The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

21 June 2005

Alternative delivery

A couple of years ago, Doc Searls prescribed the following regimen for public broadcasting:

Get off the public dole completely. If you're down to just 2%, finish off the job. Turn to listeners and viewers. Operate in the real marketplace. You already have a huge advantage over commercial broadcasters, thanks to the fact that your listeners and viewers are customers and not just "consumers."

And let your listeners and viewers get involved in production. Embrace audio blogging. Embrace local video production. Wake up and smell the content, dudes. There's a huge pile of it out there. You don't have to get all of it from NPR and PRI. And I'll bet you can get a lot of it cheaper than from those bigtime sources, too.

At the time, I predicted that Congress would kill off the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It hasn't happened yet. Then again, public broadcasting hasn't exactly changed its ways either, and once again, Doc Searls is on their case:

[P]ublic broadcasting has a huge advantage over commercial broadcasting: it sells its goods directly to its viewers and listeners. Put another way, its consumers and its customers are the same people. Commercial radio and television have a huge (and problematic) split between customers (advertisers) and consumers (viewers and listeners). Yet, for some dumb reason (too many staffers coming over from the growing labor pool of laid-off commercial broadcast marketers?), public broadcasting has looked to commercial broadcasting as an ideal model. Rather than make it easier than ever for its consumers to become customers, and for its customers to become more involved with the stations, public broadcasting whored itself to underwriters and other "sponsors."

Maybe that's an unkind characterization, but there's a follow-the-money effect at work here. As dependence on federal money shrinks, commercial sponsors take up the slack. There is a natural drift of energy toward pleasing those advertisers (which is what they are), and away from customers that really matter: paying listeners and viewers. In other words, public broadcasting has been doing its best to behave like commercial broadcasting. Not helpful.

A different business model might address this issue:

[T]hink of your listeners and viewers as customers. Make it easy for them to buy retail the programs you buy wholesale from NPR, PBS and other sources. Sell them good local programming as well. Don't think of them as sources of "support." Think of them as customers for your service.

Let's say I have $60 to spend on the local NPR station. Suppose, instead of a simple block grant, as it were, I went to an online storefront of sorts and specified, say, $39.50 for Morning Edition and All Things Considered, $12 for The Diane Rehm Show, $8 for the evening jazz programs, and four bits for Car Talk (two guys, each with two-bit commentary). Fine and dandy, and it's the same sixty bucks. (Disclosure: Last year I sent this station, um, sixty bucks.)

In a more advanced public-broadcasting market, it might be worthwhile for program providers to stream their material through local station links in exchange for a small fee, which might reduce the number of people kvetching to the station manager about "How come you don't carry So-and-so?"

There are other possibilities. But none of them must rely on the tedium that is the semiannual pledge drive, and none of them need be dependent on taxpayer dollars. As Jeff Jarvis says, "Taking money from politicians gets you politics."

Posted at 9:07 AM to Overmodulation