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May 22 2013

11:00

Pop Up Archive Makes Audio Searchable, Findable, Reusable

After an insane and memorable week at SXSW Interactive in Austin in March, we came away with our work cut out for us: improving Pop Up Archive so that it's a reliable place to make all kinds of audio searchable, findable and reusable. Thanks in no small part to the brilliant development team at PRX, we've come leaps and bounds since then.

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what it can do

Pop Up Archive can:

  • Generate automatic transcripts and keywords so that audio is both searchable and easy to organize.
  • Provide access to an archive of sound from around the world.
  • Save time and money for producers, creators, radio stations, media organizations, and archives of all stripes.

We've been opening the site to select groups of pioneering users, and we'd love input from the community. Request an invite here.

The content creators and caretakers we're talking to have valuable digital material on their hands: raw interviews and oral histories, partial mixes of produced works, and entire series of finished pieces. They can't revisit, remix, or repackage that material -- it's stored in esoteric formats in multiple locations. And it gets lost every time a hard drive dies or a folder gets erased to make more space on a laptop.

We're hearing things like:

"Someday I'm gonna spend a month organizing all this, but I plug [hard drives] in until I find what I need."

"Imagine being able to find a sentence somewhere in your archive. That would be an amazing tool."

"Unfortunately...we don't have a good way of cleaning [tags] to know that 'Obama,' 'Mr. Obama,' and 'Barack Obama' should be just one entry."

No one wants to figure out how to save all that audio, not to mention search on anything more than filenames. Some stations and media companies maintain incredible archives, but they've got different methods for managing the madness, which don't always line up with workflows and real-world habits. Content creators rely on their memories or YouTube to find old audio, and that works to a degree. But in the meantime, lots of awesome, time-saving and revenue-generating opportunities are going to waste.

Want a taste from the archive? Let Nikki Silva tell you about "War and Separation," one of the first pieces The Kitchen Sisters produced for NPR in the early 1980s.

Read more in the press release.

Before arriving in California, Anne Wootton lived in France, and managed a historic newspaper digitization project at Brown University. Anne came to the UC-Berkeley School of Information with an interest in digital archives and the sociology of technology. She spent summer 2011 working with The Kitchen Sisters and grant agencies to identify preservation and access opportunities for independent radio. She holds a Master's degree in Information Management and Systems.

April 27 2012

15:30

Agile, social, cheap: The new way NPR is trying to make radio

Old radio

The last time NPR launched a show was five years ago. It was the Bryant Park Project, a morning newsmagazine aimed at younger listeners. The network developed the show in secret and beefed up its New York bureau with reporters, producers, and editors. The budget for its first year was more than $2 million.

BPP was cancelled after 10 months, having reached just 13 markets. The underdeveloped show could never compete with Morning Edition, whose national listenership is topped only by Rush Limbaugh. A few months later, NPR cancelled two more news programs, Day to Day and News and Notes, blaming a disastrous budget gap.

Now NPR is taking another stab at creating new programming, but the approach looks quite different. Its newest show, TED Radio Hour (hosted by Alison Stewart, formerly BPP’s co-host), debuts today in at least seven markets. Ask Me Another, a prerecorded live game show for puzzle types, begins airing next weekend in at least six markets, including Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. And John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders, which I guess is a variety show for hipsters, debuts later this year.

What’s different this time? The network seems to be taking a page from agile software development, the philosophy that products should be released early and iterated often. The shows are live (cheap) and/or adaptations of existing shows (easy), all produced in six- or 10- or 13-episode pilot runs instead of as permanent offerings. Listeners and local program directors are invited to help shape the sound of the programs, making it something of a public beta.

“We’ve had successful shows that have been around for decades, and the newest ones that are reaching big audiences — even those are a decade old.”

Ask Me Another, for example, is perfectly designed for social media (which, remember, barely existed when Bryant Park Project began). Because it’s a live show, every member of the audience is a potential Twitter or Facebook connection.

