Alaska public media falling apart

Updated 16 Sep 2011. Updates at the bottom of the post.

Things are tough all over the public media world these days. But if you think you’ve got it bad, you should try working in the Alaska public media world. It’s brutal.

In case you hadn’t heard or figured it out, I was fired from APTI back in March, along with our news director, ostensibly for failing to “align” with the CEO’s preferred — and secret — strategy of merging all the public radio and TV operations in the state into a single company (there are roughly 25 separate companies). We were firings #3 and #4 from a management team of 7, all in less than a year. The GM hired a personal friend to replace us literally the next day. Oh, and the rest of those 7 managers? Only 1 is left, and that position was demoted below management level last year.

So if you’re feeling down about pay freezes, furloughs or being laid off, just be glad you’re not living with this series of unfortunate events (and these are just the ones from memory)…

August 2008

  • APTI (Anchorage): Reorganization – General Manager (GM) fires Communications/TV and Development directors; no one hired to replace them

December 2008

  • APTI (Anchorage): Award-winning and beloved statewide program, “AK” is canceled, staff terminated

February 2009

  • APTI (Anchorage): GM decides a statewide merger of all public radio and TV stations into a single company is the strategy of the future; GM doesn’t announce his intentions to the rest of the company or the other stations in the state — stations that have been suspicious Anchorage would try this one day
  • KTOO (Juneau): It’s revealed — privately — that the Juneau-based stations are roughly $250,000 in the hole due to falling underwriting sales and other issues
  • KUAC (Fairbanks): It’s revealed — privately — that the Fairbanks stations and statewide TV service (AlaskaOne) lose roughly $1,000,000 per year, but the University of Alaska Fairbanks fills in the financial hole annually

March 2009

  • APTI (Anchorage): Strategy change! News/content and broadcasting/web directors fired; GM’s personal friend hired to replace them (a print journalist and professor with no broadcast or public media experience)
  • KUAC (Fairbanks): GM quits to take a job out of state; he’s not replaced

May 2009

June 2009

About that last item… I met with and worked with KYUK’s GM a few times. He was one of the good guys. He resurrected the station’s finances and dealt with the privations of living in rural Alaska — a far cry from his decades of work in the Lower 48. I won’t name him here as that’s not really my right to do so — you can look him up if you’d like. But I can say I sure wish he had taken the GM job in Anchorage back in mid-2007. Things could have turned out very differently for a great group of people that have persevered through so many challenges in the last few years. They don’t deserve the chaos they’ve inherited.

Crystal Ball Time

I have no idea what the future holds for public media in Alaska. Public radio — of the rebroadcasting NPR variety practiced in Anchorage — is probably pretty safe, barring straight-up mismanagement. Pubradio gathers a good chunk of change in Anchorage and the cost structure is comparatively light. Public TV is another story. The cost of merely rebroadcasting prepackaged material is excessive and traditional TV production is out of the question for pretty much all the stations in Alaska (without special project funding, which goes to outside contractors anyway).

Internet effects on the business models are definitely coming to urban Alaska, as are demographic shifts that represent brand new media consumption habits for which public media outlets aren’t really prepared, at least not here on the continent’s edge. Those changes will occur slowly, accumulating quietly until, one day, it’s just too late for the old guard to meet the new challenges, and that’s when public media either gets more government funding (a bailout) or it just disappears.

For the Alaska stations, and especially APTI in Anchorage, the biggest problem remains the same one I identified when I started working there in late 2004: You must answer two questions: [1] Who are you? and [2] Why are you here?

Those questions remained unanswered for my entire career in Alaska’s public media world, no matter how many times I asked or how hard I pressed for an answer. (The current GM thinks he answered those questions with a “strategic planning” process everyone regarded as a waste of time.) But without knowing, deeply, the answers to those seemingly-simple questions, it doesn’t matter what “strategy” you have — you’ll drift, you’ll live off the good intentions of past supporters. Without those two answers your future will be created by fate, happenstance, luck and disaster rather than by coordinated effort around a shared, meaningful goal that’s relevant to the world today.

But enough of all that. What happens next in the 49th state’s 50th year? Hopefully nothing worthy of adding to the harrowing list above. Public media up here needs a breather.

