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In role-playing exercise, Callison acts the driver and Jackson a passenger Station execs Cleve Callison and Maxie Jackson act out a carpool of the future in a skit at NPR's New Realities forum April 30, 2006. (Photo: Mark Vogelzang, Vermont Public Radio.)

Post-New Realities, NPR takes the lead

Forum prompts talk of teamwork, strategy

Originally published in Current, May 15, 2006
By Mike Janssen

Public radio’s New Realities National Forum was the crowning event of nine months of soul-searching for NPR stations, yet it felt more like a prologue than a conclusion.
“This is the first day of the new public radio system,” said facilitator Rob Paterson at the forum’s opening session May 1, addressing hundreds of public radio staffers sitting around him in a huge circle.

None of the more than 300 attendees knew what to expect from the two-day Forum in Washington, D.C., which departed from the strict agendas of most other pubradio conferences. There was nary a podium, PowerPoint presentation or promotional tchotchke in sight—just a lot of loosely guided conversations and the vibe of a group-therapy session aimed at exorcising the system’s demons of fear and distrust. Fueling the discussions was the sense that public radio’s stations and producers could lose ground against other media unless they unite to give audiences exciting, distinctive content.

“The big idea that is unspoken here is: Will you . . . put away your fear and work together?” Paterson asked on Day Two.

Two weeks after the conference, new projects and collaborations are indeed taking shape. NPR is moving ahead in the central role it first assumed by hiring Paterson last fall and organizing the New Realities process.

Working with other stakeholders, NPR will explore how public radio should change to face its challenges. Themes will include serving online audiences, creating new business models and revamping the infrastructures that support digital distribution of content and the system itself.

Three days after the forum, the NPR Board directed management to “take a leadership role in the active engagement of the leaders of the public radio system to move forward in a multiplatform, interactive and integrated media environment.”

Board member Ellen Rocco, g.m. of North Country Public Radio in upstate New York, agreed NPR should take the lead in following up.

“This is NPR’s moment to transform itself over the next five to 10 years back to being what it was in its earliest days, when it was a trusted leader of our system,” she told Current, noting that she was speaking from her perspective as a station manager, not an NPR Board member.

New Realities’ big themes

NPR’s board also directed management to digest the themes that emerged from the New Realities exercise and recommend next steps by June 5.

NPR had “received a great gift from the system,” said Dana Davis Rehm to NPR Board members May 5. “We have earned provisional permission to answer this question: How will we transform our system to fulfill our promise?” said Rehm, NPR’s v.p. of member and station services.

Rehm identified five themes that NPR and the system will explore:

Paterson has a handle on these themes, he told Current, but declined to discuss them before issuing his reports. Yet he did identify a need for greater collaboration. Public radio must become “a real system,” he said.

He pointed to a comment offered by Martin Neeb, the soon-to-retire g.m. of KPLU-FM in Seattle/Tacoma. Speaking at the forum, Neeb said reps from stations, the networks and their foundations should devise a plan “that will advance public service for the American people . . . [that will] consolidate us in some form, and have a business plan to support it.”

“I think that’s a likely outcome, when all is said and done,” Paterson said.

A more concrete step advocated at the forum is creation of a Data Depot, which would establish system-wide standards for metadata attached to pubradio programming.

NPR is willing to lead development under the umbrella of the Public Radio Satellite System, whose ContentDepot offers a precedent for setting such standards.

“It would seem to be a very small step,” said Scott Hanley, chair of NPR’s Distribution/Interconnection board committee and g.m. of WDUQ-FM in Pittsburgh.

“But it enables so much of what everyone else is talking about.”

“The house is on fire”

Digital distribution and metadata standards were only a few of the subjects taken up at the National Forum, which encompassed dozens of simultaneous discussions about all kinds of subjects.

Paterson and helpers eschewed a preset agenda in favor of “Open Space,” a model for staging conferences where participants have free rein to create and moderate their own talks.

Opinions varied about how well public radio was attacking its challenges. Some expressed deep pessimism. As media changes rapidly, “the sky is falling,” said Rocco.
“The house is on fire, without question,” said an impassioned John Barth, managing director of the Public Radio Exchange. “What are you going to do to save your ass?” Barth asked, urging his colleagues to look to each other for answers.

Though it is unclear how the system will change in coming months as it absorbs the lessons of New Realities, conference-goers widely shared a desire to pioneer new strategies.

Addressing NPR’s Authorized Representatives May 2, Eby said that “we have failed miserably if a business-as-usual mentality persists.”

Web page posted July 17, 2006
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Copyright 2006


New Realities process: Touring seminar puts NPR's future up for discussion, April 2006.

How much demand for on-demand pact? Ahead of NPR meeting this week, talks focus on shared "back end," May 2006.


NPR rallies system to jointly build "trusted space," issues Blueprint for Growth, July 2006.