Wittstock: Public media need to be more entrepreneur-friendly
As Capitol News Connection wraps up its unfinished business this month, its founder and chief exec reflects on counterproductive practices and challenges in public media that hobble nonprofit innovators and entrepreneurs.
My appetite for risk-taking is unusual in most environments, especially so in public radio. In this cozy, clubby world, risk is a four-letter word.
Innovation requires risk, and that makes people uncomfortable. Change of any kind is unsettling, disruptive — and the only thing in life one can take for granted.
For any entrepreneur toying with the public media ecosystem, take Capitol News Connection as a cautionary tale. There will be things you think you can change that you cannot — even if that change is needed and you have the solution. So don't be as naïve as I've been.
Sheer will, grit and talented reporters got CNC a long way up a steep hill and past many roadblocks. It was innovative, award-winning, unreplicated in the commercial world — and always broke.
CPB made it possible with repeated grant support over the years: They understood and acted on the message that original and localized reporting from the nation's centers of political power is a way for stations to remain relevant in fragmented and increasingly competitive local markets. But there weren't enough stations that understood how a central resource of hyperlocalized coverage could allow them to achieve something greater than they could on their own.
One day someone will succeed with this model, but not unless a few things change:
1. Enable and reward risk
I know we all love to congratulate ourselves for our collective brilliance, but let's be frank: Public media is not an environment where risk is rewarded, while it certainly can be punished if things don't go as planned. (Talk to my bank loan officer or to the stations CNC can no longer serve.)
CPB must reform itself to enable independent entrepreneurial talent. Set up an Innovation Fund that covers the cost of revenue-generating employees to help make system ventures sustainable after the seed-money stage. Lead the charge against the parochial silos that pock the landscape: Reward stations that collaborate meaningfully with independents of their choice and those that find ways to eliminate duplication of effort and resourcing.
Demolish the walls that divide CPB funding for radio, TV and web platforms. Create a content fund that encourages cross-platform repurposing of reporting work. Listen to "the people formerly known as the audience" — they want content that's portable, participatory and personalized. Provide more flexibility in the way grants to small entities are administered. The good people at CPB work under rigid rules that prevent a grantee from pivoting rapidly to react to changing circumstances or new opportunities.
Budget line items are set in stone for a year at a time. Deviations of even 1 percent on a budgetary line are met with a scolding at best and a proportional "deobligation" of the grant at worst.
Then there's the rule that punishes you for spending too little. For a while at CNC, I was thinking it was good to keep costs low. But if you "under-spend" your grant by some percentage, the savings may not be there at the end of the year because CPB takes away an equivalent percentage of the budget.
Above all, recognize that small organizations have cash-flow issues, that they carry their costs for months before reimbursement. Reserves? No chance.
More funders should provide some general operating funds along with restricted grants. Nonprofits can't succeed on restricted funds alone.
The nonprofit CNC was far too dependent on restricted funding to diversify revenue. Funders demanded that we keep within our radio silo. For instance, newspapers needed CNC's services, but we lacked the capacity to serve them. In 2005, three years before Politico.com launched, our funders rejected plans that would have created the first interactive and localized political website. We knew back then we needed alternative sources of revenue to be sustainable, but funders insisted we "stick to our core." It was painful to watch the commercial world succeed with ideas we had long before.
2. Move the comfort zone
Sometimes we don't want to admit that listeners and viewers want something we are not providing — or that a commercial enterprise might do it better.
PBS never expected the billion-dollar cable TV juggernaut of independently produced nature, history and education documentaries. Now local public radio stations cannot discern how they'll be affected by well-funded commercial "hyperlocal" ventures.
Profit-making businesses envy public radio's audience for its attractive demographics and psychographics. If public radio's audience doesn't get what it wants, it will move on. What it wants is "hyper-relevant," trustworthy news that is portable, personalized and participatory. Poorly funded parochial news available only via a transmitter and squeezed into a rigidly policed NPR clock is not going to cut it. Let's spend less on expensive studies and more on content that people want. Let's try, fail, try again, succeed — dare to put something on the air that wasn't on the air 20 years ago.
Think about what sort of programming would be possible if all the stations banded together to share resources. Do the CNC math: $75,000 worth of network-quality customized local news for $10,000.
