Yesterday I spent about an hour pulling together and reading all the blogs written by public radio people or about public broadcasting into one folder on my Bloglines account. As a result, I've acquired an overview of the state of the things as seen through the writings of Dennis Haarsager, Rob Paterson, Todd Mundt, Mark Fuerst, Current, Jake Shapiro, Andy Carvin, John Sutton, Sue Schardt and yours truly.
By definition, most of these bloggers are the activists in the system. Each have their own perspective, prejudices and goals. In aggregate you could say they represent the progressive edge of the system feeling its way into the future. In stark contrast, the power brokers within the legacy system don't blog and keep their communications private and proprietary — which tells you something about the difference between the old and new cultures. Those who are colonizing the net operate more with the ethos of the net: open communication and transparency.
In trying to get a feeling for the state of the transition between broadcast media and digital media in the public service area, you need to look not only at what the progressives are saying — you need to look at what the establishment is actually doing...or not doing. Add it up, and you get the impression of a ship inching forward in the dark.
The most significant statement emerging from the activity of the last few years is Dennis Haarsager's "Public media content online: calling the question." In this epic post Dennis reviews a dozen different efforts to respond to the digital distribution challenge since 2000. Bottom line? We're still nowhere, at least nowhere significant, despite six years of talk. Below I'll condense the main points of Dennis's post, both to get an overview and to comment.
What's the question?
In his post Dennis says that one result of all the talk is that there is at last! a shared feeling of urgency, based on the aggregate disruption from Internet radio, satellite radio and downward trends in listenership, fundraising, and production money within public broadcasting. He also reminds us that public media content distribution is happening without us, and lists seven significant new initiatives already operating in public mediaspace, including C-Span.org, Conversations Network, Democracy player, OurMedia, the Internet Archive and Open Media Network.
Dennis then takes on some of the models that are being pursued. Of these the most pervasive has been the idea of some kind of integrated content delivery network for public media, or CDN. This is the model that NPR, PRI and APM (read: the public radio establishment) have been pursuing with their Digital Distribution Consortium (DDC) project.
He also levels some pointed criticisms at a number of rationales that are common to many of these efforts: the tendency of proposers to position them as "servant to their legacy services," the corresponding focus on unilateral services for radio or television, rather than "collaborative" services that include all media types and sources from across the public media spectrum; and finally, the promise of new revenue as one of the driving reasons for creating new media services.
Developing these points under the heading Building a CDN only to super-serve our audiences risks failure, Dennis effectively criticizes the various plans offered to date by pointing out that the web is a new medium with its own rules, and a single medium CDN (one organized around radio or television content, stations or networks) does not respect how people use the web (they use search, recommendations, referrals, heuristics, and syndication/aggregation to find media by subject, not by type.) These truths are apparent to everyone who uses the web intensively, but still seem a bit shocking when stated this baldly in the face of persistent efforts to ignore them.
Dennis then heads for the moral high ground under the headline We should hold mission high among the benefits of doing a public media CDN. Who could disagree? In fact, I thought this was more or less a common feature of all proposals to date, but it seems to be a matter of emphasis.
He goes on to comment that the revenues generated by a presumptive public media CDN would be unequally distributed among the players in the public media system we know today, pointing out a criticism I have also made of the DDC proposal — that it can only produce substantial financial benefits for the currently popular, large audience national program brands, and not for the small producers or stations. In fact under the DDC revenue estimates from their proposed centralized underwriting system, even these shows would not realize anywhere near enough new income from online underwriting to replace losses from the legacy system if it starts to decline or crash.
The heart of the economics issue is this paragraph:
Success will require that most players in the system believe they are benefiting from a CDN, not just the content owners at the fat end of the power curve. Most local stations and small independent producers know they aren't going to make enough new money online to shore up their declining legacy revenue. But even though the direct revenue from new media sources is compelling and benchmarks exist, relatively few players will share in the benefits in a compelling way -- at least if you just look at payments to producers. The potential of revenue from retailer roles for stations is untested, without benchmarks (arguably, income from NPR productions or from PBS distribution might benefit stations more democratically), and likely less than stations achieve by retailing national programming to members and underwriters. The distribution of direct revenue is likely to vary in significant ways from the distribution of needs, so I think we need to look beyond direct revenue to other benefits.
What are the other benefits? The ball finally lands on the concept of local service and the relationship between stations and their communities:
So if there is a misdistribution of salable on-demand content versus financial need, one thing that's not maldistributed is the connection that exists between stations and their communities. Every station, especially in radio, operates as the Godzilla of community service, dwarfing the delivery of contact hours with our true competitors -- other non-profits, governmental and educational institutions in our communities. In public radio, not quite half of our revenue comes from other than listener-sensitive sources — sources that give us money because of our social or educational mission. We've focused for years — rightly — on monetizing our listener-sensitive and viewer-sensitive revenue, but the archival value of new media distribution is, I think, a very powerful tool for improving (and in some cases just keeping) revenue from tax-based and foundation sources. It's here that the distribution of benefits becomes more equitable.
