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?

15 thoughts on “The IMA impasse

  1. John
    I think the time has come for a “Pathfinder Group” – a small group of innovators in the station world to come together as a leading group an help each other make daily progress – pool ideas, pool energy, pool resources – lead the system by example

  2. Following the conference via Twitter, I was struck by how familiar both the ideas and the angst felt, and I left PBS 2 years ago after a 6-year career there. The system is stuck like a truck in the mud, despite the passion and hard work of so many talented people, and personally I find it very depressing to see person after person burn out after giving so much of themselves to the cause.

    I believe that what’s needed is a big infusion of cash tied to a fundamental, systemic restructuring that centralizes resources and decision-making while clarifying and boosting the role of local stations to provide local content, services and outreach. But I don’t see how the system, as currently structured (fractured) can get there… it means demonstrating to Congress that the American people not only love Big Bird and Jim Lehrer, but that they fundamentally believe public media is essential to democracy, enough that they’re willing to pay to fix a broken model.

    With all the problems this country faces, it would take a special kind of leadership and frankly an alignment of the stars to advance such an agenda (and to do so quickly).

  3. Amanda — Thank you SO MUCH for your comment. You’re actually the very first commenter on this site!

    I agree and disagree with your assertions. I totally agree that PBS is a truck stuck in the mud, as you say. And I agree that there’s lots of talented people in the system. However, I think an infusion of cash would be disastrous in the long run.

    It’s highly unlikely that system leaders would use a cash infusion to innovate around the current impasses at the local and national levels. True innovation and new thinking don’t usually come out of organizations that are fat, dumb and happy. I fear cash would simply reinforce the existing silos, punting the ball down the field; delaying the inevitable.

    If the cash could indeed be tied to reform, as you suggest, then I’m all for it. But I struggle with believing such reform could be achieved. Even with a big payday, I don’t see PBS, NPR, APM, PRI, APT and major and minor stations nationwide figuring out how to move forward.

    What if, instead, a big cash investment could be made solely in new media, blocking the incumbents — stations, networks — from getting any of the money. But I think that would be hard to get through Congress, being an untested idea.

    I don’t know — let’s keep thinking! Our nation deserves a nonprofit public media service, one that binds us together as a culture.

  4. Robert — Thanks for your comment, too! And thanks for the Tweets.

    I agree we need some kind of group to lead the way. However, wasn’t IMA supposed to be that group? Well, at least the advocacy part.

    Your suggestion of pooling resources and expertise makes the most sense. But my experience in pubcasting to date suggests that all of the players jealously guard resources and control points and eye one another suspiciously by default. It’s not healthy, but it’s true.

    The “pathfinders” might be a hybrid of pubcasters that “get it” and new media companies like Wikipedia that get the web but don’t have to protect sacred histories or hulking infrastructures. Maybe that’s where IMA is headed now — into a brave new world with new partners. And maybe some of us can follow.

    All I know right now is that my company is laden down with legacy pubcasting costs and one-way, disconnected mass media business models while our neighbors, our friends, our communities are moving forward into a sleek new networked world with the lowest cost of interaction ever achieved with truly meaningful impacts.

    We need more WOSU and WETC developments. I hope you’ll help more of us figure this stuff out!

  5. John
    This is what I am trying to do:

    First I am telling the story of the pathfinders – history tells us that it is story that gives us hope. It was the Story of Lewis & Clark not the map that brought 50 million people from their homes and set ways in Europe to America

    I started with KPBS, have done KETC, will do WOSU soon. Next week I will tell Torey Malatia’s story at Chicago and Kit Jensens’s at Cleveland – I hope that another 4-6 stations will allow me to tell their story too. So by the end of March we will have New Realities 2 years later

    I would like someone to pay for us to all go off and spend 3 days with each other (CPB anyone anyone Bueller?)

    My bet is that we can take our understanding of the Elephant beyond the brain to the heart and build the trust to agree to help each other and then to write commonly about where we are for all to see. By hanging out for 3 days and nights I bet we can form as a real community.

    Then we can use the web to grow out – using a kind of wikinomics approach

    I currently write for a group blog called Fast Forward ( )-It has become one of the most well read blogs in the world and focuses on Web 2.0 – I think that this is a well proven model for getting traction on new ideas.

    I see this group (The Pub Media group) adopting this type of approach of a group blog where we both privately and publicly tell our continuing story.

