Why innovation must be part of public media's DNA

If it seems like the world moves faster, technologically, with each passing year, you’re not imagining things.

Consider this chart:

Starting from its introduction, the simple telephone took 71 years to arrive in just 50% of American homes. Think about that. An entire generation was born, lived and died waiting for a telephone to arrive in their home, and only half of them got it!

Even electricity took 52 years to reach 50% of homes. Cell phones — that ubiquitous device most of us take for granted — took 14 years, but the MP3 player took less than half that time.

Basic Internet access — the new omnimedia connection — took 10 years to reach 50%, and in the early days it wasn’t even that much to talk about. Today, high-speed Internet access is in well over 50% of homes in the U.S. and average speeds are rising (though not fast enough for me).

There are two lessons here I can see:

  1. We cannot be transmitter companies (and indeed, we never were — we just thought we were because it was easier that way). Technology is a tool, not a purpose.
  2. The public naturally innovates as better tools arrive for information gathering, sharing and entertainment. We must innovate with them to serve them; innovation must be built into our DNA.

What other lessons can you see in this chart?

A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be. –Wayne Gretzky

15 thoughts on “Why innovation must be part of public media's DNA

  1. Couldn’t agree more with your conclusions, but the premise needs this comment: one of the big reasons the “diffusion rate” of new technologies is getting faster is the switch to increasingly efficient and ephemeral technologies.

    To illuminate the difference at its most extreme: establishing telephone and electricity required massive investments in poles, wire, a network of switching stations, generators, and the like. Cost? Billions.

    Diffusion of radio and television also required very large infrastructure investments, and the adoption of consumer hardware that was initially expensive and took 25 years to become cheap, even longer to become portable. Cost? Billions.

    Mass diffusion of PCs required not only a substantial end user hardware investment that has also taken some 20 years to ameliorate, but ensnares the user in a technology and user interface learning curve that still has not been completely removed as a source of friction that now occurs along generational faultlines.

    Establishing MP3 players was done via lightweight software downloads to existing desktops over an existing network; after the “MP3 jukebox” player concept was established, portability of the player functionality was achieved by marketing an easy to use consumer electronics device weighing a few ounces at “popular” prices. Cost? Tens to low hundreds of millions.

    So each innovation builds on a technology foundation adopted mastered by previous generations of end users, and each becomes lighter, easier, and cheaper — and therefore faster. Q.E.D.

    The one adoption curve that is not illustrated here is ubiquitous wireless Internet access. That sucker is not behaving according to the rule, because it requires both technology innovations like WiMAX, and a new, very expensive infrastructure.

  2. Agreed. It’s almost Old Testament in its appeal — this begat that, and so on. You can definitely see how the bottom half of the chart set the stage for the top half.

    You could also say the chart shows, especially in the last couple of decades, a move from hardware and physical objects to software and intellectual property or virtual objects. It’s not like the notion of packaged media was revolutionary when the DVD arrived on the scene — that was just a mashup of consumer video tape and the audio CD (or LaserDisc).

    I think the delay in the development/deployment of WiMax (or similar technologies) is driven by several factors, not the least of which is the chicken-and-egg principle (if I can call it that). Sure, there are other difficulties like the physics of radio wave propagation and such. But if I’m sitting at Sprint, trying to decide where to invest, do I noodle around the edges and make more money from my existing customers, or do I make a bold play for an unproven “next gen” technology that will, as you point out, cost billions to develop and deploy? Go safe or go risky? Hmmm. Well, no one every got fired for buying IBM…

    In that respect, I think the truly revolutionary technologies — the disruptive ones, the ones we don’t immediately understand — take either truly revolutionary leadership or a groundswell of market demand to appear. And that’s just plain rare. To me, there’s only 5 revolutionary technologies on that chart, and that’s probably being generous.

    Perhaps that’s one of the things that irritates me most about public media’s intransigence in the face of an innovating media marketplace. It’s not that the technologies themselves are prohibitively expensive, nor are we being asked to invent the wheel without ever having seen anything round. The models are all around us and the technology costs are falling through the floor. The risks of innovation today are low. The risks of avoiding innovation, however, are high and rising.

    Lord help us (in public media) if WiMax or its cousins really do reach a point of virtual ubiquity in the next 5 years.

