The mission problem

On December 6, 2009 Rob Bole, the CPB’s VP for Digital Media Strategies, wrote a great post: The Mogul’s Dilemma: Our Mystic Guideposts to Failure. Highly recommended reading. I was reminded of it today in the MediaShift post that actually started with me and then ended with Rob while talking about the infrastructure needed for modern public service media.

Back in late December, when I finally read Bole’s post, I posted my own comments. I saw my notes again today and was surprised to see just how much I wrote. And rather than let the comments sit there alone, I wanted to capture them here on my site for reference. Here’s what I had to say in response:

I totally agree about operators and strategic thinkers as you’ve presented in your thoughts here. When I started in public media in 2004, I was taken aback by how risk-averse the system was in technology, but also in core services and mission. So while I’ve personally beaten the drum for moves toward web services, I’ve also come to realize there’s a very deep-seated problem in “the system” that hasn’t yet been solved in most places.

It’s a mission problem.

What I’ve found is a lot of folks who built their careers and even their personal identities within broadcasting. To ask them or — if you dare — tell them to change, to learn new things and to act in new ways is pretty much an insult to their finely-crafted sense of selves (even if you deeply respect their past work).

But I found more than just entitlement along the way. I also found a loss of Passion and Purpose.

Public broadcasting became a system, an industry, a business. It became broadcasting, it became TV, it became radio — the platform was the thing and identities were inextricably intertwined with the platform. I’ve worked with TV engineers that were irritated when asked to solve radio engineering problems because TV Mattered and Radio Didn’t. In a world defined by technology platform, how do you have a serious conversation about ethereal things like “mission?”

It seems to me that over the years the high-minded notions of the Public Broadcasting Act have been lost. There’s been a failure to renew the mission, to redefine it in modern terms and to find people passionately committed to it. “Broadcasting fulfilled that mission, so why does it need to change?”

It’s taken me 5 years to reach the conclusion that the Internet, TV, radio, newspapers — none of that matters. Those are all technology choices, and they’re all commodities now. What matters is what you do with them, and frankly, most public broadcasting companies and leaders haven’t committed to this new perspective yet.

But there’s one that’s on the way. KETC in St. Louis is transforming itself, little by little, into a company on a mission for its community. They’re learning the best ways to be the “operator” you call for in this post, and they’re doing it across media platforms and out in the community. They originated the “Facing the Mortgage Crisis” project, and they did it because their community needed help and they felt a calling to deal with the issue, not to curry favor with the CPB or other funders.

And it’s not been easy. Each of the projects they’ve undertaken in the last couple of years have been big risks. They didn’t have complete funding. They had to bring together teams from legacy and new units to get the work done. They had to invent new methods and go out into a community that they, like most stations, had largely ignored for many years, preferring to broadcast, broadcast, broadcast.

I would encourage you to help stations find their Purpose and build Passion around that. With those two things, the right operators will magically show up — they’ll want to be a part of that Purpose. The strategic thinkers will join up, too, because there’s plenty of strategy to work out once you have your broad Purpose defined (or re-defined).

Here’s something practical:

Ask stations the two questions I first asked when I joined a public media company back in 2004:

  1. Who are you?
  2. Why are you here?

Very simple questions. You might be surprised how many people across the “system” don’t have good answers.

But if they can’t answer those questions — without quoting a tired mission statement — none of the rest of the debate over operators or strategy will really matter.

P.S. I’ve never gotten a good answer to my questions. But KETC may be the first to at least SHOW us some answers.

FINAL CUT: The Future is Public Service Media

Here’s the final cut of my recent presentation for WOSU Public Media in Columbus. This time I’ve got a video I created myself plus a complete set of slides and links back to all the original material.

In this case, the video is a revised presentation deck with a brand new voiceover track. This way, if you couldn’t see or hear the presentation clearly in the video shot at WOSU, now you can get the slides and the talk directly.

First, the video, then I’ll follow up with a final collection of links.

