Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Corporation for public media

Philanthropy and public broadcasting go hand in hand, back to the very origins of PBS. Two recent stories (and one personal experience) related to public broadcasting and digital media made me think about where these relationships might be going as all media seem to become cross-platform.*

1. Driving the rental car back to FL airport yesterday I had an opportunity to listen in live to The Bryant Park Project on Satellite Radio. I'm a fan of The BPP - which I usually listen to on the internet or podcast. (We have satellite radio in our car, but I take the bus to work. It is amazing to me that our local public radio in SF doesn't carry BPP.) The BPP is the only place on public radio I can find voices of people my age or younger. As it happened, the show that I got to listen to live was the first broadcast following NPR's announcement that they are canceling the show, the podcast, the blog and everything else. Listen in to The BPP before July 25 to hear what you missed.

2. Today's NYT has a story on the soon-to-be launched new and improved SesameStreet.org. The new site - with zillions of cool features - goes live on August 11. According to the NYT interview, the makers of show and site hope that the site will become the core platform for program going forward.
"We view this as really the future of the workshop, as becoming the primary channel of distribution down the line," Gary E. Knell, president and chief executive of Sesame Workshop, said in a telephone interview.
3. A friend of mine recently borrowed my four-set DVD collection of The Electric Company. This mainstay of 1970s television is still as entertaining today as it was 35 years ago. My friends and I will gleefully sing along with Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman ("Hey, You Guys!!!!" - we knew you when). My pals and I are all definitely "powered by Children's Television Workshop." My friend's 5 year old is loving the program and her reading and writing are improving.

Now, I don't know why (beyond money) NPR is canceling The BPP. And I confess, I love Morning Edition (even without Bob Edwards - who is now on satellite radio). It would be a tough choice to pick between the two. But podcasts, internet and satellite radio mean that I don't have to make that choice.

How come the children's learning arm of PBS can figure out sustainable ways to develop media content that not only thrive in their original format but go on to be fabulous in others (tv to dvd, 35 years later)? Can the adult news makers just not make this work? Should The BPP have been blog/podcast-focused and then, if successful, ported over to radio? Is it them or us, the producers, the audience, the content or all/none of the above?

Ah, and what about the funding system itself? Public broadcasting is funded through a mix of public, philanthropic, licensing and advertising (ok, ok corporate sponsorship). They also sell show-driven products - dvds, coffee cups, t-shirts, cds, etc - I guess that revenue stream is called quasi-museum-store. One of the most reliable email form letters is the semi-annual "Save NPR" petition - it comes around almost as frequently as on-air member drives.**

People much smarter than I am are working hard at figuring out ways to finance public radio/TV programming and to make sure independent,*** grassroots and local media thrive. Philanthropy is a key part of the solution, but that is just the point - it is a part, not a whole.

Just as a radio program or tv show must now be developed with an eye toward its other media platforms and outlets, our public/philanthropic financing of these ventures need to be considered within these "cross sector" financing opportunities. We need to think of philanthropic funding strategies - and the public goods they support - as cross-platform. Public goods are now provided by private firms, public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and social enterprises. They are funded by public dollars, charitable donations, fees for service, corporate sponsorship, licenses, social investments, sales, and search engine/ad revenue. Oh, I like this metaphor - I'm gonna have to expand on it --- next post.

*Geek speak for being able to get stuff on TV, radio, web, satellite radio, ipod, pda, cell phone, etc. etc.

** I am a many-year, auto-renew member of two NPR stations, KPFA and KQED. I also support KUSP, KCRW, and WNYC. I am also a member of FreePress and Electronic Frontier Foundation, both linked above.

*** Today's NYT also has a story on bloggers, subpoenas, free speech, and the law. These issues are related, but too much to combine into a single blog post.

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