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I’m sitting at #ima09, at one of the last panels: “Future of Public Media News: A Vision and A Plan.” Leonard Witt is speaking right now, and has a killer proposal: turn PBS into a “news powerhouse.” His case is brief and right-on.

Newspapers aren’t the only news organizations that are faltering, he says. Local TV news is crapping out too. As with newspapers, advertising is drying up: going away or moving elsewhere. Nobody talks about it much, but your evening news has been brought to you for many years by car dealers, spending co-op money from Chevy, Toyota and the rest of them. Bottom line: the advertising model is failing too.

Meanwhile, public broadcasting is sitting on — or next to — lots of news gathering and sharing organizations, including local and regional public radio stations, and allied listeners and viewers out the wazoo. Lots of those folks are blogging and tweeting. There is a natural sybiosis between these affiliated individuals (whether or not we call them “members”) and stations. Leonard is talking about how even small staffs — one reporter per TV station, for example — can add up. And (this is critical) without the high overhead of newspapers and other commercial media.

Another thing. PBS — and public television in general — desperately needs to move beyond its good but dull and old-hat stuff. The Discovery Channels (there are six), the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel and lots of other cable channels are eating away at PBS’s viewing shares. PBS, once one of the four major TV networks, now just holds down a few notches on a “dial” that isn’t anymore, and has hundreds of other channels. And this doesn’t even count the Net, which will continue to widen in bandwidth. At some point anybody will be able to stream anything to anybody in reasonably high definintion. When that happens, all that will remain of TV “networks”, “stations” and “channels” will be their antique names. These will matter as “brands”, but their content will matter far more. People will watch what they find interesting, relevant, familiar and reliable. And, in the case of news, sometimes necessary.

So here’s an interesting and opportune coincidence: as commercial TV news continues to tank, PBS and its affiliates can leverage their standing strength in news — one substantiated by their colleagues over on the public radio dial.

PBS’ news work can expand beyond the News Hour, Frontline and Bill Moyers. PBS stations can also go into the news business and appeal to the same people who currently spend a buck or more per day on newspapers — and can spend on other news sources.

We’ve seen what’s happened already with public radio. Stations like WNYC, KPCC, WBUR, KQED and WUNC all jacked up their ratings and income by moving from eclectic to “information” programming, built around morning and evening news programs from NPR. Public radio had advantages — a “dial” of finite width, for example (with one wide end  — 88-92Mhz) carved out just for noncommercial use, plus the homogenization and downscaling of commercial competition. So, while PBS was having its lunch eaten by commercial competition, NPR was eating the lunches of its commercial competitors. (The stations listed above are at or near the top in their local markets’ ratings.)

Can PBS and its affiliates get news teeth? I think they have to. Fortunately, commercial TV news has a very soft underbelly.

Now Susanna Capelbuto from Georgia Public Broadcasting is talking about GPB Radio’s Georgia Gazette. The show does video too (on the Net). How big a stretch is it for the network, or its stations, to do that on TV too — especially since ditital TV stations can now transmit up to four program streams (each called a “station”) at the same time. Yes, the costs of production can be high, but so are the benefits.

I’m sure there will be plenty of resistance, but it’s a damn fine idea. Leonard, during the Q&A, addressing the public TV broadcasters: “You have the gravitas, you have the reputation, you have the name. You have everything you need except the will to do it.” Perhaps not quite verbatim, but close enough. That was right after telling them that the idea is too good, and too opportune, to pass up. If public television does pass it up, commercial broadcasters will get the clues. CNN is already on the case.

[later…] Nice follow-up no the whole event, including endorsement of the above, from Robert Paterson.

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