One last BPP article (probably) and On The Media's Garfield feels the sting of the hive

Three good pieces of note that I’m finally getting to this evening.

First up (blogged earlier by Todd Mundt) is a take on the Bryant Park Project collapse from someone else that’s young and actually creating public radio programming. Only in this case it’s done on a small scale and is therefore sustainable.

The Sound of Young America‘s Jesse Thorn chimes in on both the BPP and the Fair Game cancellations. He offers lots of insightful commentary (so read the whole thing); here’s one great passage:

Fair Game and especially BPP were designed for a multi-platform future that’s in its earliest stages. Despite speculation to the contrary, both were building very strong podcast audiences. That said, both PRI and NPR are organizations that can’t afford to alienate stations, and that means they can’t really go directly to listeners for money. So the only real option available to them to monetize those online audiences is underwriting, and that’s a pretty modest revenue stream right now. So while both shows were relatively good at online stuff, they weren’t getting much money out of it. Certainly not millions of dollars.

Separately, On The Media‘s Bob Garfield is getting a lesson on web comments this week in the wake of the latest OTM show. Garfield went off in the show about web-based comments and commenters, even provoking Ira Glass to refer to him as a “royalist” with respect to how he views comments and the great unwashed masses.

One media commenter and experienced software pro — Derek Powazek — went a step further and wrote two pieces about comments and how they should work, taking Garfield to task for ignoring a long 10-year history of better comments across the web as well as playing the part of Grandpa Simpson.

This is Not a Comment (26 July 2008)

The story completely missed moderation queues, reputation management systems, or any of the hundreds of comment systems built over the last decade to address this very problem. Garfield seems to base the entire story on some bad comments on the OTM site, a site that provides a completely open, no signup required, comment system. But instead of asking “Is there a better way to do this?” he goes for the much easier story: “Gosh internet commenters sure are dumb!”

10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments (28 July 2008)

The real reason comments on newspaper sites suck isn’t that internet commenters suck, it’s that the editors aren’t doing their jobs. If more newspapers implemented these 10 things, I guarantee the quality of their comments would go up. And this is just the basic stuff, mostly unchanged since I wrote Design for Community seven years ago.

Powazek’s seminal book is basically out of print at this point, only available via used book sellers starting at $50 a copy. But the 10 points he offers above are a great condensed version to get you started.

I’m hoping to use his ideas (and the book) to get things rolling (someday!) in my own shop in Anchorage.

And I’m still in the camp that believes your ability to serve your community — online or otherwise — will keep you alive whereas a mass media approach in which you teleport content in from other places won’t make it in the future.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis recounts the many examples in which the web community has responded to Garfield’s notes on comments. He links to no less than 8 cogent comments on commenting.

The BPP ends, the BPP Diner begins

Well, today is the first Monday without the Bryant Park Project since they went on the air last fall. Last Friday they posted this tongue-in-cheek end-of-show video:
Find more videos like this on The BPP Diner

BPP lovers can continue to meet on a new social networking site here, kindly started by BPP listener and public media consultant extraordinaire Robert Paterson.

I’ve joined and I’ll be fascinated to see if the community is sustainable once the core of the social network — the hosts and staff — are no longer working 40+ hours a week on an NPR program and sharing that experience with the “diners.”

Favorite BPP reaction comments (so far)

When the announcement went out about the cancellation of the Bryant Park Project, the comments on the NPR site numbered in the hundreds. The counts I saw stopped around 600, yet there may be more (who wants to count?).

Now the comments are piling up in reaction to interim CEO Dennis Haarsager’s posting about the cancellation. I already gave my comments. What I find remarkable is that so many in the audience “get it.” Making NPR’s decision here all the more puzzling / frustrating.

Here’s a selection of comments and comment excerpts that I found compelling and instructive (they’re numbered here for reference, but are not numbered at the NPR site):

Continue reading “Favorite BPP reaction comments (so far)”

Haarsager on BPP, plus reactions

Well, I guess the NPR shoe I’d been warned about has dropped, with respect to the cancellation of BPP.

It was not a satisfying thud.

The comments on the BPP blog site, reacting to the memo, have begun rolling in. They are not, one would expect, positive. There’s some respectful language in there, but the overall feeling is that this formal response missed the point(s).

My own comment, submitted to NPR (and it may be up by the time you read this):

For all those saying NPR should have raised money directly for BPP, there’s a political mess you’re not aware of here.

If NPR openly attempted to raise money for any program, with large or small station carriage, the nationwide collection of stations would revolt. And please note the Board of NPR is majority-controlled by stations.

In short, it would never be attempted and would certainly be killed if it were.

