The upside of downloads

For our second decade on the Web: step up to baseball’s league

Published in Current, Feb. 21, 2006
Commentary by Mark Fuerst

Batter and letter By January, 10 years into the Internet era, public radio stations, programs and networks had, by my estimate, invested more than $50 million in online services, with only modest results.

While podcasting may offer a new and robust line of service, the available evidence suggests that most of our online activity barely connects with listeners. Web traffic is light and infrequent. Few stations have any reason to believe they can create a self-sustaining online franchise.

In this context, there is a latent and growing consensus that we need to change course: Instead of providing online services through 500 separate sites, the system should finally step up to the plate and aim for the ballpark fence. To become a serious player online, we need to learn from our experience and appreciate the example of Major League Baseball and the teams’ online collaboration for mutual benefit.

Later in this article, I will outline the structure of MLB.com, the collective online property for all Major League Baseball teams, which has become more valuable to MLB than any one team. Developing a similar collective online hub for public broadcasting could, I believe, bring similar benefits to stations, networks and listeners, creating greater revenue. By sharing an advanced technical platform, we could offer superior service, including more user-based content.

Though I work with both public radio and TV in IMA, this article will focus principally on public radio. (When we collect public TV data, I suspect the message will be similar.)

My motivation for writing is simple: As someone who has devoted more than 25 years to developing public radio service, I am dissatisfied with what we have achieved online.

Today, with the exception of podcasting (still a small part of the online world) public radio has very little presence online — disproportionately small for the presence we have on air and in the impact we have on American cultural and political life. Many participants in recent New Realities seminars organized by NPR express the same view: They, too, are frustrated with the pace of online development. They sense that we can and must create a more forceful presence online.

Much is at stake. Failure to make timely adjustments will damage our long-term prospects. Our audiences already are changing the ways they use media. Entrepreneurs and online users are determined to exploit the Internet’s capabilities in new ways to meet needs previously satisfied by traditional news and entertainment companies, including public radio. The recorded music industry has already been shaken to its roots. Basic elements of the newspaper business, including classified ads, are eroding with little hope of recovery. Analysts now predict that the telephone, television, cable and movie businesses will all be transformed.

It may feel like a tsunami is battering us, but to a large extent it’s our own listeners who want the changes. They are adapting new media to their needs, while we lag behind.

They’re replacing radios with iPods, using personal computers as media centers, capturing RSS feeds and personalizing news aggregators. Young people in particular are adopting a web lifestyle, with a smaller role for radio. Even our middle-aged core audience is sending us the kind of signals that marked the beginning of decline in public TV 20 years ago: a shrinking base of contributors, flat or declining cume.

Is the sky falling? No, far from it. Compared to other parts of the radio business, public radio is thriving. National numbers may be flat, but many stations are still growing. Pledge drives continue to yield record totals (mostly by raising the average gift). Major gift programs are tapping the good will and deep personal value that public radio built up over decades of service.

Whatever trouble lies ahead, most of our senior managers agree that we enter the second decade of online service in good shape, with more listeners, more money, better management, and probably better programming than we have ever offered.

But there is far less agreement about the impact and performance of our online service in the Internet’s first decade. We never really agreed on a goal by which we can judge our performance.

For all the talk about building communities, only a few music stations/sites have generated any form of community online in any market or interest group, large or small.

The best insight we get on this point comes from the fall 2004 Internet Traffic Analysis Project (iTAP) conducted by NPR and IMA. [iTAP Power Point presentation.] “Larger station web sites typically reached 6 to 11 percent of their broadcast cume in an average week,” the survey found. “Smaller station sites typically reached 2 to 8 percent of their broadcast audience in an average week.” The ratio of NPR.org visitors to its cume was only a little better. On average, visitors to a station site came about 1.5 times a week, staying less than 2 minutes per visit.

To achieve that — short and infrequent use by less than 10 percent of our cume — the system spent collectively at least $50 million and assigned hundreds of employees to web-related functions, including my closest colleagues in the field.

