Required Reading: FREE!

I was chatting with the boss this week when I made a shocking suggestion.

I told him that one or perhaps all of the audio (radio) programs we create today — and for which we charge hefty fees to “member” stations — be simply given away to any station that wanted it.

Immediately he shot back: “But someone has to pay for that content!”

I love these situations. I get to try out newfangled business or economics insights to suggest something that’s anathema to the old guard (people and/or ideas). Plus, it’s a little logical fallacy that’s fun to pick apart:

  • Me: Give it away for free.
  • Him: We can’t — someone has to pay for it.
  • Me: Who said no one would pay for it?

Indeed, someone must pay for the people and equipment (mostly people) required to produce award-winning content, regardless of medium or delivery system. The future isn’t all user-generated content (UGC).

The notion of free has come up a lot for me in the last year, as I’ve ruminated on the idea that PBS and NPR should give away all their content to incumbent pubcasting stations for free. (But someone has to pay for that content!) I’ll explore more of that idea in postings to come.

For now, I’d like to share some FREE readings that have been published within the last week concerning this notion of giving it away, seemingly willy-nilly. The notion of “free” has actually been a viable business option for decades, but in the digital media space the idea is gaining widespread traction very quickly.

Why free?

Because in the digital media world, where every user is one link away from any other user and everything can be digitally copied to perfection with little or no impediments, maintaining control is becoming impossible. Plus, as media content volume rises toward infinity (or certainly more than any one person can possibly consume), the value of content (in broad terms) falls toward zero.

So, here are my picks for the late February 2008 “free reader” if you want to get schooled in how and why giving it away makes sense in lots of situations:

Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business
Chris Anderson / Wired / 25 Feb 2008

Anderson was the author of the article and follow-on book called The Long Tail that’s been cited as much as any Web 2.0 meme can possibly be cited. It’s accepted as a given truth (a little too easily, I might add) at this point. Now he’s been exploring the notion of free as a part of viable business models and this is the opening article in what’s sure to be both a series of thought pieces and, eventually a book. This is basically the seminal article of “free” at this point. There’s even a little intro video included with the article, featuring Anderson himself.

Chris Anderson Takes Up The Free Banner
Mike Masnick / Techdirt / 25 Feb 2008

That ‘Free’ Stuff Is Catching On…
Mike Masnick / Techdirt /26 Feb 2008

Masnick is a wizard at both succintcly explaining tech-focused business developments and eviscerating ideas that make no sense. In these two cases, he points out the Anderson article, adds some other links, and in the first article points out the mistake in Anderson’s logic — the notion that the “free” model turns economic principles on their heads. He rightly points out that, no, in fact no laws of economics are broken. Well worth your two clicks so you don’t get sucked into believing FREE is bigger than it is.

Free is the Future
Lee LeFever / Common Craft / 26 Feb 2008

Step aside from the free hyperbole for a moment and read this piece. In this case, the guy that owns and operates the Common Craft custom video development service explains all the ways in which his business — a money-making venture, to be sure — has benefited by using free technologies and services from other businesses. Indeed, his two-person shop is wildly successful today precisely due to the impacts those free services had on their ability to get the word out and share their work. It’s a great piece because Lefever takes you step by step through the ways in which “free” made their profitable business possible.

Free Is A Great Way To Make Money
Fred Wilson / A VC / 25 Feb 2008

This post is mostly a link over to the Anderson article — with one exception. Wilson points to one of his own posts from July 2005 (!) that discusses the notion of free in business models.

Better Than Free
Kevin Kelly / The Technium / 31 Jan 2008

  • Immediacy
  • Personalization
  • Interpretation
  • Authenticity
  • Accessibility
  • Embodiment
  • Patronage
  • Findability

Sick of discovering how you have to give it all away? Wondering how you’ll actually make money? Well here’s the antidote to the free movement — here’s what can’t be given away, what really carries lasting value. This article probably had more buzz at the IMA conference than perhaps any other because it lays down a conceptual map for the services that public media can provide that are fundamentally undisruptable (yes, I just made that word up).

Bye-Bye Buckley

With the passing of William F. Buckley, I fear an era of American intellectualism may have come to a close. Such a smart guy, even if he made you mad. But I’ll remember him as exquisitely entertaining.

Terry Heaton may have the best line referring to Buckley’s unique style:

“…he raised ‘leaning back’ to an art form.”


The IMA impasse

I’m finally back home from the IMA 2008 conference (2,300 miles later). I’m tired, I’m Twittered out, and I’m facing both a mound of catch-up work as well as one of the busiest weeks of the year. But I wanted to capture my impressions from the conference, much as Todd Mundt and Tim Eby have done.

Overall, it was a good conference as usual. Interesting projects were profiled from all over the system, but nothing was truly game-changing at a macro level. There were exhortations that we need to do more, reserve more of our budgets, boost traffic and so on. Palpable fear ran through the conference about TV, partially due to DTV in 2009, partially sparked by the universally-hated NY Times article. Radio, while considered at risk eventually, is firing on all cylinders for the moment and doesn’t yet show fear.