Final Cut Presentation Material

Additional Material

Public Media's 'Dreadnought' pulling into port at KETC

Run, don’t walk, to Robert Paterson‘s blog to read his new post on the transformation in progress at KETC in St. Louis.

No one knows exactly what forms public service media companies will take in the future, and it’s likely that several successful forms will appear. But KETC looks to be the first in the nation to have commissioned the construction of a new model.

Paterson has been working with KETC since before the launch of the Facing the Mortgage Crisis project, which started at KETC and then expanded to 30 more public broadcasters across the country with the help of the CPB. He’s been lucky enough to work with CEO Jack Galmiche and crew and to see this transformation up close. The plans — physical and logical — are remarkable.

What KETC is doing is revolutionary in the public broadcasting world. While the particulars may not fit every station nationwide, the themes should. Whether or not each element in the plan is “perfect” is irrelevant — the most important thing is that they’re experimenting, all within a reformulated goal. KETC is getting passionate about public service media, and not merely public broadcasting.

Read that post. It’s insightful and exciting.

Pirates, legless dogs and public media

Pirate RadioAt the end of Thanksgiving weekend I went out with friends to see the new movie Pirate Radio.

For those that don’t know, British radio was pretty tightly controlled just at the time that British rock and roll artists exploded onto the international pop music scene. Youth and music enthusiasts were basically deprived of rock on the radio. So a natural reaction appeared: enterprising young scallywags set up radio transmitters on ships floating in international waters off the British coast, beaming prohibited rock music and youth culture back into the mainland.

It’s not a great “film,” but it is a fun movie. And it reminded me of what I see so little of in public media circles today: Passion and joy and revelry. More on that in a minute.

Meanwhile, back at the office, I read the new column by IT strategy writer Bob Lewis: Legless Dog Syndrome. In it he asks the provocative question: What if you had no authority, as a manager, to make any of your employees do their jobs? What if you were a leader, but you weren’t “in charge?” He then goes on to talk about how, in a well-run organization, you don’t need control, because why you’re there and what you need to do are so patently obvious to everyone. To wit:

In well-run organizations, everyone understands:

  • What the organization exists to accomplish — the mission.
  • How the business works and how it connects to the external marketplace — the business model.
  • How the organization is supposed to evolve over time — the vision.
  • How the organization is supposed to get there — the strategy.
  • How they fit into the mission, business model, vision and strategy.
  • How to do their jobs exceptionally well in order to make it all happen.

And in well-run organizations they buy into all of this, have good reasons to want it to happen, find it energizing, and have no “perverse incentives” to take them in different directions.

Put together, these two scraps of media — Pirate Radio and Lewis’ take on the old legless dog joke — spell out to me what’s missing in much of the public media universe today: Passion and Purpose.


The “pirates” of Pirate Radio were there for the love of the music. They didn’t care about the privations of living on a rust bucket in the middle of the North Sea. Their mission — bringing the joys of a new age of music to millions across Britain — sustained them, gave them purpose, kept them engaged. They had a shared view of the inherent value of cultural expression through music (even if they’d never describe it that way) and were willing to do almost anything to participate in that process.

Passion gave them power, made them real to the people listening hundreds of miles away on land. Sure, there were advertisers and money involved, but these folks loved their work because they believed in it, not because they were getting rich (which they weren’t).

Is this true of most people working in most public media firms in the country today? Are they (or we) passionate? Really passionate?

It’s hard — if not impossible — to measure, but I’d wager that folks working in startup public media firms, like or the Texas Tribune or even specialty pubmedia firms like WXPN have more passion than most, and it gives them power. Maybe the passion will last for them, maybe it won’t. But they’ve got something that the average town’s local NPR affiliate isn’t likely to have: deep-rooted affection for the change they’re bringing to their world. They’re making a difference, an impact. They’re not working on the status quo; they’re creating something new.

How much change can you bring into the world by inserting local weather into Morning Edition? How much passion does it take to rearrange PBS programs into a broadcast schedule that’s virtually identical to 300 other stations around the country? Sure, the biggest legacy stations have pockets of creativity where old-school media types get to make media the way they always have. That’s a passion pursuit.