These numbers may be off, but not by much. (The spending data were projected from 2002 figures for NPR and a sample of stations.) There were problems with the design of the iTAP study. It did not capture all of the online audio activity at station sites. Some people felt that the short duration of visits should not be interpreted negatively, arguing that it showed people finding what they wanted and leaving quickly.

But if we sharpened these estimates (an exercise I would encourage), the basic message would still be the same: If the objective is extending the listening experience through the Web, public radio is spending tens of millions of dollars a year to reach—occasionally—a fraction of our current audience. Our performance online resembles that of educational radio in its early days, when stations would boast that their audience was small but loyal—and they were only half right.

Until the advent of podcasting, stations were doing very little to cultivate daily web-based habits, such as daily visits to our news properties or driving listeners from on-air to online and back, that could provide a foundation for the next generation of service and revenue.

At the risk of ridicule, let me suggest an alternative approach. To start, I’ll assume we should aim high — to create a forceful presence online. In my view, we would aim to be:

These are all things we have already accomplished on the air.

What have we learned?

Our first decade online shows that individual stations—with few exceptions—lack the financial and staff resources to become significant online destinations. After 10 years’ effort and investment, only a few stations have succeeded in building a web presence of much consequence: KEXP in Seattle has become a national destination for fans of new music; Minnesota Public Radio appears to have staked out a significant presence in the Twin Cities; FolkAlley, based at WKSU in Kent, Ohio, and bluegrasscountry.org, at WAMU in Washington, D.C., have become premier traditional music sites. After that, the list quickly runs out.

We can all expect NPR.org to build a notable web presence, by itself if necessary, but its success has been attenuated by a lack of affiliate commitment and confusing promotion. Squabbling over network/affiliate relations saps our energy and prevents NPR.org from doing its best. Stations are reluctant to drive traffic to NPR.org, but no NPR affiliate can adequately reflect the power of the local/national combination on the air. The NPR presence on member stations’ sites is a shadow of the NPR presence on air. Similarly, the local station factor is almost invisible on NPR.org. This hinders the effectiveness of both the local and NPR sites. We cripple our promotion by sending listeners to NPR.org at one moment and to the station sites a few minutes later. Search engines disappoint users by failing to encompass the dozens of disconnected program and network sites.

We learned that online success is not simply a matter of money. Passion and focus are as important as capital. Our best-of-breed music sites — KEXP, bluegrasscountry, FolkAlley and Music from the Hearts of Space (hos.com) — are bootstrap operations. Christopher Lydon’s Open Source may have similar success. These sites radiate passion for their musical niches or topics they cover.

These sites contrast sharply with others that have claimed a measure of success, including MPR.org and NPR.org, by investing millions of dollars and assigning substantial staffs. This leads to my final observation:

Apart from specialized music sites, the successful online operations in public radio are sites with more than 10 full-time staffers. Large staffs allow for specialization: one or two programmers to improve the site, a designer for its look and feel, producers and editors to work with broadcasters and so on.

These 10-or-more-person operations attract skilled professionals who want to make online media their life’s work. We have many skilled web people in small shops, but they often complain to me about their isolation. It’s an uneasy fit at best to try hiring a web person if the organization admits in words, deeds or priorities that “the Web is not what we do.” A 10-person web staff has sufficient mass that staffers can identify with it instead of feeling alienated from the broadcast team.

A Big Hairy Audacious Goal

With all of this in mind, how do we make our online service into the great resource that we and our users want it to be? To contribute to the discussion at the IMA meeting, this is what I’d recommend:

1. We need a clearly articulated vision of online service, with well-defined targets, developed by a coalition of system leaders and experienced web professionals. IMA made several attempts to do this and has come up short. Still, I think a unified vision is within reach. Our board recently discussed whether public radio could or should set a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), such as exceeding the user traffic of NYTimes.com by the end of 2007. We need a goal like this.