Word of the show spread on social media — which is how I found out about it — so NPR PR has a head start. The network says 4,000 people have already attended the live shows, pre-launch. The shows are being fed to member stations free of charge.

“Historically, the way that NPR and others in public radio have produced big programming is we come up with an idea we think is really good, we hire a staff, we keep all this very cloak-and-dagger secret, and then we try to make a big launch with it, and we end up with 30 stations and then over time more stations add to it,” Eric Nuzum, NPR’s newly promoted vice president of programming, told me.

“Using that process, it takes years to determine years if something is going to be a hit or not. And that involves millions and millions of dollars.”

In other words, failure is a much bigger fail. If Ask Me Another doesn’t take off, hey, it was still a relatively cheap experiment. Nuzum says the weak economy is driving in the new strategy. (NPR would not tell me how much money is budgeted for the programs, but it’s safe to say none of them costs $2 million.)

Two years ago, NPR conducted an “audience opportunity study” that found listeners wanted more shows that sound like them. A lighter approach, more humor. Shows like Ask Me Another could be the hook that casual listeners need to discover other radio programming, Nuzum said. Some of the most successful public radio shows, after all, are weekend shows — This American Life, Car Talk, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!

“It’s much easier to describe this when I’m in person with someone, so I apologize if some of this seems vague, because I actually draw when I’m talking about this,” Nuzum said.

Don’t worry, Eric Nuzum, we got this. Here is an interpretation of what his drawing might look like, by Lisa Tobin:

Circles

“Imagine there’s a circle, and the circle’s really dark, and that circle is our current audience. And it’s dark because there are so many people — there’s like a gravitational force — that are all kind of brought together. Then imagine a much larger ring around that circle, and that’s our potential audience. What we’re trying to do is bring that audience towards that center, trying to bring them more towards our programming.

“What we did before was we were just creating shows that occupied space in that larger circle without really paying attention to how well it connected to the inner circle. These shows are much more an attempt to have something that connects both to the larger circle and the inner circle as well.”

Nuzum said he is emulating HBO’s iterative approach to programming. He’s not the first to make the comparison. Cambridge-based PRX has experimented with new programming and distribution for five years, including with Marc Maron’s podcast WTF and The Moth Radio Hour. Jake Shapiro, the executive director of PRX, has long proposed a “public radio pilot season.”

“We’ve had successful shows that have been around for decades, and the newest ones that are reaching big audiences — even those are a decade old,” he told me. “We had a really good experiment with something similar, which was Public Radio Talent Quest, but that was more focused on hosts and new voices.”

Glynn Washington, one of the two Talent Quest winners, would go on to host NPR’s Snap Judgment. But the five dozen other people seen as serious competitors were largely forgotten. Shapiro says there’s a big ecosystem of podcasters and aspiring podcasters who would jump at the chance to be a part of public radio.

“It revealed that there’s a way to take some of what is the chaotic but very effective commercial television season dance and translate it into public radio terms, where essentially we collaborate with stations to introduce new show concepts, on air and online, in a very visible, very vocal way,” he said.

Nuzum said the nimble approach to programming is more or less the new normal at NPR. “Whether [these shows] have a future or not, I’m really proud of what we’ve come up with,” he said. “The bigger experiment is the process…This wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago.”

Photo of an old radio by santibon used under a Creative Commons license.

January 19 2012

15:20

Why PRX, Knight Created an Accelerator for Public Media

We announced PRX's partnership with the Knight Foundation to create the Public Media Accelerator about a month ago. Since then, it's become clear that the accelerator concept is new to many people in the non-profit and public media worlds, even as tech folks fret that accelerators have jumped the shark.

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Our tagline for the Public Media Accelerator is "seeking mission-driven entrepreneurs changing media for good." We're in a time of remarkable technology innovation, and our goal is to channel the forces driving that growth towards public service media.

The two forces, the tech sector and public media, need each other: The tech sector will gain from public media's high-quality content, commitment to community, and public service mission; and public media will gain from technology's network efficiencies, professional and social connections, and radical new distribution paths.

