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February 06, 2007

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Dennis Haarsager

It was a very good interview, and I liked the one with Todd as well.

I’ve been through these numbers with Stephen once or twice before and while I think they’re blessed with some optimism, they’re not hugely out of whack with an estimates for video that Mike Homer of Open Media Network commissioned about a year back and that the 2006 DDC “summer camp” at NPR explored were also compelling. Even if they’re off by an order of magnitude, we ought to just do it. Stephen is really the only person in our orbit who’s actually thought through these issues for his own company and done something productive about it. So he’s built a huge reservoir of credibility with me. The most insightful part of his contribution on this is that you don’t have to effectively give away programming at 2¢-4¢ per listener hour or viewer hour. Many people are willing to give you many orders of magnitude more for things that have particular value.

So here’s the “however” part.

The distribution of programming for which people are willing to pay premium subscription fees is not even across the hundreds of organizations within public radio. Therefore, the revenue these fees generate will be unevenly distributed. Unfortunately, the system’s financial needs are much more evenly (or at least proportionately) distributed. And what I think of as the most urgent threat public radio and television faces – the mediocratization of collectively-funded programming through the diminution of station resources – will come from this wider contraction of discretionary resources.

We must as an industry stop thinking within radio and television silos. It’s a distinction that is important to us, but is totally unimportant to our listeners and viewers in an on-demand world. But NPR isn’t charted to worry about television, PBS isn’t chartered to worry about radio, and decades of bad blood (mostly television hosing radio) makes it difficult to build a unified future. We need to get over it and we may need a new institution to do it.

And perhaps most importantly, even if Stephen’s estimate of an increase of a third in total system (that is, public radio system) revenues is achievable, that is not the Unified Field Theory that we need to ensure public broadcasting’s mission survives the disruptions now underway. I like what Todd, for example, has to say about mission: “I fell in love with an idea. The idea is that public radio could become a vital force for the renewal of society and of democracy in America.” That’s the “remit” that the Brits have but we don’t. If it never made us a dime, over time new media are, I think, a much more powerful force for achieving Todd’s “remit” than are our older scarcity-driven media. But (to the point of my recent “My brother thinks he’s a chicken” post) we are already not driven by listener- and viewer-supported revenue, we just act as though we are because someone (NPR, PBS, PRI, APM) needs the eggs. Those majority non-member funds come from tax-based, foundation and corporate sources that want to do some variation of Todd’s idea – and if we want to keep what we have and grow it, we need to go beyond subscriptions in rethinking our economic model.

Thanks for pulling these together. --Dennis

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