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Web pages are projected behind Rivero, who speaks at a podium With mockups of four local editions of the Forum Network shown behind her, Rivero describes the new streaming video service to members of the PBS-appointed Digital Futures Initiative.

Forum Network
Four stations plan to join WGBH in lecture video net

Adapted from Current, Feb. 28, 2005
By Steve Behrens

Combining a very old medium and a new one, five stations are creating a new pubcasting network this year.

Public Broadcasting Atlanta, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Cleveland’s Ideastream and New York’s WNYC Radio plan to begin collecting videotaped public lectures in their areas and streaming them on demand for Internet users.

They will start with an inventory of 650 lectures already posted online by Boston’s WGBH Forum Network, which created the model and is handling the Internet end of the expansion with funding from CPB.

The service, branded with the stations’ names and “Forum Network,” begins to fulfill an idea that former PBS President Lawrence Grossman proposed unsuccessfully in the mid-1990s—offering the country’s best talks on a PBS cable network that was to be called Horizons.

The Web seldom handled audio and video then, but it has since become a platform where Grossman’s idea can happen.

WGBH’s lecture service has a more closely related forerunner, however, in its local funder, the Lowell Institute. The high-minded and wealthy Lowell family—a bunch that included tycoons, poets, editors and educators—have sponsored public lectures and other adult education efforts since 1836. The Lowells founded some notable Massachusetts landmarks, including the first U.S. textile mill and, later, WGBH.

The station's Forum Network has streamed 86,500 lectures so far — lately about 5,000 a month and growing.

The four new Forum Network members, like WGBH, carry some lectures even today and have talked with or signed up groups that present lectures locally so that the proportion of Boston lectures in the inventory will drop from 100 percent. The Atlanta and Oregon projects are working with WGBH on their web interfaces and the Cleveland and New York projects are coming along more slowly.

The scarcity of staff time has slowed progress in Cleveland, says Mark Smukler, senior director of content at Ideastream. “Sometimes the cool and important things get pushed off by the merely urgent,” he observes.

“There’s a long and continuing tradition of watching and listening to smart people in public broadcasting,” Smukler adds.

Extending the tradition to the Web greatly adds to the variety of lectures available and their accessibility.

“You don’t have to show up on a snowy day,” says Marita Rivero, v.p. of radio at WGBH, who supervises the Forum Network. “You can listen in your pajamas. You can speed through parts of it, or send [a link] to Aunt Minnie.”

The lectures may become even more accessible if lecture sponsors permit WGBH to offer their talks for podcasting — downloaded in file formats that can be played on iPods and other portable devices — as sought by Eli Ingraham, director of the WGBH Forum Network.

The Boston-area talks come from more than 20 universities, lecture series, museums and other such nonprofits, the Globe and WGBH’s own lecture series. Sponsors range from traditional academia to a feminist literacy group, the Center for New Words.

"We’re stepping into the community as co-producers,” says Ingraham. “This is their content. We’re now the megaphone.”

The wide selection of topics permits pure narrowcasting, thrilling people who have strong and particular interests. Pleased listeners send links to people of like mind, which may explain how December’s most popular talk came from philosopher Leonard Peikoff, a follower of Ayn Rand, and this month’s is an appearance of two gay athletes. The most popular topic area is African-American talks, says Ingraham.

Variety is the rule among the most popular talks, she says, though political topics hit the top most often, followed by history and literature.

WGBH.org and the Forum Network’s subsite routinely emphasize lectures on topics related to new PBS programs. Before PBS aired the Ken Burns bio of boxer Jack Johnson, the websites plugged a package of six lectures on race and sports.

This month, the site—see Forum.wgbh.org/wgbh—features a seismologist with the latest on earthquake research, the inventor of the Web speaking at its 10th anniversary, and a historian discussing what made the poet Longfellow distinctly American. Up front in February: Black History Month talks.

There’s also a package on stem cell research — first-hand, intensive information from specialists on an important topic that, Ingraham says, is usually dumbed down to “right or wrong” in public discussion.

Users get to choose audio-only, as 40 percent do, or blurry video for those with slow Internet hookups (20 percent), or not-bad video for those with good pipes to the Web (40 percent). The software is RealPlayer, co-branded with the Forum Network name.

If you choose broadband video and the unbeatable topic of sexual repression (related to the recent Kinsey doc), you get video with only a few glitches — it has a fit when the speaker suddenly adjusts his glasses.

The professor from Boston College, James Smith, takes you back to a day when top politicians were conspiring with religious leaders to bind the national identity to a particular, harsh sexual morality. It was Ireland before World War II, when the country was building a national identity, in part by outlawing contraceptives and hiding unmarried mothers in state-run institutions.

Someday, you could imagine a popularized PBS history of Ireland, overlaid with pipe music, that offers links to dozens of lectures like this one, plus documents such as Ireland’s Dance Halls Act of 1935.

There’s an arrow button so you can zip past the 17 minutes of professorly introductions or back up to hear a passage again.

WGBH so far hasn’t used its full promotional clout to bring audiences to the web offering. It’s touted on WGBH-FM, in the program guide and online newsletters, says Ingraham, but its advocates have not yet gotten promos on TV or on PBS websites.

Users call up lectures all night long; 35 percent of users in December were in foreign countries, including 6 percent in China.

The project is one of those things with many mothers, says Rivero, who is one of them. After top execs okayed the project, she asked Bob Lyons, director of radio and new media projects, to run with it.

The project started with one-and-a-half staffers and recently grew to two-and-a-half. Ingraham took charge in fall 2002, leaving a vice presidency of an investment firm for a more satisfying job.

She taped hundreds of lectures herself, hauling an amateur-level digital camcorder, but lecture sponsors are doing most of the taping now. That’s what the other Forum Network stations expect.

Most sponsoring groups already videotape their lectures, says Wayne Sharpe, director of new media at Public Broadcasting Atlanta. As they should. “They have to value the content enough to be doing something to document it themselves,” Sharpe says. For most lectures, the station would be technical advisor, but he expects it would send someone out with a camera if the material is especially valuable.

Atlanta has plenty of lectures to collect. PBA has taped a couple of lectures and made deals with a college, an art museum and a think tank. Sharpe wants to carry lecture series from Atlanta University Center, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and others.

WGBH relies on the sponsors to provide some of the budget as well as the tapes. It costs them about an average of $100 a lecture and it’s worth thousands in the expanded audience, says Rivero. In a sample of 20 lectures, an average of 50 people attended in person, but after two years online it had added 330 more listeners.

The model may not work for some lecture sponsors, however. When WNYC scouted the city, it found some lecture-sponsoring groups unhappy about paying fees and wary about letting go of copyrighted material, even on a nonexclusive basis, says Dean Cappello, v.p. of programming. In three years, some of those groups might want to build their own lecture pipelines to the Web, he suspects.

But Cappello says WNYC could help them vastly expand their audience by publicizing the Forum Network on the air and attracting listeners by curating a broad, one-stop collection of high-quality talks.

Web page posted March 1, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

EARLIER COMMENTARY

It's time to regard community nonprofits and stations as co-producers, with the broadcasters as catalysts, says Bob Lyons of WGBH in a commentary.

LINKS

WGBH Forum Network home page, with pages about its local service and expansion by four other stations.

Oregon Public Broadcasting's version, not yet fully operational.

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