How CPB is accelerating digital transformation across public media

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This article is based on Jacobs’ keynote address May 16 at the Public Media Business Association Conference in Orlando, Fla.

Today’s audiences have more digital choices than ever before, and their expectations are higher than ever before: They want high-quality content personalized to their interests, preferences and tastes, delivered on demand, at any time, to any device.

To respond to this new reality, public media will need to move faster, think differently and collaborate more effectively to transform from its current fragmented state to one unified on a platform that is scaled, interoperable and holistic, delivering unique, diverse local content in engaging and relevant ways.

Working closely with the national organizations and stations in the system, CPB is investing in initiatives that will support a systemwide digital transformation of public media. This transformation will, at the same time, spur change in public media’s culture and capabilities, enabling greater efficiencies across the system and providing new technology and tools for stations, content producers and national organizations. This move is necessary if public media is to deepen its existing audience relationships, add new audiences and revenue streams, create relevant and personalized experiences, and provide a stronger value proposition to the American public.

To drive the transformation of public media, CPB is focused on several principles, including changing the organizational culture, increasing efficiency and sustainability, and raising capacity for digital content. Our core areas of investment include:

  • The Digital Culture Accelerator, a program in partnership with QCatalyst consultants that is designed to advance the digital mindsets of 20 station leaders. We want to evolve thinking and change how stations work, from thinking about digital in a silo to thinking about digital as an integral and integrated component of local newsrooms and content/program teams with priorities that align and ladder up to measurable strategic goals. After this one-year program, the 20 stations will mentor 20 more stations in a buddy system. A do-it-yourself program playbook is also available to every station in the system.   
  • The Digital Immersion Project, a partnership with PBS teaching digital fundamentals that is focused on culture and performance. So far, 75 people representing 100 stations, two-thirds of which are TV license holders, have participated in this program during the past two years.
  • The Digital Infrastructure Initiative, a phased initiative co-led by CPB, PBS and NPR, as well as stations including KQED and WGBH, aims to build and strengthen a digital foundation for public media, create efficiencies and  scalability, and capture new revenue opportunities while retaining the independent nature of the system.

Since data is key to creating new and better experiences for users, partners and content producers, a major part of the Digital Infrastructure Initiative is ascertaining how to optimize and better deploy the user data that stations already have. Today, a user who consumes content across properties such as Marketplace, NPR One, WETA, KPCC and PBS may be providing data to those stations and organizations, but that data is siloed. The first phase of the Digital Infrastructure Initiative is “identity management,” or “single sign-on,” which will allow stations to better understand who the user is as well as their preferences, behaviors and habits.

Subsequent phases of the Digital Infrastructure Initiative will help stations leverage user data to make more informed decisions regarding content and personalized experiences to strengthen audience relationships. As users become better known to stations, stations will be able to provide them with more relevant, customized content based upon both their known preferences and anticipated needs. Over time, these users could become loyalists and superfans and develop deeper relationships with your station. This is a win for users, your station and the public media system as a whole.

Apart from investing in digital culture and infrastructure, CPB is also investing in increasing digital content capacity. Digital Voltage is a series of workshops designed to amplify digital-first content production across the PBS system. Staff from PBS member stations join hosts from PBS Digital Studios shows, industry producers, YouTube creators and strategists to discuss digital content development, production, channel optimization, marketing and more. CPB has also helped fund PBS Digital Studios and digital-first content efforts by flagship series such as American Experience, American Masters, Nature and Nova, which saw views of its videos acquired through social media promotion go from 10 million to 24 million in two years.


In addition, CPB has been investing in podcasting. In 2014, CPB provided an initial grant to WNYC to increase the number of women’s voices in public media. Five years later, CPB continues to support the Werk It Women’s Podcasting Festival, which now attracts over 1,000 participants. CPB is also providing support for PRX’s Project Catapult, a podcast development program for emerging producers and hosts. Through Project Catapult, PRX not only helps stations create podcasts but also develop their overall digital storytelling capacity.

As you can see, CPB is focused on supporting public media to think differently — to move faster to build a stronger foundation for system growth, transformation and sustainability. Innovation plays a vital role in both content and technology to transform and advance public media’s relevancy. No single entity can do it alone, but collectively, we can evolve to strengthen public media’s relationship with its audiences.

While this may be ambitious, it is essential to public media’s future. CPB looks forward to continuing to work with you on these efforts. Together we will drive the change required for public media to thrive in the future and continue our commitment to public media’s mission.

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