On seeking trust in public media

Public media consultant Michael Marcotte posted about some of his recent work on ethics guidelines for public media employees and I was moved to comment. I started commenting directly on his blog, but realized — after 700 words — that I should really post this on my site and link over to it. No need to gunk up his comments.

Be sure to check out the source post — Ethics Guidelines for Public Media Employees — and related documents first. Got it? Then here are my comments.

I’m glad someone is thinking about this in the public media world, but I’m disappointed that traditional journalists got their hands so deeply into this document.

We don’t need a replication of existing “view from nowhere” positioning in journalism. We need fairness and disclosure, yes, but objectivity is not increasing public trust. NPR maintained traditional objectivity right through the right-wing attacks of the last few years and it neither illuminated those situation nor generated more trust in any corner. Objectivity-worship sucked the teachable moment right out of those manufactured controversies.

I could go on for a long time about the perils of objectivity, but Jay Rosen has that waterfront covered, so just read his stuff. Instead, I’ll focus on the real flaw I see at the heart of this document.

It’s related to the objectivity thing, but it’s much simpler. It’s right there in the Principles at the top of the list: “Seek public trust“. Three simple words.

  • Trust is good. We all want that. We need it. It makes the mission of public media organizations easier and more supportable. Trust is an unvarnished good.
  • Public is a pretty good word. I think we’ve lost touch with that word through its overuse; we don’t know what it means anymore. Does “public” mean upper-middle-class college whites? It certainly seems that way in public media. But let’s leave that old argument aside and assume the best around the word “public.”
  • Here’s the problem: “Seek“. You’re telling people to seek public trust. You’re advising that people angle for it, grasp for it, hope for it. By choosing the word “seek” you’re admitting that public media organizations must position themselves, marketing-style, as being trustworthy. They don’t have to BE trustworthy, they just have to seek the perception of trustworthiness. (It’s time to post more “PBS is #1 in public trust” press releases!)

When it comes to social media and real life — and I would argue when it comes to news — you either are trustworthy or you are not. You earn trust. You have trust. You can lose trust. But you don’t seek it. You don’t plan for it. “Seeking” to me sounds like someone who’s trying too hard to be my friend. It feels contrived. And contrivances are not trustworthy.

Those three words — “Seek public trust” — flow from a major problem public media organizations (and newspapers) face today: a collection of older executives that are working to protect an anachronistic empire, managers who’ve inherited a system that has a lot of trust built up from 30+ years of valuable public service, most of which was built before their time. They’re seeking public trust because they’re trying to preserve their own income and status.

Early public media leaders didn’t seek public trust. They just did trustworthy things. They were trustworthy people. Trust adhered to them over time based on the things they did. It wasn’t the color of their logos, it was the content of their characters that made a difference. Do you think Fred Rogers sought public trust? He schemed for it?

To take an unrelated example, look at Apple. Apple has tremendous levels of trust built up with millions of customers. They have a brand with worldwide respect. They’re the best at customer service. They have unparalleled product quality, design, and ease of use. People love Apple. Dis Apple “seek public trust” to get where they are? Did they market their trustworthiness? Or do they instead earn their trust with each well-executed product, each simple service, each box opening? Go look at the last 10 years of Steve Jobs’ presentations. Did he ever talk about trust? No. But he and the company earned it billions of times over.

In the case of social media, public media organizations should ask their employees to be trustworthy, be nice, deal in truth, share the spotlight, and promote — at least some of the time — a better world.

The long list of ethics rules should really be shortened to look like this:

  • Be trustworthy (e.g. think before you post, respect privacy, practice transparency, strive for accuracy and truthfulness, use your “real” voice, be nice, share)
  • Either maintain a healthy congruency between personal and professional behavior or at least recognize that your capacity for maintaining separate personal and private lives is inversely proportional to how public your professional position is
  • Keep in mind your public associations, even fleeting ones, may affect whether others are willing to trust you, so associate carefully for positive and negative returns

And that’s it.