As we spend the early weeks of this venture fleshing out our thinking and surveying the landscape, I thought I'd share both a snapshot of the accelerator scene and some of the issues triggering discussion at the Public Media Accelerator.

What's an accelerator?

Accelerators are organizations focused on early stage investment in technology startups, providing a mix of financing, mentorship and other support to help launch new companies with the potential for explosive growth.

Most accelerators boil down to a few essentials:

  1. Funding -- Typically for-profit accelerators provide $20k-$50k and take approximately 5% in equity.
  2. Founding teams -- The participants are small teams, often 2-3 people, who are proto-founders of a company organized around a product/service vision.
  3. Program and process -- The accelerator creates a structure and curriculum, typically offered in an intensive residential 2-3 month sprint.
  4. Networking and expertise -- There's enormous value in the accelerator's ability to match teams with experienced mentors, advisers and investors who assist the teams on design, product, marketing, business development, and more.
  5. Space and logistical support -- Often there is co-working space and light infrastructure support for the teams during the in-person sessions.
  6. Demo day -- The process culminates in a showcase of the team's products at a "demo day" for investors and press.

Accelerators are popping up all over. TechStars, one of the leaders in the field, has even franchised the model to support new accelerators around the world. Xconomy tracks 64 of them in its latest annual report. Budding entrepreneurs, faced with so many options, can use the "Unified Seed Accelerator Application" form to apply to numerous accelerators in one fell swoop.

A growing trend that includes the Public Media Accelerator is "vertical" accelerators that focus on a particular industry, platform or other niche. Examples include Rockhealth, which targets startups in health care and FinTech for financial tech. There are a growing number with social missions, including one of my favorites, the Unreasonable Institute. And just last week Code for America announced a forthcoming accelerator targeting "civic startups."

accelerators shifting into high gear

With so many groups with money and advice to give, are there enough takers? The answer is yes -- plenty, in fact -- although there is growing competition for the best teams and ideas. The fact is that today the costs of creating a startup are much lower by virtue of cloud computing and other tech efficiencies; the growth of Internet and mobile access has created a global market and means of distribution; entrepreneurial culture has taken root among enterprising developers; the high-profile successes of Internet startups and Y Combinator/TechStars alumni have inspired follow-on models.

The most obvious and meaningful benchmark of success is the number of companies in the accelerator's portfolio that secure follow-on financing, and, further downstream, a successful "exit" in an acquisition, IPO or profitability.

While the ingredients for what goes into an accelerator can be broken out and reassembled, the special sauce is the unique mix of the accelerator management team's judgment, talent, relationships, experience, and pure luck of the draw in shepherding companies through to further funding, growth and profit.

It's clear that public media needs its own accelerator -- attuned to the needs and assets of the industry and connected to the talent and energy in the broader technology and media world.

The PRX Knight team has our own special sauce, but our measure of success is not profits and exits per se -- it's furthering the values and impact of public service media, with sustainability and revenue being critical to create a lasting effect. We decided early on that the Public Media Accelerator would look for both for-profit and non-profit opportunities (something Knight Foundation has started to explore recently through its Enterprise Fund).

There are a number of for-profit organizations in public media -- production companies, service providers, subsidiaries, etc. But the vast majority of the system -- local stations, distributors, and national networks including PRX itself -- are non-profits. And many of the sources of revenue are contingent upon non-profit status -- CPB grants, foundation and government funding, individual donations, FCC-regulated broadcast sponsorship. To my knowledge, there are no venture-backed companies focused on public media, in part because a traditional definition of the market is too small to target.

finding the right mix of for-profit and non-profit

So why would the Public Media Accelerator be open to for-profit investments? Would the same ingredients hold together in a purely non-profit context? How do we harness the for-profit energy that attracts top talent and aligns incentives in the standard accelerator model, while advancing the mission-driven principles at the core of the venture?

