NPR stations vs. The Future

I commented on Robert Paterson’s blog this morning, and wanted to reproduce the full comment here for the record. And because it was kind of a long comment — it’s better suited to being a post, really.

I’m not sure if I’ll comment any further on the Ken Stern developments directly. Perhaps — it’s definitely disturbing to see this turn of events. But I’d rather wait to see what else comes out in the next day or so. NPR’s reporters have already lifted the veil further today than they did yesterday.

In any case, here’s the full comment left over at Paterson’s site…

Robert — I have some agreement and disagreement with your assessment here.

First is your notion of developing the “system” between NPR and the myriad public radio stations out there. I think that’s a losing proposition, long-haul. Pushing NPR alone toward any given mission is a huge task. Add in a few hundred geographically dispersed and distracted independent entities — each with different challenges and missions that in some ways directly compete with NPR at this time — and you have a royal mess on your hands. Talk about pushing a piece of string.

Stations and NPR will remain at odds so long as they have divergent visions of the future, and so long as any one of them doesn’t instinctively understand how to be successful in that future. Today, only parts of NPR understand the notions you talk about above, and only a handful of stations understand the future in a similar way. So the idea that we can all come together as a “system” is probably not realistic. I hate to say it, and I wish it weren’t true, but that’s the reality I see at the moment.

However, I really, REALLY like your idea of developing this new mission capacity in parallel to / outside of the existing system. There IS opportunity here for collaboration and positive “network effects” from the local to the national and back again. I get goosebumps thinking about the positive things we could do together for our communities and our nation if we worked collaboratively as you suggest — very exciting. It’s just unlikely to develop inside the orthodoxy, as you point out. Today, it appears that the orthodoxy is represented by a portion of the NPR board. They seem to have rewarded innovation with execution.

You also called out some of the new media / tech players out there in the private sector that could help us develop and build a new, parallel public service media and community fabric model. That’s great. I don’t know if those players would be willing to create Public Media 2.0, but I’d like to think so.

I suspect the development of a public service media model for the 21st century will start from two ends. First will be the large players with the money and the national scale to be successful online — ironically, players like NPR. Almost anything these biggest shops do can be successful due to scale. (NPR’s imprimatur can make almost any new media venture quickly successful.)

Then there will be the tiny players in communities across the country. Most likely these will not be the incumbent public broadcasters, who are too married to the old model to change — especially if they’ve been successful in the old model, and especially since the best leadership often goes to the biggest shops. Instead, we’ll see what was hinted at during the IMA conference this year… non-broadcast public service media groups that form on the web first, in small sizes, and grow organically with their “tribe” (as Seth Godin calls it). Over time these small groups can band together naturally using the web as a connective canvas.

The new, small players might be formed by the disaffected innovators from newspapers, local TV, public broadcasters and others — folks that want to serve the public interest first and feel that what we need now more than ever is real community, even if that means creating that community online.

I see tremendous (unparalleled!) potential, as you do. But with this latest NPR announcement, I’m drifting further into the Stephen Hill camp — if you love public media, get out of (traditional) public broadcasting.