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Friday, 16 February 2007

Comments

John Proffitt

It's great to see NPR (and IMA -- a lot of top-shelf bloggers will be at the conference in Boston) actively reaching out to the non-broadcast world for ideas, input and commentary. After a few years in the public media business -- sorry, in the public BROADCASTING business (I was once snippily corrected by my boss on that word, and our Board just rejected a name change that would have used the word "media") -- I'm becoming convinced that most (not all) of the leaders that brought public broadcasting to prominence over the past 20-30 years cannot make the leap to the next model.

Ironically, NPR's and PBS' success in creating a public broadcasting voice over the decades has created, in effect, a monolithic corporation with tremendous inertia. Sure, all the stations are independently owned, but we still pretty much move in a lockstep fashion where it counts. We all carry Morning Edition and All Things Considered, all at the same time, all in virtually the same way. We all have pledge drives and we even use the same premiums and pitches. Indeed, our collective service is so cliched that shows like "The Simpsons" can (lovingly) skewer the entire industry with a quick Garrison Keillor impression and a sleepy TV pledge drive, and everyone instantly gets the joke. How long before the Dr. Wayne Dyer jokes start?

Jeff Jarvis hit upon the core of the problem in his comments: "...it’s NPR’s turn to rescue the stations. But I... wonder whether they can afford such loyalty." Further, he notes, "the 300-odd NPR affiliates are mostly distributors..." Yep. All but the largest and richest stations are just distributors, mine included. We don't generate local content of sufficient quality or quantity nor do we make an intimate enough connection with the audience to warrant high levels of ongoing support. We're the mom-and-pop store watching Wal-Mart come to town. We won't go out of business overnight, but business as we know it is indeed coming to an end.

Will NPR, PBS, APM, PRI, CPB and all the others save us station-distributors? Nope. That's not their mission, and they're already positioning for their next moves. Indeed, just this week our FM manager got word that APM will be distributing PHC and Marketplace on XM Radio. She bemoaned the fact that we weren't warned or given a "say" in this matter. Well, duh. Stations need the content networks far more than the networks need the stations, especially looking ahead to a time when networks can/will distribute content directly to consumers. I already listen to a few public radio and TV shows via podcast even though they're broadcast on my very own stations. What happens when IP radio appears everywhere or I get direct TV show downloads on an iTunes subscription?

Interestingly, a conversation came up at my station recently with a reporter -- someone that wanted to chat about starting a new company that would be a specialty news content creator and distributor, all done online. Even folks outside the "new media" wing of public broadcasting are recognizing it may be time to strike out for new territory. The old model is stuck in gear and we appear to be waiting for the car to run out of gas.

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