First, while we will not restrict the accelerator to one funding path, we recognize that for-profits and non-profits require different structures and approaches to be effective. In some cases we will help pioneer new hybrid models that straddle both.

Second, we want to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the grant-driven, project-based funding that has been the means of innovation funding in the industry to date. These efforts tend to be incremental, short-lived, and at best result in "sustaining" rather than "disruptive" innovation (using Clayton Christensen's well-known construct). It's not hard to see why disruptive innovations tend to come from outside successful organizations and industries rather than from within. The Public Media Accelerator has the opportunity to change this dynamic: Knight and PRX have significant standing and relationships in public media, but are also accomplished risk-takers without the legacies and limits of many public media institutions.

Third, we see the accelerator model as a way to attract new talent into the field. While we anticipate working with a number of the current forward-leaning teams within the industry, our opportunity is to expand the pool, and inspire and enable a new cadre of public media entrepreneurs (also address the developer gap I blogged about here recently). We take our own inspiration from Mozilla, Wikipedia, Code for America, and the growing number of mission-driven technology efforts that aspire to and achieve success on an Internet scale. Technologists and entrepreneurs want to make meaningful things, and public media should embrace them.

What are we looking for?

We've said two areas of interest are mobile and monetization, but we are also intentionally leaving a wide open door for ideas that break the mold. Our evolving list of criteria includes:

Mission-driven: The ideas should encompass public media's mission and values as an impact goal, not merely a side effect.

Disruptive: We're excited about ideas that change the game through some systemic or business model insight, more so than smart improvements to the way things already work.

Scalable/replicable: Ideas should have the potential to scale to significant impact and business sustainability or be replicable by others.

The Public Media Accelerator is not a content fund, but we'll seek to connect content in ways that deepen its value and impact and address the business model of its production and distribution.

We still have a number of open questions as we get underway, but rather than attempt to answer them all, we're taking our own advice and launching the Public Media Accelerator as a lean startup of its own -- building as we go, trusting in a talented team, being ready to pivot, actively networking and learning from advisers and mentors, and relentlessly focused on the mission of transforming public media. (We are still accepting applications for the director position, a terrific opportunity to help lead the media revolution.)

Follow us on Twitter (@publicmediax and on the Public Media Accelerator site.

December 08 2011

15:00

A Y Combinator for public media: PRX, Knight launch a $2.5 million accelerator

A new Public Media Accelerator, funded by $2.5 million from the Knight Foundation, will rapidly fund disruptive ideas in public media, PRX announced today.

Public Media Accelerator logoThe final details are still being worked out, but the accelerator is modeled on successful startup-focused initiatives like TechStars and Y Combinator. Technologists and digital storytellers will compete for cash to build their ideas. Winners will come to Cambridge for intensive, 12-week development cycles, under the guidance of mentors with deep experience in the field, all culminating in a demo day and the chance to win additional rounds of funding.

“In the digital domain we’re not setting the pace for innovation in the same way we did in the broadcast world,” said Jake Shapiro, the executive director of PRX. The accelerator is welcoming both nonprofit and for-profit ventures, unusual for public media. Shapiro said he wants to attract top talent, people who might never consider the field otherwise.

Last week, writing for Idea Lab, Shapiro said he observed a “worrisome gap” between coders and storytellers, estimating that fewer than 100 of the 15,000 people in public broadcasting are developers :

As public broadcasting goes through its own turbulent transition to a new Internet and mobile world, the technology talent gap is a risk that looms large. Yes, there are many other challenges…But the twin coins of the new digital realm are code and design, and with a few notable exceptions, public media is seriously lacking in both.

A shortage of innovation is not unique to public media, he told me. Nonprofits suffer constraints on financing ideas to scale, a lack of risk capital, and a lack of investment in deep R&D and technology, Shapiro said. The accelerator “gives license to risk in a more intentional way, and we definitely need more of that.”