The extra rules in the proposed document are designed for managers of an earlier era. I understand why they’re there. They’re all part of “seeking public trust” through manufactured objectivity and too-earnest striving for legitimacy. Which is a losing game in the long run.

Public media actors should be trustworthy, and let the rest take care of itself.

Leaving KETC: It Was Just One of Those Things

Newsflash: I’m no longer working for KETC in St. Louis.

Following a quick 8 weeks in the shadow of the Gateway Arch, I’m left humming one of Ella Fitzgerald’s signature Cole Porter songs:


And with Ella reverberating through my head, allow me to share a bit of the story.

By the way, for anyone seeking dirty laundry: I’m going to disappoint you. But I will unpack what I’ve learned and perhaps that can help you in your career. Because I’ve got new insights into job situations I’d heard about, but hadn’t personally experienced until now.


The trouble started in January.

I participated in a weekend project kick-off for KETC’s new immigration-focused public service media engagement, a follow-up to the successful Facing the Mortgage Crisis. I flew down from Anchorage to partially advise and pseudo-interview for an online media role in the project.

Sounded great. But from the get-go I had several intuitions things weren’t quite right, at least for me. And I promptly ignored every sign, assuming I was being excessively cautious or pessimistic or silly or… something.

Some of the early signs I ignored:

  • I was never excited by the project’s topic: immigration. Yes, immigration is a major national topic these days and it has interesting dimensions, but it’s not something that ignites a passion for me. I figured that didn’t matter because I was interested in the work, the methods, the tools and approaches, if not the topic itself.
  • Pure-play public TV stations make me nervous — I’m not a fan of the current programming or fundraising models (declining cultural relevance and revenue), yet that was the core nature of the host station. I figured this, too, didn’t matter because the project was something very new and it was isolated from the TV business.
  • I’m a huge fan of news as a public service, yet most public TV stations, including KETC, have no local news capacity. In this case I consoled myself with the knowledge that the St. Louis Beacon lived within the walls of the station, despite:
    • being a separate nonprofit;
    • having a written-word focus rather than video focus; and
    • having little to do with the project.
  • The project had funding only for 1 year. This created two concerns:
    • I’d likely lose my job in a year (though I was willing to absorb that risk for the opportunity).
    • I struggled with the conflicting ideas of building long-term community engagement online when the project has a definite end in the near future (i.e. please join us online, see ya later).

Any one of these doubts was minor and I easily rationalized them away. But I failed to see them as a whole. And the pattern of doubts continued.

I won’t go into every issue, because it doesn’t really matter now. But there were niggling concerns that popped up all along the way. Conversations ahead of my arrival felt either rushed or delayed. Project goals remained nebulous (which I thought was a good thing for a while). I felt “wanted” for the project, which was great, but then my concerns about fulfilling the outsize expectations grew.

On the Ground

Once I arrived the first week of March, I started to get settled, but never felt at home, either at the office or in my apartment after-hours. The team’s space wasn’t done. I was using my own computer at the office and had WiFi problems. I had a noisy upstairs neighbor at home. I was working on team collaboration stuff rather than public-facing web stuff (which turned out to be a big mistake). The project goals were still being defined. My wife and I were adjusting to the separation. I spent too much time making social media contacts in the area, looking too far down the road. I learned there were factions within the company that resented my hiring. Nothing felt grounded for me.

There was even personal stuff getting in the way. It began with the drive down from Alaska — my driving companion effectively started divorce proceedings via text messages, emails and phone calls in the car. That was odd. But I also took time to attend my mother-in-law’s funeral in April, while seeing my wife for the first time in 6 weeks. Then I fell ill while visiting CPB and was effectively out of commission for a week with strep throat — the first time since I was a kid.

All in all, from March 4 to May 6 I never felt safe, whether at home or the office. And let’s be clear — I’m just recounting my perceptions. I never felt anyone was “out to get me” or felt unwelcome. Indeed, my coworkers were delightful people and were sympathetic to the challenges I was facing.