    Others will come in and add their wisdom – the group can share free and paid help – so the cost for any station will be free or very little.

    We move from advocacy to self help – from theory to experiment – from experiment to roll out

    So guys and guyesses – what do you think?

  6. After six or seven years of trying to push the river, I’ve regretfully come to believe that the forces that drive the legacy system — both in public television and public radio — are simply too entrenched, too torpid, too scared, and too innovation-phobic to respond meaningfully to the challenges of the digital era. It’s a pious, slow-moving culture that has always been satisfied with less.

    Sure, there will be some forward looking moves made and some low-hanging fruit picked (like the Podcasting initiative) — especially by the leading stations —but let’s face it, the ball has been dropped at the network and system level time after time since the extent of the digital challenge became clear to everyone, and there is little evidence that sufficient positive forces are now acting within the system to change this. Negative forces are not enough.

    My Cassandra-like warnings at various pre-IMA study groups and conferences have proven to be slightly slow to arrive, but it is no longer in doubt that public radio will face a longer, slower version of the erosion and fragmentation of usership that public television already has, with the inevitable downward spiral of support from listeners, underwriters and funders.

    Essentially, the system will get hollowed out from within by cutting staff, production and services. In another ten years it could resemble a ghost network populated by aging ‘tentpole’ programs and whatever else has already built a national audience and remains a viable part of daily news & information service.

    The few stations that remain centers of program production have the best shot to adapt, but it should be worrisome that most trendspotters see users wanting to support their chosen program brands directly, making all intermediates vulnerable unless they add value or own the program brands outright. This is your disintermediation at work.

    At the network level, it seems that NPR, PRI and APM are focused on reproducing the same balance of power in digital distribution and underwriting that obtained in the pre-digital era. I wish them luck as they divide an ever-shrinking pie.

    In the endgame, they will be forced to act to protect their own franchises, so you can expect an era of hardball system politics as these aggregators and national network brands try to detach themselves from the drag that the stations exert on their own ability to respond to digital media opportunities. As a result, the large group of small and medium sized stations and state networks will be left to twist in the increasing winds on their own, while the major stations and the smallest community stations will adapt by degrees to the new realities of the digital network era.

    John is quite right to point out that every opportunity promoted by the IMA to setup meaningful public media system collaborations, charge them to create significant new services, and fund them so they have a snowball’s chance of surviving in a globally flaming mediascape.

    Face it folks : it ain’t gonna happen here.

    The IMA isn’t going to accomplish anything because it is fundamentally powerless. The moment of opportunity has passed — it needed to happen in 2004-2005. The IMA turned into a good conference but despite worthy efforts failed to provoke anything truly important within the system.

    After attending the IMA every year since its inception, this year I opted out and instead attended a Music Technology conference here in San Francisco.

    The music industry’s problems are legion and the subject of daily international press. You would expect a conference like this to be as depressing as IMA sounds per John’s report, but in fact it was the reverse. The rooms were humming with smart, engaged, activists of all ages, working to move the digital music experience forward.

    (Note that this is all happening in the larger context of a copyright regime that has for years refused or only reluctantly provided the licenses needed for digital services to offer the innovations necessary to wean the public off physical media. That’s one problem that public media does not have when it originates its own programming.)

    It is not my wish to further depress the many good friends and colleagues who continue to work in public broadcasting, but I believe it is time to take this discussion to it’s sadly obvious conclusion:

    If you care about the values of public media, get out of public broadcasting and work on achieving them elsewhere.

  7. Robert — I think your approach of telling stories and sharing ideas in a FASTforward model probably make the most sense, if anything is to be achieved on a systemwide basis. I only wish I worked at a station/network large enough and influential enough to help with the process. I would, of course, pledge to participate in the discussions as desired and could even offer technical assistance in assembling the required back-end.

    I, for one, see a future for stations and networks that’s radically different. I’ve already proposed an inversion of the PBS model (PBS gives content to stations for free, PBS gathers cash directly on a national level). NPR and the other networks will likely have to do the same thing.

    I’ll write more about this, because we in Alaska actually have a microcosmic version of the NPR/station problem. The Alaska Public Radio Network is breaking down, due to lack of funding at all levels within the system. The fate of APRN is likely to be the fate of NPR, with one exception. NPR owns top-notch content and can draw advertising and direct listener support on a national level. It’s NPR people love, not generally their local stations.