The Public Media Accelerator is also another sign the Knight Foundation is taking cues from Silicon Valley’s startup culture. Knight will retain a financial stake in for-profit ventures that receive seed money, moving away from its traditional role as pure philanthropist. Earlier this year, Knight launched a venture-capital enterprise fund. And in October, senior adviser Eric Newton said the annual Knight News Challenge, a five-year experiment, will speed up to three times per year, starting in 2012.

“As we’ve started funding more smaller entities and startups, that model makes a lot more sense for us,” said Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation. “That model allows us to go smaller, faster, more nimble.”

Even the program came together fast: Shapiro approached Maness and Knight’s John Bracken with the idea in July. Board approval came in September, and the project will formally get underway at SXSW Interactive in March.

So if for-profits are making public media and funders are buying stakes in startups, is it “public media” anymore? What is public media, anyway?

“It’s about intent and values and goals and impact,” Shapiro said. “I’ve been in endless philosophical conversations about ‘what is public media’ over the years, and in some cases there are examples of pub media that are completely outside our field. I think on good days The Daily Show is public media…I think Wikipedia is public media. I’d rather just claim them than have to reinvent them,” he said, half-joking.

The Public Media Accelerator immediately begins searching for a director to administer the fund and an advisory board. Shapiro, Manness, and Bracken will remain as advisers.

September 15 2011

15:14

With Music Mine, PRX Aims to Reshape Public Media on the iPad

KCRW Music Mine

Public Radio Exchange just announced the launch of KCRW Music Mine, an iPad app that gives you a unique, exciting way to discover new music.

Music Mine is the product of a close partnership between PRX and KCRW, with design by Roundarch and music intelligence powered by The Echo Nest. Nearly a year in the making, the app developed from lengthy brainstorming sessions about what a next-generation station experience on the iPad should -- and could -- be.

KCRW excels at a lot of things -- music, news, local Los Angeles culture, food, arts, film. But rather than attempt to recreate the KCRW.com website, or duplicate the station's existing iPhone app on the iPad, we went further. We chose a focused concept that spotlights KCRW's expertise in music discovery and pushes the limits of the iPad user experience.

PRX and KCRW certainly weren't the first to come up with an app that lets you listen to music or even radio programs about music. So we pushed further, drawing upon the formidable design talents of digital agency Roundarch to wield user experience and graphic design to truly set this app apart. The Echo Nest was also brought in for their "music intelligence platform" which gathers music news and multimedia content from across the web.

The result is stunning. This video gives you an idea:

The app is beautiful and appealing. But we weren't just going for beauty. We wanted to transform the music discovery experience from simply tapping a Play button and getting what you're given (though that's plenty great, too) into something much more active. With KCRW Music Mine, you want to pay attention. You want to explore, with the knowledge that KCRW DJs will make sure you only find good stuff. You can use the app simply to discover new music to like, or you can choose to go deeper to learn more about the artist and their work.

Or, you can just tap a Play button and get what KCRW's Eclectic24 gives you.

Not only do we think Music Mine reshapes the music discovery experience, we think it exemplifies the kind of mobile/tablet presence public media should aspire to. At PRX, we believe that new platforms are opening up great possibility for fresh new expressions -- not just reflections -- of stations and programs.

KCRW Music Mine is a perfect incarnation of PRX's mobile goals: to partner with innovative entities to create cutting-edge mobile experiences for public media.

A version of this story also appears on the PRX Blog.

May 24 2011

14:00

“Expanding the palette of public radio”: Marc Maron’s WTF moves from podcast to program

Last month, we posted an interview Josh did with The Sound of Young America‘s Jesse Thorn. During their conversation, Thorn mentioned that he was working on trying to bring his friend Marc Maron‘s interview show WTF to public radio sometime in the “late spring of this year.”

Well: It is done. Last week, WTF was picked up by PRX (FTW!), thus making it available for distribution to stations around the country. And a number have already signed on: WTF has been licensed so far by New York’s WNYC, Chicago’s WBEZ, and, as of yesterday, Austin’s KUT — with more, Thorn told me, on the way.

