What can come of NPR’s release of an API giving access to its story database?

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Posted in Current‘s former online forum, DirectCurrent, by moderator Steve Behrens on July 17, 2008 at 12:28pm

Last year, public radio’s Digital Distribution Consortium Working Group predicted (see page 10) that freeing content could result in mashups such as “a Hidden Kitchens regional food content site that mashes up DDC audio and video content with Google Maps and Flickr photos about local restaurants and food events; a Science Talk site that draws on DDC science content combined with selected blog posts on related topics.”

And there probably will be much more significant unforeseen innovations, as the DDC authors would probably agree.

But to media traditionalists, freeing content also rips it from a relatively concrete “place” (radio station or website) that carries underwriting and is clearly associated with an institution that seeks to generate good will and membership, subscription, foundation or taxpayer support.

Thus the freed content gets much-improved distribution, and probably added value from the mashing-up. But the institutions best positioned to reap revenue are companies like Google that put relatively little money into generating content themselves.

What are some great things that can come of freeing content, and are there also great revenue opportunities to support the production of content?

Readers write

Reply by Stephen Hill on July 17, 2008 at 8:55pm

If Public Media “traditionalists” (though it’s hard to imagine many of them in this venue) want try to control public media “content,” I wish them luck. Every technical and social force other than institutional inertia is moving in the direction of more and easier exposure of content.

That said, there are multiple issues implicated in opening up public media assets to general use online.

Assuming that the system in its collective wisdom wants to encourage more primary exposure of ‘unmashed’ content, and more secondary exposure of ‘mashed-up’ combinations, at minimum I think visible badging or branding and back links to the source should be required. In other words, the content must be identified with its Public Media source, regardless of how it is used. That at least covers the promotion and good will issues.

The revenue issue is a completely different story.

Since public media to date has conspicuously failed to create a comprehensive online system either for integrated underwriting or subscription access to current and archived content — or to create a mechanism and set of standards for the kind of rational revenue sharing at the heart of the business model issue — it can hardly complain when companies like Google are reaping the benefits from creating the necessary business infrastructure.
The DDC is a piece of the puzzle in public media’s online future, but until the entire system confronts and innovates around the digital network business models it needs, it’s all limited, short term, low hanging fruit.

:: SH

Reply by John Proffitt on July 21, 2008 at 6:19am

For the foreseeable future, the API will give stations (and many others, of course) direct access to content feeds emanating from the NPR content database. This is a great thing for NPR. In time they’ll even be able to lightly monetize it. To a lesser degree, it’s also a good thing for stations, as they can take NPR stuff and place it into their own sites (see MPR) in a pretty seamless way (if they have web people who know what they’re doing).

In the long haul, this will be fairly meaningless for stations, however. It’s just an atomized and non-date-bound feed of the same content that currently falls from the satellite in a programmed way. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good thing, but it’s not a solution to the core mission problem that stations must confront in this new media age.

Local stations must reconsider their place in this world, their mission, their reason for being. If it’s to rebroadcast media or re-present media from NPR or PBS or WGBH or WETA or … then just go ahead and close up shop now. And creating local mass media is a failing strategy as well. Static web sites, radio transmitters and APIs won’t, on their own, make you relevant to your community or worthy of ongoing philanthropic support. You have to engage the community in an honest and human way, not with the Voice of God emanating from thin air.

Long term, the API, the DDC, all these notions of national sharing are likely to fail because the national and regional/local players do not fundamentally trust one another. Plus it’s just plain hard to get this many entities to play nice on an ongoing basis.

People like to point to the example of Major League Baseball as a good coordinated new media effort, suggesting we could follow that model. Okay. But look how many teams are involved (30) and look at how the League is really controlled from a central power source. That’s not the public media space at all. Plus, that’s a for-profit business, in which the mission is very clear (making money) whereas public media is populated with players that have literally different missions and none of them are as crystal clear as “making money.”

I’m (obviously) pessimistic that we can devise a national sharing system (DDC or otherwise). The best thing we can all do is do what NPR has done — expose our content stores via API calls and let it go at that.