And maybe, one day, new leadership.

UPDATE: 15 Sep 2011

A few weeks back, the other shoe dropped. APTI and the other Alaska stations officially gave up on merging the stations together into a unified company. They are continuing to look at unifying the TV service.

This is both a relief and a vindication.

In the months leading up to my ouster, I was clear with the CEO in that I opposed the organizational merger concept, though I agreed that the TV services should be unified since they were so deeply and unnecessarily duplicative.

In place of pursuing a merger, I specifically recommended the organization spend its energies on reconnecting with the local community, not trying to create some mythical “all Alaska” media firm. There were so many things we could do to create meaning and value locally, in Anchorage, that we didn’t need to create a bunch of new work, namely beating back the obvious wishes of those local Boards and communities we’d have to take over.

Now that the merger push is dead, Alaskans that favor local public media can breathe a sigh of relief. Too bad it took 3 years of dragged-out talks and $88,000 of CPB money to get here. I should have just charged CPB $44,000 for the advice I gave on Day 1 and they could have pocketed the other half.

The last thing still under consideration: merging the TV signals into one. This is a slam-dunk and should have been pursued years ago. Oh, wait… it was!

Many years ago (the mid-1990s) 3 of the 4 Alaska public TV stations merged their signals into AlaskaOne. Anchorage was the only hold-out — they wanted to retain local control and — the real reason — local fundraising (cha-ching!). Back then, local PBS stations were pretty localized and raised a lot more money. But over the years all the stations converged on the same schedules as PBS tightened control over common carriage and everyone gave up local production and scheduling capacity as their fundraising and ad sales collapsed.

Today, merging Anchorage into the AlaskaOne family should just be done. The schedules are carbon copies anyway. Hell, I’ve been in favor of PBS just going all C-SPAN and taking the signal national and being done with it. But that’s another story. For now, let’s hope AlaskaOne finally captures Anchorage public TV and APTI turns its attention further and further toward local media and local public services.

Well, except for all the money made by rebroadcasting NPR stuff.

Long time, no see

It’s been a hell of an early fall. Just not so much on this blog.

First off, we had the reorganization that came through in mid-August, reshuffling the departments at APTI / KSKA / KAKM / APRN (there’s no end of acronyms, I assure you) in Anchorage. I ended up in charge of all public radio, public TV and all our web efforts — essentially all the “retail” aspects of our public media services.

That alone has taken significant time just to settle in. I’ve been picking up skills in TV traffic operations (if you don’t know, “traffic” is the process by which things like shows and commercials and other elements are scheduled to actually be broadcast to the public). I’ve also been learning about the various services we use from NPR, PBS, APM, PRI, NETA and so many more in both TV and radio. The web has, largely, lain fallow during this period, only getting updates when absolutely necessary.

In addition to just learning my job, we’ve been feeling out the other changes in the organization, covering up holes that our organizational plan left open. This takes time and attention.

Oh yeah, and that whole Sarah Palin thing. Sheesh. She’s running for something or other and it forces us to work harder on news coverage than normal as the campaign gyrates back and forth almost as much as the financial crisis. And the election in general just screws up our staff-bare operations constantly. Thankfully our FM PD knows what she’s doing.

Aside from all that I also agreed to help plan the one day of technical sessions at the Integrated Media Association (IMA) conference in Atlanta in February. I probably shouldn’t have done that.

Then in September I learned my father had colon cancer and would undergo surgery in early October. I flew south for a week to be with the family before, during and after the surgery. The surgery actually went fine, the recovery has been a little rocky, but all is looking up over the long haul. Unfortunately, being in the hospital for a week with no sleep and eating bad food, I ended up picking up a wicked head cold — just before flying home. (If you’ve ever flown in the midst of a head cold, you know the hell that follows.)

But there’s no time for head colds.

I’m now back in Alaska and working through the weekend and into next week with my fellow managers and, delightfully, Robert Paterson, a man I consider to be the most brilliant strategic consultant working in the public media sphere today (amongst other spheres). We’ve actually got Paterson in our offices, working with us every day for 5 days. It’s re-energizing our conversations about strategy and organization and so many things. The questions we’ve, honestly, been avoiding, are now getting onto the table.

