Sunday, March 8, 2009

Centralizing the Decentralized

We Americans love our local autonomy. It's everywhere in our society from the power of school boards to include intelligent design in science curriculae to the pro-choice and gun rights groups: movements: protecting the rights of the individual.

Our broadcasting system is much the same. Despite mass media's homogenizing influence, we intuitively believe in the uniqueness of individuality, and that it's important.

That's why localism is such a big deal in broadcasting. Our European brethren and sisters across the pond don't get it. Too much navel gazing, too little international reporting. The good of the group must be weighed with the good of the individual - and the group is probably more important in the end.

So I was intrigued when I read this article in the public broadcasting trade rag Current about the new CEO Vivian Schiller.

"NPR doesn’t want to “control and dominate” the web sphere via," Schiller said. “If we are successful, it will morph into this constellation of sites” from local stations, allowing listeners to experience public radio “on whatever platform they prefer.”

Schiller's allegiance to NPR's member stations are understandable: just like every other legacy news distributor in the United States, they are trying to keep their revenue streams flush while trying to figure out new ones.

And who are the cash cows that keep NPR afloat? Member stations. They pay millions to carry All Things Considered and Morning Edition, the flagship news programs. If you've ever volunteered for a pledge drive, you know when you ask why they are pledging, national programming almost 100% of the time is at the top of the list. They like the local stuff too, but it comes later. How do member stations stay relevant when audiences can stream online at or get podcasts dumped by subscription on their iPods? Schiller thinks it's by bolstering the local relevance of stations.

She'll have many things to overcome, but the largest is the software most stations use for their websites: Public Interactive. NPR bought it last year from Public Radio International, the good folks in Minneapolis who bring you This American Life and the BBC. PI has the advantage of automatically updating a local station's site with content from NPR...the problem is with their small staffs, and I would also argue to some degree, staff who lack competence in new technology, can't create similar local content. You can do all those things on PI - but imagine you've spent the last 20 years making public radio news, and now they want you to take a picture and shoot some video. Some have embraced it (and take damn good pics!). Many have not.

Schiller and Co. will have to overcome, just like newspapers, a technological generation gap on how to produce information, and understanding how it's received and consumed. She knows this, and I say Godspeed to her as she tries to overcome the inertia of a decentralized public broadcasting system.

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