But for a wide swath of professionals working in public broadcasting today (some 40,000+ people), I’ll bet most are going through the motions at this point. Too many are fixated on a proud legacy (and there are still things to be proud of today, of course); many have lost their way and don’t know how to make “big media” on eviscerated budgets (because you can’t). One year you have a staff of 150 people and do all kinds of crazy projects that you love. A few years later your staff of 75 is shell-shocked and just hanging on to what vestiges are left of a passion borne of a long career in the old media world.

Under circumstances present in most (by number) public broadcasting outfits, it’s hard to muster passion when you’re watching your work diminish in scope, impact and value. And it must be especially galling to see your high-craft work disappear into the ether as new media forms get so much more buzz — buzz beyond their “real-world” value.

But here’s the deal: Passion will almost always beat proficiency. And in an age where old-school media economics are collapsing (as less advertising spreads across an expanding media universe), the New is sustainable because of its passion, but the old is not because of its baggage. The asteroid has hit, and the small mammals have a distinct advantage over the dinosaurs.

Of course, you can’t win on passion alone. The radio pirates still had to broadcast their work. They still had to keep the ship afloat. They still had to buy fuel and food. But had Rupert Murdoch started a pirate radio operation with PR, accounting and lawyers on the payroll, it would never have made it. Passion powered those boats, not cash.

Public media people need to find their passion.

What is it? Making good video? Great! Then you need to find a way to make video, even if that leads you away from your career at the local PBS affiliate. Are you all about kids education? Awesome. Then dig in where you are if you can, but if you can’t, move on. Is creating trustworthy news and information, to help educate the electorate, hold officials accountable and sustain democracy your passion? Fantastic! Get to it, and keep in mind your best work might be achieved outside the legacy public media companies — some of the most innovative work in journalism isn’t happening at established companies.

It’s not that public media needs a talent exodus. But we do need those that are just biding their time until retirement to move along early, along with those that just wanted a “safe” job where little is expected of you and no one is ever fired. We need a passion explosion. And it’s not about age. You can be passionate at any time in your professional life.

But the passion argument demands more than just ecstatic devotion — there must be a reason for it. We need to work passionately on something together…


I’ve told this story more than a few times…

When I moved into the public media world a few years back, I felt like I was joining a company, and a national community, composed of people on a mission. I’d worked in nonprofits before, and I’d always liked putting mission above sheer profitability, but this was the first nonprofit where I felt like there was a real underlying purpose.

These were the days, however, when the web was so ascendent that even the old school public broadcasting managers were realizing that a generation was growing up with less of a need — or maybe even no need at all — for public radio and public TV. The iPod came out in fall 2001. By the time I joined public media just 3 years later, podcasting was introduced soon after, broadband penetration in the home passed 50% and it was clear the world was not the same.

So I, and so many others around the country, began to ask…

Well, okay… there are new media outlets appearing all the time now, so maybe we need to go back to the drawing board and ask ourselves: “Why are we really here?” Because if we can answer that question, then we’ll know what things we should bother doing and which things we can ignore as new media outlets and formulas develop. Because we can’t sustainably be all things to all people. We need a clear mission so we know what’s in and what’s out.

With that in mind, I started to ask my colleagues — most of whom had worked for decades in public media — Why are we here? What’s our true mission? Who are we here to serve? If there were only one thing left we could do, what would it be?

I thought these were marvelous questions. We could all read the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act again, with fresh eyes, and envision a present and future that’s reimagined, probably staying true to core principles from 1967, but without being bound to 40-year-old technologies or notions of public service. What freedom!

Yeah. It didn’t work out like that.

Instead, my questions were irritating to those that literally built their careers over the same time span in which public broadcasting developed so successfully.

“What’s our mission?”

“Our mission is public broadcasting!”

“Right. But what does that mean, especially now — now that everything is changing?”