We always knew our staffing reorganization was only a first step — it wasn’t a solution to all our problems, it wasn’t going to make our organization “whole” again. It fixed a few problems tactically and internally, but strategically it was too timid, too reactionary and didn’t deal with the problems we’ve got in operating the Alaska Public Radio Network in a semi-cooperative, semi-competitive way with more than 20 other public radio entitites in Alaska

So we’re now hard at work digging through our brains, building a new way forward, one that’s likely sustainable no matter what happens in the economy and one that establishes a new model for cooperation between the stations — and even entities beyond public radio. We’re on a tight deadline, with a first draft being constructed Monday and Tuesday and a sharing of the initial plan Wednesday and Thursday.

I have no idea how our Board, our staff or our legacy APRN partners will react.  This is partially because we’re not done yet, but it’s also because there are underpinnings to our thinking that are very current in economic thinking.

In any case, I should run — time to get to bed and prep for the slog to continue on Sunday.

In the mean time, let me share a collection of quotes by economist Umair Haque. It’s dense stuff. But it’s informing our notions deeply. The most relevant quotes right now include (boldface mine):

  • Trust is at the heart of value creation in the edgeconomy.”
  • “One of the tremendously cool things cheap interaction does is free us from the costs and risk of yesterday’s industrial assets. / Lightweight business models are possible because interaction is cheap — and in most markets, they utterly and totally dominate heavyweight business models.”
  • Open beats closed, Look – this isn’t about subscriptions, really. It’s about tremendous economic pressures for atomization and unbundling — and the fact that context is king.”
  • “Like I keep telling you, markets, networks, and communities… / Like I keep telling you, changing the world — for the better.”
  • “So if you wanna think radically — here’s a (really) easy way. Take the dominant business model/strategy in your market space, and use a market, network, or community to invert it… like Wikipedia, Google, Myspace, Facebook, etc. / This doesn’t mean do something superficial, like a social net for hairdryers. Rather, it means using markets, networks, and communities to shift resources and capabilities from core to edge.”
  • “Connected consumers want firms to be citizens of their microcultures.”
  • “How do we begin reorganizing the industrial economy? By using markets, networks, and communities to alter the way resources are managed: to weave a fabric of incentives for sustainable growth and authentic value creation into the economy — a new economic fabric thatʼs meaningful to people.”
  • “Google is investing in a shared resource [the ‘Chrome’ web browser] because it has the potential to expand the pie dramatically for all, and so Google stands to benefit more than by hoarding it.”
  • “What shared resource have you invested in — or should you invest in — to expand the pie sustainably for everyone over the long-run? / If the answer’s ‘none,’ it’s likely that you’re living on borrowed time.”
  • “…next-generation businesses are built on new DNA, or new ways to organize and manage economic activities.”
  • “We need no less than better corporate governance, a working shareholder democracy, a recognition of what capital really is (and isn’t), radically more enduring incentivesaligned with outcomes that actually matter to people — the capacity to trust and be trusted, more accurate and timely reporting, strategy that creates authentic value instead of just shifts numbers around, and business models that can yield sustainable growth.”
  • “…it is human outcomes that make work meaningful.”

More later, as we expand our thoughts and share and refine it with a larger audience.

Breaking the silence; looking back, looking forward

(This is a more personal post than most. It’s not the normal fare for this blog, but I need to explain what’s been going on recently. I would put this all in Twitter updates, but I can’t do the story justice in 140 characters.)

The last few weeks have been unusual for me. Stressfully fraught with disappointment, excitement, opportunity, new ideas, reversals, and finally a resurrection of hope.

A little over a week ago I teased my Twitter friends that I had a “big announcement” to share. Then I delayed a day. Then another day. Then a couple days. Then I went silent — because I realized I had no idea how long it would take for this announcement to go from “expected” to “official.”  Now, a week later, I have a totally different announcement.
Continue reading “Breaking the silence; looking back, looking forward”

Bye-Bye Buckley

With the passing of William F. Buckley, I fear an era of American intellectualism may have come to a close. Such a smart guy, even if he made you mad. But I’ll remember him as exquisitely entertaining.

Terry Heaton may have the best line referring to Buckley’s unique style:

“…he raised ‘leaning back’ to an art form.”