As for revenue, that would ideally be managed nationally, but could the stations really learn to trust NPR to collect and distribute fees fairly? That distrust runs deep, people. Which is too bad, because selling the whole system on a national basis — with hooks for local sales, too — would be fabulous.

And good for Google making money on this content. They’re smart, fast-moving, innovative and way ahead of the game. Shame on us if we can’t figure this out (or even ask Google for help via their foundation).

Permalink Reply by David Aylward on July 21, 2008 at 3:23pm

Very thoughtful comments, John, particularly your third paragraph. I am not so pessimistic however. There is lack of trust, but there is also a powerful self interest in cooperation.

Regarding the point in your next to last paragraph, complex financial distributions are done in industry. The technical IT structure to track rights and charge for them correctly and accurately shouldn’t be the big challenge, but does need to be done nationally. The challenge will be getting agreement on what the relative distribution should be.

Reply by John Proffitt on July 23, 2008 at 7:29pm

David — Agreed on both points. I’m pretty soured on the station/network relationship. I witnessed an interchange a couple years back between several station managers and Ken Stern (then elevated to the CEO spot at NPR) that was shocking to me, then uninitiated in the ways of network bashing by the stations.

The systems and business models could be developed, of that I have no doubt. But getting all these players to play nice together strikes me as the ultimate long shot. All attempts to date have pretty much collapsed. Where’s the DDC? The PSP? What happened after New Realities?

The API is a fundamentally Good Thing. But it’s not the solution to much Bigger Problems.

And that’s just the radio side. Public TV has similarly complex relationship problems. And, hey — why are they separate today anyway? (but there’s another whole diatribe!)

Reply by Rob Paterson on July 31, 2008 at 11:46am

What if a group of stations got together and admitted that being in the rebroadcast business was OVER and declared that they are going local as conveners?

What if NPR, PBS and CPB helped to fund raise this shift?

What if at the same time PBS and NPR began experiment with going direct using their archive with a view of going all the way in say 3 years time. Going direct with the archive would I think help create the business model.

If not this then what?

Reply by John Sutton on July 31, 2008 at 1:53pm

Sorry Rob, but I have to challenge the rhetoric that the rebroadcast business is “over.” There’s no doubt things are changing but I believe the “over” part is over-the-top.

I get it that the business models will have to change, particularly on the spending side. We started talking about that nearly 10 years ago when Strategic Financial AudiGraphics was introduced and it was clear net revenue growth relative to audience was going to slow. That was before Web 2.0 so the issue is a bigger priority today.

More important on the financial side, if it is over right now for stations then it is over right now for NPR. The largest share of NPR’s revenue is station-sensitive in the form of programming fees and underwriting.

On the audience side, the median age of listeners is right around 50. I just don’t buy the premise that they will flee to new technologies in numbers so large that broadcast public radio will collapse. I see audiences shrinking, but not to the point that business models can’t be adjusted to accommodate.

The rhetoric from the Web 2.0 world is that audience Armageddon is not only coming, but it is essentially here. I’d really like to see the story behind that headline. I’m not talking about data or charts and graphs. All that would be a rough guess at best.

I’d really like to see narrative from you and others taking such a strong position on how it’s going to happen. Paint a more detailed picture. Let’s pick a market, Pittsburgh perhaps, and hear the story of how and when a station such as WDUQ is no longer viable as an NPR News outlet. I’ll write the other side… how it stays viable. Then we’re past rhetoric and into substance.

What do you think?

Reply by John Proffitt on August 1, 2008 at 2:11am

I’d participate in that modeling. Perhaps someone could share all the relevant data from, say, Pittsburgh, then you’ve got a deal. I’d want to know which media we’re talking about (radio, TV, both), total population of area covered, Nielsen and/or Arbitron numbers, membership data (numbers of members, various strata of giving, total dollars), all revenue broken down by source (CSG, underwriting, membership, other), amount of local production currently ongoing (number of hours per week, some measure of quality per hour), costs of production, costs of licensing fees to PBS/NPR, and so on and so forth.

