Thursday, March 18, 2010

Evolutionary Public Media

I was recently asked, either by MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media or the folks at FCC’s National Broadband Task Force to sit on a panel – titled: The Future of Civic Engagement in a Broadband-Enabled World. Joining me on the panel were Jake Shapiro of PRX moderating, Marita Rivero of WGBH, Kinsey Wilson of NPR and Sue Schardt, The Association of Independents in Radio (AIR).

While it was flattering to be asked to proffer my thoughts about the “Future of Digital Public Media” I was the one that accrued the most benefit. In preparing for the panel I put together three pages of notes (three pages!) on how I thought we can preserve the best of public broadcasting within the inside-out transformation towards ubiquitous digital media. While the thoughts in this blog post are my own and not CPB’s, it is my work at CPB that has helped me nuance my thoughts on the subject.

My framework for governing the public broadcasting transformation is grounded in the belief that changes should be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

There are many who would disagree with me – vehemently – and believe that we need to blow everything up and start again. They point to the loss of audience (check); the lack of diversity (check); the loss of fundamental business model (check); the erosion of local content creation (check); the gradual decline of public media’s standing in policy environments (check); the graying of the workforce (check); etc. And they are not necessarily wrong; these are more than just challenges, but real barriers to change.

They are rightfully frustrated that fundamental/significant change seemingly never happens, or if it is evolutionary it is at a glacial pace. Well, even climate change can come to public media.

“I canna’ change the laws of physics! I've got to have thirty minutes." - Scotty

While we need to make smart, forward-looking investments into areas of public media APIs, metadata standards, alternative production models, collaborate code bases and all the rest of it, we – the digital media types – should also look towards the assets we have right in front of our faces, namely the broadcast spectrum.

I sometimes have to remind myself that I moved from pure digital public purpose media to the world of public broadcasting because of that wonderful opportunity of helping public service media to access the “big megaphone” of spectrum broadcast. My fundamental goal in coming to public media was not to destroy the old, but rather hack it for the purpose of serving the American public in new ways. Basically, I want my dad to come out to the garage and see his beloved old Buick turned into the Rally Fighter; same general parts doing the same general thing, but Oh So Different.

There are two basic arguments in the Evolution, Not Revolution canon.

1. Broadcast is Good Real Estate
2. Business Models Are More Complicated Than You Think

Broadcast is Good Real Estate

Public media holds as a central mission the provision of Free, Universal Service to anyone regardless of their ability to pay. While digital is essential, we also need to recognize that digital is not free to the end user and is not available to everyone. Broadcast, on the other hand, has the ability to reach the nooks and crannies even after we are all saved by the National Broadband Plan.

Broadcast also has the current lead, by a fair margin, in economies to scale. While there are very valid arguments that the many-to-many interactive nature of transmedia makes the one-to-many model the poorer, we should recognize that each technology has its direct analogue in the other. Broadcast isn’t interactive, but the cost between delivering (one-way) content to one person versus a million is close to zero. (OK, this is way more nuanced when we start accounting for depreciation, interconnection, operational costs, but in general this relationship – for the near term – holds up.)

Lastly, broadcast is still the dominant access point. While this is steadily changing with more and more people watching video, consuming news and using audio streams through data ports we have to understand that broadcast is still a very well understood, near idiot-proof technology. With the exception of that whole programmable VCR era, 99.9% of folks have a pretty good understanding of TV purchase, hook-up and operations. Not so much on the online or mobile side just yet.

The direct argument against this is that the world is changing. Quickly. And that the Internet is thy name. I agree with this view. I have a whole other blog post in my mind about the Internet-deniers in public broadcasting (they say “it’s not impactful, look at the Nielson numbers”, which roughly translates to “It’s just a flesh wound!”) I have seen and heard these folks up close up and they are a bit scary.

However, I have also met the broadcast-deniers too. That television is dead (they don’t usually pick on radio) and broadcasters are a bunch Lawrence Welk-lovers. These folks are equally wrong, but I will allow that they throw better parties.

Business Models Are More Complicated Than You Think

The revolutionary would say “off with their heads” to the broadcasters, but most of them have not run a media business with the mission requirements of public media. The Rube Goldberg machine of public broadcasting is a strange creature and while it looks painful, for what we have asked of it, it has largely worked. Changing it too rapidly is a bad idea. Leaving it alone is even worse.

The revolutionaries want public media to decouple from broadcasting, so let’s try out that idea: What do we do with all of those (depreciated) assets? We can give up the spectrum; sell it back to the FCC for an endowment…OK, if I am in a big city I might be able to pay for 30-60% of my re-tooled operations. (Making up that %, so some discussion about that would be good.) But I still have this big-ass transmitter tower and this now worthless broadcasting tech (master control, transponders, etc.) on my books. I have a physical plant with a studio or two, along with all of the equipment that I probably won’t need to shoot broadcast programming.