3. Feel the fear
Back in my Fleet Street days as a Times of London correspondent, I competed against 11 other national dailies. Heaven forbid if another reporter had a story I did not. It was brutal, but I broke big stories all the time, one that nearly toppled the entire U.K. government.
The only kind of fear that exists in public radio is the negative sort that inspires "we've never done it that way before" insider-ism. Fortunately there are blessed outliers in the system, but the anti-competitive comfort of "closed ranks" dominates. It is stifling.
4. Smash the paperwork aristocracy
At CNC we could never afford the luxury of a full-time grants writer (see "Not Just Fish" below), but there is one we wished we could have hired. She told me, "Melinda, there are some grants you just cannot afford to win."
The paperwork and reporting requirements are onerous — and the same for small and lean grantees as for big operations with fat overhead. After the 2008 financial meltdown, the big banks complained they could not possibly account for how TARP funds were being utilized. This was rich, because for more than 8½ years I have been accounting painstakingly for every dollar of each restricted grant: "This notebook was funded by Carnegie; this notebook by Park; this notebook by Kellogg." The CPB reporting process is also far too onerous for a staff of six to ten; the paperwork was overwhelming.
5. Provide fishing rods, not just fish
It took so long to get the original grant from CPB that I gave birth in the process and ended up running around the Capitol with my reporting gear in one shoulder bag and my breast pump in another. There was the day I ran payroll, negotiated a reduced insurance rate, did five station sales calls, interviewed 12 lawmakers for eight stories I was reporting that day, and for the last interview, with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), I pulled out my breast pump instead of my microphone. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
But there is something wrong with expecting a new venture to succeed without any support for an accountant, a salesperson or a grant writer.
Here was my 15-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week job description as CEO: lead editorial operations, from story ideas to quality control; lead all fundraising and write all grant applications and reports; run business operations, from cash flow, budgeting and strategic planning to vendor management, accounting and financial oversight; lead marketing and sales effort; create new segments and web products such as "Ask Your Lawmaker"; manage web development and social media; recruit and manage talent. Then there was troubleshooting and triage. Step up, all of you willing to assume the personal cost of such a sustained effort.
Funders may be willing to keep a grantee barely alive by feeding it fish but refuse to provide the means to fish for itself. Better they would provide funds for organizations to attract business talent (and the competent are not cheap) and give revenue-generating staffs enough "runway" to become airborne before their grant terms end.
6. Bust the cartel
The barrier to entry for small independent production companies is significant. They must pay steep "distribution" fees to one of the "big three" public radio networks. The networks justifiably need to see some upside return-on-investment to take on the marketing of a new show or service. Yet the relationship with those distributors is afflicted by structural conflicts of interest. They often must decide between favoring a program in which they have an ownership stake or a client program that's independently owned.
"Never have so many fought so hard for so very little," Jim Russell once advised me about public radio. We were all competing for the same limited resources, and the big guy always wins in the end — even if they don't actually, um, need federal funding.
Scarcity seems to inspire turf battles rather than collaboration: Even trying to organize a short weekly check-in call among NPR, Marketplace, PBS, PRX and others in the CPB-funded economy "collaboration" proved impossible.
Scarcity of airtime is a problem: For a station to excise a Morning Edition feature to insert more local content is labor-intensive and, to some, sacrilegious.
Back in the U.K., my Times reporting centered on the effort of independent producers there to force the BBC and ITV cartel to use their work. A 25 percent quota was put into law in 1993, unleashing unprecedented innovation, a prospering profitable ecosystem and hits such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Office, Notting Hill and a wonderful array of documentaries and investigative programs.
What if NPR had a 25 percent independent quota? A Washington spring! Just think.
My takeaway as I close the door on CNC? "Hyperlocalized" interactive and multimedia coverage done efficiently with depth and context is the future of news. I can only hope that other entrepreneurs don't bypass public radio as they create it.
Melinda Wittstock, a 20-year award-winning journalist with experience at the Times of London, the BBC and ABC News, founded Capitol News Connection to reinvent political coverage for local public radio stations, and acted as its bureau chief and c.e.o. for the past 8½ years. At BBC TV she became a major primetime anchor in 1995 and anchored ABC's World News Now and World News This Morning. In 2000 she hosted NPR's initial morning news program for Sirius Satellite Radio, though she left after the Sirius launch was delayed. CNC is owned and operated by the nonprofit Pundit Productions Inc., named after Wittstock's late golden retriever.
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