New media becoming now media for pubradio
Networks tout competing arrays of web-site attractions
Originally published in Current, May 25, 1999
By Jacqueline Conciatore
The new offerings at the Public Radio Conference this month were ingenious Internet modules designed to make public radio's web sites "stickier"--boosting their TSB (time spent browsing), not to mention their IOS (impulsive online shopping).
The schemes were laid out in separate sessions by pubradio's two big audio networks, now preparing to syndicate competing web content and software for stations' web sites.
PRI and web developer Tom Lix, pitched a new for-profit company, Public Interactive, while NPR, partnered with Minnesota Public Radio, unveiled plans for eXploreRadio. The competition undoubtedly excited some PRC participants but worried others, who wished that pubradio's brightest webheads were working together rather than against each other.
PRI/NewMarket: PRI and NewMarket Network, the web development company run by Tom Lix, announced that Lix has merged his company into a new for-profit company called Public Interactive, part-owned by PRI. Unlike the NPR/MPR venture, Public Interactive will take station investors from the outset. Lix, who has developed web sites for Car Talk and other national shows, will be president of the new venture.
Public Interactive promises stations the option to stream audio programs on the Internet even when the stations aren't now airing the programs. And it pledges to share revenue from sponsorships and e-commerce with participating stations.
The plan also calls for:
- a real-time news database, "NewsRoom," offering news from local stations as well as international providers such as Reuters and BBC. Station producers could easily upload audio files and other material to the NewsRoom database through a special password-protected web gateway.
- for armchair critics, "HotPicks," a forum for users to discuss and share reviews of books, film and other arts.
- a partnership with Children's Television Workshop. PRI announced an agreement with CTW to jointly develop broadcast and online programming for children and families. The offerings, designed to "help adults nurture and guide the listening and online experience of children," would roll out next year.
Public Interactive has invited a group of major-market stations to be founding investors--a significant plus to some bigger stations. "A number of them" have said they plan to buy the $50,000 shares, said PRI President Steve Salyer. At the outset, ownership will be split equally among PRI, NewMarket and station investors. Salyer said that investments by stations will let the service expand more rapidly without charging fees to other stations.
Some managers at the PRC expressed concern about Public Interactive being organized as a for-profit business. Salyer responded that the business has to be for-profit to attract necessary capital. He and Lix project the business will lose $8-10 million over the first three years. "Can we get that [capital] within the usual sources? Can we pass the hat among public radio stations and sell shares at levels that generate $10 million? We honestly don't think so." With the up-front station investment, Public Interactive can approach outside investors from a "position of strength, where you have the confidence and partnership built, and 'eyeballs' assembled,'" he said.
Salyer announced that his senior vice-president, Bruce Theriault, would be Public Interactive's v.p. of network and content development for the start-up period. Debra Hughes, managing producer at NewMarket will be v.p. and executive producer.
NPR/MPR: Presenting NPR/MPR's plan, NPR Internet maven M.J. Bear said "eXploreRadio" would likewise develop tools and services to keep users at station sites. When users link to another site, they'll still think they're on the station web site because of co-branding, she said.
A key strength of the partnership will be its ability to leverage deals with national vendors and affiliates, she said. "Together we can negotiate much better packages than any of us can do alone." Currently, eXploreRadio is negotiating with Real Networks and Microsoft as well as Apple, which recently launched new Quick Time streaming technology, she said.
As with Public Interactive, eXploreRadio would share revenue with stations. As far as stations streaming NPR programs, the staff hopes to present a policy proposal to the board in July, Bear said. (One obstacle to comprehensive streaming may have fallen; NPR announced later in the conference that the major music copyright agencies, ASCAP and BMI, have reached agreements on web licensing.)
The plan also calls for:
- news "ticker" modules with scrolling headlines that would lead users to NPR news or cultural stories, and separate links for selected New York Times articles [link to prototypes on eXploreRadio web page].
- specialized search engines, including the already-unveiled RadioScout, which searches a database of 12 public radio programs. NPR/MPR is also developing with PBS an engine that would search all public broadcasting sites. It should be available in a month or two, she said.
- interactive features such as discussion boards and listservs. If users want to be notified when Nina Totenberg does a story or when a station's fund drive is, that information would go straight to their e-mailboxes.
- software for a local calendar feature that would let institutions or individuals post information on upcoming community and cultural events.
The current agreement calls for NPR and MPR to share equally the costs of developing eXploreRadio, and revenues from it. NPR is drawing on grants and foundation support and MPR on grants and a venture fund created when it last year sold its catalog business, Rivertown Trading. The project's e-commerce activities will focus on advertising and sponsorships, product sales and subscriptions, said Jon McTaggart, MPR's v.p. for new media.
Some station managers pushed NPR President Kevin Klose and MPR President Bill Kling to divulge more information about the nature of their agreement. "There are even NPR Board members who do not know these details," said KCRW Manager Ruth Seymour. "How can you ask us to sign up without disclosing these facts and without being completely forthright about your agreement?" Klose responded that the agreement was a "general and quite simple" "management document" which should stay with management "to keep coherence of management practices and procedures." Kling said there were "no big secrets" and reiterated earlier statements that, at the outset, financial risks were too great to accept station investors. "But there will be a time" for station investment "and I'm looking forward to it," he said.
Some managers expressed frustration that public radio was not moving into Internet as a united force. "I'm in favor of seeing this be one strong service and not fragmented services that dilute whatever potency we may have as system," says Torey Malatia, g.m. of WBEZ in Chicago.
It's not clear to stations how they might fit the two services together or how relationships between producers and distributors will shake out. For example, NewMarket has the Internet rights to Car Talk, while NPR has the broadcast distribution deal. Says Malatia: "The reason to have everyone work together on this is content. I don't care if people say, 'Don't worry, we'll provide our content to competing services.' I've never seen this happen in our system, have you?'"
To Current's home page
Earlier news: PRI and NewMarket announce venture; Minnesota Public Radio plans web network and Minnesota consolidates web plans with NPR's.
Earlier news: Group of public radio stations, PRISA, chooses an independent web development firm to help build their sites, April 1999.
Related news: Both PRI and NPR are also moving ahead to develop program streams for direct-to-listener satellite radio.
Outside link: Public Interactive's web site.
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