    Anyway, more on that later. For now, I hope you can pull this conversation together. If anyone can, it’s probably you.

  8. Stephen — Thanks so much for commenting. I’ve read your stuff for quite some time and always been impressed with the thoroughness of your commentary and solidity of your thoughts. That you would spend time replying to something I’d posted is, well… humbling!

    I agree with your notion of “pushing the river,” and your observation that IMA is, itself, powerless to promote its agenda within the hundreds of organizations that make up the traditional public broadcasting world. IMA is a great resource, but that’s it. Someone has to choose to USE that resource. So far, very few have done so and the work done to date — while impressive — has not changed the game substantially.

    I do think the work that Robert Paterson is doing is starting to have a real impact, at least at the stations where he’s worked. Of course, those stations chose to engage him and engage their communities in new ways. Is it enough? I don’t know. I just know that sitting still is not an option.

    As for me, I’m not quite ready to give up on public media. Partially this is because I can indeed imagine a different service/business model that’s successful. Partially because my paycheck today comes from public broadcasting, and I want to protect it. It’s also because the great history of public broadcasting is worth honoring by trying to bring it into the 21st century.

    But no doubt about it. I’m not sticking around indefinitely. I will either participate in a revolution (for the betterment of my community) or I’ll get out.

    I’ve often wondered, in the last couple of years, whether starting a new 501(c)(3) separate from public broadcasting would be required. The crushing infrastructure costs of public broadcasting take so much out of us. The building I work in, the towers, the microwave systems, the satellite dishes, the electrical costs and offices — the weight of all those elements plus a staff dedicated to the old models are out of balance with our actual community impacts. We’ve gotten fat, dumb and happy. Only we’re not happy anymore.

    Anyway, I think your example with Hearts of Space has been inspiring, not depressing. You’ve innovated and found ways to serve your niche audience in ways that are meaningful for them and sustainable for you. You’ve proven it CAN be done. Sure, stations and networks are different companies and business models, but there are paths forward.

    We need the kind of gadfly commentary that only you can offer. I hope you won’t forsake us completely. At least not yet. 😉

  9. John,

    I agree that the work Rob Paterson is doing is terrific, but even in the best scenarios the impact and the benefits of his work will be limited to a small fraction of the network.

    Stimulating others to adopt successful formats and operational strategies worked in the past in public broadcasting, but there was a crucial difference: the set of skills and indeed, the very modes of thinking required, were already widely shared and agreed upon within the system. Success online requires a distinctly different skill set and an almost complete inversion of ‘broadcast thinking.’

    What Doc Searls said on his panel at IMA (I watched it online) was that the new business and service models would come from the demand side, not the supply side.

    This observation, if true, condemns legacy broadcasters to the sidelines in this evolving process unless they reinvent themselves effectively. Those in public media who are pushing for more interaction with the ‘audience’ and more social networking features are moving in the right general direction, but I believe that even these models may be oversimplified for a fully realized digital public media system.

    Your idea of inverting the cash flow between stations and the network is nicely subversive. I hope you are not burned at the stake for suggesting it, but I’m pretty sure it would take something like the dramatic meltdown the recorded music industry is now going through to provoke it. Several years of double digit declines in audience numbers would be the equivalent, but that was not enough to motivate PBS and their stations to make the necessary changes, so I wouldn’t bet on it happening.

    Two years ago and last year at the IMA conference I attempted to pose the issue of new business models for online operation (one of them was similar to your idea — in fact the networks actually paid the stations to carry their core shows in one variation). No one was ready for even a cursory discussion of these questions, yet they are absolutely central to any effective reorganization of the current system.

    Starting a new non-profit entity to unify public media may or may not be necessary. We don’t really need a new governing organization as much as we need a common technical platform and a new set of business rules for public media producers, distributors, aggregators and platform providers. It’s unavoidably going to be messier than the central network/affiliate paradigm, so we don’t need as much control. In fact, too much control may inhibit it from happening.

    This is exactly what Mike Homer of Open Media Network (open, get it?) was trying to do before he was sidelined by a chronic illness. Even had this not happened, Mike’s extraordinary generosity and functional contribution was almost completely ignored or misunderstood by the powers that be in public broadcasting, and has never been utilized at anywhere near its potential. This is another reason why I believe that the solutions of the future will come from Internet users, programmers and entrepreneurs, not from existing public broadcasters.

