Monday, September 22, 2008 Woes

Do public broadcasters need to invest in their websites?

That is the question. At the moment many of them use Public Interactive, which provides a template allowing NPR affiliates to easily update content from the mothership in D.C. But why would I go to my local station's website for news from NPR when I could to It's great for NPR to have it's site linked to an affiliate but what good does it do the affiliate?

Which leads me to my conclusion: affiliates would invest more in creating local content, information, ideas, discussions about the geographic area it serves (although you could argue that through the power of the internet every station really could serve the whole world! That's another blog posting.)

This is not happening at WOUB in Athens, Ohio, though they produce quite a bit of local news and information for their television and radio channels. The copy and video get posted to the website, but no original content specifically produced for the site. So southeastern Ohio has several key races, and get this, WOUB-TV is the only station serving 40 counties in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, and there is no information on their site about these races.

I know, I know. Public broadcasters don't have the resources. They don't have the people power. They're already keeping body and soul together with declining budgets, and desperate pledge drives begging for money. And yet, I beg to differ. WOUB is licensed through Ohio University. As far as I'm concerned, they have a built in labor force of students. So why wouldn't they harness that?

Well, they already do. But as someone at WOUB pointed out to me, they have a well-oiled training machine for television and radio. And it's somewhat of a struggle to maintain the content for TV and radio with the revolving door of students coming in and out. But I don't think it would take that many students to create original content for the web. I went through the training program at WOUB, and during a lull we talked about what we were interested, what we wanted to do. As soon as I said wanting to produce original content for the web, it was like a bomb went off. Even the trainer, a sophomore at Ohio U, said something about the website being "nonexistent". (He was more charitable about the website than I was.)

So you have young people who understand the web, who want to do it. They just need to be organized.

I fear this is a theme throughout public broadcasting, a theme I would call lack of leadership. In some places I could understand where investing in the website makes little sense. Rural areas have limited technological infrastructures or low rates of Internet access that make it silly. But Ohio University has an extensive alumni network around the world who connect with the university through WOUB. Here's this for an idea: how about creating a portal on WOUB's website that would allow alumni to post material? Through a smart membership drive, I bet you could hit up those folks for contributions and make the case that WOUB is serving alumni around the world, as well as the community in Athens.

Every station has to determine its own course in this brave, new digital world. But to say as part of your mission to is train students, and not provide the ability to create original content, even at a public broadcaster, is shortsighted.

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