving 1,000 people, it became clear that direct relationships with listeners are inevitable and desirable. That’s a big deal; it’s a shift of control.

* Fascinating demographics of public broadcasting. In very rough numbers, PBS viewers’ average is is 60ish; NPRs is 50ish; is 40ish; and the podcasts are 30ish.

* NPR has an operating budget of $140 million with 750 employees. By comparison, last I checked, Entertainment Weekly, a single magazine, had a budget more than double that.

* NPR is working on a new show with Michel Martin and they’re doing that — this is new for them — in public, via the Rough Cuts blog.

* Matt Martinez is a producer working on another new show, a news show aimed at youth, and I liked hearing him say that what they do has to be heard and found not just via NPR and its stations and web site but where the people are (read: YouTube and blogs).

He also said that in this new effort, they believe that the show never ends. The stories continue. Amen. It’s a process.

* Many nice lines from David Weinberger. My favorite: “There is an inverse relationship between control and trust.” The more you hand over control, the more trust you earn. True of media, business, government. He also said that trust is not a goal but an enabler: if you have trust, you can do more.

* Many nice lines from Doc Searls. My favorite was about the “because effect” of open source. Because there is Linux and such, we can have Amazon, Google, et al. This is how I look at my efforts to preach the benefits of an open-source ad marketplace. If we had it, because we have it, many things would bloom.

* Many nice lines from Jay Rosen. My favorite came in response to Michel Martin on the difficulty of dealing with controversy — that is, with speaking bluntly in divisive matters. “NPR,” he said, “has to maintain its political innocence and sometimes that comes into conflict with the truth.”

* Many nice lines from Euan Semple, who quoted someone when we discussed getting pilot projects that what you want are “Trojan mice.”

* A highlight for me was meeting Zadi Diaz, star and cocreator of JetSet. She’s one of the people reinventing TV and she had much good advice for bit, old media.

National Public Whatsis

I’m headed to Washington to spend a day and a half with NPR and some of my favorite thinkers-out-loud: David Weinberger, Doc Searls, Jay Rosen, Robert Paterson, Euan Semple, and more. We’re there to brainstorm how NPR should play in the new world. Paterson has been doing good work with them for sometime and they’ve done many forward-thinking things (like freely podcasting their best shows). So one wonders why we’re there. But I’ve seen before that those who are the farthest ahead try not to think they’re far ahead so they will get farther ahead. And I certainly wasn’t going to argue with this opportunity for good conversation.

They’ve said the meetings are bloggable, so I’ll start by blogging some of my notes going in. I’ll find out they’re already doing half of this and the other half is wrong. But I’m eager to hear your ideas and dreams for NPR, so here’s my fodder:

* NPR is not radio. If I tell newspapers they have to stop thinking on paper, so I’ll argue that NPR must throw off the limits of its medium. And I don’t just mean that the can go multimedia, adding photos or videos to their sound. I mean changing the culture, not thinking like a radio network anymore so thewy can see the options the internet opens up to work in every appropriate medium with entirely new kinds of content, from TV to data bases. So change the name: It’s National Public Media, except that Doc will scold me that this is more than media. It’s National Public Whatsis.

* NPR should be a network of networks. No longer limited by the clock and the tower, they can explode with new content, new audiences, new communities, new service. And they don’t have to produce and own them all; they can enable more networks to grow. A BBC News exec said recently (will find the link later) that the Beeb must start new services and brands to serve people in the mass-of-niches. I’d argue that they also need to enable others to start theirs and then to have a loose network confederation that can share content, promotion, knowledge, technology, and in some cases revenue. I am not arguing that NPR should water itself down. It should still be a meritocracy; it should still mean — as they like to say — “NPRness.” But this also does not mean that they should be just one brand. They can link many brands.

* NPR can be a training ground for great media. They should share their knowledge, working with other organizations that are already trying to do this, and with journalism schools (come on over to CUNY). In an ever-expanding network of networks, it is in everyone’s interest to make better media and NPR can help people do that.

* NPR should add to its mission finding and nurturing new talent. An NPR affiliate program director said at the Public Radio Program Directors’ confab two years ago that she can now try out talent online instead of in one slot on Sunday nights on her station. Now she can also find talent online. That should mean not just on-air and reporting talent but also cultural talent. Help the community discover its worthy stars.