  3. Good points – so bottom line we are seeing an acceleration based on layers of supporting infrastructure.As well as the infrastructure – we are seeing an acceleration based on user experience. For instance in banking thew idea of banking away from the branch started with ATM's, then telephone banking, then online. As we all get more used to doing important things online such as banking and shopping – it becomes easier to accept that we do all things online.As I type this, one of the great gadget dinosaurs of all time – my wife is watching YouTube videos – she has become entranced by the fact that she can find what she wants when she wants – if pub radio/tv was to make her experience easier – she would jump.The preconditions for a “Tip” are here. I think that most of the base is in existence even for behaviour – so now convenience will be the key.The Wifi is I think less of an issue than making it easy to find and share good stuff. But if there is another route to mass Wifi, that would help.How about this? Most stations are owned by universities that have long distance pipes that connect the trunks. What if each station started an Open Source Wifi/Wimax project – where it was the hub and we all as “listeners/Viewers – added Merakis to cover the community?Then the cost would be distributed and hence low. The Pipes would be protected from the Big Guys as we would use the University net instead of Verizon etc?Could be a project that would pull the nation together in a new way – a new wave for democracy?

  4. Good points – so bottom line we are seeing an acceleration based on layers of supporting infrastructure.

    As well as the infrastructure – we are seeing an acceleration based on user experience. For instance in banking thew idea of banking away from the branch started with ATM’s, then telephone banking, then online. As we all get more used to doing important things online such as banking and shopping – it becomes easier to accept that we do all things online.

    As I type this, one of the great gadget dinosaurs of all time – my wife is watching YouTube videos – she has become entranced by the fact that she can find what she wants when she wants – if pub radio/tv was to make her experience easier – she would jump.

    The preconditions for a “Tip” are here. I think that most of the base is in existence even for behaviour – so now convenience will be the key.

    The Wifi is I think less of an issue than making it easy to find and share good stuff. But if there is another route to mass Wifi, that would help.

    How about this? Most stations are owned by universities that have long distance pipes that connect the trunks. What if each station started an Open Source Wifi/Wimax project – where it was the hub and we all as “listeners/Viewers – added Merakis to cover the community?

    Then the cost would be distributed and hence low. The Pipes would be protected from the Big Guys as we would use the University net instead of Verizon etc?

    Could be a project that would pull the nation together in a new way – a new wave for democracy?

  5. Hmmm… Universities could potentially play a role, although not every community has a university. But if the development of the Internet is any cue, universities can definitely play a role here. Though started by the Department of Defense, the academic community really built out the Internet and turned it into an important communications medium.

    Today, academics have access to Internet2 and are still innovating, though mostly it’s bandwidth development with a few minor innovations.

    The one thing I hope our innovators remember is the lesson of HD Radio vs. WiFi (or insert your favorite tech references here). HD Radio was developed in secret and the technology is owned by a single company that charges out the wazoo for licensing. WiFi is an industry standard held in trust by the IEEE and developed over time by a consortium of companies that, while competing, agreed that a standard was better than no standard.

    Or how about this idea… What if public media companies developed — wait for it — public media? We have towers and RF experience. Why not participate with our communities to develop two-way wireless communications services in the public interest?

  6. I love this idea John

    A few of us thought of this 3 years ago and it has never left me – think of all those towers and repeaters – then think of all your listeners/viewers – surely this is enough real estate to be the foundation of a great project that pulls us all together

  7. You gents are smoking way too much public media crack.

    Anybody who has made even a cursory attempt to follow the various efforts to establish municipal Wi-Fi networks over the last five years now recognizes the extreme difficulty in launching new network infrastructure designed for public use — even when based on highly efficient new technologies like WiMax that are designed to be backward-compatible with the established base of Wi-Fi transceivers in existing laptops. Think billions…which Sprint was projected to invest in its national WiMax network.

    Anything that requires new consumer hardware to work (c.f. HD Radio, satellite radio, smart phones, etc.) requires major investments from the consumer electronics giants to have a prayer of overcoming the friction of the adoption curve, and it had better be at mass-market prices and be driven by absolutely compelling new applications that fill basic needs, like email, voice communication, and text messaging. And as the iPhone shows, it needs a user inteface that’s better than sex. Niche media alone is nowhere near powerful enough to drive adoption of new hardware.

    The one media propagation model that has succeed in the last few years is integrated hardware/software/web services, notably by Apple in the case of the iPod/iTunes player/iTunes Media Store, and by Microsoft with the Xbox, where the new hardware is part of the integrated ecosystem. Think hundreds of millions…

    The last time anybody in niche media even partially succeeded at this was AUDIBLE.com who in 1997-99 were first into the spoken word niche with an integrated hardware/software/web service model. They went though many changes but survived and recently sold out to Amazon, who seem to have recognized the power of the integrated model with the Kindle, and for whom the acquisition of Audible was a good fit since Amazon serves niche markets and audiences of all kinds. Now we’re still at hundreds of millions.

