[Interview conducted April 14, 2009. Miel died in 2010, and asked to be remembered through a reporting fellowship managed by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Your donations will support the fellowship’s growth.]
Internews Network’s PERSEPHONE MIEL, a recent fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, brings some Internet-era vision for the idea of public media. Rather than look to new nonprofits and new structures, she says the real opportunity is to activate existing public media — PBS, NPR, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — to more effectively serve people and communities. But this may require a reinvention of what an NPR or PBS “station” is, as well as a reimagining of the role of taxpayer funding in this picture.
• MISSED POTENTIAL: “There’s a really strong sense … that public broadcasting has a huge potential role to play, as the media landscape shifts and as we shift into more and more online delivery and platform-agnostic content. But there’s a really good chance that they’re not going to seize that opportunity, and that [public broadcasters] could end up being completely irrelevant to the next wave of journalism — which would be sad.”
• INTERNET’S ROLE: “A lot of what people hope to see happen in the new media space, when people are feeling optimistic, is the kinds of things that public media broadcasting was supposed to do — I mean, is supposed to do: serve the community in its entirety, be accessible, really reflect the community, and so on.”
• WHY NO PARTNERSHIPS? “Public media is supposed to be going where the people are, regardless of whether there’s money there or not. So the fact that they don’t seem to be looking for partnerships with local nonprofit-place bloggers or other things, trying to bring in that new stuff, now that they can — it’s kind of depressing.”
• NOT PAYING ATTENTION: “[P]arts of public media have not taken advantage of the ability to listen to their audience in the way that the Internet era affords, and that people are more and more coming to expect. This has nothing to do with the Internet era, really … we have a lot of discussions about the media ignoring people in the lower-income percentile, not representing them, not being interested in them — and I certainly think that public media should be working to a higher standard on that front, and I don’t really think they do.”
• “Many of the same exact things that are happening within newspapers are happening in public radio.”
• “Maybe what we really need to do is expand the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s charter, so that they can fund online-only resources.”
• “Public broadcasters need to get over themselves, [they’re] as bad or even worse than many of the print journalists about the high-priesthood thing.”
PERSEPHONE MIEL, TALKING PUBLIC MEDIA
Conducted by Josh Wilson, May 2008
Give me your sense of the strengths and weaknesses of public media in the Internet era.
Ha. That’s a small question. Well, first of all, there’s a growing consensus among people within public media — when I say ‘public media’ at this point, I’m meaning just standard public broadcasting, NPR and public radio and television — to talk about public media and public-service media as something bigger than that, and as something we need more of, and that it could be lots of different things.
There’s a really strong sense both within the system, and certainly from a lot of critics, or not even so much critics, but people who want public media to succeed, and value it — that public broadcasting has a huge potential role to play, as the media landscape shifts and as we shift into more and more online delivery and platform-Agnostic content.
But there’s a really good chance that they’re not going to seize that opportunity, and that [public broadcasters] could end up being completely irrelevant to the next wave of journalism — which would be sad.
While the potential is exciting, the failure to seize the opportunity should at least be instructive.
A lot of what people hope to see happen in the new media space, when people are feeling optimistic, is the kinds of things that public media broadcasting was supposed to do — I mean, is supposed to do: serve the community in its entirety, be accessible, really reflect the community, and so on.
You end up seeing people within public broadcasting who have gotten very locked in, to the extent that even the TV people and radio people don’t really work together very well, a lot of the time … but even more so, that they’re not doing a great job of taking their own content online.
And they’re also not taking on a role of being a welcoming place for other people who might be wanting to do that.
There’s all these foundations out there funding little tiny experiments of citizen journalism and so on, and hyperlocal — and many of them are nonprofit. And it just strikes me, why are we creating more nonprofit media when we already have a whole lot of nonprofit media organizations around the country who could be, in theory, boosting these new efforts, or making them happen?
We all know that there’s organizational-culture problems that are certainly not only within public media …
But public media is supposed to be going where the people are, regardless of whether there’s money there or not. So the fact that they don’t seem to be looking for partnerships with local nonprofit-place bloggers or other things, trying to bring in that new stuff, now that they can — it’s kind of depressing.
And there’s a real split — the problem is there are people within NPR and within local stations, as well as within PBS and within local stations, that really do want to move this stuff forward — and there are some really interesting experiments.
What are some of those experiments?
Minnesota Public Radio has a whole bunch of things that they’re doing, there’s Public Insight Journalism Network, you probably know about … And New Hampshire Public Radio, which is tiny, but which has done some little citizen journalism things — they did this thing called Primary Place — and Chicago Public Radio is in the middle of a really huge experiment of having launched an entirely separate radio station, that uses none of the NPR content — it’s called Vocalo. Check it out. They openly admit that they don’t know if it’s going to succeed, but —
At least they’re trying.
Yes. At least they’re trying.
So you see some leadership, at the local level, or at the state level?
Not that I have a lot of inside knowledge of it, but — one of the reasons that Ken Stern left NPR was that there was a lot of tension between the national organizations and the big stations versus the little stations who felt that they weren’t getting enough support — that they were being left behind, and not helped to do new digital things.
And then at the national level I think there’s a certain amount of feeling of like, “Well, they just don’t get it” — I mean just the sort of typical city-cousin, country-cousin kind of thing … nothing unusual about that.
My perspective is that it’s wide open, right now — but my own work trying to take public media online has been very challenging at the institutional level. Members of the public get it. But the institutions seem out of step with that. Why has it been so difficult? Why aren’t people paying attention?
