Do Public Broadcasters Get It?
Final version 10.18.05
<description> Description </description>
During the doldrums of mid-August Steve Gillmor dropped a semi-cryptic post on his ZDNet blog to the effect that he'd been working with a group of people from public broadcasting as part of something called the Public Service Publisher Initiative (PSP) and had received a private email from one them that had prompted him to drop out of the group.
I'm the guy who wrote that email. I've been in public radio since the early 1970s and have produced a nationally syndicated ambient music program called Hearts of Space since 1983. From 1984 to 2001 we also operated an independent record label. I take a more than passing interest in new technologies that help me reach my audience and have been a new media activist in the public radio system since the early days of streaming. We currently run a paid streaming service based on our program archive and are developing a comprehensive Internet music service around our niche repertoire.
Steve went on to suggest that the issues raised in our private exchange be taken into the open so they can be hashed out between broadcasters and producers from the incumbent public service media and members of the tech and podcasting community. I readily agreed, and after some unrelated delays we further discussed the situation in a conference call in early September between Steve, me, Dennis Haarsager of Northwest Public Radio and TV, and Rich Winefield and Tim Olson of San Francisco public station KQED. After more unrelated delays, here it is.
<item> What's the beef? </item>
The original issue that provoked this beef is not that important. I criticized a Gillmor Daily podcast Steve did with Doc Searls ("Broadband on the Run"); he reacted. Why should you care? Because of the larger issues behind it, which I hope this will illuminate.
To slightly oversimplify the fairly intense discussion that followed, there were two issues. One had to do with quality, in particular the importance of production quality of podcasts compared to professionally produced media; the other with larger questions of the relationship between citizen-produced Internet media and professional, especially non-commercial, public service media. Steve was so frustrated by what he was hearing from me that he unleashed the ultimate early-adopter missile: You guys just don't get it.
Respectfully to everyone involved, I think we get it just fine. I believe what we are really seeing is an understandable collision between values, which I try to explain here. You may disagree, in which case I hope you'll let me know. I'm doing my part to make it a public conversation.
<item> Back Story </item>
The events that led to Steve joining the PSP group and ultimately quitting it began at a conference in San Francisco in January 2005 produced by an organization called the IMA or Integrated Media Association. If netizens have never heard of it, that's because it was created by and functions entirely within the public radio and television community. It has an open website at http://www.integratedmedia.org.
IMA was chartered to represent the technically and conceptually progressive Internet wing of U.S. public media, and it played an important role in the gestation of the PSP Initiative. But from the moment the core of the activist PSP group hooked up with Steve at the IMA Conference, things started to develop in ways we had not forseen.
One the primary functions of the IMA is to build a case for a broad improvement in public radio/TV web services, while the PSP group was focused solely on Internet program distribution. IMA had to move more slowly than we felt necessary, and ultimately the PSP Group chose to operate on its own, outside of the IMA. (The stations in the PSP remain IMA members.) After a few months we discovered and quickly formed a working alliance with Mike Homer and his colleagues at the Open Media Network, who were over a year ahead of us in developing an online public media distribution service based on the Kontiki P2P engine.
I don't think you can fully appreciate the difference between the brutal techno-Darwinism-on-crystal-meth reality of the Internet space and the slow, polite, idealistic, chronically underfunded world of U.S. public broadcasting unless you've worked in both environments -- the difference is just too great. If you work in IT, the fact that you may support a local public broadcaster and listen to All Things Considered or Morning Edition or <yourFavoriteShow> will just confuse you.
Steve apparently put in some time at non-commercial WBAI-FM in New York in the 1970s, and I think that Doc Searls and Doug Kaye each have some experience in commercial broadcasting. All of them have abundant published perspectives on the issues of broadcasting and podcasting. From my vantage point, these are effectively two different worlds, with a potential wormhole connecting them along technical and idealistic/value lines that intersect somewhere in the middle of the Long Tail. Understanding that is what the rest of this piece is about.
Steve was far more aware of this potential connection than any of us from public broadcasting when we met. RSS had barely made a beachhead among public broadcasters and only a handful of the most technically astute public broadcast webmasters were aware of podcasting, even fewer of its disruptive potential.
Steve administered aggressive doses of "tough love" in the first few months of meeting with us and forced everyone to get up to speed on the big changes implicated by RSS, podcasting and citizen media, tagging, search, Web 2.0 applications and other trends from the leading edge of Internet evolution. At the time (early 2005) there were only a few scattered experiments with podcasting from the larger public stations, despite the fact that they were sitting on sizeable unused archives of legally downloadable material and ongoing series.
