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.

  • The key is: “we will need to curate content…”

    Newspapers, radio, television, etc. have built their businesses on the assumption that they control access to the limited distribution range or bandwidth provided by the technologies they relied upon (paper and EM Frequency). Today, the Internet competes not with the newspapers or the broadcasters, but with the technologies they exploit. By providing for effectively unlimited, geography free distribution of information, the Internet invalidates the old models and changes the importance of roles in the system.

    The media has traditionally focused on being the gatekeepers who determined what content was distributed. In the future, they will focus more on being the guides who help you find which content you will consume. (i.e. they will have to focus more on the curatorial function and less on distribution.)

    This reminds me of a quote I had in an article by J.D. Lasica almost 10 years ago (Nov 1996): “The gate is gone, thus, the gatekeepers need new jobs. What we need today fits much more the image of a filter or a guide. Someone who can walk us through the forest of information and show us which are the really interesting trees.”

    bob wyman

  • Jeff – Sorry to use your comments section for this, and please do delete this after reading, but I’ve been trying quite hard to reach you with no success. Have you received my e-mails?

  • John Davidson

    remind me one more time why tax dollars should be supporting PBS or their affiliates

  • I like NPR and PBS, but I don’t feel that it should be sponsored by the government. Both of those networks could exist without government funding: PBS would have been funded forever if they would just get royalties on sesame street dolls and books.

    With the emerence of vlogging and sites like yourtubes, there is no longer a need for governement funding of media because we already have true “Public” broadcasting.

  • Radioguy

    Consider that government funding makes up a smaller and smaller amount of the bugets at PBS and especiall NPR and other public radio operations.

    Now consider the quality of the programming you get for that small amount of federal funding.

    Sesame Street and Morning Edition (among countless others programs) have been THE quality standard in broadcasting in their respective genres.

    The internets and user generated contect are great – but I would not (yet) trust them with my child’s time or as a primary news source.

    Those of you who support public broadcasting – thanks!

    BTW – I’m pretty sure PBS does get a cut of Sesame Workshop sales.

  • John Davidson

    it’s not just the state’s direct funding of PBS/NPR (which includes significant moneys to local affiliates), it’s the state’s endorsement of a closed market. The budgets are the easy part, especially for children’s programming where the production cost is nearly always covered by licensing and off-channel income. There’s simply no reason that the public broadcasting entities should enjoy the priviledge of government protection. If there is adequate demand for certain public broadcasting products, they can and should be supported by the market. There’s no evidence suggesting that a government protection results in better programming or higher quality, certainly not in today’s market. The blind faith we have given public broadcasting has run its course but instead of challenging the necessity (or Constitutionality) of public broadcasting, we have to talk about exploding it or what its role is? We’re avoiding the elephant in the room, which is: why exactly do we need it at all. The internet (and other technological advances) has proven that the good work of the public can easily happen without the government endorsing it or holding its hand in the marketplace.

  • Ted10s

    If public broadcasting is to be freed of public (read, tax-based) funding and if it “can and should be supported by the market,” it must be allowed to function normally in that market. Federal law prohibits pubcasting from selling advertising (yes, the underwriting you hear – and especially that you see on PTV – is a sort of advertising, but if you read the law, you’ll see that pubcasting is hamstrung by severe restrictions on language that make underwriting irrelevant to the vast majority of potential advertisers). Your tax dollars are buying you a respite from the abundance of commercials on other channels, and from the nature of those commercials.

    As for “enjoy(ing) the priviledge [sic] of government protection,” I don’t know what that protection consists of. Except that pubcasters don’t have to pay the FCC filing fees for renewals, license changes, etc. that commercial broadcasters do.

  • John,
    You need public broadcasting because there is still a theoretical space where it is important to provide programming that has a certain standard that also isn’t TOTALLY directed by how much money it makes. The space where the programming is for you, not for the advertiser who is paying to reach you…public broadcasting cuts out the middleman.

    Government has to help pay for a portion of the total expense such maintaining balanced budgets are possible. In the US, that “cost” is approximately $1.25 per person to support the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In the UK, the cost is approximately $120 per person to support the BBC. I’d like to think the best possibility lies somewhere in the middle…especially since most news operations are eliminating jobs. This further erodes the ability for common Americans to really know what’s going on since fewer & fewer reporters are around to do the investigative work. While it may be true that the “truth is out there” on the web somewhere, even if you know where to look, what is the likelyhood that you are going to regularly go to the effort? Is this something the majority of the populus would do, or maybe would it be better to create a common “news aegis” in public broadcasting where a baseline starting point could be maintained.

    I would hope that news on public broadcasting would not be the only source people would use as their sole window to the world, but since it has been independently proven to be the most informative place to actually UNDERSTAND what is going on, it is vital to continue to cooperatively fund public broadcasting (listeners who contribute, businesses who underwrite, grants, & local, state, & federal governments).

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