Fiddle champ Julia Voris prepares to make one of the shorts that will dominate the schedule at Philadelphia’s WYBE. She works with intern Tom Leonard. (Photo: WYBE.)

Being a member of WYBE means you’re a producer

Published in Current, April 21, 2008
By Katy June-Friesen

Howard Blumenthal, c.e.o. of WYBE in Philadelphia, was sitting on a hay bale in an old mining town, eating pierogies, when he first heard nine-year-old state fiddle champ Julia Voris sawing away. Impressed by her prowess, Blumenthal found Voris and her family in the festival crowd and invited them to WYBE’s studios. A few weeks later, the pigtailed Voris flew with her fiddle from Punxsutawney to Philadelphia.

WYBE and Voris both did audio multitracking for the first time that day, and the champ played some fiddle contest favorites for the camera. The resulting set of 5-minute videos are part of Mind, WYBE’s web-and-broadcast reconception, which launches online this week and on-air in May.

For the past three years, Blumenthal and his staff of fewer than 20 people have been quietly developing a pubTV model based on 5-minute shorts for online streaming as well as broadcasting.

It’s a major overhaul for the 18-year-old station, one of the few pubTV stations in the country outside the PBS system. That role is handled around Philly by the much larger WHYY and the New Jersey Network, whose coverage areas overlap WYBE’s. So the little Independence Media station had long specialized in underserved niche audiences such as the Korean and gay and lesbian communities.

But depending on a fragmented audience was unsustainable as a business model, says Blumenthal, the onetime producer of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and a former exec with theBertelsmann entertainment group and the online music store CDNow.

Early in 2005, WYBE’s Board of Directors — including Blumenthal, then its secretary — resolved to change directions. In January, the board and General Manager Sherri Culver came to a mutual agreement to part ways, he says.

About a month before YouTube hit the net in February of that year, the board and staff, led by an interim management team of Blumenthal and two other board members, began planning WYBE’s future. The Internet had already changed the music world, and they figured TV would soon become a participatory medium that would tap the talent of folks like Julia Voris.

The station leaders wanted to develop a model other pubTV stations could use.

WYBE’s new direction is “incredibly creative” but risky, says Sylvia Strobel, president of the Pennsylvania Public Television Network. “I like the fact that they’re taking risks,” she says. “That’s something public television needs to do more of.”

“We started with the assumption that we could skew significantly younger than PBS,” says Blumenthal. “We started looking at what was happening at NPR, because that was clearly on the upswing,” he says. “We also looked at Philadelphia’s radio stations, where WXPN is fully differentiated from WHYY, which is fully differentiated from WRTI. So we figured, ‘Why not come up with a similar pattern for television?’”

The station bought an automation system to replace six master control operators and began thinking of modeling its broadcast day after NPR’s, with its many stories of five or six minutes. In September 2005, after a three-month executive search led by an outside consultant, the board hired Blumenthal as c.e.o. He enlisted academics, media consultants and others on a national advisory board and tested short-form TV with teens as well as 50-somethings.

People liked the programs that taught them something new, Blumenthal recalls, and they said, “I can make that—I’d like to make that, I have a camera.”

The Mind schedule consists only of 5-minute shorts, 11 per hour, plus 10-second animated station IDs and 15- to 30-second underwriting announcements and in-house promos. On the slick, highly branded black-and-red website, viewers can play with the schedule and select on-demand Flash videos by topic.

Al Gore’s Current TV cable channel relies on shorts, and Miami’s WPBT bet on shorts for its uVu website.  But all-shorts broadcasting is uncharted territory, says Jennifer Lawson, g.m. of WHUT in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Mind advisory board. She wonders whether an all-shorts schedule will discourage viewers from sticking with the channel, but she likes community-based production as a strategy for small big-city stations like hers and WYBE.

Membership in Mind isn’t free, but $75 gets you more than a mug or a DVD. With input from the advisory board, WYBE decided that because Mind’s real value was distribution, says Blumenthal, they would create an “author pays” business model: By paying $75 annual dues, individuals join an organization of people who make video; they can attend production “boot camps” at the Mind studios; they get a how-to field guide and can join in networking opportunities with other members. Nonprofits can join for $500 a year, and for-profit companies for $1,000 a year.

Members submit their programs by mail and write their own descriptions online. Producers are advised to use MiniDV or better cameras, at least one separate microphone and a lighting kit. Interns and volunteers screen each submission, rejecting those that are commercial, profane or lacking in educational value; WYBE staff members make the final decision unless the video is controversial and requires review by Blumenthal or the community advisory board. Blumenthal expects most submissions will be put into the Mind schedule.

Courting co-innovators

At launch this week, Mind online will have 450 videos, most made or edited down by its staff, including local concert footage, author interviews from KLCS in Los Angeles, a taped visit from Sen. Dennis Kucinich and his wife Elizabeth, a history of Italian restaurants in Philadelphia, a solar system lecture at the Da Vinci Science Center in Allentown, an item on Latinos and home ownership, and interviews with kids talking about how they spend their free time.

And WYBE is acquiring rights to edit down shows from other pubTV stations and indies, including such NETA programs as American Woodshop, Sit and be Fit, Living Green and Real Moms, Real Stories.

The station is telling underwriters that its target audience has a median age of 39 and a fondness for travel, attending live arts events and watching Jon Stewart’s Daily Show but not the network news, among other traits

But to avoid losing current viewers outside that profile, WYBE will devote a third of its airtime to international programs now on its schedule.

“Whatever you do, please keep airing the Korean dramas,” one concerned viewer wrote on the Mind message board.

After the switch to all-digital broadcasting next winter, WYBE will devote multicast channel 35.1 to Mind programming and 35.2 to ethnic and international programs. It will stop using the WYBE call letters as its brand.

To fuel the Mind project, WYBE mainly used existing resources. All the money has come from general operating funds, says Blumenthal. The staff and more than 150 college interns and volunteers have gutted, renovated and repainted WYBE’s facilities.

The staff structure has also evolved, eliminating most of the hierarchy and creating a flatter organizational chart, letting more staffers make their own decisions.

Strobel thinks other pubTV stations should keep their eye on the Mind model, because it’s relatively easy to execute and it won’t break the bank.

Mind also has a lot of fundraising potential, says Andrea Kihlstedt, an advisor to WYBE during the CPB Major Giving Initiative who has continued to advise the station. The most basic idea in fundraising, she says, is that the more donors become engaged in a nonprofit, the more they are inclined to give. The Mind “boot camp” is a great tactic, she says, for making people co-innovators. However, she has encouraged WYBE to court major donors as well.

Lawson is confident WYBE can make the new idea work, though it may take a little time and tweaking. “All that’s left for them to do,” she says, “is give it a try.”                     

           

Web page posted Feb. 14, 2009
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC

EARLIER ARTICLES

Public TV puts marginal value in its smaller overlap stations.

LINKS

Mind: WYBE reconceived.

Bio of Howard Blumenthal, CEO of licensee Independence Media.

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