Tough times. Not a week goes by without a station having to make hard decisions. Every week good friends lose their jobs. Sleepless nights are commonplace.
But I am starting to get hopeful. I see public media getting close to long-term viability.
I see growing numbers of public television stations working to meet the real needs of the public. Pontificating or “If it bleeds it leads” now confuses people. They need to understand what is going on as they confront losses and debts of alarming size. They need a safe place to talk. They want to stop being helpless and to take action. They need to regain control. They need to regain their identities.
This suggests the new value proposition for public media. We can see much of this new value proposition in a new pattern that we can all copy and adapt: how public radio’s Planet Moneyblog has evolved since This American Life aired “The Giant Pool of Money” a year ago (interview). Its approach fits complex problems, and its organizational structure harnesses the power of the network effect. In the meantime, it can turn down the tension between national and local public media.
Core to its approach is that it has created the right kind of context. Like the NewsHour, it uses long-form stories to give viewers the deep context they need to understand the economic mess. “The Giant Pool of Money” starts as all good stories do, with a mystery. A mystery for us the listeners but also for the journalists.
This is a critical design feature. In a complex world, the point of view of the journalist must be to represent the overall ignorance that we all share.
No pontificating. No deep-voiced assurance. No snappy summary. No professional sound-bite mongers who turn issues into games of partisan gotcha. Long-form podcasts, such as “Giant Pool,” available to listeners anytime and anywhere, are the anchors for the rest of this developing multiplatform format. It also has short stories from the staff and derived from This American Life’s community of fans. All this aggregates into a voyage of discovery where meaning emerges over time.
This inner ring of “fans” is a key feature of the pattern. Planet Money editor Laura Conaway has used her own welcoming and warm persona and some social media tools — Twitter and Facebook plus NPR’s excellent commenting system—to attract and nurture this community. It is more than a loose community. It is a Tribe: a social group connected by a shared system of values and organized for mutual care, defense and survival.
Fans bask, tribes contribute. Fans are separate. Tribe members are partners. Fans are fickle. Tribes are stable. Tribes arise from deep needs for social identity and an authentic place in a group denied to most in the modern world. The more that tribal content is included, the more the Tribe contributes. For tribal reward is recognition and status. To be heard by the producer. To make it onto the site. The gold star is to get on the podcast! Research tells us that an effective Tribe can help sustain a community even if it’s only 1 percent of our audience. So tribal leverage is immense.
Expanding and deepening the relationships in the Tribe becomes a key part of the hosts’ and producers’ work, and they become part of the Tribe.
Planet Money’s tribe includes NPR’s other main programs, the public radio stations and also TV. Planet Money segments and personnel are repurposed into conventional programs and venues. Planet Money segments air on Morning Edition. Its gang leaders visit the NewsHour and stations.
Planet Money’s pattern shows us that — far from being competing systems — the Web and air, the national and the local, and the public can all support each other.
The payoff in effectiveness and economic viability comes from aggregating all of this. Being a web show at the outset, Planet Money had no fear of the Web. So all the content was designed to be sliced and diced digitally and to be available on all platforms. This is essential. To aggregate this valuable but perishable material, you need components that are easily shared.
Let’s see how these principles and patterns are playing out in public TV. The NewsHour is a master of long-form context.
For the many years that the NewsHour was restricted to broadcasts, once per weeknight, it could not reach its potential. Its content could not be aggregated. Now it has an excellent web offering, as do Frontline, Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers. With all of this now online, aggregation is possible.
Following the Planet Money pattern, another step is to partner more effectively with the stations. As I write, the NewsHour has several correspondents reporting from St. Louis. The aim is to build enough trust for a three-dimensional partnership—a true news network, not a two-way between viewers and viewed—where every local band of the tribe and its TV station can feed the context.
The last step is to use the social amplification and the connecting power of the Tribe. Just as Planet Money does.
The Web, by offering infinite content, has greatly reduced the value of that content. The Tribe is composed of a new variety of active media middle-persons who give it new value by providing context, a set of values and structural order. A good example would be how the tribal editors of Wikipedia maintain its structure and coherence. Another such Tribe keeps up the development of the open-source Linux computer operating system, where the high-status tribal editors do the same for new versions of the software. To articulate and validate this meaning for the larger public, or any part of it, you will want to interact with an inner group, your Tribe.
Who and what is this TV Tribe? There are Charles Dickens and Jane Austen experts in your town as well as people who know and care about mortgage disasters. There are musicologists. There are experts on science. Our communities are packed with brilliant people who can contribute to the value of a show on any topic. They can be your inner circle. They will be your Tribe for other shows when the time comes. Why will they do this? Because your gathering and speaking with others who share strong concerns will give them identity. Nothing is more valuable.
The formation of this Tribe strengthens your local community. These people who identify with these shared interests want to meet each other. Groups will form in your city to talk about the financial crisis and how people will help one another. People will meet to talk about the night sky, Pride and Prejudice, Mozart and even Lawrence Welk!
