This post was originally written as a comment to John Proffitt's review of the recent Integrated Media Association (IMA) conference at Gravity Medium. John was brave enough to pose some hard questions, and I am disillusioned and cranky enough to try to respond to them.
In my (current) view, IMA appears to be at an impasse. We seem to have reached a point where integrated media advocacy has given out, where recommendations and demonstrations fail to move our organizations to meaningful action.
To date, IMA has been effective at putting the online services question on the table within public broadcasting and has done so eloquently and repeatedly. But for all the work completed, no significant sea change has yet arrived. Meanwhile, the house of public TV is on fire, we’re losing audience to a fracturing media world across the board and new players (like Wikipedia and others) have stolen “our” web traffic and possibly our raison d’etre.
After six or seven years of trying to push the river, I’ve regretfully come to believe that the forces that control the legacy public media system — both public television and public radio — are simply too entrenched, too defensive, too scared, and too innovation-phobic to respond meaningfully to the challenges of the digital era.
It’s a pious, slow-moving culture that has always been satisfied with less. Unluckily, we live in a time of disruptive forces that demand clear, courageous and timely action on the part of all media organizations.
Sure, there will be some forward looking moves made and some low-hanging fruit picked (like the Podcasting initiative) — especially by the leading stations — but the ball has been ignored or dropped at the network and system level time after time, even after the extent of the digital challenge became clear. There is little evidence that sufficient positive forces are now acting within the system to change this. Negative forces are not enough.
Cassandra-like warnings from me and others at various pre-IMA study groups and IMA conferences have proven to be slightly slow to arrive, but it is no longer in doubt that public radio will face a longer, slower, perhaps more painful version of the erosion and fragmentation of usership that has already disenfranchised public television, with the inevitable downward spiral of support from listeners, underwriters and funders.
It looks like the system will get hollowed out from within by slowly cutting staff, production and services. In another ten years it could resemble a ghost network populated by aging ‘tentpole’ programs and whatever else has already built a national audience and remains a viable part of daily news & information service, with the surviving stations being little more than network retransmitters with various flavors of local toppings. Wait, that's now...
The few stations that remain viable centers of program production and innovation have the best shot to adapt, but it should be worrisome that some trend spotters now see users wanting to support their chosen program brands directly, making all intermediates vulnerable unless they add value or own the program brands outright. This is Your Disintermediation at work.
At the network level, it seems that NPR, PRI and APM and their television equivalents are focused on reproducing the same balance of power in digital distribution and underwriting that obtained in the pre-digital era. I wish them luck as they divide an ever-shrinking pie.
In the endgame, they will be forced to act to protect their own franchises, so you can expect an era of increasingly hardball system politics as these aggregators and national network brands try to detach themselves from the drag that the stations exert on their own ability to respond to digital media opportunities. As a result, the large group of small and medium sized stations and state networks will be left to twist in the gathering winds on their own, while the major stations and the smallest community stations will adapt by degrees to the new realities of the digital network era.
John is quite right to point out that all the major initiatives promoted by the IMA to setup meaningful public media system collaborations, create significant new services, and see them funded at a level that gives them a snowball’s chance of surviving in a globally flaming mediascape — have utterly failed to get traction. At best, a few basic technical projects like metadata standardization have been started, while the challenge is to re-invent basic business and service models and reorganize the system from top to bottom.
The call to expand the IMA to include the larger public media sector may be a path forward for IMA, but it is even more difficult and uncertain. It's like trying to save a marriage by having a child — the core members can't pull themselves together effectively, so the solution is to involve outsiders and expand the scope of the organization, which makes it an order of magnitude more difficult to accomplish.
Face it folks : it ain’t gonna happen.
The IMA isn’t going to accomplish anything significant because it is fundamentally powerless. The moment of opportunity has passed — it needed to happen in 2004-2005. The IMA turned into an excellent conference but despite worthy efforts failed to provoke anything truly important within the system.
After attending the IMA every year since its inception, this year I opted out and instead attended a Music Technology conference here in San Francisco.
The music industry’s problems are legion and the subject of daily international press. You would expect a conference like this to be as depressing as IMA sounds per John’s report, but in fact it was the reverse. The rooms were humming with smart, engaged, activists of all ages working to move the digital music experience forward.
[Note that this is all happening in the context of a music copyright regime that has for years refused or blatantly overpriced the licenses needed for digital services to offer the innovations necessary to wean the public off physical media. That’s one structural problem that public media does not have when it originates its own programming.]
It is not my wish to further depress my many good friends and colleagues who continue to work in public broadcasting, but I believe it is time to take this discussion to its sadly obvious conclusion:
If you care about the values of public media, get out of public broadcasting and work on achieving them elsewhere.