There are indeed structural and cultural problems within NPR that make a project like BPP fail and put all forms of new media engagements at risk. But never forget that many of NPR’s most anti-new media anti-innovation qualities are inherited from the codependent relationship with the stations. In a sense, it’s no one’s fault, yet it’s everyone’s fault. And that’s the center of the problem.

The entire system is trapped by its own success in the radio medium — not the web. Asking it to change in fundamental ways (e.g. embracing direct funding, using the web innovatively and as a medium of first resort, building real community) is asking for a revolution in which heads would most certainly roll.

But public radio has not historically been a head-rolling collection of institutions.

If you want to change public media for the better, focus on your local station — volunteer, get on the Board, ask tough questions, demand new services, and prove to your station there’s money to be saved and made in engaging the community in new ways, especially online. And tell your station to let NPR grow and mature — even if that means audiences want direct relationships with the network rather than the station.  Local stations need a reason to exist beyond rebroadcasting NPR anyway.  It’s time they learned how to be local (again).

Or, failing all that, strike out on your own and create a new media entity with the soul of a public radio station but the structural DNA of a Google.

There’s a future for public media, to be sure. But only time will tell whether NPR will participate in it fully and faithfully.

Naturally, I have more thoughts, but didn’t want to post them at NPR’s site.

Overall review of the memo? Disappointing.

Haarsager’s memo language does not, as so many commenters already noted, ring true. There’s something wrong here; something out of place.

Canceling BPP doesn’t bother me per se (this kind of thing happens from time to time for many reasons, and BPP was cursed with bad luck from the start). But NPR’s handling of the cancellation has the feeling of political talking points about it, and that won’t fly in a new media era.  Words like “misdirection,” “willful ignorance” and “politically convenient” come to mind very easily here, and they shouldn’t. That’s not what I want to think about NPR.

But if you think my take on the situation is harsh, head over to the Huffington Post where Daniel Halloway has his way with the story.

For me, the upshot is that NPR is fundamentally flawed due to the nature of the relationships between stations and network. There’s no long-term-successful way forward unless that flaw is corrected, either by renegotiation of the relationship or by breaking free of the relationships entirely.

While it’s not an exact analog for where newspapers were 10 years ago, it’s close enough: a medium…

  • trapped by its own success
  • unable to innovate into a new model, even in small ways
  • finally dismantled by market forces beyond its control

I really hate this. This isn’t what I want for NPR specifically or public media broadly. Will someone please tell me I’m wrong? I don’t want to lose NPR!

More BPP and innovation thinking

Earlier this week I was advised privately to wait for an announcement from NPR about BPP — without any hint of what said announcement might be — and I’m still waiting. I’d love to hear NPR announce a bold new plan to take the BPP straight to the web and change it up somehow. If anyone would care to shed additional light, I’m all ears (as are about 600 commenters on the NPR site).

In the meantime, there’s been some great pieces out there I’d like to point folks to (yeah, I know — you already saw these, but just in case…).

First up are two posts from Robert Paterson, a past NPR consultant and an avid BPP audience participant:

I’m not a fan of Paterson’s claim that the U.S. is heading into a full-blown depression (because that scares the bejesus out of me and I don’t know what to do about it), but the rest of it rings true, even if the economy were booming.

Next up is a post from Jeff Jarvis, one of my perennial faves:

(I love the title — talk about not burying the lede!)

The Jarvis piece is good, but the comments are even better.  When I visited, the first half of the comments were really insightful. And don’t miss Mindy McAdamscomment in there, too.

What worries me more and more is that Stephen Hill — that too-smart-for-his-own-good bastard! (and I say that with love) — is going to be proven right if we public media people don’t stop behaving like nitwits and face up to the Innovator’s Dilemma.

I’m not sure whether I have the energy to start my own public media company. Do I really have to? 😉

Web economics vs. Pubradio economics

The Bryant Park Project collapse at NPR sure has had the public media world a-twitter over the last 24 hours. I got one tip to wait for an announcement or something like that from NPR about the future of BPP. Okay. I’m waiting.

In the mean time, I just wanted to point to a simple example of how web economics differ so dramatically from traditional radio production and distribution economics. Because my central take is that the BPP could live on in a new web-focused model, one that it’s already primed to utilize. But to survive it would still need some NPR largesse — though less than it’s gotten to date.

The example I offer here is not a direct analog to the BPP situation, but it’s generally illustrative and great for fueling thought about how new media are different from old media. So here’s the post, by former Apple Computer evangelist Guy Kawasaki:

By the Numbers: How I built a Web 2.0, User-Generated Content, Citizen Journalism, Long-Tail, Social Media Site for $12,107.09

Now the $12k figure is a bit hopeful, as the founder himself was not paid for his time. That and other elements make the $12k more fanciful than real, but the point is still valid: it’s not that expensive to start and run a web-based company.

