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Online quest: shared platform, separate skins

Published in Current, Feb. 21, 2006
By Steve Behrens

"I’ve come to believe this is a wonderful gift given to public broadcasting,” says Dennis Haarsager.

An evangelist for on-demand technology, Haarsager is talking about Open Media Network, one of several Internet platforms that entrepreneurs will tout this week at the Integrated Media Association’s Public Broadcasting New Media Conference in Seattle.

It seems like dozens of companies think creating the year’s hottest online platform for audio and video will make them the Google of the future. Among the contenders: the Google of the present.

Haarsager likes because it checks off many features on public broadcasters’ Internet wish lists:

Best of all, a Silicon Valley mogul gives away the technology and covers the initial operating costs, too.

When Haarsager heard about plans for OMN last winter, it sounded a lot like what he and others had been looking for. Stephen Hill, the web-savvy producer of Music from the Hearts of Space, had proposed a comprehensive site for downloading pubradio programs, both free and for a fee. That evolved, during a late 2004 meeting of pubcasters, into Public Service Publisher, an ad hoc campaign to develop an on-demand platform.

Last year, Haarsager took the idea to PBS’s Digital Futures Initiative; the VIP panel adopted it wholesale, recommending in December that pubcasting develop a central repository of content called the Web Engine. The on-demand version of pubcasting is such a new animal that Haarsager calls it Public Broadcasting 2.0 (commentary, page 15).

A sunny day in Sunnyvale

Cindy Johanson, PBS senior v.p., interactive and education, was the matchmaker. She had worked with Haarsager on pubTV’s new-media planning and brought him together with Mike Homer, the Silicon Valley mogul who was dreaming up OMN.

Homer had risen from Apple techie to Netscape marketing v.p. and was now chair of a startup in Sunnyvale, Calif.—Kontiki Inc., whose software creates audio/video download repositories on the Web.

Kontiki’s software will distribute video online for the BBC and AOL as well as corporate intranets, but Homer also wanted to donate rights in perpetuity to a nonprofit—and spread Kontiki further.

"OMN has an arm’s length agreement for use of Kontiki,” says Haarsager. “Even if Kontiki is sold or goes out of business, OMN has access to the source code, and it gets any technology updates.”

Homer is also covering OMN operating costs in its early months. The nonprofit will put programs on the Web at no charge to program suppliers that don’t charge their audiences. For suppliers who charge fees, OMN will get a cut of 10 to 20 percent after the site goes operational, Homer says.

Two dozen pubcasters have put programs on OMN, including KQED and WGBH, along with many grassroots videomakers.

Homer’s thinking meshed well enough with the pubcasters’ that OMN began calling itself “the future of public TV and radio.”

That was a diplomatic error, one pubcaster told Current with a wince. If Google can hope to be the Google of the future, then public broadcasting itself can hope to be the public broadcasting of the future.

Not ready to commit

PBS and NPR could be important factors in creating something big like Public Service Publisher, and both Johanson and her counterpart at NPR—Maria Thomas, v.p. of digital meda—agree with Haarsager that there’s tremendous value in aggregating a great volume and variety of audio and/or video for Internet users to choose from. Indeed, that’s a key advantage of NPR’s podcast directory (story, page 3), which offers audio files from many producers and distributors, including NPR’s sometime-rivals PRI and American Public Media. The project has tallied 13 million downloads in its first half-year.

But neither Johanson nor Thomas is signing on with any single platform just yet.

"I don’t think public radio has decided as a system what its position is,” says Thomas. “Is each content producer out for itself? Do we want to look at the possibility of aggregation and the value that might bring?”

Johanson says PBS remains “very interested” in OMN but wants to try a variety of platforms. “We want the flexibility to make our content available on platforms where the audience is going,” she says.

Besides their reluctance to commit, the NPR and PBS web chiefs share a wariness of OMN’s technology and its requirement that users have a certain chunk of software on their machines.

"One of the questions I have for OMN is the [software] download,” Johanson volunteers. After years of watching Internet users, she knows web surfers like quick starts.

NPR would need to “do due diligence” about the grid network technology, says Thomas. “Users are not super-keen” to download software into their crowded PCs.

Homer knows the gripe, but says OMN requires only a lightweight 1MB download. Eventually he’d like to see Kontiki among the elite software shipped with new computers. It’s already on those of 20 million AOL users, he says, and the BBC and satcaster BSkyB will use it, too. Those people will need only a fleeting download to use OMN, too.

One user’s test drive

Like Thomas’s average computer user, this reporter hesitated to download OMN, but it installed more easily than expected. Within 15 minutes, it was running and I was enjoying a show from KQED’s arts series, Spark. Then I got to see the TV version of Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, which was nearly as slick as the NewsHour (not overly) but even more serious.

OMN’s audio MP3s and videos were indexed by topical tags added by the producers and then by online viewers, who could also rate the quality with one to five stars. This time I took users’ advice by asking OMN to rank the podcasts by number of stars.

A cozy KCRW interview with novelist Joyce Carol Oates came up with five stars. Oates murmurs in amazement that ordinary people such as her mother place so much importance on food and clothing. To help future listeners find an interview like this, I suggest a keyword, “domesticity.” I’m tempted to tag it with “condescension.”

Other video sites let you watch through your browser, but those that save server costs with Kontiki or other file-sharing systems require that software download.

OMN rewards me with quicker downloads if I choose the “Go Faster” option and let my computer join the grid network of users that supplements OMN’s servers. As my PC receives fragments of a media file, it may be asked to send them to others who want the content. (An incidental difference: Kontiki, in contrast with the original Napster, protects copyrights, not copyright scofflaws.)

I don’t notice any slowing of my computer. I’m too busy following the progress of my download on the Grid Monitor. I’ve asked for NPR’s Story of the Day. As I watch, a second and then a third unidentified computer join Kontiki’s server to send it to me. It takes a village! Kontiki pulls data from idle computers that are quickest and nearest to the me. In less than a minute, I’m hearing an amazing commentary about homing hummingbirds.

Web page posted Feb. 18, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

Mike Homer looking casual

Homer: Kontiki chairman and OMN benefactor.


Haarsager urges pubcasters to get to know the media habits of the My Time generation, November 2004.

Among the Digital Futures Initiative recommendations: a comprehensive Web Engine for media, December 2005.


Dennis Haarsager's commentary: Through the Looking Glass to Public Broadcasting 2.0.

Mark Fuerst's commentary: For public broadcasting's second decade on the Web, let's step up to baseball's league.


Open Media Network, which uses grid network technology from Kontiki Inc.

Haarsager's blog items about the Public Service Publisher initiative, and the home page of his blog, Technology 360.

Integrated Media Association, organizer of Public Broadcasting New Media Conference.

Guitarist Jamie Bonk's interview with online music provider Stephen Hill, who proposed Public Radio Online.

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