Into the gig economy

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The author is president of Western Reserve Public Media (WNEO/ WEAO), which serves Akron, Youngstown and Kent in northeast Ohio.

Right after I finished reading Barbara Cochran’s paper for the Knight Commission, “Rethinking Public Media: More Local, More Inclusive, More Interactive,” the phone rang. The 1990s called, and they want their White Paper back.

Public television has been local, inclusive and interactive since its inception. No doubt there is always room to be “more,” but getting there by building up staff and tinkering with governance structure is a repeat of the past and will lead to more reliance on taxpayer support from state and federal sources that cannot or will not provide it.

The world is going through a major economic transformation. If public media is going to survive, much less thrive, it needs to break out of its 20th-century mode of operation and figure out how to operate in what Daily Beast editor Tina Brown calls  “the gig economy.”

Ms. Cochran recommends a few ways public radio and television can adapt to meet 21st-century needs for local news. I agree with most of them, and we at Western Reserve Public Media have already implemented many:  Restructure a university board into a community board? Check. Redirect resources into the equivalent of local reporting? Check. Continue and expand a tradition of diversity? Check. Pioneer ways to allow local citizens to create and share content by digital means? Check. And, just as she suggests of CPB, we have changed our name from “television” to “media” and specifically “public media.” Check and check.

While all of these changes are well and good, no matter how our governance is structured, no matter how we direct our resources, no matter how much diversity we embrace and what we call ourselves, at the end of the day we are a business that operates in a market economy.

NBC’s Today Show recently did a story about driving in winter weather conditions. The reporter said that when a car hits black ice and swerves out of control, the driver’s instinct is to look where the car is heading. In fact, experts say that’s exactly what you shouldn’t do. Rather, you should look in the direction you want the car to go and steer in that direction. In other words, look to the future, not the past and not even the present.

In the past, public television has organized itself around functions: hiring employees to perform functions rather than complete specific projects. Engineers were hired to do the engineering; producers to produce; directors to direct; reporters to report; and so on. Engineering, producing, directing and reporting functions were not necessarily 40-hour-a-week jobs, but stations had enough “discretionary” funding (read: not project-based funding) to cover the costs, so we could maintain our functional model.

The present economic climate has forced us to look at our largest operational cost — personnel — and evaluate which positions are vital to a 24/7 operation. Some stations have reduced work hours or laid-off or eliminated positions. But for many stations that is merely a temporary reaction to the present economy and not a business strategy for the future.

Cochran’s white paper recommends that we hire more employees — local reporters — and invest in the proper equipment for them to do their jobs. But what’s the business model? How are we going to pay for increased personnel costs over the long haul? Isn’t that the very model that commercial stations are abandoning? And wouldn’t this make us even more dependent on government funding?

The same goes for our governance structure. How will restructuring the board secure our fiscal future? Whether a station is licensed to a state, a university or a community nonprofit, the most we can hope a board to do is to to champion the public media “cause” and assist in raising funds. At worst, a board can obstruct a station’s capacity to raise funds and inhibit its ability to operate as an independent business. No doubt the board behind Door No. 1 is preferable, but I contend that in the future no matter how much effort a board puts forth for its public media organization, the station will not remain lively and healthy if it follows the same operating model as when it first went on the air.

While I agree with the spirit of Ms. Cochran’s report, I don’t see a solid, re-envisioned  21st-century idea that makes the dream possible. Our challenges won’t be met through larger staffs and increased dependence on government funding, but rather through adaptability, agility and flexibility.

Rather than restructuring the board or building up the operations through mergers, acquisitions and expansion, public media should take a cue from Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams’ book, Wikinomics, or Stanley M. Davis and Christopher Meyer’s book, Future Wealth, and develop an operating model around Brown’s “gig economy” — piecework contracted project by project. It’s a major economic shift away from institutional employees to Form 1099 contract employees. Staffs contract and expand to meet the production needs of an organization.

Public television stations that put together and then disband a team for a grant-funded project already know how to operate in a gig economy. How we buy programs from syndicators is gig economics. If we hire outside freelancers to create our websites, stream our video, manage interactivity or process our web transactions, we are using the gig model. Independent producers have always operated gig by gig. It allows the coordinator to bring together the right people and resources to put a program together without having the mess and fuss of ongoing human resource expenses.

A gig model allows for more diversity, the worker’s expertise tends to be much greater, and output is significantly increased. Case in point, Western Reserve Public Media is a $5 million operation with 17 full-time staff members. We engage a pool of 20 to 25 seasoned “flex employees” to work on a per-project basis.

Western Reserve PBS’s broadcasts spans the northeast Ohio region — Cleveland, Akron, Canton and Youngstown — and we reach more than 1 million viewers a month. We don’t have an endowment. Unlike other arts organizations in our region, we don’t receive $1 million or more a year in county money from “sin taxes” on cigarettes and tobacco. We don’t have a Board of Directors that raises funds for our organization. We don’t have outside marketing firms creating slick campaigns. We are not housed in a multi-million-dollar building. And, aside from the Community Service Grant we receive from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for our Youngstown station, we do not receive special project funding from CPB.

Yet we offer four 24/7 noncommercial public television services: Western Reserve PBS, Fusion, MHz Worldview and V-me — the first two programmed locally and the other two presenting national program ervices that are unique to the market. Between 2007 and 2010, we produced 35 local program and series, including two ongoing weekly series, and we serve as the region’s premier television outlet for local independent producers. In the 2010 academic year, our Educational Services division offered 184 workshops to 1,995 teachers and added two more multimedia projects for use in regional K-12 classrooms to our already long list of multimedia projects.

Members of the Western Reserve Public Media Board of Directors are visionaries. As Stephen Covey would say, while the staff is cutting away a forest, they are the ones that climb the tallest tree to take a high-level view and let us know that we are in the right forest, cutting the right trees. Department heads are project managers or facilitators. They put together the right teams and ensure that the teams have the necessary resources to do the job. Department heads don’t mediate constant personnel conflicts and get bogged down in performance evaluations because in a gig world a 1099 “employee” gets the job done right or they are not hired again. Our support staff members are masters at multitasking. Engineers aren’t just doing broadcast engineering, for example — they’re our liaisons with the outsourced IT network manager; they keep master control functioning; they trouble-shoot voice-over-IP issues; and they are the point-people for the transmitter sites.

For those of us accustomed to the functional management model, it’s unnerving to step into a gig economy. The rules of the road haven’t been written for public TV. For one, federal labor laws and Equal Employment Opportunity regulations were enacted for a different economy.

I applaud the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy for its report last year. The 15 recommendations to better meet community information needs are spot on. I am confident that public media is the one entity that can take those recommendations from report to action. But, changing the governance structure or the brand of the vehicle or loading more people into the car is not the direction we should be going.

Copyright 2011 American University

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