    However, even the BBC with their billions of government funding yearly can’t fully apply this model: the BBC Player is a software download that uses existing computer and mobile hardware.

    This is the future for niche media. From the Wikipedia profile of Audible:

    In 2005, Audible launched Audible Air, software that makes it possible to download (copy-controlled) audio books over the air – wirelessly and directly to devices such as a smartphone or PDA. This eliminates the need to download copy-controlled audio books first to the PC or Mac and then transfer it to Palm OS, Windows, and Symbian Mobile devices. Audible Air content updates automatically, chapters download as required and delete themselves after they have been listened to.

    Public Media will do fine if it just leverages the new technologies and IP network infrastructure now in place — something it is clearly NOT doing effectively enough now. Let the RF transmitters die with dignity and focus development efforts where they matter. The days when public media could command its own dedicated spectrum are a relic of the bandwidth scarcity era for media, now over. And any scheme that depends on proprietary hardware is DOA.

    :: SH

  8. Stephen — I was really thinking on a smaller scale. In my market — Anchorage — there was an abortive attempt to do municipal WiFi last year. It died when the commercial vendors that signed a deal backed out at the last minute. They figured out there wasn’t enough money in it.

    I actually don’t think that our existing tower infrastructure, even peppered with WiMax gear, could get the job done in our area or most metro areas. WiMax or its successors is much more likely to piggyback on the cellular system and cellular towers, which are sprinkled across the landscape.

    But on a smaller scale, on the WiFi scale, what if we, a public media company, partnered with our host community government and deployed hotspots across the city and managed that infrastructure in the public interest? I think that’s an idea worth exploring, especially if the capital funds are covered by grants and the operating costs are covered by ad revenue or minimal subscription fees.

    I do NOT think we should develop technologies out of thin air and wait for folks to show up. Others have suggested to me we use the “extra” DTV bandwidth and sell it off for rented distance education services, data services, etc. That’s crazy talk — it requires the development of technologies that are parallel to existing tools and would be used by the tiniest of niche markets.

    And, sorry to say it, but the tremendous offer made by Mike Homer — the Open Media Network — is great as an infrastructure service, but is a bad idea from a player perspective. How many media players do I have to download and use? Who’s going to keep developing and redeveloping the player for new platforms? That was a great gift, but it was a gift that made sense for about 5 minutes in technology terms.

    So I’m with you, Stephen — we gotta be smart about this and not try to invent our own technology ghettoes (a la HD Radio). But at the same time, we also have to dream big. Let’s blend off-the-shelf technology with true public service notions that the commercial space won’t touch.

  9. I’m all for thinking big, and a number of us in the PSP working group attempted to do exactly that to conceive some kind of solution that would work for all the current and future stakeholders of an expanded public media system — one that included a broader coalition of non-profit organizations as well as existing broadcasters.

    Net result? We understood the potentials and the problems better, launched a few ideas that stuck (like the ‘Public Media’ handle, for example) but we were not successful in getting any uptake at all from the system power centers, even as a demonstration project. So pardon, me, but now when I hear someone say “dream big,” I have to recognize the nature of the public media incumbents. See Calling the Game

    So nationally the prognosis is not promising. If you are talking strictly about a local project, sure. IF all the local stars aligned, IF the money was there when it needed to be, and IF there were solid unfulfilled needs being fulfilled, it might have chance. How long it would take to design, build, launch and get traction is a large, open question. Public media companies are not in the infrastructure management or (at this point) network development business. When you talk about “managing that infrastructure in the public interest” I see a lot of red flags flying over a giant minefield.

    But if I generously assume you got past those challenges and the project was wildly successful, it would certainly get noticed by other local players in the public media system, and could have some influence on the development of similar projects elsewhere. That’s the best-case scenario.

    On a national/international level, I do not think anything important can or will happen without a common platform to organize the key functions of a better public media system: increased public access via on-demand service, modular downloads, archives, great searchable interfaces, more high-quality public media content, aggregation of traffic in a way that makes appropriate advertising viable, appropriate support for user-generated content and social relationships, subscription (aka membership) support, and critically — an underlying revenue-sharing business model that benefits all the stakeholders — talent, producers, stations, networks, service providers, and most of all…the public.

    What public media professionals are supposed to be good at is program selection and production, and providing a community service around high level shared values. This technology and infrastructure creation stuff is way off the competence map, and unless we miraculously get good at it real fast, it just makes more sense to focus on improving content and expanding service, and providing a first class user relationship. That means using existing and emerging standards and making full use of the online platforms already available.

