Talks on infrastructure

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Top pubradio executives have begun discussing ideas for a comprehensive “back end” digital storage and distribution system that backers say could support a wide range of services and help stations and networks advance efficiently into new media.

The execs, who met for the first time in Chicago Feb. 15, are taking up a proposal for a back-end system with the working name of the Digital Distribution Consortium. The DDC would store and catalog audio content from pubcasters and feed it to nonbroadcast platforms such as websites, iPods and cell phones.

Some new-media thinkers in public radio argue for building websites that aggregate online content from various sources, but talks about “front end” strategies lead to touchy subjects such as revenue sharing, business models and public radio’s web identity. Well aware of that, DDC advocates so far have steered clear of front-end arguments and propose the system as a business-to-business utility serving producers and stations.

The DDC would complement, not replace, the Public Radio Satellite System, which handles distribution of audio for broadcast. It could take off from several precedent-setting systems already operating, including the Public Radio Exchange, the Open Media Network, NPR’s collaborative podcasting initiative and certain services of Public Interactive. And it may eventually incorporate video content and material from public-media producers beyond pubcasting, such as nonprofits and universities.

Pubcasters have discussed such a distribution network for years, but many say a new sense of urgency is spreading that could finally push developments past the stage of countless inconclusive meetings. More pubcasters, they say, are realizing that public radio must focus its energies if it hopes to capture significant audiences beyond the radio dial.

“There’s a lot of rich opportunity in this space, most of which we have not pursued individually or collectively,” says Tom Thomas, co-c.e.o. of the Station Resource Group.

SRG convened the Chicago meeting, which included leaders from public radio’s three networks and from half a dozen stations, most in major markets. The group will continue to meet in coming months to consider the DDC and other ways to improve digital services.

Yes, yes, please sell me?

Attendees at the Chicago meeting built on the work of yet another committee, a “working group” of six new-media staffers who met last year to plan the distribution system and develop recommendations.

Their report, released last month, said public media’s competitive stance is crippled by “disaggregated and duplicative services, a lack of standards, metrics and research to support new offerings, and institutional inertia in the face of complex change.”

The report goes on to argue that the DDC could address these problems by offering “a comprehensive publishing platform tailored to the needs of public media and the opportunities in the marketplace. By pooling the best-known brands and popular programs along with a broad mix of additional high quality content, the DDC leverages the collective assets of public broadcasting to gain advantageous positioning with sponsors, distributors and the growing audiences for digital content.”

By seeding content with underwriting spots and assisting with licensing deals, the report says, the DDC could generate revenues of $80 million a year, most of it going to producers. The podcast of Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! alone could bring in $175,000 annually, the group estimated.

The working group stopped short of dictating a unified front end—how DDC content should be served to audiences—citing station execs’ “strong opinions about audience relationships.”

“The DDC is not creating a new public-facing brand, and does not generally offer public-facing applications or services itself,” the report said. “The character of the services is enabling. To use an Internet metaphor, the DDC promotes ‘innovation at the edges’ by providing a neutral platform on top of which others create applications and services that engage and directly serve the public.”

The working group’s report can be read on this site (PDF).

PRSS, version 2.0

The notion of a DDC has devoted backers, some in high places. NPR identified creating a digital back end as a top priority last year during its New Realities planning process. The network also supported the DDC working group’s efforts and contributed the time of a staffer from NPR Digital Media.

“Public radio was one of the first mediums in broadcasting to establish a satellite system to serve all of public radio,” says Dana Davis Rehm, NPR’s senior v.p. of strategy and partnerships. “That is our distribution system for broadcast service. To us it seems very logical that we also need a distribution system of some scale to support all of public radio in the digital realm.”

Rehm and Ken Stern, NPR’s c.e.o., attended the SRG meeting, along with reps from Public Radio International and American Public Media.

But not everyone sees the need for a DDC, and a lack of consensus might derail it. Planners say the logistics could be too complex for any one entity to handle, and with an estimated price tag of up to $10 million, the project might also require several collaborators to shoulder the development costs.

Creators of a digital distribution system will need to untangle difficult issues such as who should control it, how it should operate and which existing systems could feed into it.

A new back end should take advantage of services such as those of Public Radio Exchange and PRI’s Public Interactive, says PRI President Alisa Miller. “You want to try to do it efficiently and leverage the assets that we have,” she says. “It would be a waste of money to build from scratch.” Public Interactive, a PRI subsidiary, can offer 80 percent of the system, Miller says.

There are also touchy questions about the DDC’s uses. Some stakeholders argue that public radio should aggregate content from across the system into user-friendly, comprehensive online portals, but some stations fear that would undercut their online identities.

Members of SRG’s planning group have differing opinions. Despite the months of conversations preceding the meeting, “we were arriving without a strongly shared notion of what the ‘it’ was that we might be trying to create,” Thomas says.

“I’m still not sure what the outcome is on behalf of stations—neither the exact problem that we’re trying to solve, nor the opportunity that we’re trying to embrace,” says Stewart Vanderwilt, g.m. of KUT-FM in Austin, Texas, and a participant at SRG’s meeting. Vanderwilt says public radio should first focus on creating shared standards for digital audio and metadata before tackling a centralized distribution system.

Few people in public radio have even read the working group’s report, says Todd Mundt, director of content and media at Iowa Public Radio and a member of the group.

There’s not agreement, at least among top stations and networks, that even having something like this would be a good thing,” Mundt says. “That’s a little surprising to me, but that’s where it is.”

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