This was slightly surprising because public broadcasters had been much quicker to adopt streaming than commercial broadcasters. And public broadcasters had built their business on the niche content, small audiences and donation business models that mark the first generation of podcasting. A startup called Public Interactive was created in 1999 by a group of the largest public radio stations and one of the national program distributors to provide Internet services to station web sites. Part of their service was hosting continuous streams as extensions of station air signals. By 2005, all but the smallest public stations were streaming their air channel, and the larger ones were offering some on-demand content on their web sites.
Streaming was seen by public broadcasters as radio by other means, a way to fill in gaps in local coverage, reach ex-patriate listeners, and perhaps get a few out-of-town subscriptions. Static, non-interactive streams were like radio without the limitations of transmitters, while on-demand streaming offered a whole new level of service. And all of it was completely outside the regulatory domain of the FCC, which was almost too much freedom to handle for people who'd been looking over their shoulders every day for 50 years.
<item> Time + Quality = Service </item>
The core of the long tail theory is that the Internet finally makes serving niche audiences efficient and economically viable, especially when aggregated. I take it as axiomatic that all niche audiences have been chronically underserved in the past, and will be better served in the future by both participatory and professional digital sources online.
But these niche audiences do not exist in a vacuum. The same people are also members of mass and medium size audiences. Consciously or not, their reference standard for radio and television content has been created by years of exposure to high production value commercial media and high quality non-commercial broadcast media in series like Nova, Frontline and All Things Considered, as well as Ken Burns specials and other documentaries. With their BBC DNA, these programs define a working standard.
Steve Gillmor has argued that "truth," relevance, and perhaps creativity are the key values in podcasting, and that technical production quality doesn't matter in long tail media. I disagree.
It's an arguable point for users in the heady days of realizing you are finally being programmed to, but in the medium to long run I don't believe that even niche audiences will sit still for extended doses of amateurish, inconsistent, self-indugent programming, no matter how vertically compelling the subject matter. For niche programs to attract new audiences and hold them over time, they will have to bear at least reasonable comparison to the production standards of mainstream media.
This is particularly true for audio, which cannot easily be scanned and almost always takes 1:1 hard time to consume. (There's a new feature on the iPod that allows you to listen to Audiobooks at faster than normal speed, so perhaps 2:1 time compression for speech will be normal someday.) Unfortunately for entry level podcasters and notwithstanding the existence of amazing cheap tools for the job, working with audio and learning how to create a consistently listenable program takes several years to master.
This is just my opinion. For a more objective comparison, consider independent music, where the technical enabling revolution in home studios and cheap publishing on cassette, CD and now online -- has been going on for about 35 years. Today, production quality standards of indie music approach those of major label releases except for the most elaborate mainstream material. Once the 'shock of service' wears off for niche listeners, I believe it will apply to podcasters as well.
That doesn't mean that there isn't room for all kinds of innovative programming and more improvised, casual, creative, offbeat approaches to niche and public service content. Or that talk programmers, interviewers and documentarians can't develop more individual styles and voices.
But I think it implies that in the medium and long run, listeners will expect a dependable level of quality and consistency of video, sound, performance, information and entertainment value in their niche media. And if grassroots podcasting and webcasting are going to be monetized via subscription, PPV or advertising models as Podshow and others are proposing -- then listeners, viewers and advertisers will all want a return on their time and money investments.
An organization called the INA or International Nanocasting Alliance, has been formed around precisely these issues, to draw a line between the casual/hobbyist and professional levels of long tail media. I think they have a point.
<item> Business models </item>
In the U.S., public service media pioneered the model of user supported broadcasting. It's still around, providing an average of over 40% of the funding of public radio and television. This model is now being rolled over to long tail web sites, blogs and vertical services via tip jars, PayPal donations and other attempts to secure voluntary support from users. Doug Kaye has instituted this method on IT Conversations, along with the use of volunteer producers (another public radio tradition) to edit and prepare the small waterfall of material he's releasing each week. It's often compared to the open source software development system, but there are also significant differences.
Public radio and television have over 50 years experience with this model. It was born of necessity at KPFA in Berkeley in the 1950s, and was ahead of its time in recognizing the kind of direct producer/audience interaction and shared sense of purpose that the Internet now delivers in spades.
But it also has serious disadvantages: even after 40 years of increasingly organized, skillful appeals for voluntary support, only about 10% of the audience actually pays. How podcasters expect a model that has barely worked in the context of full time professional broadcasting by licensed local monopolies to work for even smaller audiences is beyond me. Only a small fraction of programs and services will ever be able to sustain themselves this way. And if they do, most of them will pay a significant price by having to operate on a subsistence economy.
I also reject the idea that incumbent public broadcasters are doomed by their overhead and infrastructure. I think Doug Kaye's post about On the Media and WGBH in Blogarithms misunderstands both the issue and the context.
