“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same
level of thinking we were at when we created them”
— Albert Einstein
Originally published in Current, Sept. 8, 2003
Commentary by Bob Lyons
No doubt, the Web gives us the opportunity to distribute our content outside
the bounds of broadcasting. But the real value of Internet experiments may
be as laboratories for relationships that will bring new content to our communities.
The time has come to envision libraries, museums, universities, colleges, community groups and public radio and television stations as co-producers, with the public broadcasters serving as catalyst for a new and energetic online alliance.
Public broadcasting’s window of opportunity to play this pivotal role
is closing quickly, and community nonprofits may lose a huge opportunity for
synergies that we can create. Many educational and cultural organizations,
particularly universities, are developing their own separate content-distribution
systems. We must lead the way or be sidelined.
Several stations are moving ahead with their own alliances. KQED in San Francisco has built a rich network of community organizations into a powerful web of content on kqed.org. They are also advancing the notion of systemwide shared Web content with their “You Decide” web modules, which poll users on controversial issues and provide pro-and-con views on the topics (KQED.org). Wisconsin Public Television and Radio have created PortalWisconsin.org, using a set of Web-based tools that share a common database, enabling cultural organizations across the state to collaborate on a comprehensive online calendar to promote their events.
In Boston we’ve piloted yet another expression of this concept for more than a year: our WGBH Forum Network. We are partnering with more than 20 of the city's most important cultural, educational and scientific institutions to curate, distribute and promote their free lectures, seminars and public events as on-demand streaming video. We’re building synergies, thematically linking these on-demand presentations to our own radio and TV programming, and then promoting them on both our air and the Web.
The content for the WGBH Forum Network draws on material already being
produced by local cultural and educational institutions. This is "idea-centric" content,
covering education, civics, science, the arts and humanities--subjects at
the heart of public broadcasting’s mission and mandate. Lectures like
these are given by the score in cities everywhere, addressing both local
universal themes. They are the "low-hanging fruit" to be reaped
by this particular idea. More complex content — musical performances,
dramatic presentations, live interactive discussions, and so on — might
The tools for doing this involve commonplace online technologies (in our case video streaming and content management tools) — nothing cutting-edge. What’s new is widening the conceptual circle around public broadcasting to include our local cultural and educational institutions, then hooking them up to each other in a powerful network of educational content.
A next step would be to for other public broadcasters to do the same in their cities and then join all these efforts together. The result would be a remarkably powerful living archive of educational content, available free to anyone at anytime. What purer expression of the spirit of our mission?
After the digital mechanism for the national index is built and launched it would require few resources beyond what stations spend on their local alliances. Under the guidance of our WGBH Forum director, Eli Ingraham, we’ve shown in Boston that local partners are willing to pay modest annual fees. That, plus participating stations' in-kind donation of staff, could make for self-sufficiency, provided that an infrastructure was up and running.
If this notion of a wide circle of “co-producers” takes hold and a national archive deepens, we’d expect the idea to grow--to begin to express itself differently in different cities. New content specialties would evolve. Production techniques suited to this delivery system would emerge.
hat I'm describing is just the first iteration of an idea. Think of it as a 21st-century transcontinental, community-based content network, a structure that may have profound and yet-to-be-imagined effects.
We’ve arrived at a moment when all the varied educational and cultural mission-driven nonprofits could benefit from sharing a hub that public broadcasters can provide--forming new ties and extending their impact and ours. Public broadcasters are uniquely positioned to play this role. We have a trusted brand, are respected members or our communities and possess the distribution media and expertise to promote this collaborative effort for mutual benefit.
It’s a win-win for all: the community institutions, public broadcasting and the American public. Think of the possibilities.
Bob Lyons is director of radio and new media initiatives, WGBH Radio, Boston. He can be contacted at Robert_lyons@wgbh.org. WGBH's Forum Network can be seen at forum.wgbh.org.
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee