Public Media Policybase

NPR announces Working Group to consider Digital Distribution Consortium, 2006

NPR exec Ken Stern sent this memo to public radio stations’ Authorized Representatives as a followup to the New Realities Forum in May 2006.

News from Ken Stern – Digital Distribution Consortium Working Group
June 6, 2006

Dear Colleagues:

Last month, about 300 of our colleagues gathered at the New Realities National Forum in Washington. We discussed the future of public radio and our service, and envisioned the benefits of working together differently in the future. It was an exciting and motivating session and we’d like to extend our thanks to all who participated in the forum and the retreats leading up to it.

Many retreat discussions and more than a dozen forum breakouts explored the shared notion that we have yet to seize the opportunities of the digital age. By working separately, we have not fully leveraged the system strength and resources to create compelling value for the online audience that is equal to or exceeds the value we’ve created with our broadcast services.

These discussions reinforced a notion that has been emerging from a variety of settings — including recent conversations facilitated by IMA and SRG — all of which suggested that we might band together to create a new digital service that better meets the needs of audiences and the organizations of public broadcasting. A collaborative effort such as this would create scale on the back end as well as marketing efficiencies vis-à-vis new intermediaries such as commercial Internet portals or cell phone carriers. Such a collaborative effort holds the prospect of creating a real, vibrant, inclusive public service in the digital age. Admittedly, this concept is not entirely new: NPR, American Public Media, PRI, PRX and some leading stations have each pursued different opportunities and digital priorities. As significant as they are, none of those efforts appears to have within its grasp the larger opportunity to transcend the existing organizational model of public radio to create new services, generate new partnerships, raise the level of resources, and turn public radio into a fulcrum for noncommercial media in the digital world. That opportunity is still in front of us.

Many of us throughout the system have come to recognize that the principal barrier to this model has been that our competitive drive has been focused on the rivalries inside public radio. Our most significant challenges are not from inside the system, but from the encroachment of outside competitors who have sought to take audience and even co-opt the public radio brand. In the words of one New Realities’ participant, it is time to stop pointing our guns inside our fort and starting pointing them outside.

We will check our institutional interests at the door; We will work off a clean piece of paper . . .

For many of us who participated in New Realities, the goals are clear; but the paths to success are uncertain and rocky, pockmarked by organizational, resource and historical challenges. Even so, these challenges are not insurmountable if we take on these issues together.

To that end, I have invited six colleagues to join in a collaborative effort this summer to develop a new public service business plan for the digital age. The team includes Jake Shapiro of PRX, Tim Olson of KQED, Mike Bettison of MPR/APM, Debra May Hughes of PI, Jay Brodsky of NPR and Todd Mundt of Michigan Public Broadcasting. Each of them is an industry leader representing key constituencies and each of their institutions is contributing their time to make this collaborative venture possible. The group will be working in Washington D.C. and in various sites around the country, and will coordinate closely with a newly-formed Digital Distribution Task Force that includes public radio’s national organizations and representatives from several stations with a leading role in digital media.

The charge that we have set for ourselves is no small one:

  • To re-imagine how the institutions of public radio might come together to create new web and digital services in a multimedia world;
  • To promote the discovery of public radio content and values;
  • To create new, effective business models that prove as durable for the digital age as our current one has been for the broadcast era.

Finding the right public service solution poses some potential risks to our own organizations and challenges some of the assumptions within our community. We have already acknowledged that our answers may be unsettling, and this is to be expected in an age of rapidly changing technologies and audience expectations. To that end, we have created certain rules of the road to make sure that our ideas are as productive and useful as possible for our community and the future of our public service:

  • We will check our institutional interests at the door;
  • We will work off a clean piece of paper to create the best possible outcomes – not for us but for the next generation of public broadcasting leaders;
  • We will work with openness and transparency, which in this digital age means a Wiki and a blog and receptivity to the notion that there is wisdom within the ideas of the entire community, not just those of us who have gathered for this endeavor.

We will formally start our work at the end of June, and will submit a report in the form of a public service business plan due in August. We all look forward to this adventure together and will keep you informed of opportunities to contribute your best thinking to the group.

~ Ken Stern, on behalf of the Digital Distribution Consortium Working Group

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