Do your own work

Thanks to @stevesilberman I came across this little article about growing food locally in Britain:

Introducing Britain’s Greenest Town

Now, I’m already inclined to like these stories because I think local food will remain part of a larger localism trend over the next 10 to 20 years as we pass peak oil and go deeper into global warming’s effects.

But there’s a quote in there that caught my eye (boldface my own):

Incredible Edible was originally funded out of the participants’ own pockets. “We were very clear that we didn’t want to look at what grants were available and mould our projects to suit them,” said Mr Green. “We felt that what would work was to start with the town and what it needed. We’d look for money later on.” What the project leaders found was that a lot could be achieved with small amounts of cash. And awards and grants have followed…

This was something I saw in public media (and still see) that drove me nuts: companies taking grant money because it was available and the projects sounded mildly interesting, not because they organically developed a project in response to local needs.

We did it in Alaska when the stations took money to create a replication of the “Portal Wisconsin” project from several years back. No one really wanted to do the project — hell, the company didn’t even believe in the web as a viable platform to begin with — but there was $10,000 in cash sitting there, waiting to be taken. We ended up not doing the project and returning the money (thankfully). But that wasn’t the only time funny funding came along.

I worry about other projects (one in particular comes to mind right now) that drives public media firms to do work they shouldn’t really be doing.

Heres a concept:

  • find out what the community wants or needs; do a “listening project” like IdeaStream did a few years back
  • develop a project or service that would fit the community’s needs
  • if you really need cash to get started, then start smaller so you need less cash and can fund it out of pocket
  • get some early successes, then take your story on the road to raise more money if needed

Social media works this way, too. First, you listen. Then you talk. Then you get together to do something new as a team. Later you raise money.

I know there’s an additional desire to ingratiate one’s public media company with the CPB or with the Knight Foundation, so people sign up for projects that don’t quite fit but are “close enough.” And I know these projects are a time-honored tradition in the public media system — it’s just what everyone does.

But maybe that’s one of our problems. We’re not working for our communities, we’re working for someone else, somewhere else.

Let’s do our own work. And let’s start by listening.

Nonprofits and the Social Web

Thanks to Beth Kanter’s blog for the great little find of a presentation by Steve Bridger.

As we prepare for an overhaul in Anchorage, I find myself thinking more and more about community, “tribes,” interactivity and relationships.

If you’re at a local station, especially in a mid-size to smaller market, this is defintely worth a quick scan.

If 'newspapers' can die, then 'public broadcasting' can die, too

I’m so glad the newspaper industry is blazing the trail to either self-transformation or self-immolation in this new media world. Public media companies are being given a very close look at an industry in gut-wrenching transformation just before our own will undergo the same. The trail before us has been blazed, and we should be thankful.

Recently in Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles wrote a great link-bait article — It’s time for the newspaper industry to die — in which he explains why newspapers need to dump the word “newspaper” from their internal lexicon and psychology. He offers several reasons for this.

But the best reason centers on that favorite word of mine: Community. And the reason applies to public media, too.

Niles recognizes a fundamental shift in newspapers over the last decade: they’ve cut back on real community service while maximizing shareholder profits.

Great content and great tools are not enough to build the large, habitual audience that content publishers will need to maximize their opportunities to make money online, through advertising and sales. Even more than those two things, a website needs great engagement with its readers. And engagement with the public is something that’s been budgeted out of too many newsrooms over the past generation.

It’s time to bring that back. It’s time to do that online. And if a beloved label needs to be sacrificed to inspire the innovation that will enable this effort, so be it. It’s time for the “newspaper” industry to die. Because we all need the news industry to survive.

I would submit the term “public broadcasting” can take the same route to oblivion. One-way broadcasting can no longer be the point, even if that’s the most comfortable thing to do. Community engagement, public service, gathering, convening, whatever — that’s got to be the goal. Broadcasting is a tool, a means to an end of public service.

What we want from a “newspaper” isn’t fish wrapping or bird cage lining, it’s news, information, connection to events. What we want from broadcasting is pretty similar. But let’s not confuse the delivery system with the purpose. And let’s not believe for a moment that retransmitting someone else’s non-local, marginally-relevant content is something worth preserving in a world of on-demand access to all content anywhere.

