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 NPR.org, 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; NPR.org 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.