It's not about big staffs and deluxe studios; WGBH and the major incumbent producers are exceptions. They all have multiple sources of funding that have been developed over many years. Their production facilities are largely paid for. They can, and are, adapting rapidly to new technologies. They can leverage their infrastructure and produce shows that meet their traditional standards of quality for sound, writing, production and on-air talent, while simultaneously spinning off new shows that take advantage of new distribution and promotion opportunities. As has been said of the (far more conservative) Catholic church -- don't underestimate their ability to adapt.
But for the typical public radio station, voluntary support fails to provide a sustaining level of funding for their minimal staffs and physical plants, which results in a constant need for additional grant support, increasing amounts of soft advertising in the form of "expanded underwriting" spots (the commercializing of non-commerical broadcasting), and at its worst -- the descending spiral of pandering to audiences exemplified by the endless lifestyle fundraising specials that have sucked much of the integrity and quality out of public television along with the dollars of its aging audience -- a pathetic subversion of the original mission.
<item> Values </item>
Where the public service media incumbents and the leading edge of the podosphere can meet is on the level of values: truth, integrity, transparency, accuracy, relevance, compassion...add yours.
I'm probably not the best person to articulate these values and standards on behalf of the public service media incumbents -- but I will defend them. For various reasons, my 30 years in the public radio system have been spent mostly as a maverick and outsider. When I couldn't make a decent living in public radio as a syndicator, I started related businesses, a strategy that worked financially but further distanced me from the conservative public service purists who still dominate the network.
To get a fuller sense of the value system that underlies the incumbent public service media system, the best place to look is the BBC, which is largely responsible for defining them. BBC researcher Alan Blumlein invented stereo in the 1930's. In addition to audio technology, the company also established all the major genres and standards for program content.
A fascinating history and summation of the BBC experience was given in August 2005 by JOHN BIRT, former Director General of the BBC, in a speech at the Edinburgh International Conference. His account is all the more cogent and timely because he is fully aware of the changes that will be wrought by digital distribution and the net, which he mentions at the end. (Fair warning -- it's long.)
<item> More about the beef </item>
My beef with Steve Gillmor was due to a collision between the values of conceptual quality, intellectual rigor and craft that form the foundation and working standard of the incumbent public media system, and the values of grassroots empowerment, free toolsets, open distribution, personal expression and improvisation that characterize the blog and podcasting world.
More specifically, I was objecting to the Gillmor Daily show called "Broadband on the Run," where Steve ambushed Doc Searls in transit to a conference and dragged him into a rambling, off-the-cuff discussion of radio, podcasting and music copyrights -- a very complicated subject.
After 22 years of radio syndication and 17 years operating an indie record label, I know a lot more about this stuff than I'd like, and I found the discussion scattered, inaccurate in many places, misleading and unbalanced. 80 minutes of underwater Skype + cell phone audio didn't help my mood either. And Steve's willful demonstration of copyright infringment by playing a Beatles track in the background on this show struck me as adolescent, proved nothing important, and changed nothing about the challenges we face as far as I'm concerned.
I should be clear that I'm a deep admirer of Steve's insights into the tech space and Doc's work since Cluetrain. I normally agree with Doc's point of view on almost every issue. He is one of the wisest and best informed commentators in this area, and he obviously knows what he's talking about. I am also a huge fan of the Gillmor Gang podcasts, most of which are reference quality as a source of leading edge information content about technology, media and the Internet.
But in the case of this particular Gillmor Daily show, Steve -- who often has an underlying techno-political, rather than journalistic, agenda -- was bent on provoking Doc into a polarized argument that I thought mostly misleading. Doc, disappointingly to me, was playing the role of the oppressed Libertarian, beset by draconian copyright regimes that prevent free use and reuse of existing music and video. No attempt whatsoever was made to explain any of the reasons why these practices came to exist and are being so vigorously defended by the incumbents. Nor was there any attempt to discuss how these issues might be reconciled going forward. I'd put up with it in a bar after a conference, but not on a program that purports to be informative about media and technology.
So, I complained -- "viscerally" (Steve's word) -- but I did it privately because I know that for all his bluster and occasionally slanderous public persona, Steve is very sensitive to criticism of his own work. I later apologized to Steve for the tone of the note, but not about my strong feelings for the subject or my criticism of the program itself.
Examining those feelings, I realized that my colleagues and I value deeply the traditions of quality in media, which have produced not only high performance standards, but are founded on a copyright and IP regime that many in the tech community find incomprehensible, onerous and restrictive.
I am certainly not a defender of everything about existing copyright laws -- in fact I believe they are badly in need of a substantial overhaul for the network era -- but it still pains me to hear otherwise intelligent technology advocates openly gloating over the loss of control over copyright that has been created by new distribution technologies, or inversely, whining about the restrictions to which they are subject. It's particularly annoying when those doing the talking are not making a living from their creative output, but from tangential or unrelated jobs. They talk, but few (Cory Doctorow is a conspicuous exception) have actually walked the walk.
