N.B. Many readers know that I'm the Interim CEO at National Public Radio, but this personal blog (now closing out its fifth year) has only a couple of times been used to talk about related things going on at NPR or at my previous workplace. However, since what we're trying to build is so closely related to what I've learned over those five years and earlier, all of which I've shared here, I thought it made sense to share this "private" email to NPR station managers here.
If you're at a public television station or in a non-profit, education or government organization, please read on because this initiative could very well be for you also. So now, I'll quote from this morning's email with only very minor changes. --Dennis
Dear station colleagues,
Happy Monday! With apologies for the length of this, I’m hoping to stitch together several developments at NPR in the context of what they mean for the future of your station. It will pay special attention to connecting a number of developments into a coherent digital strategy. I am excited about these because I think they can be important building blocks in lifting all of public radio.
The 90 stations that founded NPR did so because they wanted to serve the public in a way that could only be achieved through collaboration. This collaboration has encouraged impartial distribution of both branded programming (NPR, PRI, APM) and independent productions - in the intervening 38 years through PRSS and, more recently, PRX. Distributed hours have grown tremendously over the past four decades. As we seek to strengthen our relationships in content creation and fundraising, we must make a strong commitment to reinventing distribution for a new age, or we will fail to reach the audiences we seek to serve.
Radio will remain strong long after I’m a full-time grandpa, but the rapid adoption of new digital platforms means we must effectively utilize these platforms or ultimately witness the erosion of our audience and economic model. More importantly, the new digital platforms give greatly expanded opportunities to deliver broader public service, to be more significant in our communities and nation.
Toward this end, there are now several initiatives on our plate at NPR. I'll write primarily about a cluster of digital distribution projects from which we will draw to create something we're calling the "Community-Building Initiative," but I also want to mention a news-related one that will benefit from the same initiative.
- A “News Network of the Future” (NNoF) is envisioned to provide structure and scale for collaboration in the support and production of news for all platforms, building on ideas which have already brought promising results to a few stations (e.g., N3, the Northwest News Network);
- Three related projects in the category of what I’ll call “distributed distribution” —expanding our ability to reach our listeners better, and expanding and engaging our audience:
- The open Application Provider Interface (API),
- The acquisition of Public Interactive (PI), and
- The Community-Building Initiative (CBI), which I’ll discuss below.
There have been several digital distribution efforts in public media in recent years. Leaving out many, I’d like to tip a hat to a few that have made extraordinary contributions. Independent producer Stephen Hill showed us that the web can be an important means to serve the audience, and that they will financially support such efforts. Entrepreneur/philanthropist Mike Homer developed Open Media Network, a functioning content delivery network for public media, with the help of Stephen, KQED’s Tim Olson, myself and several others, and gifted it to public broadcasting. PI (above) under the direction of Debra May Hughes has been public media’s innovative application service provider for years. Jake Shapiro’s team built Public Radio Exchange (PRX) under the sponsorship of the Station Resource Group, creating a way to cultivate, discover and distribute new talent, voices and ideas and to innovate with models that connect listeners to a broader world. Mark Fuerst’s Integrated Media Association has led beyond-the-transmitter thinking for years. NPR’s Dana Davis Rehm has championed both the News Network of the Future and the Digital Distribution Consortium (DDC) of 2006 in which Jake, Tim and others played critical roles. Lastly, the WGBH Forum Network and Twin Cities Public Television’s Minnesota Channel are important inspirations to the CBI.
Bottom line – there has been a ton of work by dozens of people over nearly a decade during which, independently, Web strategies and content distribution over the Internet have matured. We have learned a lot in this time, we have successful exemplars, and it’s past time to put those to work in ways that strengthen public radio.
This and what follows provides some context for the announcements you’ve heard about the open API and the PI acquisition and why it’s important for the future of your station.
