Dennis Haarsager's rolling environmental scan for electronic media. "Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us." --Jerry Garcia "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then." --Bob Seger
Jessica Clark has written a great overview of new public media initiatives with this title for Mark Glaser's MediaShift blog. Important tutorial for pubcasting execs; well worth your time. Link: PBS.org. --Dennis
Caroline Gabriel reports on a new survey that is one index of the spectrum problems wireless carriers face. She writes:
High end smartphones not only bring operators' networks crashing down with their high rates of data consumption, but they breed fickle consumers who will worsen churn levels, especially as users get more hostile to two-year contract lock-ins. The downside of the smartphone boom is highlighted in a survey by Nokia Siemens, which found that users of high end handsets are the least likely to stay with their carrier. ...
NB: I’ve always tried to keep my work and this blog separate (see About), but this is an exception -- the first in a series of white papers that I’m doing for my employer, NPR, and cross-posting here. They’re consistent with the theme of this blog. Although written for a public radio audience, readers from television or commercial radio may also be able to pull some takeaways from this series. Hope you’ll read on. --Dennis ______________________________________
“In 1920, we discovered we could get more listeners with voice than with Morse code, and we’ve been selling out to the audience ever since.” -- Jack Mitchell, NPR’s first employee and former board chair, to a Public Radio Conference meeting, of 9XM (now WHA), America’s first public radio station in Madison, Wisconsin
NPR President & CEO Vivian Schiller asked me to write a series of mini-white papers for the public radio community that she calls “All Known Thought.” That’s a weighty, though tongue-in-cheek title but as a longtime student of public radio technology since vacuum tube and razor blade days and a station GM for nearly 30 years, I’m committed and challenged to provide an objective overview on various topics that at the frequently changing intersection of technology trends and public radio economics.
As such, please consider this an attempt to bracket this moving intersection within a plausible and actionable space. As one who has been influenced by Clayton Christensen, I believe we need to pay particular attention to disruptions at that intersection.
As the opening quote observes, public radio began some 90 years ago when the physics and engineering departments at a bunch of universities discovered they could attach modulators to their former Morse code stations and transmit voice and music. Radio has proven to be one of the most adaptable forms of communication in both technology and business practices ever since.
I’ve been writing about this in my Technology360.com blog since 2003, a blog that grew out of an earlier email list that I ran for six more years. Both were efforts to force a discipline to keep up with my professional reading, so this assignment renews that and I’m happy to take it on. The blog, which has always been light on opining and heavy on encouraging readers to draw their own conclusions, will continue but its readers will recognize some themes here.
I have a great group of tech-and-strategy-savvy colleagues here at NPR who I’ll ask for advice along the way. I’ll take responsibility for what gets written, but in the spirit of seeking “all known thought,” those colleagues will be free to write op-eds, which I’ll append if they wish.
Up front, I defined my focus as the intersection of two areas of importance to our future (technology and economics) and observed that these were not static. If not, where are they moving?
The pace of technology change has increased dramatically in the last couple of decades, and along with it the choices listeners have in how and when to consume radio programming. We will assume that this pace will not slow down and may increase. Regulatory constraints, the need for auto manufacturer take-up, and the inherently expensive nature of broadcast technology all contribute to our second assumption that the pace of change for traditional broadcasting will continue to be slower than change in the software-driven web and mobile domains.
As listeners have more media choices, yet finite time, we will assume that some of the attention of some of our current listeners will moveto web and mobile platforms. It seems sensible to assume that most stations will try to serve listeners through the web and mobile platforms; in the process picking up new listeners, likely with a wider demographic array.
The other line through the intersection is public radio economics. Assumptions here may attract some debate, but here goes: The public radio economy is impacted unfavorably by the recession, by increased operating costs, by loss of attention to other platforms (and the perception by advertisers of the efficacy of these new platforms), and by the economic conditions of closely-associated institutions (public TV for joint licensees, supporting universities, and government agencies).
Recessions are cyclical and the economy will eventually recover. Depending on how long the recovery takes, the movement of resources from radio to greater-stressed television at some joint licensees and the loss of tax-based revenue will exacerbate public radio’s economy. Entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and government pensions are eating up discretionary spending for state and federal governments. A more favorable economy will accelerate technology change and spur increases in operating costs.
On the other hand, public radio has the ability to slow or even, if only for a time, reverse the “gravity pull” of unfavorable economics through station acquisitions, investments in emerging platforms and smarter radios, better programming and fundraising practices, cost-reducing collaborations and mergers, and stronger governance.