Communication, Priorities, Goals

Meanwhile, in the project work, there were things that needed to be done. Quickly. Yet my communication with my supervisor seemed to skip a beat each time we talked. I’ve never had that experience before. Looking back now, I would call it what I’ve heard others say about other jobs and people: “it wasn’t a good fit.” I never really believed in that notion until the last couple of weeks. But it’s real, and it was disorienting. Whatever the reason — or maybe no reason at all — we talked past each other when it came to priorities or speed or goals, or maybe I simply wasn’t listening.

As I told my boss just last week: I’m not used to failing at things, I’m used to succeeding. My typical approach is to take on something new and delight people with better-than-expected results. But that didn’t happen this time. I felt horrible about it, which only compounded the situation.

At the end of the day, I was deeply unhappy with the job. And they were deeply unhappy with me. Sadly, I was starting to see ways forward in the final week-and-a-half. But it was too late to recover — the ship had taken on too much water.

Lessons Learned

As I shared a brief version of my story with a friend late last week he said, “When you get older, you’ll learn to listen to those voices in your head that warn you there’s something amiss.” Well, I’m older now. About 8 weeks older on the calendar, but a few years older in experience.

What have I learned that you might be able to use?

  • If you have doubts, don’t minimize them. Logically evaluate them as best you can, but keep in mind some doubts are not logical on the surface, relying instead upon subconscious cues linked to your values, perspectives and experience.
  • When you wager your career on a risky opportunity, you can, in fact, lose the game. Good intentions, though important, aren’t enough.
  • Know what levels of risk you can live with comfortably. If you stress yourself out over the risks you’ve taken, the situation actually gets riskier.
  • You cannot think creatively if you don’t feel “safe” in your life. Get to know what it is that makes you feel “at home” and get those things in order first.
  • Find out what is driving your boss and CEO forward. “Driven” people upstream from you can be a boon to your career if you share a common vision and communication style. Or they can be dangerous. Ignore their motivations at your peril.
  • Yes, there is such a thing as a “bad fit” in the working world, even between hard-working and otherwise successful, well-meaning people. Bad fits make everyone unhappy, and it’s better to figure that out and make changes quickly than to drag it out indefinitely.
  • It’s up to you to get specifics on desired work outcomes up front. Know how fast an employer wants things done, and to what level of perfection. Know how you will be evaluated. If you can’t figure these things out, skip the opportunity.
  • Never let anyone hire you if they think you walk on water. Because you don’t. And when you don’t walk on water, you’ll feel bad about it and they’ll be disappointed. Everyone loses.

What’s Next?

The first question I’ve gotten from close colleagues is, “Will you stay in public media?” The most honest answer: I don’t know. With dwindling budgets, drifting missions and more than a smidgen of drama here and there, it’s certainly an open question. I maintain my passion for public service media — there’s a need out there and a tremendous opportunity to serve community needs in new ways — but I may be able to serve in ways beyond employment.

For now, I’m focusing on opportunities in the Information Technology (IT) field, whether in nonprofits, healthcare or other businesses. I’ll remain open to public media options, but I have a much longer history in working with IT infrastructure projects and services (networks, servers, security, desktops, telephony, etc.). Not to mention I enjoy the work.

As for location, I’m in St. Louis at the moment, and I’m looking for work here, but I’m also looking at cities all over the place, including back in Anchorage, where my wife is still living and working. Other potential cities include (in no particular order):

  • WEST: Spokane, Boise, Denver
  • SOUTH: Austin
  • MIDWEST: Columbus (OH), Kansas City, Indianapolis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Madison, Des Moines, Louisville
  • EAST: Asheville and Raleigh, NC

Just One of Those Things

As I look back over the past 8 weeks I’m realizing just how fast everything happened and I’m amazed. I’ve never moved from new hire to former employee in 2 months before. I’m disappointed with the way things turned out, but I’m also deeply relieved that the stress is over and everyone can move forward.

Plus, Cole Porter’s lyrics have a new meaning for me:

If we thought a bit of the end of it
When we started painting the town
We’d have been aware that our love affair was
too hot not to cool down

So goodbye dear and Amen
Here’s hoping we meet now and then
It was great fun
But it was just one of those things

I wish the team at KETC the best. They’ve got a great project on their hands, they’re good people and I’m sure they’ll pull it off.

