End of Term Reflection

Demystifying Media, Public Media & Alternative Funding

For most of the term in the Demystifying Media class, I have been reviewing the technology news Website, TechCrunch. While TechCrunch offers news on a lot of technology related issues, I mostly focused on news that centered around cryptocurrency, and how it’s being used and developed. This wasn’t by accident. My research interests, and my ultimate pie-in-the-sky professional goals, all revolve around trying to create a framework for a new public media system in the United States. It’s a lofty goal, I know. Especially since public media in the United States is ensconced in a mire of federal funding and bureaucracy.

In class, a reoccurring theme has become apparent. That theme is that the media landscape around the world is changing, and that media organizations who don’t innovate and change with it will be left behind. We’ve learned about how surfing and teen-centered magazines have moved online due to declining sales. In a presentation by Jason Wambsgans we learned that even Pulitzer Prize winning photographer has issues with downsizing in the paper industry — namely the lack of photo editors. With the work of Stanford’s James Hamilton, we also saw how there is a big push to work with big data methods to try and gain back an edge in journalism. As someone who doesn’t like change much, and is somewhat of a Luddite, that change can be a bit hard to swallow. However, I also feel a need to keep some of the media organizations that I love around — public media is one of those organizations.

It is well documented that the public media system in the United States excels at some things, and fails miserably at others. Since the 2016 election, ratings for news-centric public media organizations are doing very well. This is presumably due to the increased awareness of news bias and “fake news.” Although public media news is often charged with being “leftist”, NPR, PBS and most local public stations that provide news have some sort of mandate to provide a balance of content. The same can’t be said of commercial stations.

Public media is failing in certain ways though. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is a large funding source for public media organizations, especially those organizations in rural areas. While CPB funding comprises only a few percent of some organizations’ budgets (usually in larger markets), the same dollars can be almost 35 percent of some other organizations’ budgets (usually in smaller markets). As funding from the CPB continues to be attacked by politicians, and the dollars stations receive become a smaller part of their budgets, public media organizations have been forced to behave similarly to commercial stations. Although the main content providers (PBS, NPR, PRI, American Public Media) have mostly always had a close relationship with large philanthropic donators and corporations, local public media organizations are growing more and more dependent on those same types of donors as funding continues to be threatened. Organizations are growing increasingly reliant on underwriting (a form of advertising), and there has been an uptick in the amount of pledge drives organizations hold each year. There can be up to three pledge drives a year at some stations. This need for increased monetary support shows that the system is vulnerable to the interests of large donors. Power is being removed from the public and given to the providers of funding. The monetary system of public media is in dire need of change.

In my research, I talked with the General Manager of a public media station in Eugene, Oregon. During the discussion they mentioned that the station was desperate for new ideas to bring in extra funding. The station is one of three CPB funded stations broadcast to the Eugene area (one station is brought in via translator from 130 miles away), and this station offers a non-news format. The manager mentioned that because they weren’t news-focused (like one of the other stations), their listener base tended to be smaller – thus they brought in less donor, underwriting, and corporate support. From my conversation, three fundraising methods became apparent that would be helpful for the station. The first is the use of reoccurring pledge payments (some stations already do this, but this particular station doesn’t), content subscriptions services, and cryptocurrency integration.

Reoccurring pledge payments are used by some organizations as a way for donators to “set it and forget it.” Once their payment information is on file, donators will have money drawn from their account on a reoccurring basis.Some organizations do this as a monthly charge (but still say the person donated for a full year), and some stations take the money out yearly. This creates and easy way for people to donate that doesn’t require them to continually pledge or give.

Content subscription services are a vastly untapped resource in the public media domain. Public media’s main delivery method is over television and radio (with some Web services), but content producers offer very little in the way of paid-for content. I think part of the reason is a stigma around the idea of an audience paying for content. Paying for something is not very public. However, a lot of organizations have an issue where when something it broadcast, it is either never heard again, or it is very difficult to find it on their Website. What stations could do is offer content for free like they always do, but after a certain amount of time, put the content behind a paywall where it can be found again. For example, there are thousands of episodes of NPR’s long-running show Car Talk that are generally unavailable to listeners. With the death of Tom Magliozzi, one of the show’s co-hosts, many stations removed the show from the air. However, Car Talk continued to be a big draw during pledge drives. Although NPR has rolled out NPR One, where people can listen to shows via different stations, and the Car Talk website offers past shows, it seems that content could be provided for a small subscription fee to help smaller stations. Stations could also employ this method for their content archives. For example, a devoted listener to a blues show could subscribe to the show and listen whenever they want.

Cryptocurrency integration would be useful for public media organizations, because it would provide a fast, convenient, and anonymous way for people to give. As was seen with text-to-pledge services, texting offered a quick way for people to give. It was fast, and all people had to do was click. Cryptocurrency integration could offer the same thing. Anonymity might not seem like it would be needed when donating to public media, but some people are uncomfortable with their names being associated with donations to any organizations. If they knew that their donation would be anonymous, they may be more inclined to give. The decentralized nature of cryptocurrency is also more in line with the traditional ideas of public media, where by giving anonymously, it keeps the power in the hands of the station, and not in the hands of the giver. There’s obviously a lot more thought that would be required to implement alternative funding methods in public media, but as has been show, there are new and fresh ideas that could be incorporated with relatively minimal effort – change is hard though.

This write up has been long on the issues of public media, and possible solutions for those issues, but I believe it fits in line with the theme of a changing media landscape that we’ve discussed in the Demystifying Media class. Many examples were shown in class of that changing landscape, and how researchers and professionals have either chosen to or been forced to adapt to those changes. Public media needs to change to survive. My interest in cryptocurrency during the course fits in perfectly with the ideas of change that we’ve seen, and researching cryptocurrency has been valuable in my attempts at trying apply it to alternative public media funding methods.

About Atigun

“Time is free, but it's priceless. You can't own it, but you can use it. You can't keep it, but you can spend it. Once you've lost it you can never get it back.” - Harvey MacKay