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Maria Thomas speaking at IMA Conference
Participants said talk at the Seattle conference was exhilarating and wished their bosses had wanted to come. Pictured: NPR's Maria Thomas and Rob Greenlee of Melodeo, a mobile media company. (Photo: Current.)

From the IMA's new media conference

Shared infrastructure seen for on-demand media

Originally published in Current, March 6, 2006
By Steve Behrens

Futureheads left Seattle last month saturated with talk about the high-revving new-media world, their imaginations pulsing with visions of how public and TV might fit in—or not.

There’s “a growing consensus that some kind of [national] back-end repository is widely acceptable,” said Maria Thomas, NPR’s v.p. of new media, at the end of the Integrated Media Association’s annual Public Broadcasting New Media Conference.

She referred to recent successes of the NPR podcasting project and to conference talk about the efficiency advantages of jointly managed databases of digital media files that audiences can pluck online.

Since IMA’s January 2005 conference, NPR and PBS had adopted one of the association’s most basic practical goals. Thomas and her PBS counterpart, Cindy Johanson, told IMA attendees they were moving toward common metrics for measuring Internet audiences and had hired the same web data company, Visual Sciences LLC, to come up with much of that data.

Usage data would help pubcasters sell underwriting and make strategic decisions.

“We’re at a point where fairly aggressive investment is called for if public broadcasting wants to be a major player in podcasting,” said John Hagel, a consultant to NPR who worked 16 years for McKinsey & Co. The Internet is changing all business activity so quickly, he said, that moving aggressively with a “substantial investment” would be less risky than holding back.

Speakers in Seattle described how online audiences are growing while over-the-air viewers and listeners stagnate or shrink, prompting IMA Chairman Tim Olson, director of interactive at San Francisco’s KQED, to complain that pubcasters’ web spending isn’t keeping up. He noted that the BBC has laid off thousands of employees, with plans to reallocate some of the savings to online services.

IMA’s fourth annual conference was its busiest yet, with about 420 registrants, said Executive Director Mark Fuerst. Though last year’s meeting in San Francisco tallied nearly as many attendees, many of those were nonpaying youth radio producers and local station staffers. In Seattle, room registrations doubled, extending into two overflow hotels, Fuerst said.

Yet IMA still has a membership of only 50-something stations, 26 of which are Alaska Public Broadcasting members that joined all at once, Fuerst told Current. IMA charges stations a flat $6,000 annual membership fee.
Looking at IMA’s conference as a barometer of pubcasters’ interest in online progress, it’s still not attracting enough general managers, Fuerst said. However, about 20 g.m.’s came to town early to attend a series of private briefings with high-tech experts, including execs at nearby Microsoft headquarters.

IMA has influenced system policy, but Fuerst doesn’t expect such a small association to convene or advance the systemwide ventures he advocates. For that purpose, he points to NPR’s New Realities planning process, which ends a series of regional retreats in April.

“That process has power,” says Fuerst. “You have people capable of making funding decisions and it’s the group that controls the largest amount of content. Something could happen.”

One big back end

“To advance the conversation,” NPR’s Thomas explained to Current after the conference, “it might be helpful to separate thinking about the back end and the front end.” Talking about front ends—where the audience chooses content—bogs down the conversation, she said.

Station leaders can see the efficiencies of managing a shared database and agreeing on common metadata standards that enable comprehensive searching, Thomas said. It also helps sell underwriting, as in the NPR podcasting project, and it allows “if you like. . .” suggestions à la But station execs don’t want to sacrifice control over the front end on their websites and the content it offers.

That’s what she heard at the IMA conference, at NPR’s New Realities retreats for station execs and the podcasting project, which is experimenting with a shared back end—a database of audio from 42 producers on NPR’s servers. Total downloads since August: 16 million.

“On the front end, every [organization in the project] can do anything they want,” Thomas said. Stations publish all or part of the NPR podcast directory on their sites.