    I had a conversation with Mike Homer two years ago where he observed as a business matter, Public Media was not obliged to share its users with the operators of a larger platform, like Yahoo, AOL, GooTube, or any other. We could, he said, operate our own platform online, just as we originally did in traditional broadcasting. While theoretically that is still the case, I’m pretty sure the moment of opportunity is, if not past, receding from view at an increasing rate.

    Sorry if I sound cynical about this stuff, but as you can see, there are reasons for it.

  10. Stephen — No need to apologize! Any cynicism you share is hard-earned through efforts to work within the system. I was disappointed to see nothing really come of the PSP idea myself. The PSP was presented at the first IMA I attended and I was genuinely excited — it sounded to me like there were some real thinkers in the system and after a bit of wrangling we’d be on our way. Oh, well.

    As for infrastructure stuff, I was definitely thinking on a purely local scale. And it comes from the notion that we already operate some infrastructure in the form of broadcast TV and radio towers/transmitters. Some of us also have repeaters and translators. So we already operate complex infrastructure in the public interest. Yes, a WiFi project would extend our reach into a new medium with a totally different model, but I think that would be good for us. The nature of being a media company today cannot be constrained by a single tower site and a single frequency setup in a one-way fashion — our engineering capacity needs to morph just as the media technologies do.

    Money? Well, that’s another matter. But you wouldn’t start such a project if you didn’t know whether you could finish it. And considering the dollars that always seem to be available for capital projects in nonprofit land, I’d be surprised if the seed money couldn’t be gathered if the value proposition is sufficient.

    In any case, based on your comments and what I’ve seen at IMA and in talking with others in the industry, I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that successfully fulfilling our missions as local media companies (the stations, not the networks) will require localized strategy and action. Waiting for some CPB marching orders to come down from on high, telling us exactly what to do and how to do it is nonsense. Conversely, national success (for PBS, NPR) will have to be achieved at the national level with national scale — not while waiting for the stations to green-light only the projects that aren’t “threatening” to the status quo of locals.

    Success for the “system,” it seems to me, will only come when national and local entities agree to disentangle themselves and develop new strategies based on the new economic world we find ourselves in. There’s too much history and too many conflicting purposes for us to all go forward together in harmony.

    Well, now *I* sound cynical! But I don’t really feel that way. I still believe we have opportunity here. Do we have the right leadership to pull it off? Ask me again in six months. By then, I’ll at least know about my own company.

  11. Ideally, there should be both — a viable national strategy and successful local initiatives tailored to the specific community and its needs.

    Certainly the opportunities are many, and I hope you figure out the one(s) that’ll work for your community.

    :: SH

  12. Sorry so late back in but the time difference and my farmer’s hours!

    I am in a way with both of you. Stephen – the platform is the key and the more open the better or the more accepted – go where the people are.

    iTunes, YouTube etc I think are essentials.

    But I also think there is an opportunity to act locally to spread Wifi – now how this has been attempted to date as a single provider with a revenue based business model but as a network of users who mesh their coverage for all with the station as the cheer leader.

    Rather than plan a lot for the whole system – too much inertia – why not act locally as a start?

    I think that trying to get all to move is impossible.

  13. That’s a fine vision, Rob, but I don’t see how it can work technically.

    The current 802.11x standard for Wi-Fi has a deliberately limited range. Once you get outside of Manhattan densities (i.e., everywhere else), even if you could propagate the new hardware needed to create a real “mesh network,” the coverage map would have more holes than swiss cheese.

    The kind of network effect based on coordinating distributed service users you are talking about is essentially a description of the P2P networks.

    They are asynchronous and global and based on software using existing hardware, which overcomes most of the structural problems. But even these networks have difficulty dealing with infrequently used content and real-time delivery, and require shoring up by conventional unicast content delivery mechanisms to be reliable. They work best for mass media where there are plenty of peered users.

    The vision of local users banding together to acomplish something could also be done via specialized social networks using the existing IP infrastructure. That’s what social media toolsets like NING are designed to accomplish.

    Sorry, but I have to conclude that trying to use FM transmitters, with or without Wi-Fi, for purposes like these is as misguided as HD Radio. We have a flexible (pseudo) mesh network called the Internet. We are nowhere near using it to its potential for public media.

    :: SH

  14. I am just an ignorant historian Stephen – you are very patient with me – I bow to your knowledge – but the ignorant part of me hopes for better

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