In the mean time, I can tell you that at my stations (radio and TV) we’re so cash-strapped we can’t build local programming beyond bringing in volunteers to spin a few discs on the weekends. We have good listenership, but that’s because we run tons of NPR, PRI, APM content and PBS content — all of which is national quality. Our local efforts are, umm… not at that level. Our audiences follow national norms in terms of demographics (age, wealth, race, education) and listening/viewing patterns.

In terms of operating money, we get about 22% from the Feds, the rest from locals with about an even split between underwriting and membership, plus a little special events cash here and there. Total operating around $5 million. Then our technical infrastructure is paid for and regularly refreshed by the Feds — towers, antennas, computers, sound boards, cameras. Of course, with Ted Stevens out of the way, that may very well stop.

In any case, our $5 million is spent pretty much on staying afloat and paying NPR and PBS (and others) for programming that we “have to have.” On TV we’re already a PBS repeater, using “Schedule XP” for the west coast. We insert about 4 hours of local TV per week, and 3.5 of that is a daily local weather show done by the NWS. On Radio, we program our own stuff, but it’s probably 95% national content when you focus on core listening periods.

So we’re 90-95% of the way to being “repeaters” in both TV and radio, and we’re only skating by. Our membership numbers are falling slowly, though the dollars per member are rising (mirroring the national trend).

When NPR content goes direct and PBS content goes direct (which has already begun), early adopters are going along in small numbers. Those early folk are younger and/or more tech-savvy or time-constrained, so the effort is worth it to them. Is it the majority? Hardly. Is it happening overnight? Nope.

But when…

  • you’re already a repeater station
  • you’re just scraping by financially
  • your staff haven’t seen a raise in 4 years
  • you’re paying BACK bills + interest to PBS and NPR because a couple years ago you couldn’t pay your bills at all
  • you don’t have extra money to produce local media in quantity or quality worthy of local financial support …AND…
  • 5% or 10% of your audience evaporates because they get their national content directly — or because the content you produce is decreasingly relevant to them in a world of infinite content

Then what?

I don’t have 5% or 10% to shave off the budget. We’ve cut staff several times over the past 10 years. The cuts were to “get us through this rough patch,” yet we haven’t re-hired.

But let’s say I do have 5% to shave. Then what? While I’m cutting staff, PBS and NPR are doing what they need to do — reaching out to audiences and building digital relationships. I can’t hold that against them — it’s the right thing for them and for the public good. I shave 5% and get weaker, the nationals get stronger.

What, pray tell, am I sacrificing for? A better day? What better day?

Those of us that talk about taking action NOW and changing models are doing so because we see what comes after 5% of the audience departs. Some stations can probably live through this — maybe they have enough fat on the bone or they have rich enough audiences to sustain themselves through the transition. I don’t work at one of those stations. And I’ll bet most stations — by number — across the country are likely in the same boat I am.

KQED has nothing to fear. Their new web services kick ass and they’re very involved in their community. Plus they have lots of web millionaires upon which to draw in their immediate area. WETA, WGBH, yadda, yadda, yadda — they all have philanthropic communities upon which to draw, and they have national content collections they can monetize.

As I see it, if we (at my station) sit still, we will definitely die.

If we take action to change, we might die anyway, but we might also succeed in finding a new path.

Forced to choose, I choose the latter.

Look, you’re absolutely right — this end-game won’t be played out in the next 30 days. Maybe not even in the next 30 months.

But we’re in a complex system, and complex systems often have a “tipping point,” beyond which it’s virtually impossible to find your way back to your pre-tip status. The problem with tipping points is that you can’t tell where they are until you’re already past them.

I don’t know where the tipping point will be in this move from traditional mass media to new media models. Could be soon, could be years from now.

But I don’t want to find out the hard way.