WTF both is and isn’t standard public radio fare. On one hand, it’s two people sitting behind microphones, one interviewing the other, a form as old as the medium. On the other, it’s far less formal and more sprawling than what you’d get from a Terry Gross or a Diane Rehm. Maron interviews comedians in each episode — Conan O’Brien, Robin Williams, Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K. — in loose conversations that can extend well beyond an hour. The format and Maron’s abilities have led to surprisingly open and revealing interviews. As Ira Glass told The New York Times, “People say stuff to him that you can’t imagine them saying to anyone else. And they offer it. They want to give it to him. Because he is so bare, he calls it forward.”

As part of the shift to a public radio format, podcast episodes had to be compacted and reshuffled to fit into one-hour time slots. There was also some bleeping necessary; WTF suggests “sensitive listeners should be advised.” Glass, who championed the show’s move to radio, insisted on keeping the name intact, acronym moralists be damned. (Check out Glass’ promos for the show below. You can hear all 10 episodes, pulled from the best of WTF’s archives, at PRX’s website.)

Thorn said he hopes that WTF can be part of a move to broaden the kind of content — and the kind of show formats — on the public airwaves. “I think the type of interview that Marc does is something that’s new to public radio,” he says. His interview style signals a shift not because it’s profane or vulgar — “which I think is what, sometimes, program directors assume about it” — but because it is raw and real in a way “that you don’t hear almost anywhere in broadcasting — outside of, to some extent, your semi-exploitative television interviews” (Oprah, Barbara Walters, etc.).

That emotional, human-to-human connection can be a rarity within a platform whose definition of professionalism is often bound up in the interviewer’s ability to express both empathy and detachment at once. (Paging Jay Rosen.) “I don’t think it’s something that has existed in public media in the context of an interview show — and especially on a public radio show,” Thorn says. He likens Maron’s interviewing style to that of…Howard Stern, since, say what you will about the shock jock, “one thing that he’s capable of doing brilliantly is finding emotional revelations in his guests. And he does that by being so honest about himself that the guest can’t help but be honest about themselves.”

That authentic element, Thorn notes — the closeness, the rawness — is part of what has made shows like This American Life and Radiolab into successes, particularly with younger listeners. And when Glass made his push to promote WTF into a show, furthering that trend was part of the idea:

It’s high time we on public radio harvest the very best of the podcasts out there and bring them to our audience. This is a great, easy, audience-friendly way to do that.

It’s about, essentially, “expanding the palette of public radio,” Thorn says: about providing listeners with new ways to understand the intimacy of the spoken word. “I think that Marc recording the show in his garage, with his books, feeds that strength of audio as a format,” Thorn says. “It’s like having something whispered in your ear. It’s automatically very intimate.”

February 03 2011

16:26

iPhone or Android? Key Tips for Publishers Considering Apps

2011 is already seeing Android and Apple battle it out for ascendancy in sales of smartphones and tablets and, more interestingly, in the world of apps and app makers. Media organizations navigating this terrain have a lot of factors to weigh before taking the plunge and creating a serious presence on these increasingly important platforms.

Thanks to some hard-won experience from PRX's own successful iOS and Android adventures, I'm going to tackle common questions and concepts related to media apps. (This post is Part 1 of a two-part story.) For a deeper technical dive I recommend visiting labs.prx.org, where our developers hold forth.

Why go 'Native'? Won't the mobile web win out?

These questions are part of an active debate that is constantly revisited as the landscape shifts, and answers also depend on who is asking. Game developers, e-commerce sites, photo services and media publishers have different needs.

Native apps use code written specifically for a device and operating system, and are able to take advantage of built-in features like multi-touch screens and GPS. Good native apps are more usable overall, make best use of the included functionality (which in Apple's case includes in-app payments, other than donations), are more discoverable through app stores, and offer more distinct branding and identity than a bookmarked web page.

The downside is that good native apps require a significant investment to develop and maintain, and you have to build different ones for each platform. Android has the additional challenge of fragmentation across devices and carriers, meaning in some cases you have to worry about optimizing an app for particularly problematic combinations. Check out Wikipedia's rundown of the proliferating universe of Android devices.

