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Big can learn from small in public radio

“We will begin to see fresh faces and hear new and unexpected voices on public media platforms that will grow over time.”

Let’s make it clear from the start that the new year will not bring final resolution to the hot pursuit of a methodology for determining impact. Nor will we find a solid new business model to ease the pressures brought by having to deliver sharper content across more platforms and, it seems, with greater speed than ever before. Not yet. But public media is well past its crossroads, and far enough along some new paths that we’re able to see patterns emerge.

sue-schardtWe remain, in 2014, in a prolonged period of disruption. For some, it’s a time to invent and thrive. Others are eager to move back into a new phase of predictability, when we’ve locked down new models for generating, distributing, and monetizing our work. My basic advice for now is: It’s okay! We’re exactly where we’re supposed to be! Relish this time of uncertainty. It won’t last forever. Stretch out. Be different than you’ve been before.

There are many angles for looking into a crystal ball. Mine is based on a series of experiments I’ve led since 2008 designed to tap our brightest talent to disrupt the public media system, reveal new approaches to journalism and storytelling, and lay new pathways to Americans not currently served by public media.

What’s come into focus is a new and promising vision of a public media network comprised of 1,200 community hubs, each with a distinctive culture and an exciting opportunity to form a new relationship with more citizens. And we have another important network — of talent, individuals who operate with greater flexibility and capacity for experimentation than legacy institutions full up with day-to-day operations. AIR’s talent network is rooted in audio, but it’s expanding almost as quickly as the technology that is driving so much of our change. Yes, they are our reporters, hosts, and editors. But this network, 1,000 strong across 46 states and 25 countries, now also includes technologists, social media experts, podcasters — more than 60 job titles in all. Above all, our makers are skilled collaborators who bring agency to one another, and to institutions seeking to adapt and thrive.

With that, here are five pivot points to look for in 2014:

  • Talent on the move. The value of crafty makers will rise, especially in top markets and at stations with a strong local production culture in place. Stations and distributors will move assertively to become platforms for the best and brightest from within their organizations. They’ll compete to attract outside talent. And we’ll see new moves to aggregate talent into podcast networks, more experiments with crowdsourced fundraising, and more talent cutting loose from their stations and networks to start their own enterprises.
  • Local communities, local stations forming a new frontier for experimentation, and expanding public media service to more Americans. As we continue to work to build and strengthen the legacy network model built around national programming, principally Morning Edition and All Things Considered, there will be exciting new work underway in local communities fueled by new investment. This will give rise to new collaboration between local stations across the country. We will begin to see fresh faces and hear new and unexpected voices on public media platforms that will grow over time.
  • Strategic investment in building capacity, not only for digital, but for “street” infrastructure. In the decades before consolidation of commercial radio, it was common for a local radio station’s staff to be out every weekend in their remote van, broadcasting from strip mall parking lots, or carnivals, or little league baseball games. We’ll see a return to this past, with a small but meaningful number of public media stations following the lead of MapJam at Austin’s KUT to create live events to reach new citizens, or establishing new access points for their stations à la La Burbuja at KCRW in L.A., or launching new community journalism projects imitating Curious City in Chicago.
  • What’s old is new. Besides stations moving to create physical platforms of interaction with more citizens, we’ll see producers and stations engaged in field research to better inform digital strategies — and more discipline and intention behind figuring out how to turn the available tools of technology in the right direction. As we move from summer into fall, knowledge sharing among stations, producers, and networks will begin to flourish. A celebration of good old-fashioned shoe leather is in our future.
  • What’s small is big. We’ll be excited and inspired by what programs and producers are able to do with micro-scale visibility — tens of thousands of podcast listeners, for example, versus a tens-of-millions broadcast audience. By the end of the year, we’ll have become more shrewd with our expectations, but for the first half of 2014, expect to see played out the continuing “gold rush” for new business models that tie together crowdsourcing, new distribution platforms, mobile apps, and new approaches to digitally aggregated media.

As we move through this period of invention, remember that progress is usually made up a series of small, sustained nudges over time. There is no magic bullet, no holy grail. It will be at least 10 years for the seeds we’re now planting to blossom. Keep digging, and keep your eyes open for the green shoots that start to appear.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20