This is worth pondering, because understanding what Dennis is saying not only requires an understanding of the income structure of the current public radio/television system, but also requires a crystal ball for the future.
What is the mission of public broadcasting?
We should probably have a conference just to clarify that in the wake of the Internet, but for now and in a few words, public service, expressed in programming plus the attendant public-facing activities of the local and national institutions.
If the Internet is ultimately going to level all media types by subsuming them into a common platform as web multimedia (see VOX and The New Gravity), then Dennis is arguing that it will also level all types of public service media, essentially putting media organizations in direct competition with other NPOs for the attention of the public. In fact this is already happening, as all the major NPOs are now producing blogs, podcasts, video feeds and web content to promote and deliver on their own missions.
[For example, one of my favorites from here in San Francisco, the Long Now Foundation. They produce and record public lectures of very high quality material, then put them online as seminars. They're building an archive that reflects their educational mission.They've even started a membership program, just like public broadcasting.]
Dennis's second point — that just under half public broadcasting's current aggregate income does not come from listeners, but from taxes and foundation grants tied to our social or educational mission — leads him to see the potential of new media from a perspective that no one has previously expressed: as a means to ensure not only the continuity, but the potential for expansion of revenue from tax-based and foundation sources.
This comes down to what seems to me a false set of choices: either offer new media for free and monetize it via advertising/underwriting (the DDC "solution") or, use it as a lever to obtain tax, foundation and institutional funding. I think both kinds of support can and will co-exist, and that the real potential for monetizing new media services — by which I mean integrated, aggregated platforms that support subscription relationships directly with the audience — has still not been fully appreciated.
I keep coming back to this point not because I'm just that pig-headed, but because 1) integrated service platforms offer substantial benefits for the public, and 2) even the most casual estimates of the income potential of subscription services place them in a completely different category than the kind of wish fulfillment that passes for vision in public media.
The most brilliant example of this I've ever seen is Wick Rowland's fascinating piece in the Feb. 12, 2007 issue of CURRENT "Shadows in the Corridors: A Capitol Hill Day dialogue."
In a kind of literary tour de force (at least for CURRENT) Rowland puts the truth about public broadcasting's position in the political food chain in the mouth of a "senior committee staffer" who delivers the message in terms so stark that even the most dewy-eyed optimist for more tax-based support has to wonder if it could ever happen in 21st century U.S. of A.
I've never met the author (he's the president of Colorado Public Television) but his words have the distinctive tang of reality. Despite the odds, he seems to be hopeful that under the Democrats, a major reform of tax-based support for public media and what he calls the "policy nexus" — "the entire inter-linked regime of national media and culture policy — of communications law, federal regulation and money" — could be accomplished.
It's a terrific insight, and his article functions as a high level call to arms for the lobbyists who tend "the nexus." (Obviously the sequel to The Matrix...) I ardently wish them well, but you know? I wouldn't want to bet on it, especially when there are alternatives that can produce far more revenue without anyone — much less fickle species like legislators and bureaucrats — having to get in line.
I've tried to develop this theme since the beginning of this blog, so I won't reiterate any of it here, except to say that really, WE NEED TO DO ALL THESE THINGS AT ONCE if we hope to materially change the position public media occupies in American, and now, international life.
If we don't, we will have to be satisfied to continue to exist in a kind of low/mid income twilight zone: loved by many, ridiculed or hated by others, "independently poor" or the neutered pet of regulatory, government and foundation decision makers.
And just think: if the conservative Republicans were still on their game, the future of the tax and regulatory picture would be completely different, and we might be talking instead about how to deal with the defunding of public broadcasting.
Rx for the future
Dennis concludes his post with a call he has issued before to "just do it" (meaning the CDN) but this time he qualifies it in several important ways:
1. for the CDN, take a loose confederation approach; don't try to get everyone to agree on everything beforehand
2. use OMN as the distribution engine or pull one together from existing open source parts
3. make it a broad coalition across television, radio, other public interest/public service media, and podcasters
4. pray for a 1969 moment all over again
5. for stations, keep the core value of local service uppermost
It's a good vision and good advice, but I'm cynical enough about the consistent failure of this generation of public broadcasting executives to even understand, must less respond intelligently to the revolutions happening around them to ask the next question:
WHO, EXACTLY, IS GOING TO RUN THIS REVOLUTION??
Dennis calls for "a few hundred stations and producers participating under multiple brands — their own, a collective one, and the brands of their public service partners." Well, fine, but EXACTLY HOW IS THAT GOING TO HAPPEN?? It sounds like a recipe for barely controlled chaos, and in my opinion we have quite enough of that already, thanks.
Call it radical decentralization — it sounds better. Would this serve the public better, or be even more confusing than now? Would it result in a net increase in stability for stations, in sustainable income for producers, in convenience and quality for users?
Somebody needs to articulate the scenarios for this. Looks like that'll be the subject of my next post.