Reply by Stephen Hill on August 1, 2008 at 4:40am

I can’t add anything to John’s Proffitt’s powerful on-the-ground testimony of the situation at middle-market stations like his. I said at the IMA several years ago that it was precisely the medium size stations in the system — not major market stations with ample access to talent and resources, nor rural and small market stations that were already community-focused — that would be most vulnerable in a period of slow, extended decline in listenership.

According to John P., even at stasis, money for local production, salary parity, and discretionary growth projects quickly dries up. Any loss of audience is a dangerous trend, because it tends to negatively impact every source of income the station has, from membership dollars to underwriting and carriage-based grants. Only fixed grants and institutional budget allocations are not immediately susceptible, but even they can be affected in the longer term. It just gets more painful if the trend accelerates, especially if it drags out over many years.

To respond to John Sutton’s challenge…this is not simply a glass-half-empty vs. glass-half-full discussion. The point is not whether “business models can be adjusted” to cope with an era of decreased audience and income. I’m sorry, this is just a euphemistic way of saying “we’ll learn to live with starvation.” Worse, operation of the system at this level over time will effectively turn it into a geriatric network that will tend to fade away with its aging, dying audience. c.f. PBS.

Regardless of the trajectory, timeline, and specifics of the erosion of the legacy broadcasting system, there is only a limited time in which the key players in the public radio system — whether networks, stations, producers, or support organizations — can leverage their resources to reorganize around the new business and service models that will effectively secure their position in the digital media future.

What’s really at stake is missing this opportunity.

So I’m heartened that John S. wants to do competitive scenario planning to chart the course of stations like WDUQ in the future. But to do this as a “survive or die” study already admits failure to confront the opportunity that the most fundamental change in media propagation in the last 100 years has to offer public broadcasting.

I want to see the scenario where NPR, APR, PRI and other public media networks partner with the stations to build a national and international public media archive; expand the service model to include all forms of on-demand, wired and wireless access; support user-centered accounts and features; enable national membership; and most critically — define a rational business model for sharing revenue across the system between networks, stations, producers and rights holders, in a way that incentivizes all of them to provide more and better content and public service,

That would be a discussion worth having.

So why is almost everyone in the system still refusing to touch the really critical issues?


  • The service model(s)
  • The business model(s)
  • The infrastructure to support them.



Reply by John Sutton on August 1, 2008 at 12:12pm

Thanks for the comments Stephen, but I still don’t buy the “all-or-nothing” scenario which is at the premise of your position.

All of your system-based ideas are good ones, and we should work towards them, but they don’t have to be linked to the death of radio. It’s no where close to being an either/or situation.

People don’t have to stop listening to public radio to use social media. Stations don’t have to stop growing even if their audiences are flat or in decline today. They don’t have to stop growing as public radio

We’ve worked with enough stations of all sizes, including joint licensees and even with stations in Alaska, to know there are opportunities to grow the existing audience, to increase fundraising efficiencies, and to spend more effectively.

I know that’s not a popular message, but it’s true.

We’ve worked with some very forward thinking stations when it comes to Web 2.0 and their current membership programs are underdeveloped by 25% to 50%. We’ve worked with stations with audience growth potential that have yet to optimize their current program schedules.

To invoke your “we’ll learn to live with starvation” line – there are quite a few stations are at risk of starving because they haven’t fully cultivated the potential of their current field.

So here’s an interesting question, is it wise for national organizations to make new media investments in stations that are below average performers on industry, fundraising and spending benchmarks?

Reply by Randy Kinkel on August 1, 2008 at 2:21pm

In my mind, there’s a grain of truth, in varying degrees, in all positions presented here. Stations hardly *ever* do enough in the way of underwriting and fundraising. Stations depend too much on grants and government money. for the foreseeable future, public broadcasting will be a hybrid of Broadcasting and the web. For now, you need both. I also see the relationship between national and local broadcast entities as faulty/broken in some very important ways, but it’s not insurmountable.

Reply by Stephen Hill on August 4, 2008 at 5:36pm


I’m not sure what I said to make you think I was advocating an “all or nothing” scenario. I’ve always argued for a hybrid approach that takes full advantage of the broadcast system AND the web as a powerful combined service. After all, this is the single unique competitive advantage radio stations have in the web era.

