Some thoughts on Public Radio and Television

Doc Searls-5656.jpgGot to Boston last night in preparation for the Public Media Conference.

The plane was only a half-hour late, so I got to have dinner with Doc and Jake Shapiro, who runs PRX. Jake's a Berkman Fellow, and a helluva smart guy who caught me up with the latest goings-on in the world of public media, from the inside.

Doc's an old-time radio guy as well, and for about half the conversation, the two of them were happily chatting about all these different radio stations around the country,the growth of religious broadcasting, the loss of university radio stations, and the FCC. This kind of stuff is fascinating to me, especially all the history around NPR, PRI, and the relationship of the national organizations to the individual stations.

It was all a great insight into the stuff going on in the daily lives of talented radio professionals.

I was really glad, though, when the conversation turned to life after spectrum scarcity. It seems to me that there's an enormous opportunity out there - a 'blue-sky' moment - where these trusted organizations can embrace the changes that are coming in a world where the net is a utility. In this world, you don't need a big 25,000 Watt transmitter, you don't need FCC regulation, and you don't need a big expensive studio to support all of this. It also means that you can have a radically different relationship with the people formerly known as your audience.

What would happen if you had an all-net set of streams (or podcasts) that took the best from the local community, used the public radio editors as curators and had them select the best from the community? I bet that local reporting would increase - there's always going to be someone covering the schol board meetings, wouldn't that be great to have the local public media make their reports available? Or local sports - there's bound to be some people who will be incented to take the effort if they knew that they could get exposure on their public radio station. How about letting people vote on the best programs, and putting them on the air, or get them highlighted on the homepage of the site?

In other words, what happens when spectrum scarcity goes away? This isn't coming overnight, but I read a recent study noting that the US now has over 50% broadband penetration, and growing. Mobile phones and services are coming that will provide affordable data plans - and when those data streaming rates are over 64K or so, it gets REALLY easy to stream high-quality audio right to your cell phone or car audio system. The technology is already far superior to that, it just hasn't seen serious adoption yet, but it will, in the next few years. So what do you do when you have an infinite number of choices when you get into your car because your car is enabled with mobile net access? Why not let the people formerly known as your viewers upload their own stories, their own oral histories and viral videos, and make the public broadcasting station be the hub for all of this creativity at a local scale?

The other thing that really caught my attention was around VRM and identity, and how public radio/television world can benefit. I posed a thought experiement: What if we made it really easy to pay for things that we liked on public radio and TV? How about using a shortcode from your mobile phone to 'vote' on your favorite shows while they're playing? Think 'American Idol' style, and you'll immediately see how interesting and lucrative this could be. First off, you're getting your listeners and viewers more active, and what they do has an immediate effect. But what also happens is that the people formerly known as the audience are then in control - they don't get signed up on a list, they don't have to give their name, address, and credit card number . So here was the thought experiment: What if you made a policy that you'd never collect or sell personal information about your donors? And what if you made it really really easy for people to become donors, like using that mobile code to vote for the story they just heard? What if you really put the listener in charge?

It might be too early for that yet, given only the 50% broadband penetration. But wouldn't it be a great experiment?

Doc and I are going to have the opportunity to have that conversation with a bunch of public radio and television execs today. I'm looking forward to it.

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