Consultants narrow search for new membership software

Originally published in Current, Sept. 7, 1992
By Steve Behrens

Consultants helping PBS buy advanced membership software for stations have found three companies whose existing products meet key criteria. A new rewrite of Memtrac software, as well as two software packages used largely outside of public broadcasting, are leading candidates for PBS to acquire, says Chuck Longfield, a Cambridge, Mass., consultant who is evaluating bids from 10 software companies.

If all goes as planned, PBS and WNET will split the cost of buying and revising the software and installing it for shake-out at the New York City station next year. Later, other stations--radio as well as TV--will be able to buy the program, which will be designed to run on various brands of computers.

Specs issued by PBS promise software that can automate weekly mailings and paperwork for a small station as well as provide the sophisticated marketing analysis that only the biggest stations, with computer staffers, are now able to generate. The software is supposed to have a user-friendly, Macintosh-like graphical interface.

PBS also plans to set up or hire a service organization to install, maintain and upgrade the software over the years. The network says it will be managed as a cooperative venture of participating stations.

WNET hooked up with PBS because both were interested in designing new software. "We were at the place where the software we have is outdated, and we were going to develop our own system," says WNET Vice President Jonathan Olken. If enough other stations choose to buy the software, he hopes to "reclaim some of our investment."

The idea got the endorsement from the PTV Task Force on Funding a year ago, and a $200,000 grant from CPB to pay for planning.

The project is now in the hands of Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co./West, a prominent San Francisco fundraising firm, which did a detailed study of station needs and hired Longfield to write the request for proposals (RFPs) and evaluate the responses. Longfield is former chief operating officer of Access International, a Boston company whose software is used at many of the largest stations. This phase of the project was supported by the CPB money.

But Craver, Mathews will continue with the project until the software is done. "We have hired them to provide us with software," says PBS development official Ann Nall. "If there is a product that already fits the bill, they can acquire it for us. If modifications are needed, they will write them." She says the firm will recommend a course of action "within the next couple of months."

"I am 99 percent certain," says Longfield, "that we will not be writing this from scratch."

What stations want

To search for suitable existing software to buy or adapt, Craver, Mathews prepared the RFP issued by PBS in June. About 25 firms received copies and 10 responded, Longfield says.

The RFP lays out six objectives for the new software:

Now she's convinced

Development people say there's a ready demand for such improved software. Of the public TV licensees, "I would say at least half feel their software is totally inadequate," says one top fundraiser who asked not to be quoted.

"I was not absolutely convinced ... until I saw the request for proposal," says KERA's Callahan, who was a part-owner of Memtrac in its early years. The resulting software would be "far more comprehensive than any package out on the market today."

"There's no doubt that no one vendor has addressed everything that's needed. A number of systems track members very well and a number track underwriters very well."

Jim Lewis, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting's fundraising foundation, says he's "excited" because the Craver, Mathews consultants, headed by former KQED development chief Christopher Dann, are people who know contemporary fundraising.

"We're on a system where we're rapidly reaching the edge of its ability to manipulate data, to segment the file," says Lewis. He'd like to be able to do special mailings to science fans, but the software won't let him cull them out of his lists.

"We should be beginning to think about purchasing a new system," Lewis says. "In fact, we're holding off to see what PBS comes up with."

At PBS, Nall doesn't recommend waiting. "I have not been telling anybody to wait for this software," she says. "They need to make the decision to keep running as best they can, based on what is available to them today."

After the software is tried at WNET and debugged, however, "there are a number of stations who are willing to be number two," she adds. "A number of stations are interested in moving as soon as possible."

The main reason stations aren't moving to better software is lack of money, says Sonja Jensen, part-owner of Allegiance Software in Fargo, N.D. She believes the stations would be "better off" if PBS would "take the million dollars they're spending and give it to stations that buy the software that already exists."

Allegiance opted out of the PBS competition, she says, because it didn't want to sell its product outright to PBS and lose its continuing service contracts.

Memtrac's new version

As a leading contender for purchase by the PBS project, the Memtrac software has the benefit of good timing.

The software was designed more than a decade ago for use on a Texas Instruments computer that is no longer manufactured, and only recently could be used on an adapted IBM-compatible PC.

But the vendor, National Computer Systems in Eagan, Minn., has just finished rewriting the program in a fourth-generation language that makes it portable to many other computers, says NCS systems analyst Terry Houser. WXXI-FM/TV, Rochester, has the first copies of the new version to try out, and it will be revised for general sale later this fall, he said. Houser will be pitching ISPB (Information Systems for Public Broadcasting) at the PBS Development Conference next week.

Houser welcomes the prospect of dealing with PBS, but even if the network goes with another company, he contends that the new Memtrac software will be able to share information with the eventual PBS software because both will have open-systems designs.

Discontent at Access

Longfield did not include among the top-three candidates his own former employer, Boston-based Access International. He designed the Access program for WGBH, Boston, a decade ago, and it is now used by eight of the 10 PTV stations with the largest memberships. (WNET and KCET, Los Angeles, use other software.)

"We don't think Access will be selected," says company President Mohammed Fotouhi. He says his former colleague, Longfield, has "quite a bit" of influence on the decision.

Though the existing Access program runs on Digital Equipment Corp. minicomputers, the company is about to debut a new version in a fourth-generation language, which can run on many different brands of computers, according to Access.

But the new version of the Access software is written in a less widely used language that is not "SQL-compliant," and will run on different computers only by using the Unix operating system, Longfield contends.

The RFP said proposals would be evaluated on the bases of "degree of use of industry-standard tools," among other criteria.

Web page posted Sept. 21, 1996
Copyright 1992 by Current Publishing Committee


By fall 1996, the PBS/WNET software is being used by four stations and installed at six others.

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