But this does not change anything I said about the financial dynamics of a slowly eroding broadcast network. Underwriters, in particular, are “heat seeking.” Even a “flat” audience scenario is a bad scenario in a mediascape that is growing everywhere else.

I absolutely agree with your comments about stations needing to optimize their programming and fundraising. Even if they do this, they will still be facing powerful new competition, not just for traditional listening time, but from now on for mobile users, as well as public involvement with other media and communications options like videogames, location-based services,instant messaging, and chat. And they will also be missing the opportunity to add intelligent next generation listeners to their community without up to date web services.

As for your last question re the wisdom of making new media investments, it’s simply not an either/or issue. It makes total sense for underperforming stations to upgrade all aspects of their operation as part of an integrated broadcast/web strategy. Or to quote hockey star Wayne Gretsky — “skate to where the puck is going to be.”

Reply by Scott Hanley on August 4, 2008 at 11:58am

Since I have seen my “shop” get invoked in the discussions, I’ll step in briefly — but it’s time for the backlot DUQ picnic in a bit — so I will be brief, for me.

I think the concern about “midmarket” stations is valid. There’s a reason why CBS is considering selling their clusters in Baltimore and Pittsburgh – to focus on the more lucrative top ten markets. In public broadcasting, the subsidy level from CPB for a station like mine is now well south of 10%. There is alot of pressure.

But being a station in a $3 to 4 million budget range has its benefits. We have a very hard working staff – but it is more than 20 full time people, plus more than a score of part time folks, plus interns and volunteers.

The picnic (which starts in minutes) is really what this is all about. The technology enables the culture of a place. One of the biggest problems I see in our discussions of transforming media is the thought that software or hardware will magically change human nature. I’m going to the picnic (and have passed on a business travel obligation) because our people are paramount.

The open API is a part of all this, but just one of our many needed tools. It is now common for having powerful web tools all running on Open Source software – Apache for the web server, Free SQL for the database and a content management system like Joomla to run and organize everything (including multimedia, data tagging and interactivity).

Of course, doing this means also having collaborative groups of people working together with content, organization and technology. But if we have good people and a good working culture, we know how to do that. Really, we do – we just need to add more arrows to the quiver.

And make sure to go to the picnic.

More, later

And I’d rather invest in my people than in making Larry Ellison and Oracle even MORE rich. But that’s just me.

Reply by Scott Hanley on August 4, 2008 at 5:40pm

Oh and responding to myself — I tried to do an edit before the system timed out —

The most important thing in how we move forward is how we work together. Technology will not cure dysfunction – and can even make it worse. Watch how we end up debating our opinions in blogs, forums, listervs and more.

Worse yet, the seeming need for constant feedback is reducing our time to be contemplative, in which we can think things through and bring ideas back to share, adapt and change. One of the reasons I blog so little is that I have other work to do with the people I do work with, or those I hope to work with.

So, the problems we are facing now are the business model. Please do not think this is new — it has been the way of the world for centuries.

Parting note — Today’s Washington Monthly – referencing a blog entry in the American Prospect.

Almost two thirds of Politico’s revenue comes from less than 30,000 subscribers to the 3 day a week print edition. A bit more than a third comes from 3 million readers to content that is fresh, every day.

Kevin Drum’s parting shot:

Bottom line: Print gets you respect and big dollar advertisers. The web gets you buzz and a nice chunk of additional revenue. The future — part of it, anyway — belongs to those who can successfully combine multiple media platforms into a single profitable whole. So far, it looks like The Politico has done that.

So, yeah, we all have things to do. And as soon as we get it right, or close to right, it will change. That is NOT a new experience for human activity.

What the open API from NPR does is allow us to build on the good intentions of people of like intent. We have a social network already — 30 million listeners and soon, we hope, 3 million donors. We will never be perfect in making our relationship better with them – but we’ve done a lot of good against the odds so far. I hope my station, staff, listeners/users and others will keep up the good fight.

