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.
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
I’ll not comment on it because I work at NPR, but Staci Kramer has a lengthy article describing the live launch today (9/8) of a local journalism effort among NPR and partner public radio stations built around content verticals. Check it out. Link: paidContent.org. --Dennis
Howard Kurtz, in a great column on the impact and importance of search on journalism, provides this as an outrageous fictional example of a headline designed to attract page views from search engines. Link: Washington Post.
Somehow it's OK, I guess, when Amazon shows me recommendations when I check in or by email based on what I've purchased in the past. But I'm now getting a couple of calls a month at the office from technology vendors who are monitoring hits to their web site to identify possible customers. A typical one starts out something like, "Hi, this is Joe Schmoe from Superduper Network Services and we've noticed that someone from there has been hitting our web site multiple times recently." I'm already innundated with vendor calls, so this seems one more semi-creepy excuse to pick up the phone. --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.
Nine of ten visitors to local televisions station websites are already fans of the station, but only half of any given station’s “fans” visit their website. This startling piece of information comes from AR&D cross-platform media studies based on 2,200 interviews with consumers and reveals a major weakness in the operating strategies of local television companies. Online, according to AR&D senior analyst Rory Ellender, “stations are only playing to their on-air audience and not even doing a very good job of that.” ¶ This is the fruit of trying only to be a television station online, while the marketplace is vastly bigger. …
After some analysis, he goes on to recommend that stations “need to creat an online news service that is 100% Web native,” that they “need to be able to separate [their] ability to make money from [their] ability to create content,” and that they “need to place strategic control of making local money in the hands of local people.”