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.