Current Online

Toolmaker for stations' sites
Public Interactive eases local output for Web

Originally published in Current, Oct. 21, 2002
By Steve Behrens

Their most attractive nurdles of web-only content, some pubradio webheads say, are the ones tied most closely to the stations themselves.

The message is not lost on Public Interactive, a small Boston company that began life three years ago to help pubradio stations beef up their websites. PI has reduced its production of national web content by two-thirds since 2000, says President Tom Lix.

But Lix still believes in web-only content. While it still syndicates Public Newsroom and other material for station sites, it increasingly develops customizable software tools that let stations create their own web-only content.

In the case of PI's highly regarded Public Events web-calendar software, community organizations create much of the content by entering their own event data into a web database. With help from on-air plugs, the online calendar lets a station disseminate the particulars on thousands of local events rather than the dozen it could mention on-air, Lix says.

KPLU in Seattle/Tacoma subscribes to PI services more for the software than for the syndicated content, says Kerry Swanson, assistant station manager. "The calendar is huge for us," he says. And PI's NewsRoom software allows news stories to be posted on the Web so easily that "even reporters can do it."

Boston's WBUR uses Public Interactive's NewsRoom software to integrate world news with its own local reporting.

"What we syndicate is more of a seeding of content within the tools," says Lix. The Reuters wire stories and Christian Science Monitor reviews provided by PI are the base to which stations can add text or audio files from their own reporters or other sources.

Once a station designates a place on its website for arts reviews, for instance, it can arrange for PI to insert new reviews automatically. PI has access to those pages because they're custom-made by its content management system and they reside on its server,

Though NPR now offers packages of web-ready links and audio files-which replaced PI's material on some sites-these, too, can be automatically absorbed by PI's Newsroom software and incorporated into stations' sites.

"A lot of their content can flow through our tools," as Lix puts it.

PI's emphasis on software instead of labor-intensive content production helped the company reduce its staff from 30 in 2000 to 21 today, according to Lix. It counts as a success hat PI stayed afloat after the Internet bubble burst, and though the company doesn't always break even, he says, its revenues have grown to $4 million a year.

Where web advertising flopped as a revenue source for PI, fees from about 75 stations keep it going, with a major CPB subsidy. Earlier this year CPB approved two grants totaling $2 million, which are providing $1 million a year of PI's $4 million revenues.

The grants don't require any traditional kinds of deliverables, Lix says, but do help PI offer affordable services to ease stations' work on the Web. "CPB looked at our business plans, and they said, 'This is a good thing, you're going in the right direction, let us help you.'"

New services include Quick Pledge, a software tool that lets stations collect pledges online while offering extensive lists of premiums. PI introduced the tool at the PBS Development Conference this month. Future products will help stations with marketing via e-mail.

The for-profit company is owned by web entrepreneur Lix and Public Radio International with 15 pubradio stations.

Even some of the owning stations eschew the text content that PI syndicates. Philadelphia's WXPN dropped NewsRoom. It wasn't a good fit for a music station, says Quyen Shanahan, assistant g.m. And WKSU in Kent, Ohio, pulled NewsRoom this summer.

"We weren't seeing much evidence that it was providing much usefulness to people," says Eric Nuzum, p.d.

The Public Internet Consumer Insight Study that Nuzum did with consultant Peter Dominowski may explain why. What people want most from a pubradio website, the study found, was answers to questions about the station and its broadcasts. They want to know about particular news or music they heard on the air, not about the subject in general, he says.

Though Nuzum says much of PI's material was good-he admits to writing some of it as a freelancer-"it just didn't have that connection with the air."

Neither did PI's web-audio musical streams in various genres, which it offered through stations for about a year starting in winter 2000, according to Nuzum. Again, he doesn't fault the content-he worked on Night Air, a contemplative classical stream that WKSU provided to PI.

In Nuzum's study, listeners indicated repeatedly that they're skeptical when a station spreads its resources to new services, he says. They think that means "less money to spend on the stuff they care about," he says.

Perhaps other web visitors will be interested, but Mary Ferguson of WNYC, New York, questions the value of that: "Do you want to spend money and satisfy people who are not part of your core user base?"

The failure of the streams was "a big disappointment" for PI, says Lix. "There just wasn't enough demand. Of 100 people who came to a station site for streaming, 98 percent would listen to the station's signal," he says. "I think we were just ahead of the curve."

Some station execs are now more optimistic about streams. Nuzum says WKSU wants to start a web stream of folk music-an established format at the station. KCRW in Los Angeles area and KPLU in Seattle/ Tacoma already create all-news and all-music feeds for the Internet in addition to streaming their own air signals. Swanson says KPLU's jazz stream rates as the No. 7 stream worldwide by Arbitron's estimation. It gets 175,000 unique listeners a month around the world-an audience approaching half of KPLU's weekly broadcast cume.

But to Swanson it makes sense for a recognized jazz source like KPLU to offer a jazz stream. It's much the same story with KPLU's news. He appreciates the national news that PI puts into the version of NewsRoom on KPLU's site. But it's still secondary to KPLU's original local news.

"That's the strongest thing we can present," Swanson says. "There's a lot of places people can get national news. There's no place else for our local news."

These days, transmitters have little or nothing to do with some things put out by public broadcasters. Current cites some sites:

New doors to old content: WNET's African American World and WGBH's Global Connections

Niche streamer: WAMU's

Campaigns a la carte: NewsHour Online's Vote 2002

Webumentary tryout: P.O.V.'s Borders

Toolmaker for station sites: Public Interactive.

Follow the reporters: Frontline's pre-broadcast diary.

To Current's home page
Earlier news: PI prepares to launch its ill-fated musical web streams, 2000.
Outside link: Public Interactive.

Web page posted Nov. 5, 2002
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2002