Many of the same exact things that are happening within newspapers are happening in public radio. And, y’know, I think [the Corporation for Public Broadcasting] sometimes finds their hands tied, because of their original covenant, which is actually determined by the law — they’re only allowed to fund public broadcasting stations — officially, they’re only allowed to fund projects that will be broadcast.
They obviously want everything to have more and more of a Web component. For me the question is what the local stations really want to do and become. Not soon, but at some point, the whole model of how they deliver their stuff is going to get ripped apart.
People really just aren’t going to care anymore whether they get their signal on a local broadcast frequency — they’ll be either using satellite radio, or they’ll be using podcasts, or they’ll be listening to it over the Internet, including on their mobile phone. It really won’t matter whether that organization is in Milwaukee or Washington, D.C. anymore.
Some go to one of the national services, there’s American Public Media and Public Radio International and so on, but what are they going to do as that broadcast function becomes irrelevant?
I bet you have an answer for that.
Well — no, I don’t have a full answer. I mean, I think they basically have to decide whether they want — either they can go to a completely bare-bones retransmission operation for the people who still have radios, because obviously people will still use radios for a long time, it’s not going to go away in a year or probably ten years, it’s just that there’ll be so many other options.
Or they can decide they really do want to be a local media operation, and find a way to do that that’s competitive, which would probably mean finding a way to hook up with local or regional citizen-journalist initiatives, blogs, maybe local governments providing information systems — and really re-imagining themselves not as radio or TV stations but as community news hubs.
But it’s not in any way clear that that would necessarily work; it may depend a lot on the community.
What can public media be doing to support actual journalism? What about ProPublica?
[Laughs] That’s a-whole-nother question. I think nobody knows that. We just don’t know yet.
Yeah, let’s not worry about them quite yet.
Right, so … NPR is a huge news organization, right? And it does very good work, and they could aspire to do more work and better work if they wanted. And they have a really huge reach in the market.
And then PBS doesn’t really have a big news organization — they have one half-hour news program that might as well be on radio, pretty much — and yet it’s still very influential … and Frontline. I’m not worried about Frontline. Frontline is going to exist no matter what. They will find a home no matter what happens to WGBH.
Tell me more about the roles public media could play in the Internet era — you spoke about how there’s an opportunity to become more of a community resource.
The question is whether some amount of important journalism is going away as newspapers fail, or get bought out, or get smaller, or become nothing but a shell for AP content and advertising, right? Let’s just assume that might be true. So you have that happening on the one side — and you have people talking about the need for nonprofit journalism on the other side — and so, who should be filling that local news gap? If it’s going to be nonprofit, why shouldn’t it be somehow part of public media?
And specifically the NPR or PBS legacy networks?
[Laughs] “Legacy networks … ”
I meant that simply as “already existing.”
Maybe what we really need to do is expand the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s charter, so that they can fund online-only resources.
Must it come from CPB?
Not necessarily, but I mean, why — why create a new CPB, right? CPB has got a budget.
You just have to wonder about how politicized it is. Should we be planning around that? Such as what Charles Lewis said about the Marshall Plan for journalism. It sounds to me like there are ideas for something other than CPB to do that, that could be nonprofit, or public/private — but not linked to a government charter.
Right — um, well yeah, unless you think that the, whatever, $70 million the CPB gives away is our money. [Laughs]
That’s a great point. There is just such an expectation of, “why bother working with CPB, it’s so politicized — you can’t fight City Hall,” but it is our money.
Right. [And] to some extent, I think in certain ways, foundation money is our money too. The tax breaks that we give whoever donated the money …
You would like to see some courage on the part of the campaigners, perhaps — to try and set their sights on CPB and try to open it up and loosen it up somehow?
What do you mean when you say ‘campaigners’?
I guess when I said that I envisioned the National Conference on Media Reform, who are all about building campaigns. So maybe there is a leadership opportunity here.
What are the lessons of the Internet era that public media should take to heart?
One of the things that got said at News Tools 2008, and I can’t remember who, but someone said, “aggregation is creation.”
It’s one of the classic complaints against all traditional media — that it’s taken them forever to figure out that it’s actually to their advantage to point people to other people’s stuff. But public media is, from most of the Web sites that I’ve looked at, pretty bad at that.
And lots of parts of public media have not taken advantage of the ability to listen to their audience in the way that the Internet era affords, and that people are more and more coming to expect.
This has nothing to do with the Internet era, really … we have a lot of discussions about the media ignoring people in the lower-income percentile, not representing them, not being interested in them — and I certainly think that public media should be working to a higher standard on that front, and I don’t really think they do.
What should public media look and act like in the twenty-first century? What are the opportunities that public media-makers, academics, nonprofit leaders and grantmakers should be thinking about?
Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships. Public broadcasters need to get over themselves, [they’re] as bad or even worse than many of the print journalists about the high-priesthood thing.
They need to look at more partnerships and kind of reach outside of themselves, whether it is to local bloggers or schools, and really see themselves as a community service and less as a high-priesthood.
And we have to get rid of pledge drives.
And they have to — oh — get rid of pledge drives?
[Laughs] Yes; that’s essential.
Really — how are they going to pay for themselves?
Well, we have people working on that.
Tell me about it.
[I]t’s called Project VRM — Vendor Relationship Management. Doc Searls and a whole group of folks around the world are working on it.