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Saturday, 02 February 2008


Mark Laskowski

When I was in second to fourth (maybe fifth) grade, one sin existed that cut across the social strata and niches that were already forming among the kids in public school.

We spent a lot of time standing in line during those years (no doubt as excellent mental and spiritual preparation for adult life): the line on the playground before the first bell of the morning, the lunch line, the bus line, the fire drill line.

And no matter who you were and where you were from, it would not be tolerated if you "gyped" in line. The crowd was unified on this point. No gyping! People who were mortal enemies on polemical issues like Quisp versus Quake cereal could agree, even join forces, on the righteousness of preventing or punishing someone who dared gyp.

Until very recently, the "line" that talented content producers have had to "stand in" was that of going through "the economies of scale (provided by) an industry-wide funding/spending model" that involves producing stations like WBEZ and distributors like Public Radio International (I'm quoting from John Sutton's worthy comments to Anderson's posting). That model has a mix of BS and real value. You can't escape some sort of noise to signal ratio in any endeavor.

But what Anderson almost glosses by is that none of the shows he enjoys the podcasts of would exist or at least be as good as they are without the incubation, development, reach and general mojo provided them by the ongoing aggregated resources of public radio stations and all the other stuff involved in the "industry-wide funding/spending model". But, as you point out, he does touch on that (and many of the comments strive to be corrective on that score). Although, one of the commentors does miss the point entirely ("I know exactly where my entertainment comes from. I don't want to support anything but the creators anymore," says one fellow. Well, if you know EXACTLY where your entertainment comes from, you also know no creator works in an independent vacuum.)

What I haven't sorted out for myself yet is what part of what Anderson talks about is exciting innovation--the emerging new business models for content creation--and what part of it is nothing more than "gyping in line"? If I ever do sort it out, maybe I'll be able to strike a more emphatic tone. I think one of the reasons any reasonable person would struggle with these issues is that we're in a transitional zone. The older business models, like the one Sutton appropriately extols the virtues of, are not yet so weakened that they don't have their purpose and place and the newer business models, like microchunking, are not yet strong enough to sustain a production that would have the quality and consistency of TAL or Fresh Air.

I think my perspective is (as all perspectives on technological changes are) influenced by the generation to which I belong. Along with bypassing the old school model that made TAL as good as it is, I also don't like the idea that singers can become (sort of) stars, not by learning craft, paying dues and developing their talent, but by being finalists in a popular reality show. That feels like "gyping" to me too. Are we witnessing the birth of the "gyp generation"? I don't know. Like I said, I'm mulling over it.

Some folks are less equivocating. As someone other than Sutton commented in response to Anderson's post: "As for your donation to the show versus the station, I believe the money goes to the same place: the larger system that makes great shows like "This American Life" possible. We should be careful as a nation to be loyal to systems such as democracy and public health, not just to our personal favorites. The concepts underlying public radio would be worth supporting, even if we disliked all the shows."

Hey, that could almost be fundraising copy . . . right up to the "even if we disliked ALL the shows." Even the most enthusiastic fundraiser I know wouldn't want to take that one on. Talk about a tough room.

The oppportunity too often missed in both television and radio fundraising appeals is not pushing the show versus the station (too much of that already). It is about more than the show AND about more than the station. The opportunity missed is contextualizing the institutional purpose of public media. Public media creates an environment where a program as creative and unique as TAL was able to take its first faltering steps, grow stronger, grow up and maybe even finally sort of leave home (the video version on Showtime seems to qualify for this metaphor, as does TAL podcasts and delivery on XM).

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