Today’s Public Media Fight Misses The Point

Public media is not content or platform. It’s more than that.

I have read a lot of essays over the past few weeks about NPR’s recent podcast promotion decisions and the future of public media and NPR. (If you’re not caught up, this Slate piece outlines some of the discussion so far.)

I spend a lot of time thinking about this. Last year, I went to Harvard on a Visiting Nieman Fellowship and wrote a 72-page strategy paper on how public media could strengthen its relationship with the public.

I wanted to take a step back and think about what public media is when lots of people are making really good, high quality content. What differentiates public media from commercial media? What are the places public media should be?

  1. Adam’s recent call to action is really compelling and he raises several really good points about how the information needs of communities and people are rapidly changing.
  2. I believe public radio is different than commercial media because of its mission, motivation, and funding structure. Current has a good roundup of what influential people in public media define as the medium’s mission. Many of the answers have to do with content.
  3. Defining public media only in terms of its aesthetic, storytelling style, and ‘sound’ is problematic. As I wrote in my Nieman fellowship paper, several for-profit podcasts and podcast networks — like Gimlet, 538, Midroll, BuzzFeed, and Slate — now sound virtually indistinguishable from the NPR aesthetic. This will continue to happen because podcasting and experimentation with audio is really cheap.
  4. As we struggle toward a shared definition, here is mine: Public media is service. This is complicated, because the obvious next question is: Who is served? And that raises the really hard questions: What is the role of public media today? Is public media today serving the needs of communities outside of its audiences? What do people need and want from a public media in the United States?
  5. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know without some really good research and wayfinding about the role of public media in the United States in 2016. (Keith Woods’ research about who makes the NPR airwaves is a must-read, as is What’s Outside by the Association of Independents in Radio.)
  6. Three essays that you should read about this topic are Public Radio and the Sound of America (2015), Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics (2009) and Chapter Three of Searchlights and Sunglasses by Eric Newton. All three dream of an expanded view of what ‘public media’ could be. I also recommend looking at the methodology used by 18F for a recent research project that looked at touch points and pain points people have while interacting with the federal government. (What would it look like if NPR led a similar initiative but focused on pain points of interacting with local government — whether it be big cities or small town? This isn’t programming but it is serving the audience.)
  7. Doing this kind of research is really helpful. Right now, the conversation taking place about the future of NPR and the future of public media and stations is largely taking place with people in Washington D.C., New York City, and San Francisco.
  8. Public media is more than these cities. Where is the voice from Arkansas Public Radio in this discussion? Where is Wyoming Public Media or the voices of people who report from rural Iowa? (Kelsey Proud, of St. Louis Public Radio, has an excellent research report called The News is Served: A Practical Framework for Newsrooms to Connect with Niche Communities. Highly recommend it.)
  9. This raises another point: are we talking about podcasts and podcast strategy without determining whether that is what our audience wants or needs? Is that the best way to serve or strengthen the mission of public media?
  10. Again, I’m not sure. Local stations are not a monolith. The needs of Wyoming’s listeners are likely different than the needs of Philadelphia’s listeners.
  11. This makes it hard to say ‘we have a one-size-fits-all solution’ for anything in the public media system. There aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions.
  12. As long as they enjoy what they hear, the audience doesn’t know or care about whether they’re listening to a station or a network or a podcast taped by two people in a garage.
  13. This means public media has to determine how best to serve the public. This is key to its survival. I write about this A LOT in my Nieman report. If you don’t have time to read the full thing, skip to the 10 key takeaways.
  14. We are framing this conversation in terms of networks vs. stations vs. for-profit startups. I would like to frame the conversation as (networks + stations) = serving communities. A question we should always ask: Is the product we’re building serving the community we’re serving?
  15. “What’s in this for a member of my station or community?” is a better question than “What’s in this for my station?”
  16. I strongly believe that what public media is must expand. It’s not content. It’s not a platform. It’s a way of thinking about, distributing, and funding media in the United States. It’s a way of serving the public.
  17. Should stations provide free broadband access? Could stations give people media tools to make their own media? Could stations function as a public version of a Facebook group or community listserv on a private platform? Could stations partner with libraries?
  18. I don’t know what public media should look like in 2016 in the United States. Perhaps focusing on magazine shows is not the right approach. Perhaps it is. Perhaps that’s some portion of the right approach, but I don’t know what portion.
  19. Without user research, we simply don’t know. This is where NPR + member stations could really shine. There are hundreds of stations. They are in hundreds of communities. What questions are they asking? What questions should they be? (A nod to groups like GroundSource and Hearken — who do this work with audiences — but I think we also need to ask more general questions like: ‘How do you get your news? What do you hate about the news? Why would you tune into your local station? Do you ever? Things like that. (I routinely do this…’)
  20. We need to create a public media culture of radical sharing and openness — which means treating public media as a huge R&D lab, and accepting that our ideas will and should advance all of American media, including companies owned by Rupert Murdoch and Jeff Bezos and a million shareholders. Is there a way to really use the network to test out new things? Imagine if (similarly-sized) Station A tried Test 1, and Station B tried Test 2, and Station C tried Test 3 — and then they shared the results with one another.
  21. Before I left NPR, I proposed building a R&D lab that would do the kind of testing I mentioned above. I suggested starting with user research and working within a university — not a network or station.
  22. This was because I had called universities and talked to professors (who love public media, btw) and they told me that their students (who studied things like machine learning and bots) could analyze audio or build tools, and then get several dissertations out of the work. This is a scary line of thought for newsrooms. It is a new way of thinking about ratings, audience metrics, and data. Most newsroom leaders don’t have those skills, and that’s OK, so long as they don’t waste the opportunities to hire and deploy people who have the skills to measure 21st century audiences in the places that 21st century audiences use and need media. Here are some of the things I suggested:
  23. This R&D lab would create a technical talent pipeline for public media, and that it could easily test and prototype products or tools or podcasts before building them out.
  24. The R&D lab would share everything with both stations and the network, and that it would be a public way to examine what public media could be. It would share with anyone who was thinking about the future of audio.
  25. Organizational barriers in place prevented an R&D structure from living within an existing station or network.
  26. I left NPR. I haven’t left this idea.
  27. We shouldn’t think of audio startups as competitors or “poachers” but partners in this space. If public media’s goal is to educate and inform the public, and Gimlet determines a great way for doing that, then how does public media take that information and integrate it into its approach? How do we start to think of people and ideas as moving back and forth between the two?
  28. I love public media. I love the idea of public media. I love that people DEEPLY CARE about public media. I get emails from people at stations EVERY SINGLE DAY. There are thousands of people working in public media.
  29. It really excites me to think about the future of public media and the more transparent and public we are in thinking about that future, the better it is for the medium (and for the public.)
  30. I’m @mkramer and — If you’re interested in that or anything I’ve written above, please reach out. I’m currently leading a Knight-funded open source project to better connect stations with each other and with the public — and would love your input.

Thank you to Kristen Muller, Betsy O’Donovan, and Noah Chestnut for reading this and making it stronger. Thanks to A, for also asking “Why isn’t ProPublica public media?” (A good question. To me, it is.)