Always moving, never arriving, but toward a good direction.

Scott Hanley

Reply by John Sutton on August 4, 2008 at 7:51pm
Thanks for the good thread everyone. Scott, I picked Pittsburgh for many of the reasons you mentioned, for the market conditions, and for the symbolism of a place that has reinvented itself a few times without losing its past. Technology changes, missions get altered (there’s a blog posting coming on that one), and people adapt.

Stephen, you’re right, you haven’t been an “all-or-nothing” voice in this. My apologies for suggesting so. It’s that “radio is dead” thing that I object to. Believing that radio is dead is just as dangerous as being in denial about the changes ahead. I mean, who’s going to walk away from a $4,000,000 enterprise today based on an uncertain future? Yet that’s how it comes off some time. And in public radio, no less, where rational thinking is supposed to trump sensationalism.

Reply by Scott Hanley on August 5, 2008 at 2:29am
and at the risk of steering people elsewhere, this thread has prompted me to come up with some thoughts at my under-active blog under the title “It’s the Humanity, Stupid.” I would offer that we are often discussing the wrong things when we come around to the topic of digital public media – and public media in general.

There are a lot of valid discussion points being floated about – but we seem to spend too much time talking about who someone ELSE should hand control over to or keep control from. And just because things aren’t moving in the way we think they should or as fast as they should does not mean there isn’t movement. Sometimes things take time, sometimes mistakes must be made so we can learn, sometimes things just are what they are.

Reply by John Proffitt on August 5, 2008 at 3:44am

Hey, we just had a picnic, too! It was our second, and a great opportunity to bring in the community, share our space, engage, chat, etc. We’re going to do more of that kind of stuff in the near future. For too long we’ve had an attitude that said, “We can’t have the public mucking around in here — this is Public Media!”

As for the tech angle, when I talk new media technology, I’m mindful of two things. First, the technology itself is always changing and is always, paradoxically, irrelevant to the mission. These are tools, not goals.

Second, as the media universe fractures and our supporters spread themselves across more media, we need to use the tools at our disposal to reach them where they are / when they are with media that’s as relevant to them as we can make it.

These new tools allow us to develop a more personalized service, based on a much broader set of distribution models. Used well, these tools allow us to have a more direct two-way relationship with more of our community in ways we couldn’t (afford to) before.

I think we’ll find we need these new, deeper relationships going forward. Just “being on the radio” or “being on the TV” isn’t going to be enough.

Reply by Rob Paterson on August 7, 2008 at 1:55pm
Sorry about being late back John S — the all or nothing that I am seeing in the system is that nearly all the effort is being placed in the traditional area!

It reminds me of what might have been said in the board rooms at Ford or GM 10 years ago — “We make most of our money making Trucks and SUVs When we have to, we will shift to smaller cars — no one can make money doing that anyway”

At Toyota it might have gone like this: “We will make Trucks and SUVs — that is where the money is now — but we will dominate the small and the high-efficiency car sector and we will learn to make money there — so that when the time comes we will be ready.”

I agree with Stephen — what can be done now is to work on how we will make money in the new. Even that is not done.

As Stephen says the best place to start might be the archive — with a revenue sharing deal between the producer and the station

This way we can all learn how to get there.

At KETC we are going down the other route – becoming the essential convener that brings all parties together to address critical problems – in this case the effects of the foreclosure crisis. As we get better at this we can see that we will have an endless list of issues – energy, financial literacy, health, education etc. This work shifts the fund raising into a higher plane – where we attract philanthropy because we are really helping the city

There is a third stream – of convening the energy and ideas of the community such as WOSU is doing in Columbus. They have made a big effort to attract the local blogging community and a key partner – the library. I am sure that in the next year – WOSU and the Bloggers will expand the stations’ coverage of their city immensely but all for the cost of some time and pizza. They will also have infected the station with the reality of the digital natives

I think that stations that can do all three of these things will wean themselves off being a re-broadcaster and build a revenue and a resource base that will prepare them well for the Toyota moment.


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