A major advance in the ways that pubcasting organizations share and present digital content is about to begin implementation, while planning to test its full potential and define a sustainable business model is still underway.
At month’s end, the Public Media Platform will begin integrating content from public radio’s top distributors into Core Publisher, the web-publishing system operated by NPR Digital Services. Stories from PRI’s The World and American Public Media’s Marketplace, for example, will begin showing up in the feed of web content for NPR stations, giving web producers new options for curating content and presenting stories from across public radio.
PBS Bento, the public TV equivalent of Core Publisher, will be integrated into the PMP next, opening up even more opportunities to share content across public television and radio.
Though the PMP has huge potential to transform how local stations present content and how audiences interact with it, the full extent of the platform’s impact is difficult to predict, according to PMP Executive Director Kristin Calhoun.
Calhoun left PBS a year ago to lead development and build-out of the PMP, planned as a shared repository of digital content and metadata from public media content providers that would ease integration of their work and enable wider distribution. Rollout over the next several months will focus on the field’s major distributors and local stations whose digital strategies or collaboration plans call for new approaches to distribution.
Calhoun is eager to work with stations that have ideas about new digital content, but she emphasizes that the PMP can only help to facilitate their strategies. It will not operate as a digital service provider to local pubcasters, as NPR Digital Services does, or produce digital content for stations, such as the projects developed through the Association of Independents in Radio’s Localore initiative.
“I’m looking for problems that people are trying to solve in the digital space,” Calhoun said. “You have to have an idea. I can’t gin one up for you. I don’t know your town. I don’t know who the players are in your town.”
Lift all boats?
In development and prototyping for more than three years, the PMP is guided by five major public media partners — NPR, PBS, PRI, APM and Public Radio Exchange. Each is supporting the platform with content and distribution services through 2016. But they are not contributing funding, and their continued participation hinges on whether the PMP can forge its own path to sustainability by May, when CPB’s financial support for the PMP’s build-out ends.
The PMP advisory board includes representatives from each of the five partners, as well as Alexis Rapo, v.p. of digital media at Boston’s WGBH; Sally Jo Fifer, president of the Independent Television Service; and Eric Easter, board chair for the National Black Programming Consortium. Dave Kansas, c.o.o. of APM, serves as the PMP’s board president.
Calhoun, formerly interactive director at PBS, signed on as PMP executive director last January, serving as the project’s sole full-time staffer. As she talked up the PMP at public media conferences and in other venues, she solicited ideas for incorporating its shared application programming interface (API) within the digital strategies of major stakeholders, including local stations.
At first, Calhoun found that many pubcasters couldn’t visualize the potential impact of the PMP, or they mistakenly expected it to solve all their challenges in the digital arena.
“I’m not necessarily building something to lift all boats,” Calhoun said. “The PMP, in my mind, is an ark. And if you’ve got a digital initiative, a project or collaboration that you want to work with, and it helps you, then you get on board.”
Among the pilot projects that Calhoun is developing in partnership with local stations is a revamp of the website for Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations (IPBS), the statewide consortium of Indiana pubcasters.
Phil Meyer, manager of Bloomington’s WTIU-TV and incoming IPBS president, recognized that the PMP offers the technical capacity to upgrade the consortium’s website and harness it for political advocacy and digital service expansion.
State funding to Indiana’s public stations was halved in 2005 under then-Governor Mitch Daniels (R), and IPBS has a shot at reversing that loss during the legislature’s 2015 budget session, according to Meyer. He envisions the website supporting a campaign similar to the nationwide Protect My Public Media initiative, created to engage local stations’ supporters in preserving federal aid. Meyer also hopes to use the site to make the case for support to foundations and other funders.
The proposed site would also use the PMP to collect content feeds from Indiana’s public TV and radio stations. Using a content management system such as Drupal or WordPress, IPBS would create a statewide portal of local content.
The PMP is “the foundation for taking all these different things and combining them into one place,” Meyer said. He estimated that 70 percent of the new IPBS website’s functions would be for external use, including advocacy. The remaining 30 percent would be used by consortium members to share Indiana-specific content such as StateImpact news coverage, among other purposes.
The IPBS website is a good fit for the PMP’s “ark” model, said Calhoun, who will pitch the PMP’s involvement with the project to the IPBS board next month. The board is to decide at its Feb. 12 meeting whether to greenlight the proposal.