Farewell Alaska. Hello St. Louis!

Announcement Time!

As of this week I accepted an exciting new position with public service media company KETC in St. Louis, Missouri. Starting in early March, I’ll be their new Director of Digital Engagement.

Historically KETC has been, and to this day is, a public television station in a TV market of roughly 3 million, broadcasting national PBS programming as well as locally-generated shows, some of which are distributed nationally on occasion. Amongst public TV stations, KETC is one of the oldest on record. Seriously — check out their amazing timeline going back to 1954, a full 13 years before the Public Broadcasting Act. Now that is history.

Yet for all that rich history, KETC is becoming something very new today: a public service media company, not simply a broadcaster. Over the past few years they’ve embarked on a remarkable transformation, developing closer relationships with their community and using media to solve problems.

It started with outreach around The War, in which KETC set the national standard for gathering local veteran stories and integrating it with the Ken Burns documentary.

This new way of working and thinking culminated with the local, then national, Facing the Mortgage Crisis, in which the station literally networked nonprofits, government agencies, banks and homeowners in a united effort to slow or even stop the wave of foreclosures hitting the area following the financial meltdown. The project included social media, broadcast, old-fashioned networking, live events and lots of online work. The accomplishment in St. Louis were so impressive the CPB expanded the program to selected stations nationwide.

Now a new project is beginning; one focused on issues around the topic of immigration. They’re even remodeling part of the building to house the new local nonprofit news service — the St. Louis Beacon — and the cross-functional multiplatform digital media team… all together in the same space. And I’ll be there to help.

I can’t tell you how exciting this is. I’ve watched KETC from afar, oftentimes through consultant Rob Paterson‘s postings. This is an opportunity for me to put up or shut up on digital engagement and public service media. And I will do my best, for the good of St. Louis (a town I knew as a child, as it turns out), and hopefully for a broader public broadcasting community looking to understand how to move into what CPB’s Rob Bole calls “public purpose media.”

Sadly, this means I will be leaving Alaska very soon indeed, having lived on the Last Frontier for the past 9 years. The departure is made all the harder because I must leave behind a vibrant social media community I helped create over the past year. That community has gone on to raise money for a friend in need, form a local Ignite chapter and, from what I’m told, a wedding may be in the works. 🙂

So farewell Alaska. I will miss your Chugach mountain skyline and the warm embrace of entertaining and thoughtful friends all too soon.

And hello St. Louis! Let’s make something meaningful together.

Media Evolution

Seth Godin on the evolution of every medium, when applied to the television industry:

TV used to be driven by the guys who knew how to run cameras and transmitters. Then it got handed off to the Ernie Kovacs/Rod Serling types. Then the financial operators like ITT and Gulf + Western milked it. And finally it’s just a job.

Yep. TV has become predictable.

Though I wasn’t part of the early days of public broadcasting, every account I’ve heard or read suggests it was a time of remarkable innovation and experimentation. There wasn’t a lot of money, but there was a lot of passion tied to a powerful mission. These days public TV doesn’t do commercial-style media well.  But it also doesn’t do mission-based media well.

There are outstanding examples of great media creation within the pubcasting world, but as a whole we’ve blanded the place up and disconnected it from our communities. Time to rethink the mission and re-energize the work. And it might just have to start with the engineers.

Yeah, we're a sensible business. What of it?

One thing I cannot abide is prevarication. It’s why I’ll never be a successful politician (or an unsuccessful one, for that matter).

So it irks me every time a public broadcasting leader gets up in front of a crowd and trots out the old chestnut of how public broadcasting — especially public TV — is so much better than commercial broadcasting because we produce “Masterpiece Theater” and they produce “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” Recently PBS CEO Paula Kerger took to one of these many stages and talked about how PBS kids programming is so much better than the commercial kids garbage out there, especially since PBS doesn’t attach kids merchandising to the broadcasts.

Too bad someone blew the bullshit siren. [Hat tip to Current for the find.]

