The Future of Public Media

foggy highwayIn a little over a week, I’m supposed to appear at WOSU Public Media in Columbus and tell them what the future of public media will be.

Ha! Okay, that’s not going to happen — I can’t really tell the future, especially when it comes to public media.

But I am thinking deeply about it, and a recent post I wrote has me thinking more broadly about the future, with respect to public broadcasting / public media / nonprofit media / what have you. And that post ended with a simple question:

Are public media’s best days behind it or are they yet to come?

Like so many things in life, the answer to the question is driven by your personal history with and perspective on “public media.” But it seems to me the future is either what we make it, or we simply agree to take whatever happens to us.

That’s what I’m thinking I’ll explore with the group at WOSU: are we going to take the future, or make the future?

The Media Inflection Point You Can’t Avoid

We’re in the midst of the biggest media reshuffling in history. Literally. There are more people on the planet today than at any time in Earth’s past. And almost all those billions of people have contact with some form of media every day — print, radio, TV, Internet, and all the forms therein. The 20th century witnessed the mass adoption of electronic media (telephone, radio, TV, Internet), ending with the mass popularization of the web in the industrialized world.

Not since the adoption of the printing press and its mass-produced written material has human society been faced with such an expansion of media to the point of ubiquity. Distribution of the written word fundamentally changed how humans think, gather information, communicate, organize, share, learn and so much more.

Similarly, radio and TV have had a huge impact on human society. But they’ve simply continued the mass distribution (broadcast) phenomenon of print, in which a cloistered few control what media is produced and distributed and how it’s experienced.

In contrast, the web — with its many-to-many decentralized and self-organizing design, coupled with a capacity for storing and delivering video, audio, text, photos, and structured data — changes the fundamental ways in which we use media. Indeed, all our older forms of media are maneuvering to either combat or leverage the power of the web for themselves.

By the way, let’s remember we’ve only just begun this transformation, we’re only now starting to see possibilities of what this will do to us or for us. Today we’re raising the world’s first generation of children who will never live without the web and its capabilities. For them, instant ubiquitous communication, sharing, and participation is a birth right.

In short, the world is undergoing tremendous change because media — a force in all our lives — is fundamentally changing. The future of media is being created right now, much more so than 10, 20 or even 100 years ago.

Given these changes, do you let the future happen, or do you find a way to make the future?

(Oh, and bad news: you can’t avoid making this choice, consciously or unconsciously.)

The Future: Taking It

Public broadcasting has largely been waiting as this media revolution takes root. Waiting to see the patterns emerge. Waiting to see what commercial media companies do. Waiting to see what the audience wants. Waiting to see the “business model.” Waiting for the CPB to fund this plan or that plan or give instructions. Waiting for NPR or PBS to make it all better.

This approach assumes the future is knowable, and that it’s more knowable the longer you wait. Public media companies using this strategy are betting if they sit back and let the future happen, they can re-engage once everything “settles down” and “success” can be achieved by following an established plan.

The flip side is that if the current business model collapses (as the elderly population supporting public broadcasting dies) but the magical solution hasn’t been delivered yet, then you go out of business. “Oh, well. All good things come to an end. It was inevitable. Nothing I could do.”

The “taking it” approach also presumes a good future is achieved by repeating past success. This is music to the ears of folks that built their careers shooting big TV shows, or built NPR from the ground up, surviving lean times to reach the “safe” place they’re in today. If we just keep pumping out TV shows, we’ll get viewers and advertisers and money, right? If we just keep playing good music or running national news programs that people like, we’ll get enough money to make it and that’s fine.

Finally, using the wait-and-see approach is less messy, more predictable. Sure, as your public broadcasting company shrinks, some people will lose their jobs, but that will be a slow bleed, and you can just hold on longer than anyone else, right? Talk to someone that worked at a newspaper recently — they’ll draw the roadmap for you.

NOTE: This is the strategy in play in Alaska right now: consolidate the community-based stations into a statewide entity to save operating cash and hope by the time the reorganization dust settles a business model will be “blessed” by CPB or “proven” at other stations. It’s the classic wait-out-the-storm strategy. Only this storm will rage for a generation.

When it comes to the future of public media, “taking it” has its charms — most notably predictability and an unquestioned reverence for past success. But it’s an inevitable failure for you, for the company and for the community the public media company ostensibly serves.

The Future: Making It

Where “taking it” passively hopes for a brighter future (despite indications to the contrary), “making it” meets the ambiguous future head-on and searches for ways forward that still fulfill your purpose. Making the future, in such a time of change, also presumes the search for the “best way to do things” won’t end in our lifetimes — an acceptable approach today may not be appropriate tomorrow.

When choosing to make the future, you’ll have to accept some assumptions:

  • you cannot know or predict the future with any degree of accuracy
  • though you can’t predict the future, you must, however, clearly know your mission and purpose as a public service media firm — that’s what gives you certainty in ambiguous circumstances
  • the present and future are significantly different from the past, so repeating past success does not guarantee future success; proposals to repeat past successes must be evaluated as if they’d never been done before
  • waiting for a perfect model of the future means you’ll miss opportunities to learn and/or succeed in the present
  • unpredictability of the future is scary, but guaranteed failure is scarier
  • failure is fine; failure is a teacher; failure is a universal experience and can bring people together
  • courage is sexier than cowardice; courage will generate more and better support via collaboration, funding and mindshare; people are drawn to ambitious projects and people

If you’ve opted to “make the future,” it also means accepting the fact that you are not an expert in what you’re doing. That might be the hardest pill to swallow for public broadcasting veterans. “Not an expert? Then why do it?” Here’s why: You can’t be an expert on the never-done-before. No one can. But you can be smart, experimental and you can ask for help. Bonus: Humility builds community respect, which leads to support.

The Best Days of Public Media

Are public media’s best days behind it or are they yet to come?

If you think public media = public broadcasting, then the best days are behind you. Broadcasting, while not worthless, is worth less — it commands less attention and loyalty and gathers less money, while the cost of operation (especially for TV) grows and broadcast loses political power to broadband. There’s a place for broadcasting, to be sure, but it’s not at the leading edge of a public media company that’s making the future. What company puts a weakening, shrinking and economically tired division at the forefront of corporate strategy? Put in the team with new ideas, courage, and a hunger for dynamic growth in the driver’s seat!

If you think public media can only succeed in a calm, cool, collected, neatly organized and predictable organization, then the best days are behind you — because the future, like the present, is messy and unknown. A public media company waiting for the future can only decline while a public media firm exploring new media horizons and new relationships will have to take risks.

But if you think we’re living in an age where public service media can achieve more than in any prior time in history, then the best days are ahead of you. Costs for media creation, distribution and collaboration are falling rapidly, and many are effectively zero. It’s easier to maintain deeper relationships over extended space and time and gather masses of niche interests for public good. There are things you can organize and do today that would have been impossible 20 years ago, and public media firms — if they choose to make the future — can create and enable tremendous value using network effects and a blended influence of broadcasting, digital media, social media and community relationships.

We stand at the edge of an ocean of opportunity — and risk — for ourselves, our companies and especially our communities. The ocean’s waters are rising as the mediated world grows. We can stand firm as the waters rise, or we can try our hand at swimming.

If we swim, we might die. But if we stand firm, we’ll die for sure.

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