Regular readers of this blog will probably know that I've been a long-time public broadcasting exec in the Northwest. No one much cares if I'm speaking for a medium-sized public radio operation and a small public television operation, so I've not had to be too careful in those instances where I've departed from pointing at news you need to know and offered my own opinions. But that's changing.
I've been a member of the National Public Radio board of directors since '05 and its chairman since November. A few days ago I became its interim chief executive officer at the board's request. So now it's a little different. Since some people will take this blog as speaking for that great institution, you should know that I'm speaking here in a personal voice. That's what blogs are about.
I'm not going to comment on the reasons for this change except to say they were multivariate and that much of what's been speculated about this is dead wrong. Rather, I'd like to continue on the themes I've raised in this blog in the past because I think they inform the future. I invite the curious reader to visit John Proffitt's excellent list of articles and posts on the subject of this management change. This is not a coup by Luddite station CEOs who want to stop or slow down effective responses to very types of disruptive change we've been trying to strategically accommodate. NPR can't and won't do that.
Sure there is a diversity of opinion about disruptive change within public broadcasting. A small number of people feel that spending a dollar on emerging media is taking it away from core functions. Another small number of professionals feel that the legacy media are doomed (see, e.g., Jeff Jarvis's post). Of most concern, though, is that the largest number of people have no position on this at all because they're "up to their asses in alligators" just trying to make this year's budget come out right. There is no organized opposition, especially at the station management level, to investments in emerging media.
The drawing on the right (click for larger version) is from an old presentation of mine that illustrates what public media are facing today. Frankly, most of us still think that the traditional flow of content on the left is valid. But in fact, everyone is able to play every role, including our listeners and viewers -- and they are doing so with very low barriers to entry. As Gordon Borrell says, "The deer now have guns." I won't belabor this, but it is now a very different world from the one in which almost all public media managers learned the business.
In a meeting with the NPR staff on Friday, I talked about there being three layers that we need to consider. At the top is why we're here at all as a non-profit. There are surely better formulations, but we make people smarter, better citizens, more culturally engaged. Let's call this the mission layer. The next layer is what we do. For NPR it's journalism -- really good journalism -- and other programming. Let's call that the content layer. And then there is where we do it. Historically, that's been over licensed broadcast transmitters, but online distribution is coming on much faster than broadcasting did in its developing years, so we're doing that also along with satellite and mobile distribution. Let's call this the distribution layer.
So this isn't a battle between the content layer and the emerging media part of the distribution layer any more than it's a battle between the content layer and transmitters. People now have and are making a wide variety of choices in how they get programming. We must make it easy for them to access it. If we make it a contest between layers, our users will lose and ultimately so will we.
I've been asked to keep NPR moving forward, not march in place, in the relatively short time I've been given to lead the company. That's not a repudiation of its current direction; to the contrary. In spite of that time constraint, I think that the great people who make public radio happen at stations and at NPR can make real progress in that time -- especially, as Jeff urges, if we seek out and pay attention to what our listeners are telling us directly and by studying how they allocate their attention.