“It’s public broadcasting! Look, you just haven’t worked here long enough to understand. But the rest of us know what it means.”

“Then why can’t you explain what it is, simply, clearly, and without using the words public or broadcasting? Can you tell me what the mission is without listing what the company does?

“! ! !”

I never intended to frustrate, but I did intend to provoke, to start a deep conversation about Purpose. I feel my questions remain unanswered to this day.

Coming out of that experience, I think there are three critical questions for public media companies (and any company, really) to answer for themselves:

  • Who are you? (identity, not branding)
  • Why are you here? (mission or purpose)
  • Why do you deserve my — or anyone’s — support or participation? (case for support, call to participation)

And the challenge isn’t getting some disengaged committee trapped in a conference room for half a day to give any old answer; the challenge is giving good answers to these questions. Simple, clear answers in human-scale English; answers that are inspiring, trustworthy, honest and needed.

We need Purpose. Shared purpose. Reasons for getting out of bed in the morning. Reasons for showing up at work early and working late. A purpose to power us when it feels like the ship is sinking.

Is continuity enough?

In The Art of the Start, Guy Kawasaki says that one mission a startup can have (among others) is, “Prevent the end of something good.” It feels like that’s much of the Purpose out there in public media land today. Budgets shrink. Staffs shrink. Advertising income shrinks. And so on. So pubmedia professionals are working doubly hard to keep the ship afloat.

But I would say Kawasaki misses a point: Continuity of something old, something anachronistic, is not enough to keep people energized; it’s not something many people can get Passionate about.

People can get passionate about making something new: a house, a baby, a business, a painting. They can even be passionate about preservation in some cases (which is probably why pubcasting membership receipts are flat even as membership rolls shrink).

But media is not merely a monument to the past — it’s a living thing. We create it every day. We consume it every day. How do you gather passion for continuity of the old in perpetuity?

Personally, I think public media simply maintaining past practices until they collapse under their own economic weight is not enough, and it’s an insult to that part of the community that has moved on, media-wise, and is waiting for us.

Passion + Purpose = Meaning

Imagine a public media company that has a clear purpose. A purpose that everyone knows and understands. Imagine it filled with people passionate about that purpose. That’s a group of people making meaning for their community and for themselves. It could be music or news. It could be public service via information curation and distribution. It could be community building. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

More than anything else we seek Meaning in our lives, which to me is a unification of Passion and Purpose. I haven’t found it yet in a public media firm (though I’ve experienced flashes of it here and there — sparks and smoke that suggest a fire).

It’s time public media firms get off their duffs, articulate a clear purpose and gather a crew that’s willing to head out on the proverbial rust bucket in the North Sea to share their passion with the world.

The kids programming folks at PBS seem to have it. The news folks at NPR seem to have it. There are other pockets out there, too, I’m sure.

But the broad swath of “stations” out there need to stop whining about losses and changes and how things just aren’t the same anymore and “if only” we could do this or that “everything would be fine.” Here’s a news flash for ya: Everything IS Fine. The present is what it is. Hoping for the past to come back is a waste of energy, money and time. Give it up. Make a great future with the resources we have right now.

We have more opportunity in front of us for public service and community building now than ever imagined 40 years ago, or even 10 years ago. When you look past legacy systems, the cost of creating and sharing media today is cheaper than it’s ever been. Recording, editing, curation, distribution, aggregation, sharing — it’s unbelievable what we can do these days.

All ahead, or all reverse?

In Pirate Radio, the “Count” character (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), remarks that these are the best days of their lives, and it’s a pretty depressing realization for him. He knew he was at the center of Passion and Purpose meeting for a brief time on a ship in the North Sea and he’d never forget it.

So here’s your takeaway question…

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

Big Webcast on Tuesday (11/03)

UPDATE: The webcast video and audio is now posted.

