"It’s the Humanity, Stupid" (with apologies to the ’92 Clinton/Gore campaign)


Cross posting is such a lazy practice..but here I am – plugging in some stuff I wrote to the fine forum led by public broadcasting’s trade paper, current.org

I’m rewriting this a bit, so I guess it is not a total cross-post, but there were ideas that I dabbled with that I wanted to try to flesh out a bit more clearly here.

In the Current forum, WDUQ (the NPR member station I manage in Pittsburgh) was invoked as an example of a mid/large market station which may fall by the wayside as it is too large and too small to survive on the commerce or subsidy or “localism” continuum.

When Mark Bertolet, WDUQ’s marketing chief and web wrangler (I made that second title up) noted to me that WDUQ had been invoked in the forum, we were minutes away from starting the annual WDUQ picnic – held in the parking lot behind the building. Plus, this year, we added the Intramural Athletics field next door that is usually locked behind a fence. A little bit of football toss, soccer, and bocce ball. So, what I started to write was done in haste – because the picnic was important.

(So, here, I can stretch this out and be more tedious – sorry!)

Concern about the economic health and future of “midmarket” stations is valid. There are reasons why CBS is considering selling their clusters in Baltimore and Pittsburgh – to focus on the more lucrative top ten or fifteen markets. In public broadcasting, the subsidy level from CPB for a station like mine is now well south of 10%; net revenue on Underwriting and Membership income isn’t as high; yet the costs to cover a busy, diverse community with 2 million or so potential listeners are significant.

There is a lot of pressure. I have heard the same thing from commercial colleagues in similar sized markets. You have to do well, adapt and change quickly.

But being a station in a $3 to 4 million budget range has its benefits. We have a very hard working staff of more than 20 full time people, plus more than a score of part time folks, plus interns and volunteers. We are pretty cohesive and nimble.

But we do have to make choices.

The NPR open API is a part of all this, but just one of our many needed tools. It is now common for having powerful web tools all running on Free or Open Source software – Apache for the web server, Free SQL for the database and a content management system like Joomla! to run and organize things (including multimedia, data tagging and interactivity).

(..and I’d rather invest in my people than in making Larry Ellison and Oracle even MORE rich, but that’s just me.)

Having all of these options also means developing and sustaining collaborative groups of people working together to make content, creating order and adapting to ever-changing technology. But if we have good people, a good working culture and the ability to learn, we can do that. It is up to those of us in management to help put more arrows to the quiver and create technology and built environments that make the work easier to do. A midmarket station with a cohesive, collaborative environment can do this – and even have some fun in the process.

Many of us have been working toward the ideal of this kind of workplace for many years. One of the biggest problems I see in our recent discussions about “transforming media” is the thought that software or hardware will magically change human nature.

I believe the most important thing in how we move forward is how we work together. Technology will not cure dysfunction – and can even make it worse. Witness how we end up debating our opinions in blogs, forums, listervs and more.

All the while, the seeming need for constant feedback can reduce our time to be contemplative, to let each of us ponder possibilities and think things through and bring ideas back to share, adapt and change. Collaborative work is still work – and making sure we can take time to create relationships and truly interact with people we work with or hope to work with is not as easy it may seem.

WDUQ staff use a lot of technology. But the coordinated simplicity of a potluck, parking lot picnic is very much what the station is all about. Doesn’t mean it’s idyllic – but it was a brief chance to hang out, play a little and be together without having to do a pledge drive. Not a big deal, but important, still.

OK – so, I guess my big point is that culture and humanity, especially in public media, come before technology and business models.

As to the business models, the existence of a cohesive, adaptable group can lead you to the flexibility you need to make it — see today’s Washington Monthly – referencing a blog entry in the American Prospect.

Kevin Drum notes that almost two thirds of Politico’s revenue comes from less than 30,000 subscribers to the 3 day a week print edition. A bit more than a third comes from 3 million readers to content that is fresh, every day.

Kevin Drum’s parting shot:

Bottom line: Print gets you respect and big dollar advertisers. The web gets you buzz and a nice chunk of additional revenue. The future — part of it, anyway — belongs to those who can successfully combine multiple media platforms into a single profitable whole. So far, it looks like The Politico has done that.

So, yeah, we all have things to do. And as soon as we get it right, or close to right, it will change. That is NOT a new experience for human activity. Some of the problems we are facing now are the business model. This is not new – it has been the way of the world for centuries.

The open API from NPR does is allow us to build on the good intentions of people of like intent. We have a social network already — 30 million listeners and soon, we hope, 3 million donors. We will never be perfect in making our relationship better with them or each other – but we’ve done a lot of good against the odds so far. I hope my station, staff, listeners/users and others will keep up the good fight.

Always moving, never arriving, but pointing toward a good direction.

Make sure to go to the picnic.

Thanks

Scott Hanley

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About sehanley

Musician, journalist, teacher, technologist, consultant & former NPR station manager. A media and entertainment professional, journalist, entrepreneur, technology advocate, educator, student, mentor, manager, and media, musical and theatrical performer. Voice talent and coach for music and spoken word. I also act and sing (mostly jazz, but a lot of experience with choral, classical and musical theater, too). Brass instruments, too, but my AF ofM card lapsed years ago. Heard on the national jazz service, PubJazz, and in the Pittsburgh market on WZUM/Pittsburgh Jazz Channel. I also teach college level courses in media and journalism. I managed the leading NPR/public radio station in Pittsburgh, PA for 16 years, a few years later was GM of the NPR station WBHM in Birmingham, AL. I served for six very busy years on the NPR Board of Directors and have done much volunteer service for national and local organizations in the communities I have been privileged to live and work in. Former NPR Board Member, former President of the Pittsburgh Radio Organization, sometime musician, relentless technology advocate. Opinions expressed are not the viewpoints of any employer or affiliation past or present.
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2 Responses to "It’s the Humanity, Stupid" (with apologies to the ’92 Clinton/Gore campaign)

  1. John Proffitt says:

    Great post, Scott! I particularly liked…

    “…make content, creating order and adapting to ever-changing technology. But if we have good people, a good working culture and the ability to learn, we can do that. It is up to those of us in management to help put more arrows to the quiver and create technology and built environments that make the work easier to do. A midmarket station with a cohesive, collaborative environment can do this – and even have some fun in the process.”

    I just about nodded my head off while reading that. That’s exactly the transformation we’re about to bring online in Anchorage. And it’s not about the technology — it’s about how we approach our community, how we think about our service and how we work collaboratively toward our (soon to be) shared goals.

    Thanks also for the link to the Politico article. My boss — an old newspaper guy turned public media guy — will appreciate that analysis.

    Keep posting!

  2. Doug says:

    (..and I’d rather invest in my people than in making Larry Ellison and Oracle even MORE rich, but that’s just me.)

    Exactly Scott…it’s about people. Tools are there yet always changing. People stay on top of it and need to feel empowered to take advantage.
    As Tom Peters says:
    “Try stuff
    See what works
    See what fails miserably
    Learn, Rinse, Repeat.”

    Doug Mitchell

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