By contrast, NPR reportedly spent about $2 million on the BPP in the last year or so. For public media companies that’s a lot of money. An award-winning 1-hour-per-week radio program in my own shop in Anchorage costs around $350,000 per year to maintain (and we can’t even afford that). $2 million to NPR isn’t that much, but in real terms, it’s a lot.

In a lot of ways, it may have been better had BPP been given only $500,000 to get started.

As pointed out by Ken George in quotes he collected at WBUR’s The ConverStation, the BPP was probably destined to failure if the point was to make a radio-web hybrid. They should have made a web-radio hybrid instead, using web economics as the baseline organizing idea. Web economics scale from small to large. Radio economics, practiced by NPR and others, scale from medium to large only, and often only from large to huge.

Rob Paterson’s got the right ideas. They sound really revolutionary, and I like to think there’s a middle path of some kind where the old ideas and the new ones “can just get along.” But history will likely prove him right and anyone pushing a compromise wrong.

On the death of BPP

Well, the Bryant Park Project has less than a month left. Literally.

Was it too beautiful to live, perhaps? Hardly. I mean, can anyone really feign shock that well?

Let’s recount the strikes against this endeavor:

  • The economic downturn is hitting NPR like everyone else; news budgets are frozen and that’s just the beginning. Like any business looking to cut costs, whoever was hired last will be fired first, whether that’s a show or a person. That’s just the way it goes.
  • One of the original hosts (Burbank) — and let’s be honest, the host with real NPR cred — walked away just as the show was getting started. Talk about throwing off the rhythm.
  • The second host (Stewart) took off for maternity leave six months into the show. That can’t help.
  • Then the news anchor (Martin) left for a cush job at ABC News. (What is it with NPR people leaving a real news operation to go work for a fake news operation? Is it just the money?)
  • Plus the fill-in host (Pesca) has been splitting his time between BPP and NPR HQ the whole time.

I’m sure Matt Martinez was busting his ass every day trying to keep things rolling forward, but with a set of facts like these, what can you really do?

Add it up and can you imagine a show — any show in any format — making it to its first birthday without a hell of a lot of buy-in (political and cash) from the top?

But wait — there’s more!

  • This was fundamentally a Gen X show inside a Boomer network. What Boomer on the Board of NPR is going to protect a show they don’t air on their station, they don’t listen to and/or they don’t like?
  • This show never made it to the bulk of the listeners out there. The only people that knew about it were NPR junkies that took the time to browse the NPR web site, trolling for goodies. More might have liked it but never knew it existed.
  • In a risky economic environment, what local station program director is going to broadcast BPP instead of Morning Edition? Show of hands, please… yeah, that’s what I thought.
  • Assuming you’re a station with an HD Radio transmitter and you could program BPP onto a secondary channel, great! But who will hear it? Right: no one, because no one has an HD Radio. (BPP could be an Internet success because iPods and computers far outnumber HD Radios.)
  • Though BPP was successful on the web (something like 1,000,000 monthly uniques), we must remember that NPR is not a media company, it is a radio company. Arbitron numbers will always be bigger than Google Analytics numbers to a radio company. NPR may be trying to change to meet the challenges/opportunites of the web (and are making huge strides for a company that size), but it’s still a radio entity, so building a show specifically for the web is not a strategic option for them. At least not today.
  • Compared to an out-of-the-garage web startup, the cost of producing BPP was astronomical. Sure, web startups in Silicon Valley can devour $2 million at a power lunch, but for NPR and public radio that’s a huge sum, especially given all the other factors noted above. Web startups don’t need that much money, but to do BPP “the NPR way” requires big salaries and budgets. It was a radio economic solution applied to what was essentially a web economic problem — that makes it unsustainable on its face.

All in all, it’s a sad day for NPR. Not so much because it lost a program that was, in truth, faltering from the start, but because the Board appears to have missed a key opportunity here.

NPR could have taken a revised BPP straight to the web and made it the flagship show of a new web-scale innovation unit. BPP could have led NPR into a future not bound by the FCC, Arbitron, legacy stations, transmitters and more. For about $1 million a year they could have jump-started the next stage of their evolution.

I’m beginning to think Gen X and Gen Y need to band together and start their own national public media service — without the parochial split between radio and TV and web. Because PBS kills quality Gen X projects, too. Oh, and Fair Game was axed by PRI recently.

By the way, read the comments on the brief BPP blog post about the cancellation. There’s an audience there, to be sure. And it’s one that could easily sustain a web-based (and web-scaled) program and service. If I had $1 million to invest, I’d definitely put it into this audience.