Ahead of NPR meeting this week, talks focus on shared ‘back end’
Originally published in Current, May 1, 2006
By Mike Janssen
Talks now underway within public radio could inaugurate an unprecedented collaboration to deliver on-demand content via websites, podcasts, mobile phones and other digital platforms.
Over the past three months, stakeholders in the system’s digital future have been discussing privately how stations, networks and independent producers could jointly provide better new-media services and stay competitive with rapidly evolving commercial media.
The collaborative spirit has sprouted from team projects developed within the past year such as NPR’s podcasting initiative. Developing a shared digital storage and distribution system, or “back end,” also emerged as one of the most pressing issues in NPR’s series of regional New Realities meetings since October. It is likely to be on the agenda at this week’s culminating New Realities forum, May 1 and 2  in Washington, D.C.
Participants in the talks largely agree that public radio needs a clearer new-media strategy, but opinions vary on how to move forward.
Planners expect that they will at least agree on standards for bitrates, file formats and metadata that would make it easier for public
radio to share, search and index digital content.
But negotiations could get stickier as more teamwork is required. It’s less certain whether the system can agree on creating a shared back end — a system for storing and delivering the content that would be like a new-media version of the Public Radio Satellite System.
Even thornier is the concept of a shared front end, such as a portal that offers listeners a broad array of public radio content on demand. That idea has enthusiastic supporters, but also opponents who fear it would steer audiences away from local stations and their websites.
"At the very best, we can come up with some action plans that would broadly benefit public broadcasting as a whole,” says Tom Thomas, co-c.e.o. of the Station Resource Group. SRG has been convening conference calls on the topic.
But “there are a lot of challenges in getting there in a way that keeps everyone at the party,” Thomas says.
What a back end could do
Enthusiasts for a consolidated infrastructure foresee a breakthrough that would let stations present far more local, regional and national content on demand and across a wide range of platforms—iPod-like players, websites, cellphones and others yet to be created.
A shared back end could also save money for stations and producers through negotiation of systemwide storage and bandwidth deals. It could even boost revenues by offering more opportunities to sell underwriting and insert spots into the aggregated content.
Other possible functions include:
Many of these would be difficult for stations to achieve independently. Tim Olson, director of interactive at KQED in San Francisco, offers one example. His station’s small cache of digital offerings limits its ability to strike a deal to feed content to wireless companies such as Verizon or Cingular.
Not only that, but encoding KQED files in various special formats “would get beyond my scale very quickly,” he says. He could solve those problems by aggregating his content with that of other producers.
Aggregation would also enable “rebundling” — that is, grouping and presenting content thematically, possibly in partnership with other organizations. For example, Olson says, a consolidated back end could help public radio create an African-American history web portal with a major museum.
Not everyone wants to put their on-demand services in the hands of a collaboration, even if it’s just the back end hidden from the public. Many complicated details are yet to be resolved. Even supporters recognize that questions of funding, operations and governance will be settled only after serious deliberations.
Some station execs worry that a consolidated back end would limit their own online efforts or allow listeners to bypass their websites. It could amount to “the Clear Channelization of public radio,” says Ruth Seymour, g.m. of KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, Calif.
These same concerns complicate efforts to win support for a consolidated front end, such as the many-faced Major League Baseball-style public radio portal advocated by Mark Fuerst, executive director of the Integrated Media Association.
But some say plans for joint hosting of content can proceed without consensus on how the content would be offered to audiences.
“If done well, this will not only support everybody’s emerging front-end efforts, but it will spawn new ones—and that’s what starts to get exciting,” says Jake Shapiro, executive director of the Public Radio Exchange and an organizer of the recent discussions.
But the concept can’t gain momentum, he says, without its advocates “taking a deep breath and saying why it is that we need to do this.”
Mike Bettison, director of new media for American Public Media/Minnesota Public Radio, is among the more cautious strategists. In an IMA conference call, he encouraged planners to list several problems the system faces in serving audiences and to explain how collaboration could solve them.
“I’d like to identify among as many people as possible some true shared goals, even if they’re very, very broad,” Bettison told Current.
Lots of talking—and no end in sight
Although Shapiro, Bettison and most others involved in the discussions work in public radio, they note that the back end could just as easily include video productions from public TV, and some key participants hail from joint licensees. PBS is keeping tabs on the discussions, says Cindy Johanson, the network’s senior v.p. of interactive and education.
Open Media Network, a nonprofit media portal (omn.org) developed by Silicon Valley exec Mike Homer in collaboration with several pubcasters, is a working model of a consolidated back end that can display its audio and video offerings through diverse front ends—notably, websites of participating stations.
Another precedent is public radio’s landmark collaboration on a joint podcasting catalog and repository (npr.org/podcasts), featuring productions of stations, NPR, PRI and American Public Media. Stations can choose to display some or all of the offerings on their own websites. NPR hosts the podcasts free of charge to stations, maintains the directory and sells underwriting spots that are inserted in the audio files. Economies of scale allowed the project to swing a better deal on bandwidth, hinting at the potential of developing a bigger storage system.
February’s IMA conference in Seattle became a beachhead for the new team spirit. Attendance at the conference was double what organizers expected, Fuerst says.
Near the conference’s conclusion, a small group of attendees met and agreed on the need for a common strategy. The klatch included representatives from NPR, the Station Resource Group and PRX, as well as IMA Chairman Olson.
SRG then started to convene a series of discussions among major players in the system’s digital future. It has since delegated several subgroups to tackle aspects of the planning process, Thomas says—one to write a mission statement, another to draft the back end’s functional requirements, and a third to determine the content and technical assets that will be needed—and might seek funding if needed for further planning.
At the same time, Fuerst and IMA organized weekly conference calls throughout April with the association’s members as well as nonmember networks and stations. Participants fleshed out plans in preparation for this week’s New Realities meeting.
Fuerst believes that the creation of a shared back end is “unavoidable” and expects conversations to continue throughout the year, with July’s Public Radio Development and Marketing Conference, August’s SRG retreat and September’s Public Radio Program Directors conference as focal points.
A tentatively planned Public Radio Leadership Forum in November could provide the stage for the announcement of a formal plan, he says.
This story includes information omitted from the print version for space reasons.
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