* NPR should realize that it doesn’t need to build a community, it already has a community — and a damned smart and interesting one. The question to ask is how to enable them to share what they know and like, how to open up the windows to all the people gathered around NPR so they can talk with each other. I want to know what entertainment they’d recommend. I want to know what they know about their towns. Is that Gather? I think it’s something else, but I’m not sure what it is yet. Thus the brainstorming.

* NPR should work in collaboration with its public on journalism and culture. Jay Rosen can speak to that with his project. NPR and its stations can assign listeners to gather information and sound. They can take contributions that are directed toward getting specific projects done and programs made. If anyone should be taking the NewAssignment model and adapting it, it’s NPR.

* NPR can become an agent of open education: Teachers and students record lectures from universities and classrooms and NPR serves them from this new non-radio network.

* NPR can become the agent that helps people open up government with microphones. Why not tell every local citizen that they should record their government meetings — school boards, town boards, any public meeting — and NPR will host the podcasts? No, none of those recordings will get a large audience, but they don’t need to anymore. All they need is the interested audience. (I can’t go to my school board meetings because, ironically, I have kids, but I would listen to them — better yet, an edited podcast of them.) And by putting all this in a public place, reporters — professional and amateur — can dig up the news in them. And public officials will work in public. This is extreme openness.

* Help local affiliates become hyperlocal with devices like those above. This is a huge challenge for NPR as the value of its affiliates’ distribution diminishes in a world of ubiquitous distribution, podcasts, and all that. Local stations can fill in the void in local reporting in radio that, frankly, has always been there (even before Clear Channel). They can’t afford to do this with staff but they can enable the community to gather and share news.

* NPR can put up its full reporting so that people can remix it and find new stories of interest to new audiences. Look at the example of Frontline putting up transcripts of its cutting-room-floor interviews so we can mine more news there. So much of NPR’s reporting is lost to the clock. Once such a repository exists, others can contribute to it.

I’m eager to hear what they see as their next frontiers ad what you think they should be.

Exploding public media

Publicly supported media — the BBC, NPR, and the CBC — are all going through efforts to reexamine and reorganize how they work and what they are. Here‘s the BBC’s DG Mark Thompson shaking things up; here is an outline a process of change in National Public Radio (with interesting blogging by the consultant helping them through it); and here‘s a discussion about the proper role of the Canadian Broadcasting Company in a new media world.

Of course, the upheaval overtaking for-profit media is not going to exempt other media just because they get money from taxes or contributions, though such sure and steady sources of income can blind the bosses or delay the inevitable. (I say that’s the same problem with the blind faith some in the newspaper industry are giving to private vs. public ownership; the business realities and inevitabilities are no different even if the money’s dumber.)

So give credit to these publicly supported institutions for recognizing the necessity of change. And as we watch them, keep in mind that we may see the birth of more publicly supported media in this new world. Later this week, I’ll tell you about an exciting project a friend is working on to support journalism with the money and effort of the public. I think we’ll see many such efforts. As we grapple with new business models for news, I think that public support will not be a panacea (any more than private ownership) but will be one of many solutions to the puzzle of media in an open world. Now that we, the people, have more voice and control, I think we will be willing to take more responsibility to support media that matter.

National Public Radio faces both vexing challenges and great opportunities. NPR and its affiliated stations can now broadcast their good work to many more people, with NPR going international and stations going national. They can find new talent online (if it works for NBC…); when I spoke to the Public Broadcasting Program Directors’ confab last year, one visionary station exec said that she used to be able to try out new talent only at 11p on Sundays but now she can try them out on the web. This means they can discover and promote more talent and work with it in new ways — collaboratively, that is. And when you have a surplus of good stuff, the web means that you are not trapped in a 24-hour clock. They also don’t see their work die after it is broadcast; now I can listen to On the Media or Brian Lehrer anytime I want, which means I listen more often.

The greatest challenge, I think, is what to do with local affiliates. The large ones that make good programming, like WNYC, will be fine for all the reasons above. But the small ones that are really just channels for distribution out and contributions in are in trouble. I don’t know what the fate of a local affiliate — for commercial or public broadcast — will be when the internet is a better means of distribution. I’m tempted to give them the same advice I give newspapers: Go local. But some of these stations are tiny and don’t have the resources. It’s a hard problem.

Current, the paper about public broadcast in the U.S., reports on the changes coming to NPR. Amid the organizationspeak, I see these priorities:

* First, they want to work hard to strengthen local news. That is a smart solution — not the only one needed — to the local affiliate problem: Make them more valuable. As other radio news dies, fill the vacuum. They’re spending $600,000 on this.