And please, let’s not slice-and-dice this story into “well, it wasn’t PBS that did it, it was WGBH, the producer…” yadda, yadda, yadda. The public does not understand these distinctions and we all know it. The conservative blogger also busts out the old Sesame Workshop example, which has dogged the network for years because  no one has had the guts to speak the truth without blushing (which I’ll get to in a minute).

Separately, the issue of PBS buying Nielsen ratings data came up in this Washington Post column (scroll to the bottom), in which Kerger attempts to politically sidestep the fact that the network bought the access to help it sell air time to sponsors. The columnist said Kerger’s explanation of the Nielsen deal “sounded suspiciously like a CBS sales exec at a pitch with potential advertisers.”

Good grief. The problem isn’t that Kerger sounded like a CBS sales exec, it’s that she sounded suspiciously like a CBS sales exec! It’s suspicious because her language was deliberately double-talky. We’ve been taught to be apologetic for operating like businesses, and her roundabout language gives away our cultural discomfort with bottom-line considerations.

I’m tired of the song-and-dance promoted from the tops of our public media ecosystem. Our leaders attack commercial media and praise noncommercial despite the fact that the differences are not so stark; there are good programs in commercial media, and we have some dogs of our own. We rag on “Ice Road Truckers” but secretly sit transfixed for hours during a weekend marathon. We despise the rampant commercialism of kids programming but align ourselves with companies that participate in the same TV-industrial complex.

Let’s get real. Here’s some of what I would like to see in print and hear from our leaders when they talk to the public:

  • Nonprofits are still businesses. If they’re run without good business practices, they will fail. If a nonprofit corporation fails, the public good they were organized to pursue will be lost. So it’s good to operate like a business. Stop acting like this is a bad thing!
  • Sesame Workshop makes money from character licensing? Good for them! Money they make in that way offsets the cost to PBS and stations. Without that separate income, that show would cost stations a metric ton more to produce, meaning that show or others would be canceled. Nonprofits are specifically allowed to make unrelated income — they just have to pay taxes on that income. So guess what happens…
    • kids get “Sesame Street” products they like, attaching them to a program with great educational value
    • people are employed in making, transporting and selling the products
    • taxes are collected on the profits, helping pay for government programs (like public broadcasting)
    • actors, directors, producers, writers and other artists are paid a fair wage
    • the cost to PBS and stations is reduced for a beloved program
    • …and this is bad how?
  • Corporations used to be more openly philanthropic, but now they want something for their money — we can’t change that. So we can either take their money and create “advertising lite” options for them, or leave the money on the table. Maybe it is wrong to take the money and add corporate messages to our content. If you’ve got a better idea, we’re all ears.
  • Yeah, we don’t like the slide toward advertising either. But watch 1 hour of PBS and 1 hour of Discovery and compare the number, frequency, length and stridency of the commercials you see. There’s a difference and you know it.
  • Buying Nielsen data is standard practice in the TV world. It helps us get sponsorship dollars. Frankly, you should be shocked it took us this long.
  • Don’t like our mild commercialism? Push for legislation to fund public media at a level where corporate sponsorship isn’t needed, BBC-style. We don’t like selling ourselves anyway.
  • We produce “Antiques Roadshow” because it gets ratings (and dollars) not because it’s programming that consistently lives up to our mission.
  • We broadcast “Lawrence Welk” because old people like it and we want their money when they die.
  • There’s quite a few programs on commercial media we like and respect — it’s not all garbage. For example, we’re mad we didn’t think of “Mythbusters” first.
  • Sometimes we will use marketing tactics to make people aware of our programs. Deal.

Would I phrase all the messages exactly this way? No, of course not.

But the messages must be clear: we’re businesses, we do good things for our communities and we use a variety of tactics to achieve our goals, some of which involve trade-offs of mission and sustainability.

And if you can suggest ways in which we never have to make trade-offs, let’s talk.

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.

Public Service Media requires decentralized action

Let’s start with an insightful quote from David Brooks writing in the NY Times this past weekend:

For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action. We’ve done this in many spheres of life. Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not. But we shouldn’t imagine that these centralized institutions are going to work perfectly or even well most of the time.