    I’m pleased you find the example of what we are doing with Hearts of Space inspiring. I wish I could say I was motivated to set a good example for the benefit of others, but in fact the main motivator was survival, and then trying to create something with the resources at hand.

    The main thing we have learned from running a niche music archive service online since 2001 is that you have to engage fully with your users/listeners to fulfill their needs and aspirations — not condemn them to limited choices, limited interaction, and twice-yearly appeals for support. You have to reinvent yourself as a web application developer and get into a constant cycle of innovations, improvements and additions to your service — ‘permanent beta.’

    Finally, while I have no intention of abandoning public broadcasting — we continue to syndicate our show to over 200 CPB qualified stations — our growth and our revenues are increasingly web-centric and multimedia. Essentially, we are going through the same transition that every actor in the public media system will have to go through themselves — now, or in the near future if they want to survive.

    I recognize that people have jobs and responsibilities and institutions have histories that are worth celebrating and preserving. So I don’t envy you or anyone else who is calling for change in the existing public media system, since it is a ‘disruptive’ activity by definition. I have simply retired from that fight and, as a tactical matter, am advising you and other progressive voices to consider their options.

    If you are going to have your boat rocked by tsunami-sized waves, I think it’s better to be on a boat that’s headed in the right direction and is used to a certain amount of turbulence. The underlying values that have been articulated and demonstrated by the current institutions will survive. But it is nowhere written in stone who will be the ones to re-assert them in the digital era.

    :: SH

  10. Stephen — Ironically, this week I’ve participated in a lot of strategic thinking and interaction with our board, just as we’ve been exchanging comments.

    Unfortunately, the old notions of mass media — of “owning” big pieces of the “audience,” are still in place. There’s still this idea that if we just find the right mix of music / news / localism and the right “demo” we’ll be okay. If we just try a little harder…

    And further, I was greeted with near-jeers (friendly jeers, but still…) at an IMA 2008 dinner (written up elsewhere here) when I suggested PBS sell its stuff straight to cable/satellite and give the content to stations for free. I was told this was impossible, that PBS would never do it. I told the group (I doubt they heard me over the chatter) that it won’t be PBS’ choice if they want to survive.

    And I’ve made the “pay the stations” recommendation a few times in reference to both PBS and NPR. Old hands laugh out right at that one. Not even a moment’s theoretical thought is offered.

    So while I haven’t been burned at the stake, I’ve smelled the smoke!

    This rubs me the wrong way, as I’m on board with Doc Searls and others that say the media environment has inverted in favor of the user and responsive creator, not the distributor. Serving a niche, no matter the size, is a two-way game now. Indeed, I started this blog specifically to explore these ideas openly — my first post touched on the idea (though I probably didn’t explain it as well as I should have).

    In any case, the evidence is mounting in your view’s favor. I’ll labor a bit longer, perhaps tilt at a few more windmills, before walking away. The writing is definitely on the wall. Either I’ll edit that writing to match the real world around me or I’ll finally read it and be on my way.

    The question I would ask you (or anyone else) at this point is this…

    If you were going to start a locally-focused public media company today — without the overhead of gear, people or ideas from the old public broadcasting world — what would that look like? Is that one person and a web service? Is that a community site organized by one person but handled by volunteers? Or are geographically-centric community services passe, and we should instead focus on topical verticals, like the HoS model?

  11. Stephen is right – of course he has been right for years – I am convinced that it is not possible to have disruptive change inside the old host. Clayton Christenson’s research tells us that this is not juts an intuitive feeling.

    Torey made the point – he doesn’t go to meeting much anymore – that inside an organization – with staff who are locked into the old, with an audience that is locked into the old, with a board that is miles away from even the dilemma and with most of the cash flow coming from the old – that if you tried disruptive change inside – they would have to kill you.

    With Vocalo, Torey is doing the classic Dilemma solution – the new which is the opposite of the old (there can be no compromise) is contained in a completely separate vehicle with no attachment – even in a different city.

    His hope is that this will inform the old.

    My caution is that the old will tolerate the disruptive new until it becomes clear that the new will kill the old – then they will enter into a fight to the death.

    I lived this when my old bank set up an investment banking boutique in London in the early 1980’s. We are a fun game for the Corporate banking folks until it was clear that we had better access and more trust with the key corporate clients than they did.