But here are, in my opinion, the truly interesting items, borne from meta-issues swirling around the conference but not directly addressed:

  1. The IMA and Mark Fuerst (one of the IMA’s originators and the de facto CEO for many years) have changed the nature of their relationship. They now have a formal (or more formal) contractual relationship, and will pursue full 501(c)(3) status for the organization. The implications of this change are unclear to me, but it might signal a real sea change in how IMA operates and what goals it pursues. The way it was presented left me with lingering concerns, given Fuerst’s strong advocacy for online service. If he’s not pushing as hard in the future as he has in the past, what becomes of IMA?
  2. Fuerst ended the conference with comments that were strongly (and accurately) critical of the system’s lack of development in the online space, pointing out one stat showing that in 2005 the PubTV system invested just 0.66% of spending in online work. Naturally, this paucity of investment has resulted in pathetic web traffic systemwide. Fuerst seemed almost angry in his closing comments. Rightly so, but it was the first time I’d experienced a conclusion that was negative in tone.
  3. The IMA members meeting and one of the sessions focused on the questions, “Can we / should we bring more nonprofit public service media entities into the IMA fold?” Reactions were positive to the idea, though I don’t think anyone could imagine what this would mean to the IMA in the long run. The most obvious nonprofit pure-play web entity that might partner with IMA was Wikipedia, represented at the conference by their Executive Director, the former interactive manager for

In my (current) view, IMA appears to be at an impasse. We seem to have reached a point where integrated media advocacy has given out, where recommendations and demonstrations fail to move our organizations to meaningful action.

To date, IMA has been effective at putting the online services question on the table within public broadcasting and has done so eloquently and repeatedly. But for all the work completed, no significant sea change has yet arrived. Meanwhile, the house of public TV is on fire, we’re losing audience to a fracturing media world across the board and new players (like Wikipedia and others) have stolen “our” web traffic and possibly our raison d’etre.

I’ve been to IMA for the past four years straight. I’ve been excited by the projects and keep feeling like there’s so much opportunity in front of us. But in those four years, not much has changed in my shop nor in the system at large.

I’m left wondering… what now?

The dangers of vendor presentations

Vendor presentations are good for shows like NAB or CES or Macworld or other shows where vendors are supposed to be there to hawk their wares, even on panels.

But at a conference like IMA 2008, this is a bad thing.

I’m sitting in a panel presentation that’s full of vendors hawking their particular services. And they’re not talking about authentic engagement with the audience, they’re talking in broadcast, eyeball-catching terms. It’s not real, it’s marketing.

IMA needs to avoid this in the future. Let the vendors have their booths or even chuck flyers in the conference bag, but putting them on panels wastes time and isn’t illuminating. Put my peers up there — the ones doing the real work with real tools.

PBS solution: implosion / explosion

Interesting dinner conversation last night here in Los Angeles at the IMA conference. Lots of topics. But I let slip one idea that really upsets people with a vested interest in the current public televison model in the U.S.

My shocking and insane recommendation:
Continue reading “PBS solution: implosion / explosion”

WaPo cage match

Great article over at the PBS-hosted MediaShift Idea Lab on the battle for attention, resources and respect between the completely separated online and traditional newsrooms at the Washington Post companies. The money quote:

The entertaining part of the drama lies in the pronouns. …the finger-pointing always targets “those people,” “those folks,” and other, less polite, designations. …”we” generally takes a breather.

Sound familiar? I hope not, but alas it’s still all too common.

Public broadcasting's three-legged stool

I just commented on a post at Lost Remote (one of my favorite blogs) where they mentioned the NY Times article that has every public TV station manager’s panties in a bunch this week.

I didn’t comment on the validity of the Times articles ideas themselves — we can debate that separately (and perhaps I will). But I did try to provide a reality check on those folks saying we should de-fund PBS because it would be fine on its own.

It continues to surprise me how few people understand how public broadcasting is funded. To be fair, the funding systems are a nasty mess of spaghetti, so I can understand the confusion. But it’s not really that hard once you’ve been through it once or twice.

Continue reading “Public broadcasting's three-legged stool”

Inverted orbits

I’ll be explaining and exploring the purpose of this site in the coming days, but before I get into it too deeply, I want to start with a quote from the incomparable Umair Haque:

“…connected consumers … want firms to be citizens of their microcultures.”

This notion and its implications are the central subject of this site, though I’ll use a variety of metaphors to explore it. Such as astronomical metaphors.

I’ll be paying attention specifically to public media companies and how they’re affected by and can change to embrace the sweeping inversion of how media is both distributed and consumed in the opening decades of the 21st century.

Short Version: In the past, PBS and NPR and their associated local media outlets were the centers of their media solar systems. They pushed out lots of heat and energy and had such tremendous mass that viewers and listeners were pulled into orbit around them.

But now the solar system metaphor is inverting.

In an expanding media universe, the viewers and listeners and readers — the users — are at the center of their own solar systems, and the “gravity” of their attention pulls in media services of all kinds, commercial and noncommercial alike. Where once we were the sun, today we are mere planets. Or if we fail to change, we’ll be comets, snuffed out after a few passes.

Never again will we — the public media purveyors — be the star at the center of the solar system. We must now begin to authentically grapple with this reversal of media economics and change our DNA (another Haquism) to engage with the public in new ways. We may not be the center any longer, but perhaps we can be an important planet in our users’ solar systems.

Maybe that’s a good introduction, and maybe not. Stay tuned for more. And comment away if that made absolutely no sense.