So, overall, while movement of this intersection will vary, we will assume that the “if we do nothing” direction will be “southeasterly” (see sketch below), and public radio will decline. Our challenge is to make smart moves at this intersection that “fight gravity” and move our mission forward.
Before I present a list of the likely topics, here’s what won’t be included in these white papers. We read a lot in the trade and popular press about death – the death of radio, of television, of newspapers. X will kill Y. The September cover of Wiredheadlined the death of the Web. A friend of mine, tech journalist Steve Gillmor, has, with a scythe in hand, declared the impending death of many technologies. Death. Death. Death! Death is a word to grab headlines, not one to use for thoughtful discourse. Let’s move past that word! Even Morse code has survived modulators in the ham radio community.
That’s not to say change won’t happen. It’s good to distinguish between the future of what we do and the future of how we do it.
Since the talk of death is off the table what is most important about this intersection between technology and economics is its effect on our margin. The late non-profit hospital director, Sister Irene Kraus, was famous for saying, “No margin, no mission.” Our primary focus needs to be on producing and delivering quality content, but to do that, we need to be financially healthy. Disruptive technologies don’t have to kill us to harm our mission; they just need to erode our margins, which are thin or nonexistent already.
Here are white paper topics we’ll start with, in no particular order:
What can trends in mobile and other device-based platforms tell us about future media consumption?
HD Radio, RadioDNS, and other advanced radio systems. What are consumer electronics companies cooking up next that could impact our business?
Mobile providers—are they a threat, an opportunity, or a little of both?
The auto manufacturers are talking about in-car internet availability. How will that work and when?
What's the latest on impending changes in spectrum allocations and how they will impact us?
Is social media something we can use effectively? Should stations make a long-term commitment to it or is it a fad?
Reconciling web metrics and broadcast metrics. Why your web cume is less than you think and your web time spent metrics are greater than you think.
This series of “All Known Thought” will be most successful with your input, and the input of your colleagues (please feel free to share these papers). This will be a platform to generate discussion on the impacts and influences on the public radio community. I welcome your comments and suggestions.
Stephen Hill has a new and thoughtful post about mobile streaming, a subject that’s been hot on a public radio email list recently. Stephen’s too-infrequent analyses are always provocative and must reading. It’s a little hard to pull a quote, given its construction, so check it out on his Spatial Relations blog. --Dennis
Mark Ramsey Media and VIP Research did a national study of 2,000 radio listeners reported in Mark’s blog. 34% said they’d listen less to their local radio stations if they had Internet access on their dashboard, while 66% said they’d listen just as much. Link: Mark Ramsey Research. --Dennis
No sooner did I get done posting on this topic earlier this morning, but I found that consultant Mark Ramsey made an excellent closely-related post on his on blog yesterday. Great minds think alike? ;-) See Everything you need to know about FM radio chips in mobile phones at Mark Ramsey Media. He covers more ground than the title implies. Good reading. --Dennis
Steve Yasko, GM of WTMD in Towson, MD (Baltimore area) recently brought up this subject on two public radio lists which I would really categorize as scalability of listening by means other than an analog radio. Here’s my take on this and, as usual in things relating to public radio, comments here are my own, not NPR’s (see About).
Content is like water. Water flows through big channels nicely but also through smaller channels and cracks whenever it has a chance. Continuing the analogy, the effect of those smaller flows over time often makes the smaller openings larger. Radio content is flowing nicely through the broadcast channels we have – they scale very well, but it’s also beginning to emerge through other openings as well. And, just as well-drillers often fractionate bedrock to create more cracks for water to be released, new products for distributing media content are being developed constantly.
With some regularity, I listen to Pandora over my iPhone on my car’s sound system and to Northwest Public Radio’s folk music program while riding my tractor Saturday afternoons in Virginia. Some people to whom I (and others) mention this think, “Well, that’s cool,” and try it themselves, thereby testing a little more the limits of the wireless IP channels that were originally set up for voice calls. It should probably be like not telling your friends about that great little restaurant you found. Already, I can’t reliably do this inside the Washington beltway at most times of day, and it’s a non-starter during rush hour along major roads. Wireless providers are reaching the limits of available spectrum in major markets so are abandoning their “all-you-can-eat” plans (I’m grandfathered – heh, heh), at least for now. The reason mobile streaming is working at all during favorable hours or favorable locations is that so few people – other than us in the radio cognoscenti – are doing it.