Since entering the public media world professionally almost four years ago, I’ve always thought the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was ripe for transformation (and not because of that Bush administration weasel Kenneth Tomlinson). Why? Because they need a name change and a mission reevaluation. It’s too bad the purpose of the CPB — funding and fostering public Broadcasting — has its instructions enshrined in law.  It’s making it difficult, if not impossible, to fund new projects. Consider this Q&A between IMA’s Mark Fuerst and CPB’s current president, Pat Harrison, at the recent IMA 2008 conference in Los Angeles (audio clip, about 1 minute):


Harrison gets it. Sure, she’s referring to reauthorization for CPB in Congress, but that’s just cover for avoiding talk about shifting funding out of pure broadcasting and into community engagement. (In fairness, the CPB has spent millions over the past several years on new media research and projects, but as I’ve noted before, we haven’t really seen any transformations.)

This is really too bad. Because while newspapers are stuck with an old term and a psychology that’s hard to shake, we have those challenges plus actual laws that govern a significant portion of our funding. To change the laws or create new ones to foster and fund community building and interaction via all available media may be politically impossible.

Apple II vs. Macintosh — Can public media follow this example?

Do you remember the Apple II series of personal computers? I certainly do. I got my first one in January 1983 (the Apple IIe) and it was a revelation. Back then the Apple II dominated the personal computer space (IBM was just introducing the first IBM PC). It was a serious cash cow for the new wonders of Silicon Valley: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

But even in 1983, in the peak of this tremendous success, Apple was reinventing the personal computer. They were secretly inventing the Macintosh, which was introduced a year after I got that Apple IIe in January 1984 (with the famous Superbowl ad).

Developing the Mac was a massively expensive proposition. New chips, new software, new case designs, a mouse, even a brand new 3.5″ floppy drive developed by Sony but still considered cutting-edge and risky. Everything called for clean slate development in order to get it all just right.

So what funded this engineering miracle? The successful and highly profitable Apple II series. And guess what — the Mac wasn’t profitable at launch. That first year was deadly. Apple introduced a $2,500 computer ($5,100 in 2007 dollars) that had two software programs: MacPaint and MacWrite, and it wasn’t compatible with the growing library of Apple II software titles.

Check out this brief video (43 seconds) of Guy Kawasaki recounting how the Mac team was funded by the Apple II team, and the considerable tension this created:

I often think of the Apple II / Macintosh example when conversations in public media circles turn to the question of how will we pay for this new media stuff that doesn’t make any money and takes money out of the profitable broadcasting business. Newspapers and the music industry are also great analogies for public broadcasting.

It takes real leadership, real courage to deliberately take cash from a profitable and successful unit and sink it into the next big thing, even if it takes years for it to pay off. Plus, you have to deal with the political pressures to stop funding this financial black hole from the “reasonable” business people all around you (on the board, on the management team, in the community, on the staff). As I look at my own public media business today, we’ve not even begun to seriously tackle the challenges of the new media world — chiefly because “Apple II” folks are in charge. I often wonder whether we should give up trying to reform the core of the company (a la Ideastream) and simply fund an external unit that can focus on the new media challenge without interference from the traditional “cash cow” part of our business.

The one example of “put it outside the core” I know of in the public media world can be found at Chicago Public Radio. Their Vocalo project (as described by Robert Paterson), is an external unit in every sense of the word. They have separate facilities, a new name unaffiliated with the old name, a separate budget, different leadership, different content and business models, etc. It’s a fascinating approach, and it mimics the Apple experience.

But I’m wondering… is anyone else in public media doing this? Who else, if anyone, is creating distinct subsidiaries for innovation? Is anyone else willing to spend their Apple II money on their Macintosh project?

PBS solution: implosion / explosion

Interesting dinner conversation last night here in Los Angeles at the IMA conference. Lots of topics. But I let slip one idea that really upsets people with a vested interest in the current public televison model in the U.S.

My shocking and insane recommendation:
Continue reading “PBS solution: implosion / explosion”

Public broadcasting's three-legged stool

I just commented on a post at Lost Remote (one of my favorite blogs) where they mentioned the NY Times article that has every public TV station manager’s panties in a bunch this week.

I didn’t comment on the validity of the Times articles ideas themselves — we can debate that separately (and perhaps I will). But I did try to provide a reality check on those folks saying we should de-fund PBS because it would be fine on its own.

It continues to surprise me how few people understand how public broadcasting is funded. To be fair, the funding systems are a nasty mess of spaghetti, so I can understand the confusion. But it’s not really that hard once you’ve been through it once or twice.

Continue reading “Public broadcasting's three-legged stool”