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
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.
My friend Steve Rathe sent me the following from Deanna Zandt, which, in the tradition of social media sharing, I’m passing on to you, dear reader, without permission. Hoping a little link love will make this OK. Be sure to follow the links in order.
About two months ago, I started using dlvr.it to cross-post shortened links from this blog to Twitter. I soon discovered that I could use it to track Twitter's impact on my blog traffic in real time. To my initial surprise (but makes more sense on reflection), some 4-5% of my "followers" click on the link within a few minutes of posting. It's pretty well peaked out within an hour or so at a median of 7 or 8% or "followers." Top performers get to around 15% of "followers," but in most cases that's because of retweeting, which you can detect because traffic builds for a longer period.
Tweets, therefore, have a very short useful lifespan. I tend to do blog posting late in the evening, but it makes sense, if you're using Twitter to build blog traffic, to save these and post during higher periods of Twitter usage. --Dennis
Jeff Jarvis on Leo LaPorte’s This Week in Google show, pointed to the great Facebook in Reality video on YouTube, originally from Idiots of Ants. It’s a couple of years old, but it sure nails the extreme stretching of notion of relationships involved in Facebook’s “friending” process. Highly recommended.
For a more serious treatment of this topic, see Umair Haque’s March post on thin relationships. --Dennis
My candidate for a must-read post this month is Umair Haque’s (@umairh) essay on this topic in his HBR blog. He says that the Internet is “largely home to weak, artificial connections, what I call thin relationships.” He writes further:
Nominally, you have a lot more relationships — but in reality, few, if any, are actually valuable. Just as currency inflation debases money, so social inflation debases relationships. The very word "relationship" is being cheapened. It used to mean someone you could count on. Today, it means someone you can swap bits with. ¶ Thin relationships are the illusion of real relationships. Real relationships are patterns of mutual investment. I invest in you, you invest in me. Parents, kids, spouses — all are multiple digit investments, of time, money, knowledge, and attention. The "relationships" at the heart of the social bubble aren't real because they're not marked by mutual investment . At most, they're marked by a tiny chunk of information or attention here or there.
Those of us in public media have embraced social media and have found it valuable, at least for enhancing connections with listeners and viewers to spread the word about content or events. But we should be careful not to equate it with real mutual engagement around content that impacts the lives of people who hear, read or view it over our media. --Dennis
Consultant Terry Heaton writes about the excellent results that WLEX-TV in Lexington, Kentucky is having with its switch to a web site that presents news in a ongoing stream, similar to how blogs are done. You can view it at lex18.com. Heaton writes that they hit 9 million page views for 2010 by the end of February and its bounce rate is under 50%. Lexington is the 62nd Nielsen DMA. Be sure to check out the “time on site” graph.
The concept has a simple logic behind it, if you think about it. Present the news in a manner familiar to people who use the web, not in the manner that recreates a newspaper page on the site.
Thanks to Cleve Callison for a link to this interesting article by Greg Ferenstein, which begins:
On the campus of Penn State University, a rivalry between a rogue campus blog
and the official newspaper has become a fascinating mirror of the strife between
old and new media. In only a matter of months, the unofficial campus blog Onward
State, has marshaled the power of social media to compete with the
award winning 112-year-old campus paper The Daily
Collegian. With one-tenth of the Collegian’s staff size,
Onward State has constructed a virtual newsroom that collaborates in
real-time with Google Wave, outsourced its tip-line to Twitter, and
is unabashed about linking to a competitor’s story. ...
More than half the comments to this blog are spam (I delete them before they're published and report them to TypePad). This one from a term paper company is amusing: "It is glad to see this blog, it is good that and detailed fun to read this, nice informative blog, Thanks for share this article." Guess they don't write the term papers they sell. --Dennis