On December 6, 2009 Rob Bole, the CPB’s VP for Digital Media Strategies, wrote a great post: The Mogul’s Dilemma: Our Mystic Guideposts to Failure. Highly recommended reading. I was reminded of it today in the MediaShift post that actually started with me and then ended with Rob while talking about the infrastructure needed for modern public service media.
Back in late December, when I finally read Bole’s post, I posted my own comments. I saw my notes again today and was surprised to see just how much I wrote. And rather than let the comments sit there alone, I wanted to capture them here on my site for reference. Here’s what I had to say in response:
I totally agree about operators and strategic thinkers as you’ve presented in your thoughts here. When I started in public media in 2004, I was taken aback by how risk-averse the system was in technology, but also in core services and mission. So while I’ve personally beaten the drum for moves toward web services, I’ve also come to realize there’s a very deep-seated problem in “the system” that hasn’t yet been solved in most places.
It’s a mission problem.
What I’ve found is a lot of folks who built their careers and even their personal identities within broadcasting. To ask them or — if you dare — tell them to change, to learn new things and to act in new ways is pretty much an insult to their finely-crafted sense of selves (even if you deeply respect their past work).
But I found more than just entitlement along the way. I also found a loss of Passion and Purpose.
Public broadcasting became a system, an industry, a business. It became broadcasting, it became TV, it became radio — the platform was the thing and identities were inextricably intertwined with the platform. I’ve worked with TV engineers that were irritated when asked to solve radio engineering problems because TV Mattered and Radio Didn’t. In a world defined by technology platform, how do you have a serious conversation about ethereal things like “mission?”
It seems to me that over the years the high-minded notions of the Public Broadcasting Act have been lost. There’s been a failure to renew the mission, to redefine it in modern terms and to find people passionately committed to it. “Broadcasting fulfilled that mission, so why does it need to change?”
It’s taken me 5 years to reach the conclusion that the Internet, TV, radio, newspapers — none of that matters. Those are all technology choices, and they’re all commodities now. What matters is what you do with them, and frankly, most public broadcasting companies and leaders haven’t committed to this new perspective yet.
But there’s one that’s on the way. KETC in St. Louis is transforming itself, little by little, into a company on a mission for its community. They’re learning the best ways to be the “operator” you call for in this post, and they’re doing it across media platforms and out in the community. They originated the “Facing the Mortgage Crisis” project, and they did it because their community needed help and they felt a calling to deal with the issue, not to curry favor with the CPB or other funders.
And it’s not been easy. Each of the projects they’ve undertaken in the last couple of years have been big risks. They didn’t have complete funding. They had to bring together teams from legacy and new units to get the work done. They had to invent new methods and go out into a community that they, like most stations, had largely ignored for many years, preferring to broadcast, broadcast, broadcast.
I would encourage you to help stations find their Purpose and build Passion around that. With those two things, the right operators will magically show up — they’ll want to be a part of that Purpose. The strategic thinkers will join up, too, because there’s plenty of strategy to work out once you have your broad Purpose defined (or re-defined).
Here’s something practical:
Ask stations the two questions I first asked when I joined a public media company back in 2004:
- Who are you?
- Why are you here?
Very simple questions. You might be surprised how many people across the “system” don’t have good answers.
But if they can’t answer those questions — without quoting a tired mission statement — none of the rest of the debate over operators or strategy will really matter.
P.S. I’ve never gotten a good answer to my questions. But KETC may be the first to at least SHOW us some answers.