My friends Rob Paterson (HBO Shows the Way - Public Radio) and Stephen Hill (Now can we talk about business?) are properly impatient about the snail's pace with which public radio is engaging in a new media economy. The NPR podcasting pilot was brought forward quickly and professionally and has resulted in new revenue for participants. And last summer, NPR sponsored a sort of summer camp for a handful of our best and brightest to work on these very problems (the "DDC" mentioned in Stephen's post).
But the months trudge by and it's tempting to think we're losing that momentum. On the television side, which I am also fully entangled, there is, sadly, no organizational momentum to be lost. These comments are from the perspective someone who has been engaged at both the station and national level in both media (the late Joe Welling and I are the only two people to have served on both the NPR and PBS boards) and someone who has been significantly involved over the past two years in an independent effort to build a distribution engine for public media (Open Media Network). I'd be quick to add that this doesn't make me an expert so much as someone who can speak out of both sides of his mouth on nearly any issue.
The full Groucho Marx line that begins this post's title is, "My brother thinks he's a chicken - we don't talk him out of it because we need the eggs." To move forward on this, we need to understand that public media's current economy is not the member-centric value exchange that we think it is. Public radio gets less than half its revenue from individuals and public television gets only just over a fifth of its revenue from individuals (I'm writing from home, but think these are close). Underwriting income, which is less, is also listener- or viewer-sensitive, but it's a different economy threatened by different disruptors.
The programming organizations (APM, APT, NPR, PBS, PRI, a tiny group of producing stations, and dozens of independent producers like Stephen -- who I identify because he's the rare one who's figured this out) want us to focus on this poultry economy because they need the eggs. Importantly, these organizations are also providing the programs that, in an archival new media environment, will supply the fat end of the long tail. With rare exceptions, us chickens will be supplying the long, skinny end.
Here in the coop, to the extent that we understand new media at all, we understand those last two sentences. And it doesn't take higher order mathematics to calculate that the investment in that might not be real compelling for the rank-and-file station that's trying to shore up that chicken coop. It's understandable if some worry that an investment of time and treasure in this as purely an income play might mean the quicker loss of more chickens.
Here's where I think that's wrong. If we're only 20-50% in the individual giving business, then what business are we in? The rest of the money (50-80% of the public broadcasting economy) comes from foundations, corporations and taxpayers -- just as it does for all non-profits -- in support of a mission that demonstrates a public benefit. While, like Groucho's brother, we stations are off thinking we're chickens, it might just be that we're neglecting what the Brits would call the "remit" -- expectations that the public has about what we deliver in exchange for public support. While I'm glad we don't have such a formal requirement in the U.S., the lack of that has arguably led to mission drift.
It is in the area of engaging our communities to solve problems and have better cultural resources that the new media platforms can be hugely useful -- much better in the long run than a broadcast platform that must be programmed more at the hit end of the tail and which has scarce air time in any case. That will surely result in revenue enhancement, or at the very least revenue sustenance, for stations that define their missions with the local component first.
The good news is that the same distribution architectures that help national producers and distributors will also help local stations be more mission-driven and less driven by the other siblings who need our eggs. And the rest of the good news is that we can go out and do this tomorrow -- we don't need, IMHO, an expensive and time-consuming process of building consensus and building from scratch a new vehicle for this.
Just do it. --Dennis