But don’t take too much comfort from today’s limitations. They won’t last. The iPhone and iPad are garnering a well-deserved share of attention, but Android devices are now outselling iPhones and an avalanche of cheap Android tablets will almost surely do the same to the iPad in the autumn (WebOS, Windows Phone 7 and Linux tablets in there, too). There will be a lot of mobile media devices out there very soon. 4G systems are being rolled out by all major carriers and reclaiming spectrum from television and government users has a head of steam. The cracks through which content trickles now will enlarge to small channels and the small channels will become larger ones. Do we really want to bring out the Bondo and duct tape or do we want people to find us many places?
Broadcasters even have a (possibly interim) role in mitigating the current spectrum problems. Flo TV is providing white label television streaming services to Sprint and AT&T cell phones using broadcast-style transmission over spectrum that used to belong to UHF TV (seamless to the cell phone user). In radio, the NAB is advocating putting mandatory FM chips in cell phones while a credible research company report says that digital radio will benefit from the spectrum crunch by mid-2011 when carriers use it to mitigate IP audio traffic problems in smartphones. If we’re smart, broadcasters will use the time we have to develop hybrid IP/broadcast radios and/or RadioDNS-enabled radio receivers – not to mention find ways to make it easier for people to find us on their many IP devices.
It’s all about scale. We’ll see lots of strategies to manage it. Right now it’s pricing and the beginnings of non-IP delivery for media content. Soon it will be more IP packets delivered to your devices, and you can be sure that will impact pricing as well – likely in the more for your dollar direction. Carriers have a lot of knobs they can twist, so don’t judge today’s situation in pricing or capacity as significant for much longer than an eye blink in media time.
Update 11:15 Eastern: Coincidentally, consultant Mark Ramsey makes many of the same points plus others in an excellent new (somewhat mistitled) post on his blog. Link: Mark Ramsey Media.
NB: This starts out as a long story about publishing medical books, but I intend it as a way to illustrate the pace and degree of change in the media for the blog’s usual readers at the end. --DH
This spring I married a physician who has written or edited a fairly large number of medical books. Her background is both in clinical practice and research, she has an appointment as full professor at an area medical school, and she has way, way more letters behind her name than do I. Her most successful book is a sort of how-to manual for procedures in her area of specialty, the most recent edition of which came out in 2007.
So a few weeks ago, we were discussing a call she received from her publisher asking her if she wanted to do a 5th edition of the book. The last edition had a companion DVD that contained videos illustrating seven of the 53 procedures in the book. The videos are good, including some basic animations, but require a physician to go to a computer, find software that will play the odd format (with some trial and error, one of which crashed my PC, I discovered that RealPlayer could handle it), and hope that the procedure you need to do is one of the 13% in described in the book (the book does have helpful drawings and photos). You shouldn’t have to call the IT department before trying to bone up on intubations.
As a new iPad owner, I’d been very impressed with how tablet apps are creating a whole new category of book – or is it a whole new category of video – or is it some new medium we haven’t yet named? I’d heard great things about two such apps, so I downloaded them and they blew me away. One is Alice for the iPad by Atomic Antelope, a presentation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The other is Theodore Gray’s, The Elements: A Visual Exploration by Element Collection, Inc., a mesmerizing way (I kid you not) to visualize and learn about the periodic table of elements.
I showed these to my wife and her co-editor, and they got it instantly. In The Elements, not only do you get text and video but computations are also included in the app. The ability of a “book” to include text, audio, video, animation, and computation totally blows away the traditional atom-based professional book (imagine being able to enter patient parameters and instantly determine medication dosage). And the tablet format frees you from having to retreat to your office (perhaps at a different location), boot up a DVD through problematic software, and find the right video in multiple indexes. You can do all this in the hallway or even the OR if you want.
That led the three of us to have a conference call with the publisher, a leading company for this type of book. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they hadn’t viewed the same iPad apps that we had, and perhaps we weren’t the most articulate advocates, but it was clear that they were in the business of making books of paper and perhaps they could add some additional procedures to the DVD that’s bound into the book. If there was recognition that the whole conception of a professional book has changed, it wasn’t evident on the call.
Enough of the book publishing story. I don’t want to be too hard on them because those of us in other traditional forms of media are too often not much better at re-envisioning our products. But we must do that and, indeed, there is very good creative work being done toward that end. Let’s do more. --Dennis