2. To bag a BHAG, or to measure our progress toward any objectives, we need to select consistent traffic metrics. The lack of standard makes it impossible to manage our investments. Fortunately, NPR and PBS appear to be moving toward unifying metrics, but full implementation may take years.

3. We need to create “a unified back-end solution”—a requisite discussed for at least five years by NPR, Public Interactive, IMA and PBS. To extend that experience online we must change the structure of our service. Public radio is now spending more than $10 million a year on a sprawling set of poorly integrated sites, with several larger nodes in major markets and concentrations of activity at NPR.org and Public Interactive. Our piecemeal 500-site system is failing. We need to start over with a consolidated database, shared streaming and on-demand audio to reduce costs, sophisticated content management tools, community-building features and associated customer support.

4. We need CPB’s leadership. CPB could be the link to national policy, a convener for consensus building, and a backer for R&D and, ideally, federal aid in making this leap. To do these things, CPB needs an office tasked with supporting online development and funded appropriately to that end. While it seems entirely appropriate to keep 95 percent of all federal funds flowing into broadcast, it would be difficult to argue that CPB cannot target 5 percent of its budget for online service, particularly when there is a growing consensus that our future is there.

Looking to the major leaguers

What is this MLB connection that has captured the attention of so many of the leaders in the web corps?

Owners of MLB teams voted in 2000 to create a composite site, designed by Sun Micro- systems, that contains all of the team sites, as well as a League portal. A branded site for each team offers the team’s statistics, stories, photos, video, merchandise, ticket sales and more. Automatic customization features assure that if you arrive through the Red Sox’s URL, you will see only Red Sox photos and so on. But you can move easily from the Red Sox site to another team’s, buy a ticket at any ballpark and order a DVD of any broadcast for any team last year.

Try it: Go to redsox.com or dodgers.com. While you’re there, don’t skip the video promo for the World Baseball Classic. It made my skin tingle.

The MLB site has been a roaring success, as CNN reported in December: “The most successful, and most valuable, franchise in baseball in the last few years isn’t the New York Yankees or their rivals, the Boston Red Sox. It’s Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which is worth more than those two deep pocket teams combined — an estimated $2 billion to $2.5 billion, according to investment banks that looked into a possible initial public offering for the business a year ago.”

Applied to public radio, adopting a MLB strategy would mean putting all participating public radio sites in a single virtual place, adopting the unified back-end solution mentioned above. The sites would share servers, an e-commerce platform, a customer relationship management system, a content database and a skilled management team hired exclusively to run and improve this service for all. (To me, this seems close to the original vision behind Public Interactive.)

Local stations could focus their web spending on local content and services, not recreating web infrastructures similar to those at hundreds of other stations.

Users of NPR affiliate station sites would have seamless access to all NPR content, so the sites would accurately reflect the mix of the on-air service. Using a co-branding system like the one employed by PBS.org, and/or a drop-down menu system like you find on MLB.com, visitors could just as easily move from NPR.org to station.org sites.

Developing this kind of structure would extend the local/national partnership, giving any American with an Internet connection access to all of public radio’s news, talk, features and commentaries — an expanded version of the “universal service” that public broadcasting has always provided.

With an online structure like MLB’s, all of NPR’s member stations would share opportunities and resources that are now available only to NPR.org and a few large stations. By aggregating station traffic, all affiliates could share the growth of online underwriting, which will expand steadily for the next decade. By aggregating all public radio content on demand, stations could offer new forms of “premium memberships” with easy access to content. Instead of each station developing its own technical back end, all would invest in state-of-the-art customer service technology to take pledges, maintain on-demand accounts, track user interests, develop issue-centric newsletters, develop user communities and conduct daily online chats.