The open Application Programming Interface (API) is an awful name for a very powerful functionality that permits accessing NPR and, soon, station and other content and placing it with modest but important restrictions on non-NPR web sites. These might be your station’s web site, or it might be a non-profit organization with which your station has a relationship, or it might be a blog that your sister maintains. If you look down the left column of [this] blog, you can see an example that took me ten minutes to install. Why do this? Because open, distributed access to public radio content will result in much greater usage than if we require everyone to come to our portals. It’s expanding the reach of public radio beyond the radio or our own websites. This is being fairly recognized as one the most progressive and powerful web initiatives in American media. Open APIs are common on the web but are very rare among major media companies.
Public Interactive (PI) has been around for a long time and has a great reputation for providing Web services to the public broadcasting community. We’re pleased to have reached an accord with Public Radio International to bring it into the NPR family. Its mission is entirely consistent with our goal of increasing NPR’s commitment to station services, as was our acquisition of National Public Media(NPM) last fall. PI has a great suite of products and its core competencies are consistent with our open API and other “distributed distribution” efforts to grow the quality and relevance of station websites.
Combining these, we are developing the Community-Building Initiative to expose public media content to broader audiences, strengthen public stations as a key community anchor, help national and local community service organizations be more effective, and, through all that, enhance and diversify the public media economy. Like NNoF, the CBI is a “child” of NPR’s New Realities effort. An example follows and this weekend I doodled a simplified drawing [see link] for those among you who are visually oriented.
To seed this effort, we are working to establish several model national partnerships with non-profit organizations which have affiliates in your communities. There is a complex array of ways new partnerships of this kind could work, so to help in understanding one of them, here’s a fictional example:
Let’s say that you’re a public radio manager who wants to gain exposure for what your station does and build community public service alliances, adding local value. You have recently been approached by a local conservation organization that has a best-practices initiative relating to salmon recovery for which it would like build awareness. It is also interested in building a community dialog using modern social media tools. Traditionally, you might have put them in touch with your news director, who has done stories on salmon recovery in the past and perhaps might be interested in another one. She handles the story in the journalistically critical arm’s length way and it is heard by 10-15% of your weekly cume on the air and then it (maybe) goes into a podcast or is archived on your web site.
But the CBI expands possibilities. Let’s say that the organization also has some video content that it commissioned, perhaps from your local PTV station. With proper guidelines, branding and labeling, it can be part of a larger collection that you can distribute. So this video piece, the ten radio stories you’ve already produced archived on this subject, some NPR stories on the subject (Google gives 574 hits for “salmon” on npr.org), a couple of related stories from PRX, and links to related blogs in your community are curated by your web producer into a widget (a piece of portable code that can fetch content from other web sites) carrying your branding, the template for which has been provided to you by Public Interactive. That template also includes social media features to build communities of interest, plus opt-in sponsorship messages arranged by NPM. The widget then goes on the partner’s web site, on those of many of your other partners, on your own pages, on relevant blogs, etc. Others will use the API tools to extract some of these pieces and republish them still more places. Web searches build still more users, not just for the distributed content but for your main web site. In the context of how search works (see PageRank), these multiple linking relationships make it more likely for your content to emerge higher in search results. This strategy builds a much larger audience by bringing content to people rather than requiring them to come to your website.
Perhaps the station undertakes similar partnerships with 25 or 50 or 100 other community organizations. Some of these are local affiliates of national service organizations with which NPR will have initiated relationships that stations can opt into. Others are those you develop yourself. You can see that the placement opportunities for content grow tremendously. So do new partnerships that increase your station’s impact in the community, not to mention new funding opportunities from new sources.
Public broadcasters have learned over nearly 40 years that distribution success depends on brand impartiality. Recent digital distribution work has taught that we’re better off starting with a service model and related economics, instead of with technology, and that we need a to place our content many places on the web, not just on our own web sites. To be sure, there are important issues, especially with the need to maintain a wall between partner-generated content and station journalism efforts, but there are numerous successful examples to follow. The CBI plan is to incorporate all of these assumptions in a way that just might transform the value equation for public broadcasting stations in their communities.
These are exciting and challenging times for all of us in public radio. I continue to be encouraged by what I see and hear from stations around the country, and what is happening here at NPR. These latest developments should give us some important new tools to address our common future in a way that can transform both the impact and economics of public media. Please share your thoughts about these issues with me by posting a comment below.
Dennis Haarsager, Interim CEO, NPR