I consider the relationships between broadcasting, publishing, copyright and business models to be the single most important set of issues facing everyone who is serious about developing more open digital media. Chris Nolan was absolutely right in a recent Gillmor Gang show ("Municipal Gang") to pull Steve up short and call for separate program to discuss the copyright issue when it came up in the context of a discussion of telecom carrier politics.
I'm not an expert on this area, but I did participate in a vigorous online discussion of all these issues for several years on the "Pho" email list -- an exhaustive, intelligent, mostly civilized conversation between copyright activists, academics, music business executives and lawyers, working musicians, and technologists. I suggested to Steve that there were at least a dozen people on Pho, particularly cofounder Jim Griffin, who would be more than qualified to do this discussion the right way, and I would be happy to make the necessary introductions. Steve chose not to pursue it and that's where the matter stands. I'd still like to hear that copyright show on Gillmor Gang.
<item> Conclusion </item>
"At the end of the day, the big difference between not-for-profit podcasting and commercial Nanocasting (i.e. commercialized long tail Internet audio programming) will be quality and professionalism." -- INA (International Nanocasting Alliance)
I believe that time will bear out this statement. It's about meeting a standard of quality which a group of smart and dedicated people have developed over the course of the last 75 years, a standard which an educated audience, at least, has come to expect. It's already happening with blogs, where there are almost no production cost issues and editing is easy and fast compared to audio and video.
I also believe, as Steve Gillmor has said on several occasions, that the worlds of incumbent public service media and at least some types of podcasting have much more in common than at variance with each other. But just as pubcasters have a lot to learn from the libertarian values, open standards, transparency and interactive ethics of the best in the online community, so do podcasters and vlogcasters have a lot to learn from us. We have a developed set of standards for media presentation and journalism that are eminently worth preserving and protecting.
As Jeremy Allaire points out about new media activists, "it's important that we don't believe our own bull."
Despite superior distribution technology and the best efforts of evangelists and provocateurs like Steve Gillmor -- whose posts often end with some brilliant Rube Goldberg lash-up of what he calls the "burgeoning software-as-a-service architecture in waiting" -- it's obvious to me, to other commentators (including members of the Gillmor Gang) and to most public broadcasters, that the mass of educated listeners and viewers will be lagging considerably behind the most creative and motivated early adopters of the online and tech community in joining this party. Of course we all realize there is a new audience eager to be served who may care a lot less about these values, but it doesn't change the fact that the bulk of the educated audience does, and will continue to do so.
So I think that despite the occasionally grandiose claims of Steve, Doug Kaye, the very cogent Ron Bloom of Podshow and other podcasting promoters, I agree with Doc Searls' position in "Broadband on the Run" that this is going to be a case of "and logic," not "or logic" -- that new media will not fully displace older media, but take years to dilute its audience to one degree or another -- especially when skilled incumbents with resources, like NPR, KCRW, KQED, WNYC and WGBH -- are showing that they are agile enough to colonize the new distribution paradigms along with the early settlers.
This is the downside of reducing barriers to entry. Once they get going, the pros can do it easier, faster, and generally better than all but the most organized and talented amateurs. They have greater experience and resources when it comes to creating quality programming -- particularly ongoing series. This accounts for the fact that professionally produced shows now account for over 90% of the iTunes top 100 podcast list, and the smutty charms of early podcast stars like Dawn and Drew are now off the list.
Every reasonable commentator predicts that we are heading toward a multi-layered media landscape where everything coexists at a new level of complexity. In my opinion there is too much audience inertia to overcome and too much new behavior to breed for this to happen as quickly as Steve Gillmor seems to think, at least for mainstream audiences. Early adopters are obviously the exception. The oracular Andrew Odlyzko's 10 year diffusion estimates from the inception of new media innovations or distribution technology to dominance are probably still a good bet. And we'll need a hundred more Steve Jobs to make it all slick and easy enough to work for average users.
Even in the today's challenging media environment, conventional public radio broadcasters deliver over 12 BILLION listener hours every year in the U.S. -- several orders of magnitude more than podcasters will achieve for years to come. And when the aggregate of Internet delivered programming finally reaches this level of penetration, the incumbent program brands and production expertise of public broadcasters will benefit disproportionally, as will brands and personalities from commercial radio who will have established their franchises online by leveraging their on-air resources to promote their online services during the transition. They can also aggregate the best of the new players into their own services.
2005 will be remembered as the year the lid finally came off media distribution. Personally, I look forward to discovering the unique talents that will emerge from podcasting. I just want to see the standards kept up. Do ya feel me, Brother Gillmor?
:: Stephen Hill