On the debit side I have just lost my CPB Community Service Grant (CSG), because I gave up my spectrum and am now not a public broadcasting organization. I also just alienated my usual donor base, and while I can recruit new types of supporters, that will take time and their loyalty will be fickle.

I have also lost a lot of the brand-building programming for my community because I don’t have the revenue to pay for the programming (nor the streaming rights). I guess I could always point people to the Frontline or History Detective websites, but then my lack of paying dues to PBS has undermined the financial support for those shows….oops.

When the big comet came crashing down on Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs we evolved with new complex mammals. It took another 65 million years to evolve the Internet.

However, not changing is not an option.

It has been publically reported and widely discussed that there is currently a process going on within CPB and the public media system to review the Community Service Grant (CSG) formula. It is a wholly complicated discussion, discussed by leaders who are sober and committed to the idea that things cannot stay the same; the pace of change must increase. It is not my place to comment on those discussions, but I can tell you that once you start pulling at one string you start unraveling a lot more. And in many ways you will have limited ability to control what happens next if you move too fast or too aggressively.

What Happens Next

One of the most important and interesting questions facing public media today is - who gets to control the evolution of the industry? In the past public media enjoyed being a backwater, out of the main flow of media. . Now, there is a big glaring spotlight focused on public media and thy name is the FCC.

Outside of the confines of public media a horde of barbarians have been amassing in ones and twos. (C’mon they even look like barbarians; David Cohn from, it’s time to get a haircut!) I was a part of that horde through my work at One Economy. And it is nice to report that a few of those barbarians slipped through side gates and are sitting inside stations (APM, WNYC, WBUR, KQED, OPB, KETC, KCET, WNET, WNIN) and even have managed to start going concerns, such as PRX. However, is it enough?

As the crowd got bigger and bigger it started getting a bit rambunctious, as barbarians will do. And occasionally the horde gets riled up by public broadcasting rivals, who egg on the Picts and Visgoths through policy papers and grants. But the horde – no matter how large – was largely disorganized, as barbarians are. That changed one day when Julius Genachowski strolled up to the barbarians and said “Hey! Let’s make some policy!”

At first there was a collective “Wah?” to the suit-wearing, slick-back haired, cocktail party mannered folks from the FCC. However, as the barbarians realized they could turn in their ax for a predator drone that has readily given way to a collective full-throated ARRRRGGGGHHHHH!!!! The barbarians are in the gate and they are making policy.

This is a huge challenge and opportunity for those who care about evolutionary change. We know that the legislative process will dull the sharp axes and swords of the horde, but we should also recognize that the gates are open and they are not being shut. What public media does in the next six to twelve months is essential.

I hate making an all-or-nothing statement, but if we don’t start significantly, meaningfully, and visibly opening up the system to change I feel we may have failed to manage a string of future events that unravel the whole thing. The essential question for public media today is: Do we assimilate the barbarians? Or do they plunder the whole place? There is too much at stake – jobs, trust, brand, legacy – to not manage this evolution.


Julie Drizin said...

I hate to consider myself a barbarian, but if the sandal fits...Let's remember that the public media sphere includes a broad diversity of people and participants. We shouldn't abandon broadcasting but we also need to open our own gates and cast our own nets to a broader pool of media makers and media consumers. Thanks for a provocative piece, Rob.

Lisa Bu said...

Very thoughtful post. I'm for evolutionary rather than revolutional change as well. The difficulties we encounter are in 2 areas: motivation (do broadcasters want to change?) and efficacy (do they believe they are capable of change?). I think majority of pubcasters have the motivation but lack efficacy. Technology standards, resources, training, etc. are often not in place to help convince people that we are capable of changing already. There are steps we can take today before every piece of puzzle falling into place.

Jack Brighton said...

I'll go with what Julie said about opening our own gates to a broader pool of media makers, and add that we are uniquely poised to do this effectively as trusted community institutions. Or brands, take your pick. We have a golden opportunity to redefine public media as essential to civil society, education, and community health. Anyone can now produce and distribute media, and the difference between us and anyone is not our transmitters or professional standing but our commitment and focus on public service. Many other people want to contribute to this mission, but too often our answer has been "thanks, but we're the professionals so go away." Me, I love the technology part of this (r)evolution, but it should be deployed in service of civic health. From local to national, I think we have the means to do great things, more than ever before.

Rob Bole said...

Thanks for the comments. I recently had an interesting discussion with Rachael Sterne at GroundReport that basically boiled down to a lack of clarity on how to connect with public media. Too many entities, a lack of clarity in any specific value proposition, a lack of navigation, etc. Basically a poorly organized marketplace.

This got me thinking about how would you organize a marketplace of opportunity? On one level there is a technology fix - create a massive API and let content flow where it needs to flow. This works especially well if you think about a set of rational business rules that allow for some sustainability.

However that is also lacking something in terms of depth or of lasting value. How do you create an actual marketplace of services that allows users to discover each others value propositions through a system of rational information exchange. I certainly don't have the applied answer to that question, but it is something I have been thinking about since this post.