    They did everything they could to kill us. It was only when a new chairman set us up as an equal and independent body and shifted the banks resources in out direction that we could live. In 10 years, we had killed off the old bank – they were right we were shiva.

    As Stephen says, we got there because we had what the clients wanted.

    Then smart people could see that and we had enough of the power men onside to make it happen.

    When I started this, there were 3 of us on the banking side. Wheh we got set up as an equal unit we were 40 – there were 5,000 on the Corporate Banking side and 30,000 on the retail side.

    So your new does not have to be big – it just has to get a big audience. If you set it up right it will do that and it will not cost a lot – if it does, you have designed it wrong.

    Thanks to you both for making this site so interesting

  12. Robert — Always helping me see the way!

    As we’ve been developing theoretical architectures for our revised public media company in Anchorage, one of the ideas has centered on whether we should setup a separate unit to engage with the public in totally new ways, partially online, partially in person, partially with streams. We’d likely move it either into a segregated part of our building or into another facility entirely. Now I’ll pursue that a little more forcefully, as it feels more necessary.

    I’ve even said in the past we (at my company) need to start and fund a separate unit that would, in the end, come back and “buy” the remnants of the old, tattered company that didn’t adapt to the changes in the media world. Maybe that is the future. Apple did it when they started the Macintosh unit and used the cash cow of the Apple II to pay for everything. The Apple II people hated it, but it make the Mac flourish.

    Our company might be able ot buck the trend, however, for a couple reasons. First, our new CEO is from outside public media and is not bound by that tradition (though he is bound by the old newspaper traditions — which might be worse!), and second, three managers out of the seven are calling for a whole-company conceptual revision, one that would tear apart all the old allegiances and silos in favor of a new model. So it’s possible. But I do think it’s risky.

    In any case, I’m going back to the drawing board this coming week and see if we can break of a :VOCALO of our own.

    By the way, :VOCALO is way cool. I spent time chatting with their GM while at IMA — she’s really inventive, energetic and smart — and hope to talk with her more about this experience of firing up a new division with a totally different style than the parent company.

    And I’m looking forward to notes from your conversations with Malatea. He’s one of those inventive guys many of us wish we could have as a CEO.

  13. I’m an ima virgin so my impressions are skewed… but here’s what I think…
    this duplicates my blog post, which nobody will read at

    reinventing the wheel:

    this was the most prominent takeaway for me. I’ve been doing stuff on the web since 1995, and used to be involved with museum folks who were putting up the first web sites, and trying to change the visitor experience, democratizing and diffusing the content in their stuffy institutions… next time, maybe get one of these folks, like Steve Dietz, to talk about lessons learned in this endeavor in the past 13 years…

    can we really sit in a room, and have someone tell us they’re inventing the encyclopedia, or that “local” radio content is something new… perhaps this is someone who never heard a dj shout out to somebody’s girlfriend…

    but still… 30% of the conference was pure genius and inspiration.

    For example, think about language:

    instead of trying to “monetize” the web, Jimmy Wales calls Wikipedia a “charity” — not a five oh one see three — a charity. To me, that’s genius.

    Free the culture, free the people, free us from our hidebound organizations and the stultifying culture of so many of them.

    And let’s continue the dialogue. My idea for next time: a secret team not only live blogs the conference, but tells stories about it, and anybody can take part in the workshop to make that happen. The resulting stories go nearly live to the web, as a complement to the C-SPAN style live streams.

    anybody wanna join me?

  14. Steve — Thanks for the comment, and in fact I saw your blog post when it appeared in Twitter. So you have at least one reader!

    While I do wonder out loud in this post as to whether the IMA is at an impasse in its advocacy work inside public media, I think I’d want to go again next year for the simple reason that we did hit something of a wall this year (my opinion). So what happens next? Will IMA and its proponents (anyone pushing for transformation within the system) remain at the wall or find our way around it in new, creative ways? Will there be more players there from outside the traditional pubcasting community? Where does IMA go next? That alone would be fascinating.

    I like your secret blogging team concept. We had a nascent form of it this year via Twitter, but could use something more concrete and coordinated, I suspect, to be more useful to remote parties. I’d also love to see a video project out of the conference — a documentary-style program that follows a few folks around the conference, each from various “camps” in the public media world, and documents their thoughts/reactions. We could then get a composite view of a complex conference.

    The next IMA, impasse or not, looks to be very interesting.

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