* Next, they are working on the Newsroom of the Future. Well, who isn’t? The goal is the same: getting news online, involving online in planning, and better integrating local through international efforts. Bill Marimow, NPR’s VP for news, talks about that here. He says:

We still have a huge way to go, but there’s now a real collaboration between every nook and cranny of the digital division and of the news division. The goal in the long term is to make sure that everything we produce for broadcast has an online, podcast, cellular phone component to it.

Note that the BBC’s Thompson is combining broadcast and digital production. That’s the next step.

Asked whether NPR will end up competing with newspapers, Marimow said they’ll more likely be complementary, for NPR will have the foreign correspondents they don’t have. And, I’d argue, newspapers will have the local depth radio doesn’t have. They need to link to each other. As I said below, they don’t own networks; they’re in networks.

* They are working on a new digital distribution infrastructure. I’m not sure exactly what that means but it acknowledges that the internet will be the means of distribution for public radio. It already is.

* They want to create a ” ‘trusted space’ for listeners to visit and have a hand in creating.” Emphasis mine. I think that’s important and if they mean it, a powerful key to the future of public media.

They admit they’re not sure what it is. Their blueprint document says: “We have an opportunity to embrace, promote and encourage connections among the audience around shared civic goals based on our mission. To accomplish this, we will need to curate content and provide tools that enable individuals to engage in making the world a better place.” NPR exec Dana Davis Rehm confesses: “We don’t know all the characteristics of a trusted space. It’s more of an ideal we’re trying to achieve.”

I’d think of it this way: Dave Winer has complained that when he gives money to NPR, he loses any control over it, any voice in at least suggesting how it is used. I think that people willl not only want that voice and some measure of control but also will be willing to contribute their own creation to a “trusted space” network. If NPR can enable that to happen, it’s big.

And that is the real question at hand: What is the role of public media in an era of public control of media? How can the public be more involved in the network (and thus support it more)? And how can the network point to and support the good work of the public?

: Here, via PaidContent, is the NPR blueprint (PDF). And here is blogging consultant Robert Paterson on the process that led to this in NPR and here is his very good explanation of what NPR is, really, and the challenges it faces. Here is John Bracken of the MacArthur Foundation (a big supporter of NPR) talking about the needs of this network of the future. And here is a wiki for the Digital Distribution Consortium that is working on that new digital platform for NPR>

: Now see this story in the Toronto Star talking about the debate on what the CBC should become. Historically, part of the raison d’etre for the CBC was to give Canadians a voice when their voice was in danger of being drowned out by ours, down here. Content regulation in all Canadian media also addressed that. But now everyone’s voice can be heard. So what should Canada’s public media be? Michael Geist, a law professor specializing in the internet, writes (my emphases):

A plethora of proposals — including various recommendations that the CBC become a commercial-free zone, a pay-TV service, or that it leave sports programming to the private broadcasters — have emerged from the latest round of discussions. While most CBC debates tend to focus on the ideal broadcasting model, the future of the public broadcaster may actually lie in rethinking the meaning of “public”, rather than redefining the model of broadcaster. . . .

If the CBC can no longer claim to be a unique home to Canadian programming and perspectives, then perhaps its future lies in transforming itself from Canada’s public broadcaster to the broadcaster of the Canadian public, telling our stories and providing our news from the bottom up, rather than the top down. . . .

Indeed, public broadcasters in other countries are already reinventing themselves. The British Broadcasting Corp.’s Creative Archive allows users to download clips of BBC factual programming for non-commercial use, where they can be stored, manipulated and shared. Similarly, the BBC Backstage program provides data, resources, and support for users who want to build on BBC material.

The BBC also encourages civic journalism, inviting the public to contribute photos and first-person accounts of breaking stories. . . .

The Danish Broadcasting Corp., which already features hundreds of hours of archival material on its website, recently announced plans to provide content to the Wikipedia online project, thereby enabling users to build on its materials.

Later this month officials in the Netherlands intend to unveil plans to digitize 700,000 hours of feature films, documentaries, TV shows, and radio programs. This remarkable project will transfer an incredible array of historical materials to the public. . . .

[T]he CBC would do well to innovatively collaborate with Canadians to bring their creativity to a wider broadcast audience.

Yes, that’s a good definition: Public broadcasting is our broadcasting.