Few if any conference-goers spoke up for jointly managed front- and back ends such as Major League Baseball’s massively successful, which includes separate but mostly equal subsites for each team. In a commentary for Current, Feb. 21, Fuerst cited the baseball supersite as a model that pubcasters could emulate to gain the advantages Thomas cited and reduce duplicative staffs at hundreds of stations.

(Of course, most conference attendees were the staff members creating those front ends, and many felt overworked rather than redundant.)

Open Media Network, the nonprofit online service founded by Kontiki Inc. Chairman Mike Homer (earlier article), is one such back end, points out Dennis Haarsager, pubcasting chief at Washington State University and an advocate for a comprehensive on-demand repository for local and national productions of both public TV and radio. Kontiki is negotiating to install the player software used by OMN on tens of millions of computers, Haarsager said.

Attention, please!

The depressing thing about the digital media boom: People are making and distributing so much audio and video—so noisily, so widely and through so many devices—that any single piece will have a harder time getting attention, said Andrew Blau, a Global Business Network consultant and a keynoter at the Seattle confab.

Not only are American amateurs filling the Web with their digital works, but the Internet is bringing in content from pros and amateurs around the world. Blau summarizes: “More media generated, less media seen.”

The “witheringly fierce” competition will also lure away funders for nonprofit media as well as independent producers and other creative talent, Blau said. Though pubcasters still have the advantage of having trusted brands, new trusted brands are arising, such as Slate, Netflix and YouTube.

Hagel’s prescription: In a world with a scarcity of attention, media organizations need to make their content more accessible, he said at the conference. Consumers ask themselves how much value they’re getting for their attention—including the time required to find interesting media.

After observing public radio up close, Hagel said, he was struck that execs focus more intently on conflicts within the system than on competing with fast-developing for-profit Internet portals. The pubradio system’s strength is its network of sites, but they have value “only to the extent they are complementary and not duplicative,” Hagel said.
How to pay for all of this? Sponsorships seem the best funding source for expanded podcasting, Hagel said. “I’m skeptical about charging for content, because you want to broaden the audience, not restrict it.”

Homer, who started OMN as a nonprofit sister of Kontiki, backed the idea of memberships that offer media downloading of archived programming as a benefit. “You already sell memberships with a value proposition—feel good, get a mug,” he said. “Why not start by offering that?”
Agreement on metrics

To help collect more complete and consistent data on Internet audiences, PBS and NPR chose Visual Sciences, a web data company based in McLean, Va. Listeners who download podcasts through RSS links slip past website servers’ logs, but they can be estimated by companies like Visual Sciences and Nielsen//NetRatings Inc., which compile usage data from users recruited by phone, Thomas said. Visual Sciences prepares graphics showing online trends and geographic patterns at a glance, in the style of the AudiGraphics ratings data familiar in pubradio, she said.

Initial reports will provide four or five usage stats for each participating station and site, but will be expanded to provide a useful range of measurements, she said.
PBS, which began working with the service in January, plans to roll it out to producers in March and to stations in May, said Johanson.

The data so far confirm the importance of visitors referred by search engines and other sites, which bring about half of its traffic, Johanson said. Visitors average six minutes on the site, but she doesn’t put a high priority on boosting that number. “If someone comes for a minute and they’re satisfied,” she said, “that’s fine.”

Web page posted April 11, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee


Podcasting: trend in radio has pubcasters buzzing, 2005.

NPR has had recent experience with a shared online infrastructure, as manager of public radio's podcasting initiative.

Open Media Network: one model for a shared infrastructure promoted by technology advocate Dennis Haarsager.

IMA Executive Director Mark Fuerst proposes Major League Baseball's site as a model for public broadcasting.


Mobile media: Producers prep for a predicted boom in viewing on cellphones and other tiny screens.


Integrated Media Association, organizer of the conference in Seattle.

PBS and NPR chose Visual Sciences LLC to begin developing common measurements for web media usage.