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14 February 2007


John Proffitt

I'm skeptical that the traditional players understand what you're proposing here -- it's a big idea, and one that jettisons decades of learned behaviors in favor of new ones not yet practiced by many in the field.

But let's be generous for a moment and say that the players understand the tectonic media/relationship shift in progress, and they agree with your proposal/idea/concept pretty much start to finish.

In your estimation, what are the odds that, by 2017, we will see a version of this model emerge, with the traditional public broadcasting players (NPR, PBS, APM, PRI, APT, etc.) joining in?

Would a new generation of managers have to come to rise to the top before this could happen?

I'm genuinely interested in your answer here, given your history with and knowledge of the public broadcasting world.

Stephen Hill


If most of the executives that set policy at "the traditional players" didn't understand what I'm proposing, I wouldn't be at all surprised. In that regard they would be the same as executives at virtually every mainstream media company in music, film and publishing who, despite ten years of talk and mountains of evidence that increase daily — still don't "get" the dimensions of the disruption that the Internet is administering to their 20th century business models.

To answer your question: setting the timeline out ten years to 2017 makes no sense. We're on Internet Time now: what used to happen in ten years takes 18-24 months. If you doubt this, consider where Internet media was in 1997 vs. now: audio streaming barely working, video unwatchable, pre-Napster and MP3.com, pre-Google, pre-blogging, pre-YouTube and MySpace etc. — you can infer the scope of what is likely to happen in ten years time. And the rate of change is still accelerating.

I will say flatly that if the system does not act together with a meaningful public announcement and at least a beta launch of a new integrated service by the end of 2008, the window of opportunity will effectively close for Public Radio to achieve the benefits I'm describing.

That's about two years, which is why I say that the turning point is now.

If the system cannot muster the wisdom and the will to reform itself, life will go on in the sense that stations will continue to operate while spinning down, but the Internet digital media juggernaut will pass it by along with the vast majority of the young, educated audience.

The business opportunity I've described above to build a national subscription base to support the mission of the system will be lost forever.

More than it already is, it will be every producer and organization for themselves, with a core of shared program brands in common, but not exclusive to this network. That's the "content vendor status in the digital media ecology" I mentioned above.

We don't have time to wait for a new generation of managers; the value of a "radio" franchise is eroding daily under the weight of new Internet delivered multi-media services, and public radio is on the road to becoming a ghetto populated largely by aging boomers, just as public television (children's programming excepted) is now.

I did allude to some evidence that attitudes toward change are starting to open up, in the form high level collaborative projects like DDC group, and high-level meetings between significant players like the one SRG organized last week (for which I wrote this post) and the two day "CEO" meeting Mark Fuerst has organized just prior to this year's IMA Conference.

I agree, it's a long jump from consideration of change to actually doing it. But clearly, if we don't disrupt ourselves, others will.

:: SH

John Proffitt

Just one last note on the timeline/speed issue you bring up in your response...

I picked the 10-year window pretty much arbitrarily, not because I think it will take 10 years to effect considerable change or create this new public media marketplace. Being more of an Internet/IT practitioner myself, I completely understand your stance on the need for speed.

However, there's one wrinkle to these calcuations that makes the clock run a bit slower than Internet time, at least in my estimation. Basically, I think the content generated in the public radio world is not easily replicated and is not really available from other sources in siginificant quantity or quality.

Today, I don't know where I could turn for the news/talk programming put out by the likes of NPR/PRI/APM and the major producing stations and some local stations. Music programming is under far more threat because it's relatively cheap/easy/fast to put together a music service online. But original news content with real weight and public trust is hard to create. Therefore, I think the countdown clock runs a little slower than it does for Yahoo! or Google or Microsoft. Wouldn't it take someone 10 years to build -- from scratch -- a public media news service to rival the likes of NPR?

That said, I'm still on board with your contention that the clock is running and running fast, and I think a late 2008 launch would be far superior to a late 2012 launch!

Stephen Hill

I can't disagree with any of that, as long as it is understood that the kind of content you mention — serious news and public affairs talk programming — was effectively ceded to NPR and the public radio business because it did not meet the cost/benefit calculations of commercial radio.

However, that is not necessarily true online, especially when you get beyond the Beltway and national political reporting. Already the blogosphere has become a force for breaking news and investigative content, and the same can happen for audio content once enough reliable individual voices, sites, and services are established. Remember that the distribution that took public radio 25 years to create is already there, in a far superior mechanism with search, links, archives and direct delivery anywhere.

I would point to independent efforts like Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" as early examples that will not be constrained or limited by the fact that they happen to be carried by a number of public stations.

I would also point to PRX and the various Podcast directories (including iTunes) already in existence which provide a superior means of finding, promoting and disseminating serious audio productions than the public broadcast system itself provides.

Finally I would point out that hard news and public affairs is about the only category that meets the "hard to duplicate" test, and many other worthwhile genres of produced audio programming have been effectively purged from the public radio airwaves over the last 20 years, including poetry, drama, speeches, audio art, documentaries with non-news subject matter, and now, increasingly, music programming.

It could be a very long list, and when you combine it with various types of niche audio content like professional conferences and meetings, academic and educational content and the like, there is enough "public service audio" content available RIGHT NOW to create a very compelling new aggregation that would be worth a subscription for those who valued it. And this says nothing about the individual creativity that has been unleashed by cheap audio tools and open publishing online via podcasting and the like. Who knows what will emerge from that?

My point is that if we don't expand the definition of our content (as Dennis Haarsager has argued very convincingly) and pull it into our orbit — others will, and we will lose the opportunity to strengthen our mission and our business.

People like Doug Kay of Conversations Network are already doing this, but it can be developed far beyond this. I argue that such an offering will be strongest when combined with existing "blue chip" program brands, rather than allowed to atomize or be aggregated by other entities, like (for example) OMN.

:: SH

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  • Gerd Leonhard
    'media futurist' and entrepreneur
  • Dennis L. Haarsager
    I'm a university administrator responsible for public broadcasting and educational technology.