I wrote the following in response to the request from the Station Resource Group (SRG) below. It synthesizes several years of thinking and discussion about these topics with other members of the Public Service Publisher group, especially Dennis Haarsager. All these issues and more are sure to be discussed at the upcoming IMA Conference in Boston Feb. 20-24.
Comments are welcome and encouraged.
Thanks :: SH
On Feb 12, 2007, at 12:44 PM, Terry Clifford wrote:
Later this week, about fourteen executives from public radio programming
and distribution organizations and major content-producing stations will
gather to discuss the feasibility of a shared digital distribution
The concept has been around for some time, and the subject has been a
hot topic for about a year or so.
We would appreciate getting your most recent thinking on this. Nothing
long - the equivalent of a few paragraphs. It doesn't need to be a
comprehensive piece - just the most recent bullet points that come to
the forefront for you. Especially given the long-term efforts all of
you have made to contribute to this subject.
We're also just asking for comments that reflect your own personal
Thanks in advance.
Station Resource Group
6935 Laurel Avenue #202
Takoma Park, MD 20912
Thank you for inviting my comments on this issue. I'm very gratified to see serious meetings like this one happening at last. It means we are past the denial stage and ready to plan for change.
A shared infrastructure for digital distribution of public radio programming is a necessary technical component of what needs to be done, but fails to frame the problem broadly enough. Distribution is the easy part. Business and policy issues are more difficult, and more critical to success.
What we need is a comprehensive online service platform that joins together producers (independent, station and network-based), stations, national program distributors, a new class of public service web affiliates, and the public -- for the mutual benefit of all participants.
What I'm suggesting is not some nebulous "vision" but a rational, practical, co-operative method of expanding and modernizing the historic mission of public service broadcasting, while fully embracing the new possibilities offered by online delivery.
If the effort you are meeting to plan falls short of this — or worse, is designed only to advance the interests of the current system stakeholders — I believe it will fail, not only to protect the current franchises, but to gain critical mass.
Public broadcasting can no longer trade on spectrum scarcity and its former monopoly on public service programming in the abundance economy of the web: it must create a world class, competitive service offering based on its mission, values and content.
From a business perspective, there is a one-time opportunity to substantially increase the pathetic 9% level of voluntary listener support now considered normal via an integrated national + local subscription offering, along with a much expanded range of free programming. To be successful, it must offer an overwhelming user value proposition.
To achieve this, the core business relationships between the existing stakeholders must evolve and change. The relative percentages of total system income from tax, grant, underwriter, and listener funding must also change.
Developing a powerful new online subscription incentive will strengthen the system at its core relationship: between publc service media providers and the public. It will provide the only realistic source of new income, at levels that are potentially revolutionary. Only 2 million new subscribers could provide over $200 Million yearly — the equivalent of a Kroc gift every year.
It will also enhance the value of investment in the system by institutional funders. With government funding a political crap shoot, we should not depend on it. Enhanced membership incentives allow us to insulate ourselves against losing it completely.
DESIGN A SERVICE
It all comes down to creating practical services.
To paraphrase a computer industry maxim ("Real men ship.") :
"Real service providers create services."
The place to start is by specifying the levels and types of new services to be offered to the public and to affiliates — services that go far beyond the embarrassing, chaotic mess of balkanized web sites, partial and incompatible services we see today.
In its place should be an integrated platform with an enterprise class infrastructure that supports:
1. COMPREHENSIVE DIGITAL DELIVERY (streams and downloads) of an expanded array of programming and archival content through station web sites and large national portal sites, including NPR.org, Yahoo, Google, AOL, MSN, et al, a new class of non-commercial public service web affiliates, and eventually, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast who offer content bundling incentives to their customers.
2. NATIONAL MEMBERSHIP for end users, promoted and sold by stations as well as the national portals. The national membership gives listeners access to an expanded content offering, archives and special services. Income would be shared by participants via an equitable system of revenue splits, commissions, royalties and fees, to incentivise all participants. The challenge of harmonizing local and national memberships must be met on both technical and policy levels.
3. TIERED SERVICE OFFERINGS: including free on-air and online, selective paid access, and subscription/national membership.
4. USER ACCOUNTS: the system must scale to support tens of millions of active users as well as tens of thousands of suppliers, affiliates, underwriters and copyright owners, and support comprehensive personal profiles and preferences. The days of a 91% anonymous audience are over: a public radio membership should signify common values and willing engagement with a trusted service of incontestable value.
5. EASY CUSTOMIZATION to allow stations of all sizes to expand their traditional editorial and local service roles without having to achieve full web development competencies. The same system would allow web-only affiliates to create custom service offerings: essentially, a much expanded syndication system for public service audio content.
6. INTEGRATED NATIONAL UNDERWRITING opportunities across the entire system, with a central sales office and links to online advertising networks like Google where appropriate. Many of the smaller advertisers that Google enables are a natural fit on a public service platform. National underwriting income would be shared.
7. UNIFIED PROMOTION AND MARKETING: an integrated service platform is a vehicle that can lift all boats, but to do this the system must agree on common elements of branding, language and service offerings for the benefit of all supply-side participants.
The unique value propositions underlying this offering are the public service mission, programming quality standards, and the goodwill and support the system has earned in the last 60 years. If we do not effectively leverage these values, Yahoo, Google, Real Networks, Apple, Microsoft and others will create far broader digital distribution services on their own terms, and public service producers seeking national and international audiences — including NPR — ultimately will have no choice but to join them.
In the wise words of Mike Homer of Open Media Network: "there is no reason why public broadcasting should give up a significant portion of its income from users to any other service provider." Amazingly, Mike has already financed the development of a significant portion of the necessary technical infrastructure to deliver these services with OMN, and has offered it to the system for free. If we don't take him up on the offer, OMN will become another competitor.
WHAT IF WE DON'T?
If we don't agree to work together to seize this opportunity with meaningful cooperative action, some of the broad consequences are already predictable:
- a slow decline in system revenues as new competitors arrive that will force consolidation of the weaker stations into regional networks at the expense of true local service
- loss of hundreds of millions in potential new income per year at the expense of system independence from political and corporate influence
- relegation to 'content vendor' status in the digital media ecology of the near future.
This is the turning point. We seize the day...or we suffer the consequences.
:: Stephen Hill