For those that may not yet have seen a promo for this webcast, here you go — this is a good one:

From Broadcast to Broadband: Redesigning Public Media for the 21st Century

  • Ellen Goodman, Rutgers University School of Law
  • Jake Shapiro, Executive Director, Public Radio Exchange (PRX)
  • Presented by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society
  • Tue, Nov 3, 2009
  • LIVE webcast: 12:30 p.m. Eastern / 9:30 a.m. Pacific
  • Archived webcast to be posted later

Get the full description here

Watch the live webcast here

See the archived copy of the webcast here (later)

Should public media make Education its mission?

UPDATE: I added some comments about what “education” means to me at the bottom of the post.

O'Reilly RadarAn interesting new article was posted last week that caught my eye (thanks to @kevintraver):

A More Public Role for Public Broadcasting: Education
by Dale Dougherty / O’Reilly Radar

The gist of the article seems to be that public media — though Dougherty focuses almost solely on public TV — should use it’s ample broadcasting bandwidth to focus on educational content, from traditional kids programming up through lifelong learning and civics topics. Using TV is considered better than using the web for accessibility reasons (which broadly makes sense given the cost of broadband in this country).

While I like the idea in broad strokes, I think Dougherty is missing a lot of insider knowledge of the industry as it exists today and how it’s funded. So I submitted a comment to the site that goes like this:

This is a nice idea that will never happen. At least not without a huge change in direction for public media and government (i.e. voters).

Whether or not education / lifelong learning was in the 1967 PBA is now irrelevant. Public media institutions have drifted far from education over the years and aren’t coming back. Why? Because education doesn’t make enough money to be self-sustaining. Which is why taxes pay for schools and students pay for college.

With all due respect to Mr. Lippincott and other former colleagues in public TV, let’s get real. PBS’s best work is done in children’s programming and it’s marginally educational. The only way it’s strongly educational is with deep parental involvement (rare) or direct classroom tie-ins in schools (limited for political and time management reasons).

To make the Education mission a reality in public media, taxpayers would have to agree to foot the bill of perhaps $1-2 billion annually. That would be cheap for what we could get, but not likely. Further, it’s becoming very clear that education via online video and other means is exploding and to do this work via TV is anachronistic if not downright wasteful.

The short-run plan for PBS: keep doing what it’s doing until it collapses financially (by 2015, I’m betting). Once that happens, the children’s programming will remain in a reformatted PBS, the news content will go to a reformatted NPR, and WGBH will gobble up the rest and become a national superstation.

If, on the other hand, you consider quality news a form of education (which, in truth, it is), then you’re talking about NPR for the most part, and they’re the shining hope for public media.

I’m big on having a bold mission, articulating it and making meaningful community impacts. But my take is that well-done news that intelligently informs the electorate in times of turmoil (say, the next 25 years) is more supportable and more meaningful than trying to take on the education monster, in which everyone has opinions of what should be done but no one is really in charge and everyone is underfunded.

UPDATE 14 Oct 2009 2:30am EDT

After a Twitter exchange with @MarkRyanWFWA (follow him!) I realized that I may be defining “education” more narrowly than others would like.

For me, education is a fairly systematized approach to providing information and then following up to ensure the information was understood and can be practically applied. So when I say public media should not adopt education as its primary mission, I mean it. I just mean it in my own way.

Of course, “public media” can even be debated as to its meaning. In it’s largest sense it means creating / curating / sharing media in service of a public good. That’s great, but I do think for practical reasons we have to sharpen our missions much more than that. To me, that means news and information aimed at already-educated (to some degree) people to allow them to live their lives more successfully and make decisions as citizens that have positive impacts.

Education is definitely a public good. I just don’t think public broadcasting, as it moves to public media, should focus exclusively on that mission.

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

Tonight at 11… Sweeps can KILL you!

Found via Lost Remote, this Idaho Radio News post includes one of the funniest (and saddest) send-ups of local news promotions in commercial media.


Can you imagine a public radio or public television station doing a promo like this? Of course not — it’s the polar opposite of the public media ethos.

Perhaps one of the ways to define public service media going forward is to declare what we are not.