This inner circle is no longer a weak cluster of station “members.” As a Tribe, they will contribute. Contribute their time, expertise, content, personal networks, money—and their expectations that you will continue to work with them. Their clear interest and commitment will attract underwriters and foundations. They will become your lobbying, marketing and research agents. They are your volunteers, willing and capable to do more than answer phones.
They are the foundation, locally, regionally and nationally, of your potential network effect—the huge gain in capability achieved by a system that interconnects a larger population. Each new connection, like an ATM in banking or a phone in a phone system, adds value exponentially for each member of the entire network and for the network as a whole. With this dense local interconnection, the economic effectiveness of public media is transformed.
The key point is that such an approach ends the stations’ traditional fear that public broadcasting’s national producers will do an end run direct to the public.
The Tribe is rooted in both your physical community and in subject interests and will support both. With them as the core of the public media system, there is no conflict between content and place. Public media can move to fulfilling our promise of “having it your way.” All the content can travel across all platforms all of the time. There is no end run from national producers to the public.
Air and place will meld, TV and radio will share.
But of course, there remains a major barrier to all of this. You are already saying “no.”
One major reason is that we all know of tensions between radio and TV. Bad blood still may prevent us from pulling this off.
Even more important is our understanding of our role. Do we offer important content and context, create and serve a Tribe, and stop at that? Is having a great Jane Austen community of value to America as a whole? Will this be enough to maintain real public support? I don’t think so. Don’t we have to be more than important? More than a service to the educated elite?
I think we can find the answer to the widening gulf between public TV and public radio if we can proceed to the next level of importance with the public. Each medium brings its separate capabilities and serves a different set of potential Tribes, with limited overlap, and each has different potential to expand those confederations even more broadly. We have to be able to help the entire public find its way through the major crises that confront us all.
Washington cannot solve the complex problems that confront us. Like all would-be leaders, they are eager for clues about where we would follow. Because communities are complex, only we in communities can help each other find the way to keep our homes, find work, solve our education and health problems, find the solutions to living in a peak oil time (before oil dependence necessarily declines) — or perhaps a post-pandemic time.
We have to be able to help all of America here.
I think that KETC in St. Louis, where I’ve been a close observer and participant, has come upon the right pattern for this work. Thanks to CPB, we are testing this pattern in many of the worst housing markets. A key component of this work is that it yokes TV and radio together.
The community engagement pattern in St. Louis is of course the same as the Planet Money pattern—repeating fractal patterns with many of the same dependencies, momentums, motivations, needs and potentials.
Essentially it must attract and nurture an inner ring of partners, the Tribe of those who can offer the best and most trusted help in the community. In the beta test in St. Louis, the Tribe was made of partners such as United Way, 211, the St. Louis Federal Reserve and nonprofits such as Beyond Housing.
What was remarkable was that most of these organizations had not met regularly until KETC brought them together. Most hardly knew each other. Most had never worked together. Many had seen others as competitors for scarce funds. Consequently, we are building robust civic capacity that can do more in the future. We are building social capital.
Like Planet Money, KETC’s mortgage project used its storytelling ability, the airwaves and the Web to create a new Context for the City — that you are not alone, helpless, stupid or without options. Like Planet Money, KETC repurposed air content for the Web to give it longer life. As the power of the context, the content and the community grew, people started to take action. As they acted, we told their story, causing more to act.
Now we see a new measure for the effectiveness of public media. It’s not just eyeballs or ears, but action. When people not only listen or watch but speak up and take action, they are committed. When a station has helped save your house, helped you no longer feel alone or helpless, helped you help another. We have not merely entertained. We have become part of your life.
This is a new way of measuring ourselves. This surely speaks of value. This is the definition of “vital.”
Now public media will try this pattern in many cities. This time, most of the 30 markets will have both a TV and radio station cooperating. This is novel for us. Old slights and wounds will make this hard. But we can only heal these and learn by doing this work together.
Here we might also aggregate all of public media’s resources in each market. Radio and TV. Air and Web. National, regional and local. Professional and public. Not one way but all ways. Not in one time but in all times.
The science behind the phenomenon of the tipping point tells us that when as little as 12 percent of a population adopts a new way, with enough momentum, the system can tip. With stations in 30 markets involved, public broadcasting will be at that point in the fall of 2009.
Much other work is under way towards that will help. CPB is funding more work on radio–TV cooperation. There are national/local projects elsewhere, and American Public Media’s Public Insight Journalism is doing great work in extending the local Tribes. Important tools such as the NPR API allow people to join Tribes through silent and virtually costless Internet feeds. Journalists are leaving the mass media and setting up as tribal partners of public media stations such as KETC.
My intent here is to show you that the pattern for connecting and aligning public media has emerged. All our “expeditions” have come home. Now we know enough to act decisively.
One last thing. The conventional mass media cannot respond in kind. Their form of ownership and the workings of their economic model — maintaining prices through scarcity — prohibit them from following us down this road. The vacuum being opened up by their death throes creates a vast opportunity.
By serving the most important needs of most Americans at this most challenging time, we fulfill our promise to our country. We do more than serve. We become part of the fabric of the nation.
Seeing this operate is all it should take to recruit us for the task.
Copyright 2009 American University