In this case, Brooks was talking about centralized agency performance in the face of terrorism threats, but his talk about the powers — or lack of powers — in centralized government agencies got me to thinking about public service media. It seems to me that if we’re serious about public service media, we’re going to have to act locally and work to deemphasize national content distribution, services and cash flows. We’ve gone too far into centralized, and we’ve lost our way in our hometowns.

It strikes me that, more than anything else, those who will successfully practice public service media in this new decade will rely upon themselves and their communities, rather than waiting for solutions or directions to arrive from national agencies or media producers. Local solutions can’t come from somewhere else (though ideas can). The age of centralization and top-down service is over for now. Such approaches don’t scale down to real problems and palpable action well, and they smack of paternalistic “do this and do it this way” directives. We’ve put too much faith and power into centralized systems, enfeebling our abilities to act in our own communities.

Serving community needs almost always must be done on a localized basis. Yet over the past 20 years the public broadcasting universe has concentrated more and more power, intelligence, money and experience in the core networks and stations: PBS, NPR, APM, PRI, WGBH, KQED, WETA, WNYC and so on. Donors to local pubcasting stations are really helping pay Paula Kerger (PBS) more than $500,000 a year and Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne (NPR) more than $600,000 a year combined, not to mention so many others. Yet the services they individually provide, while nice, are not vital to solving community problems where we live (they don’t even solve problems in the Washington, DC metro area, for that matter).

Consider what could be done with the money spent on the centralized networks in a local area. In one market with which I have passing familiarity, with about 2.8 million people in the MSA, the local PBS station sends more than $1.2 million annually to PBS alone. That’s money leaving the community, going to PBS (and ultimately to program producers) and what that community gets back is national PBS content. I’m not sure that’s a good return on the community’s investment, not to mention the duplication of effort that happens across 300 cities nationwide — stations do pretty much the same thing everywhere: create a PBS station that looks like all the others, save for the logo.

Meanwhile, that’s $1.2 million that isn’t being spent to provide services that are locally relevant and useful to the community. What if that money paid for 12 people to write, shoot video, take pictures, interview people and gather and post information and host interactive communities that solve real problems? And what if those 12 people helped organize a community of 48 people that were actively and collaboratively involved in solving problems, multiplying the positive effect? That would be a major, real-world impact — well worth $1.2 million in local funding from a community of 2.8 million ($2.30 per citizen per year).

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “What do we do about Antiques Roadshow?” Well, that show can go to A&E. Oh, except they already have that show, called Pawn Stars. Zing! But seriously, I can address the restructuring of public TV funding and programming in a future post. For now, my point is that local public service media companies must focus on local needs and solutions. Leave the nationals to do their work (in new ways, in new funding models).

When the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act came along, there was a deep-rooted need for local media creation that served local needs in a noncommercial way. Over the years, the professionalism of the system has destroyed local capacity, concentrating capacity at the national level, where both PBS and NPR are competing with national media outlets and behaving in ways disconnected from local needs. In many ways, the dreams of the 1967 PBA writers were attained, but have been steadily lost.

It’s time to swing the pendulum back the other way.

MacBreak Weekly explores NPR/station disintermediation

On each MacBreak Weekly — a podcast focusing on all things Mac (and iPhone / iPod) — the host and guests make “picks of the week” in which they highlight hardware or software from every imaginable corner of the Mac and iPhone universe. Some stuff is small, some stuff is big, some is expensive and some is free. This week one of the guests — Alex Lindsay, a videography and special effects pro — picked the tremendously popular NPR News iPhone app (currently #4 in the free News apps category in the iTunes App Store).

In discussing the NPR News app, host Leo Laporte and Alex lavish praise on NPR itself for doing such a great job meeting the needs of Internet users that want access to NPR News and other public radio content and stations. They also rave about This American Life (currently the #2 podcast in the entire iTunes podcast directory) and the heavily revised NPR.org.

But then things get interesting.

