Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Should it stay or should it go: News outlets scramble to cover Britain’s decision to exit the European Union
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Aug. 14, 2015, 10 a.m.
Business Models

How Connecticut’s largest public media outlet worked with IDEO to reimagine its future

Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network takes a page from human-centered design to build a playbook to transform its programming, education programs, and fundraising.

Public radio is wrestling with issues like the increasing shift in how people listen to audio, moving from live-streaming their favorite programs to listening on-demand. There are also more existential questions about how public media, with its long history of membership, will transform its relationship with listeners .

Those are the big, foundational shifts. If you zoom in on the local level, how are public media stations trying to confront change? The Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network (CPBN) decided to attack those questions directly by overhauling its entire organization, from the shows it creates to the ways it funds the network. CPBN intends to spend more than $7 million over the next three years to reinvest in the organization. To do this, it worked with design firm IDEO to create a playbook.

“We set out to re-imagine what we could be and what we needed to do to invest in our future,” said Dean Orton, chief operating officer for CPBN, said.

On the surface, CPBN was already doing well. In 2014, it reached over 750,000 people a week through CPTV. Total revenues for the network, including membership and underwriting among others, were $17.8 million in 2014, up from $16.1 million in 2013.

Given the combination of statewide television and radio, along with a corresponding digital presence — and even a print magazine — few media companies that match up, said Stephanie Schenkel, grants manager for Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network.

But Schenkel said the network knew it needed a fresh look at how it operates, and needed to determine if it was meeting the needs of the audience. “How do we take all this valuable energy and talent we have and make decisions that are best for our community?”

CPBN worked on the playbook with design firm IDEO, which does projects for companies as diverse as IKEA, GE, The North Face, and JetBlue. Support from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and a $250,000 grant from Knight Foundation made the report possible.

IDEO is famous for its human-centered design approach to projects, which use empathy as a means of finding solutions.

“When they first came to us, it was a pretty open-ended challenge,” said Ashlea Powell, a location director with IDEO who worked on the project. “They’ve been around 50 years and want to make sure they were set up for success over the next 50 years, which is pretty broad.”

As part of the process, the firm spoke with staff at CPBN, as well as experts, but also went out into towns around Connecticut to talk to people. They set up kiosks in malls and at Yale University, and held small events in people’s home, listenin to people across the audience spectrum — “someone that could name 10 different shows they do on air, and one person who doesn’t even know there is a Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network,” Powell said.

IDEO had to decide whether the scope of the project would be deep, designing a new show or branding package for launch, or whether it would be more broad. Ultimately the firm went with a playbook, which felt as if it could have a lasting impact, Powell said. “It felt like it was a real ‘teach a man to fish’ situation,” she said.

The resulting 36-page playbook was a mix of principles for making decisions about the future of the network, along with suggestions for creating new types of programming and events, and new approaches for sustainable funding. The report has been disseminated throughout the network, on the business and editorial teams across TV, broadcast, and digital.

Some of the proposals will materialize quickly: The playbook suggests a name change from Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network to Connecticut Public Media, along with rebranding that will debut next year, said Orton.

On the business side, it offers up suggestions for individual donations — adding tiered levels of membership, creating project-based funding campaigns or Kickstarters — and exploring new kinds of corporate sponsorships.

Others proposals are somewhat intangible. The playbook recommends “[recommitting] to the audience” and finding ways for the staff to “innovate with a purpose.”

The ideas the playbook suggests aren’t short-term solutions or ideas with quick turnaround times. But Orton said the network is already making progress. For example, it’s formed an in-house innovation team to look at new business models “so that we can spin up and try new business models and opportunities that diversify our company.”

The network has also expanded its education programming through Learning Lab, a 20,000-square-foot facility at CPBN’s Hartford headquarters with studio space and audio and video equipment. The program has a formal partnership with the Hartford public schools, and a program that offers vocational training to help veterans transition into civilian life.

In February it opened a new multimedia newsroom for WNPR, the network’s NPR station.

“At the heart of public media has been this idea of viewers like you, listeners like you. It’s about the audience we’re there to serve,” Orton said. “It’s natural for us to think about audience first and customers first to look where we can anticipate meaningful services for them.”

But, he said, “One thing in public media we haven’t always been good at is the ability to adapt.”

Many media companies are trying to reorient themselves to changes in technology or audience habits. It’s the stuff of newsroom memos that try to explain the necessity of transformation and the hirings, layoffs, or other reorganizations that often come with it.

“We found in our work we were running so tight we didn’t have the money to invest in things,” Orton said. “It became a treadmill that was unsustainable. We’re trying to bust out of that treadmill.”

Orton said the station’s staff knew they needed to rethink how they use the web in connection with radio, finding new ways to deliver audio to people. They also, he says, had to decrease their dependence on on-air pledge drives (in 2013 they tallied 117 TV pledge drive days).

The playbook provides an “ecosystem” to develop new projects, focusing on three areas: Flagship programming that highlights life in Connecticut; the development of more physical community spaces for the audience to interact with the network; and an improved collection of data and other resources for people to use in everyday life.

Orton said the plan in the coming months is cycles of development, testing, and redevelopment across the editorial and business sides of the network. The immediate priorities are reorganizing staff and workflows in the news divisions on TV and radio, but also formalizing new methods of community outreach and events, he said.

The playbook allows CPBN to shrink some of the larger challenges in public media into a more manageable size by working on the local level. It provides new ways to think about roles for public media that Orton said “historically weren’t on our radar.”

“We’re kind of re-imagining the role we can play,” Orton said, “but the mission in many ways is not different from what was started in the early days of public broadcasting.”

Photo of public radio embroidery by Hey Paul Studios used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 14, 2015, 10 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Business Models
Show comments  
Show tags
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Should it stay or should it go: News outlets scramble to cover Britain’s decision to exit the European Union
Online, readers stayed up for the results: Peak traffic to BBC News, for instance, was around 4 a.m. GMT, and by 11 a.m. had received 88 million page views.
Acast wants to get new audiences “in the podcast door” with more diverse shows and better data
With a new paid subscription option and its sights set on non English-speaking countries, the Swedish podcasting startup is looking for listeners (and shows) beyond the iTunes set.
“Medium’s team did everything”: How 5 publishers transitioned their sites to Medium
What happened when Pacific Standard, The Ringer, The Awl, The Bold Italic, and Femsplain moved their sites over to Medium.
What to read next
0Spain’s has 18,000 paying members, and its eye on the next several million
“We have a potential of six million readers. You may not convince all six million people to be your socios, but if you learn more about their interests, you can get closer.”
0The Washington Post is testing out a few new hurdles for non-paying online readers
The Post is now asking readers to submit their email in order to read stories without paying.
0This new collaboration hopes to aid the endless debates about media with some actual hard data
“For a long time, I’ve wanted to try to put more data and quantitative analysis behind some of the claims and questions we ask around underrepresented and misrepresented stories in online spaces.”
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
The Christian Science Monitor
Alaska Dispatch
Voice of San Diego
The Daily
PBS NewsHour
Mother Jones
The New York Times
La Nación
American Independent News Network