Forum Network: Low-profile lecture outlet gets national backing

Seven years after WGBH began its on-demand video archive of the often-stellar lectures and cultural events of the Boston area, it’s getting substantial national-level support for expansion to other cities.

CPB contributed a two-year, $585,000 grant to assist expansion, as the station announced (without the price tag) Feb. 17. NPR and PBS also will help support the initiative, WGBH announced a week later.

Washington’s WETA will become a major participant, joining WGBH and Atlanta’s WPBA, which has contributed recorded events for more than three years. New York’s WNET and the Forum Network also exchange taped lectures, though the New Yorkers aren’t part of the CPB project, according to Eli Ingraham, Forum Network director at WGBH.

Other stations can choose their levels of involvement — investing in developing local archives that they contribute to the national collection, operating independently or simply providing access through their websites.

As a media species, the Forum Network looks something like C-SPAN, which also documents events with low-end video for an audience of distant and often enthusiastic viewers.

It gives them what PBS President Paula Kerger calls “a front-row seat in a virtual, world-class lecture hall.”

“We have so many pieces that blow my mind,” Ingraham says, “We have soldiers back from Iraq, the photographer who was at the White House when Elvis came to meet Nixon, and we have emerging Latina poets doing their stuff.”

The public can browse or search among some 2,500 titles online at www.forum-network.org or through customized pages on the websites of participating stations.

If five or 10 stations become active, Ingraham expects to quickly double the archive.

Users call up 150,000 video streams or podcast downloads per month, on average, and poke around enough to generate twice that many page views. Of the total 50,000 are podcast downloads through Apple’s iTunesU.

Forty percent of the viewers are in other countries, Ingraham says, and to her surprise some overseas schools use the videos as parts of formal education.

“You never know the impact you’re going to have,” she says.

What they choose most often are talks about politics, history, education and literature, “which resonate with public broadcasting verticals,” such as big PBS series that cover subject areas.

About 70 percent of the Boston-area events are videotaped by the lecture presenters, including 60 partners such as the Boston Museum of Science and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Atlanta, WPBA brings in videos from the Carter Center, the Atlanta Press Club and the visiting authors at the Margaret Mitchell House, among others. Both WGBH and WPBA record speakers from lecture series that they present locally.

The Atlanta station joined the network in 2005 during an earlier expansion attempt, but other participating stations largely fell away.

An ongoing rebuild of the website, dropping the Real video format to adopt Adobe’s dominant Flash streaming format, has already reduced the “bounce rate” of dissatisfied web visitors who leave almost as soon as they’ve arrived, Ingraham told Current. “Time on the site is way up,” she says.

The site is now operating with an interim system while WGBH redesigns it, she says. The revamped site will debut May 31 and roll out to partner stations.

Interactivity is on the menu. Viewers will be permitted to post comments that appear on-screen during the videos. Ingraham wants to offer transcripts and may invite viewers to contribute translations to other languages.

New funding will help expand the staff from two to five or six.

The project, always ambitious but low-profile, will also get more publicity.

Last fall the Boston Globe observed that “today’s marketplace of ideas is rapidly moving online,” citing the startup of web-video lecture halls such as Fora.tv, BigThink.com and TED.com, a virtual brother of the punchy annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conferences in Long Beach, Calif. The Globe article compared Fora.tv with public broadcasting without happening to mention that WGBH had been running Forum Network for seven years.

The Forum Network plans to interconnect with similar presenters such as Fora.tv, Ingraham says, and include references to their collections through RSS feeds.

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