Laporte and Lindsay don’t stop with reviewing the app or praising NPR. Together they demonstrate both tremendous insight and notable ignorance of how public radio is architected in the U.S. Here’s what’s right and what’s wrong in their discussion:


  • The NPR News app, combined with the new NPR.org, is one of the most advanced distribution approaches in use by a major media company today.
  • Livio is offering an Internet-connected radio with built-in NPR branding and features ($200).
  • NPR was afraid to offer fully atomized programming elements via the web in an on-demand fashion for many years due to fears of station backlash, and resisted that through the early days of podcasting, despite prodding from Laporte and others in the tech world.
  • Donations from listeners are still primarily directed toward stations, not NPR itself, and national producers reinforce that notion currently.
  • NPR has done what many media entities have not done: face the future and make significant changes to the way they distribute content, answering the requests of listeners, even if it means stepping on local station toes.
  • NPR produces industry-leading audio programming; it’s the “gold standard” in audio production and other professionals use it as a benchmark for their work.
  • This American Life includes advertising in its podcast (it may be “sponsorship,” but it sounds to listeners like advertising). Laporte also realizes that advertising in a podcast gets around FCC regulations governing nonprofits and broadcast advertising.
  • This disintermediation — content flowing from producers to listeners directly, without local stations — could be “the beginning of the end” for NPR stations across the country.
  • Given the way content is produced and distributed in this new model, there needs to be a “reversal” of how the system works, in that NPR should pay local station reporters for news gathering (this is also listed below in the “wrong” section).


  • Alex says the app is “either free or $0.99” — it’s free, no question about it.
  • All Things Considered is not produced by a network other than NPR — it’s not from APM, it’s not from PRI, etc.
  • Lindsay suggests that NPR should be paying local reporters for their reporting. What he doesn’t know is that NPR already does this, it just does it on a pay scale and frequency that’s not sustainable for local journalists.

Given how badly most people understand the public radio system in the U.S., they get a ton of this stuff right. And they instinctively know how the disintermediation game works — Laporte used to work on the defunct cable channel TechTV but today has built his own network of audio (and now video) podcasts and streams, amassing more than $1,000,000 in annual revenues for his 2-4 person multimedia production house. (For the record, he’s also a commercial radio broadcaster.)

“The Reversal”

I was shocked by Alex Lindsay’s suggestion that the economic model on which the network/stations system works should be turned on its head. That’s something I’ve been saying since about 2006, once I realized that the content power rests with NPR, but the radio distribution power and the social relationship power rests with geographically-bound stations.

I’ve been laughed out of more than one conversation when suggesting NPR should pay stations to distribute their content. Or at the very least, NPR should be passing its content to stations for free or for the cost of operating the distribution system (PRSS / ContentDepot).

Today, stations pay anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars annually to NPR for the “privilege” to carry their content (depending on market size and lots of other factors). That’s the bulk of NPR’s income: fees collected from local stations. That’s why you pay your local station and not NPR (although NPR does sell advertising space nationally and they do seek high-dollar gifts from rich donors).

Some think the annual CPB operating grants go straight to NPR and PBS, but they do not. Only tiny bits go to a few specialized programs or services at the networks — the vast majority of CPB’s money goes out to 600 public radio stations and 350 public television stations every year (67% to TV). That model has been in place for decades.

But it’s time we rethink this model. Maybe we don’t need a total reversal of all the flows. But the balance of power has shifted dramatically into the hands of the major national producers at the same time they’ve sucked the life out of most local public media outlets in the country with their incredibly hefty (extortionary?) fees. Money collected locally keeps the lights on and pays the national producers, but it affords precious little local production of any sizable amount or quality.

This has to change. Or we might as well just nationalize the system, a la BBC, and get it over with. Either approach can be made to work, but the current model doesn’t match how the world works in the 21st century.

Listen for Yourself

In any case, check out the conversation to hear these comments and insights from outside the public radio universe. It starts around 1 hour, 20 minutes in the original podcast. Or just listen to the excerpt I’ve clipped here (or click the play button below). The excerpt is about 5 minutes long (MP3).

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.