This would vastly upgrade small stations’ bare-bones sites, but what’s in it for the big guys? NPR and the large stations already making major online investments have at least three things to gain from an MLB structure: First, as I noted earlier, they will benefit from aggregated traffic that can be monetized in ways that smaller audiences cannot. In online service, the size of a site is very important. Even our largest sites are still relatively small on the scale of the Web.

Second, even our networks and large station sites have relatively small web staffs. Concentrating investment will allow greater staff specialization, with skill and motivational benefits. Third, combining national and local resources will make large-market sites much more competitive in their own markets.

Support for an MLB approach is, I believe, much stronger than anyone at the national level has acknowledged. All of the national networks except for American Public Media have expressed some level of support for this concept. An MLB approach is implicit in the Public Service Publisher initiative that emerged from discussions among executives from Boston’s WGBH, San Francisco’s KQED, Wisconsin Public Radio and TV, Oregon Public Broadcasting and other major stations. IMA’s board has backed shared infrastructure in two votes. A form of the MLB approach was presented to the Public Radio Leadership Forum by Jack Galmiche of OPB and Stewart Vanderwilt of KUT, Austin, Texas.

I also sense that we have become cynical about our ability to change—a classic indication of burnout. We need to rethink our self-conception as an uncooperative herd of cats. Our major broadcast accomplishments have all been built on local/national partnerships, forged in equally complicated negotiations.

As noted earlier, online success won’t depend entirely on money. It will rely equally on finding and keeping the right people to do the work. In our first decade online, public radio erred not only by designing our web service to reflect the topology of our broadcast operations, but also by putting our web effort into the hands of people trained principally in broadcasting. We must correct both errors.

An optimal redesign of an MLB system might not look sensible to those of us with 20 or 30 years in broadcasting and preconceptions about organizational relations. It should aim first and foremost to serve users, with far less emphasis on the industry’s structures.

Changing our online direction will require more political finesse, organizational skill and generosity of spirit than we have shown in the past decade. Many leaders will have to cede some control and cooperate in ways that have been rare of late. The unified web platform could have a board that overlaps with those of existing broadcast institutions, but it may benefit from separate incorporation and independent management so that it will not be reduced to a support system for broadcasters. This may make the public radio system more complex, but the potential benefits outweigh the potential liabilities.

Only with a radical change can we unleash the intense creativity and sense of ownership that so many of us felt as we were building the public radio system. It’s time to let another generation experience responsibility for a major creative advance. We need managers who will live for the Web, just as we lived for radio, content producers who will bring new sensibilities and marketers who are immersed in the online economy.

If we can match our online strategy, resources and personnel with the Web’s great potential, I expect the executives of my generation will leave their greatest legacy by empowering others to lead public radio’s second decade online.

Mark Fuerst was a founder of pubcasting’s Integrated Media Association and its predecessor, the Public Radio Internet Station Alliance. In 10 years as g.m. of WXPN-FM in Philadelphia, he helped create World Café, the Triple A music format and the Peabody Award-winning program Kids Corner.

Web page posted Feb. 18, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

Mark Fuerst

Later this week, more than 400 attendees of various ranks and stripes will peer into the future of online and on-demand services at the Public Broadcasting New Media Conference in Seattle.

Mark Fuerst, main organizer of the conference and executive director of the Integrated Media Association, lays out some of his hunches and convictions, pointing to a sports-world model for how public broadcasters could proceed.

EARLIER COMMENTARY

Fuerst looks at another model for a widely used web portal that U.S. public broadcasters might emulate: the CBC's news site.

RELATED ARTICLES

Dennis Haarsager's commentary: Through the Looking Glass to Public Broadcasting 2.0.

Open Media Network, an online download platform used experimentally by some public broadcasters.

LATER ARTICLE

Pubradio leaders revived talk of Fuerst's goal:an ambitious news website that integrates local and national coverage, 2008.

LINKS

Major League Baseball's mlb.com, web home of a confederation with a few (not many) similarities to public broadcasting.

Integrated Media Association, organizer of Public Broadcasting New Media Conference. About IMA.

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