“I’m impressed by what Kristin has taken on,” Meyer said, referring to the PMP. “I think she’s got a good chance to pull it off.”
A phased approach
For its first deployment, the PMP will focus on integrating content of its major stakeholders, starting with pubradio distributors and moving on to PBS Bento. During this phase of build-out, stations will be able to access content from different distributors more easily, using pre-existing products that already fit into their workflow.
“Any PBS station that currently adds video or content into Merlin and COVE (PBS’ video and web digital-asset management systems) will be automatically contributing to the PMP,” Jayme Swain, v.p. of strategy and operations for PBS, wrote in an email. “No additional change to their existing content workflow is necessary.”
PBS is also exploring the possibility of adding recommendation engines to the PMP, empowering the system to suggest public media content to users based on their previous viewing and listening choices, Swain said.
“While the feature is dependent on an extensive PMP library of content from which to recommend, we hope this could serve as an excellent way of surfacing other public media content and resources within our existing products,” Swain said.
The PMP is a major component of the redesign of PRX.org, which is in the final stages of development, according to Andrew Kuklewicz, PRX technical director. When the site launches this year, producers who post new work to PRX.org will be offered the option to share it across the PMP.
“We want to make sure producers can publish into and manage their work in the PMP as easily as they share it to Facebook,” Kuklewicz wrote in an email. He describes the process as similar to publishing a podcast. “We also intend to promote the PMP as a new way for them to distribute their work, and see measurable impact from it as adoption grows and spreads.”
APM will soon begin testing PMP-assisted connections between its national site and regional stations and “look at larger opportunities to distribute content to APM’s station partners” in the second and third quarters, said Mike Reszler, v.p. of digital media at APM.
PRI has built a centralized data asset management system for its content and is training producers on how to use the system, according to Morgan Church, senior director of digital distribution. The network has already started uploading some of its flagship programs, including Studio 360, The Takeaway, PRI’s The World and Living on Earth.
To meet its contractual obligations to its five partners, PMP must integrate its distribution system into the products and services that they already deliver to stations.
The platform’s direct relationship with local stations remains open to experimentation, Calhoun said, and there is no set timetable for the PMP’s phased rollout to local pubcasters. But experiments with stations’ digital strategies will coincide with the PMP’s rollout across its five clients and continue throughout the rest of its deployment.
The PMP’s second phase — development of a central hub for the five partners’ content — will also be shaped by experimentation and further planning. Later phases of development include opening the hub to the entire field of public media producers and outlets and building a searchable database.
Looming revenue questions
As pubcasting’s distributors begin working with the new system and exploring its potential, major questions about the PMP’s continued development must be resolved within coming months.
The PMP’s development contract with NPR Digital Services, which built the platform’s back end based on its own API, expires Jan. 31. Calhoun hopes to hire a full-time technical operations engineer to take over the project’s back end by then, but she may decide to work under contract again with a PMP partner, which could allow for additional functions to be built into the system.
In addition, CPB’s initial 18-month grant commitment is set to end in May, and PMP leaders must develop a forward-looking business plan and secure additional funding. The PMP board has appointed a task force to develop business plans charting the PMP’s path toward long-term sustainability; it must first determine how much money will be needed to provide a solid financial foundation.
CPB’s grant was structured to provide a front-loaded investment to fund PMP through build-out and launch. The corporation has pledged additional support in steadily decreasing amounts for another three years, provided that both the CPB and PMP boards approve the business plan now in the works.
“When I first started this job, this was the thing that kept me up at night: How the hell do you figure out sustainability?” Calhoun said. She has proposed four revenue-generating possibilities for the PMP to the task force:
- Marketing the PMP to international public broadcasters, either as a syndication tool for U.S. content or as an API service provider for their own;
- Creating new revenue-sharing opportunities, such as a proposed mobile app for motorists traveling Route 66 that would deliver geolocated public media content from various stations along the iconic highway;
- Adopting a rate-card model by which users would license content, in a fashion similar to PRX’s business model; and
- Opening the platform up to other content creators, including commercial media, to post content for a fee. As an example, Calhoun said ad-supported outlets such as Real Simple magazine could distribute multimedia content on the PMP. “I’m not saying Playboy,” she said.
Public media outlets or producers who are interested in adding the PMP to the back end of their technical systems can do so with the aid of the project’s API documentation.