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).

2 thoughts on “Required Reading: FREE!

  1. Aren’t the NPR fees one of the largest costs of radio? As the system gets squeezed, will not the hard call of what still to carry have to be made?

    Is this a bit like the death spiral at Newspapers – as the paper’s economics get squeezed, they cut the newsroom?

    Somewhere in this “Free” debate is an important insight

  2. Yes, NPR fees are killer. They aren’t the biggest expense for our station, but they rank up there in the top 5, to be sure. And every dollar spent on NPR is a dollar not spent on developing services that strengthen our community engagement.

    Don’t get me wrong — NPR (and PRI and APM and …) content is great stuff and it is the primary attractor for our audience today. However, what’s the point of a local station if all you do is broadcast national content and toss in a little local stuff to appear relevant? Answer: there is no point. NPR could easily buy our station today, cut our staff to two local people and maintain the same service we have now. The rest could be easily automated. (Indeed, for several months in 2007 we ran our station with two people — literally).

    If NPR (and others) released their content to us for free, we’d have more money left to focus on local connection — the only sustainable mission we can have. We’d be more capable of engaging people in our community. Free cash is not the only answer — we also need a strong mission focus and understanding of WHY WE’RE HERE and WHO WE SERVE, but with a clear mission, we’d know how to spend our money wisely.

    I’m becoming more convinced that NPR and other national players (e.g. PBS, APM, APT, PRI) need to think and act nationally and not take a paternalistic view of the legacy local stations. Local media entities will have to figure out their missions on their own. And NPR should be making “friends” outside the legacy station group anyway.

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