While there are a variety of emerging low-cost templatized services for app development -- Josh Benton built his own for the Nieman Lab for $624, and RedFoundry has some smart stuff in the works -- genuine specific custom app development is a costly and time-consuming affair. Developers are in high demand and a freelance contract could run you $125 per hour, with a solid app costing anywhere from $10,000 on the simple side to upwards of $100,000 for more complex projects, plus ongoing maintenance, support, improvements. (I'll talk about ways to recoup these costs in Part 2 of this story).

Meantime, HTML5 and the mobile web are advancing, and at a minimum offer a compelling way to optimize your web presence for mobile. No one knows if or when HTML5 might suffice and custom apps are rendered unnecessary, but my guess is there will remain a critical gap for years to come.

Ultimately, if you want a distinct offering on iOS and Android, but also want something accessible for the hundreds of other mobile platforms now web-enabled, you'll need to take on all of the above.

iOS or Android? Do I have to do both?

Market share alone would argue for addressing both, and depending on your target audience there's RIM, Windows, Symbian, etc. (Check your current analytics to see which platforms are already hitting your site.) Media organizations with existing online audiences will quickly learn that launching on iOS only will provoke an impatient if not hostile reaction from growing legions of Android users. (Be prepared -- the pitched battle of tech giants Apple and Google is somehow subconsciously absorbed into their users' feelings about how they are treated by app developers.)

Unfortunately for the native path, there's really no such thing as "porting" an app from iOS to Android. These are different beasts -- from deep code, to UI conventions, to user habits, to app store navigation and discovery.

In PRX's experience, our partners tend to want to start with an iPhone app, followed by Android, followed by an iPad app that does more than just offer a bigger version of the first.

That's all for Part 1. In Part 2, I'll talk more about app strategy, monetization, impact, and hopes for the future.

November 12 2010

16:43

Remix Radio Re-Imagines Public Radio as Interactive Collage

While we continue to delve into code-level collaboration with Spot.Us to get our Story Exchange crowdfunding project launched later this year, I'll take the opportunity in my next couple posts to give updates on other emerging PRX services that are helping reshape public radio, and that ultimately will amplify the results of Story Exchange.

First up is Remix Radio, an entirely new sound for public radio.

Remix Radio

remix_flyer_front_hi.gif The basic idea of Remix is to create a story-driven radio format that aggregates and curates remarkable audio -- short-form documentaries, features, podcasts, interviews, archives, "found sound" -- and rotates it through a 24/7 channel in surprising and serendipitous ways. The goal is to make it sound awesome, interesting, fresh, diverse, unusual and compelling. We want to reach a new audience -- one that is younger and more diverse than the current public radio average, and that is curious about the world but not satisfied with the steady diet of talk/news on the radio or elsewhere.

You can check out Remix Radio now using the player below, visit the Remix Radio website, find Remix in the iTunes radio directory, favorite it on our Public Radio Player iPhone app, or tune into XM 136. And soon you'll be able to find Remix on local public radio stations around the country.

On Remix you might hear a classic short documentary from the Kitchen Sisters followed by audio from a recent PopTech! presentation, mixed in with a voicemail music mashup from the new website OneHelloWorld.

Some things you won't find on Remix Radio:

There is no set schedule, no top-of-the-hour news, no standard public radio clock (the breaks at the top of the hour and at 20 and 40 minutes, public radio's circadian rhythm). There are no daily or weekly national programs like "Fresh Air" and "This American Life," although you might encounter short segments that have appeared on other shows, brought into a new context. There are no announcers, news-readers, or reporters. But we do have a host -- our head curator, documentary DJ and producer extraordinaire Roman Mars.

Experimenting With a New Format

There are several insights driving the development of Remix Radio.

First is the realization that there are tons of powerful stories and audio pieces that often languish in the margins of existing formats and programs, or don't get on the radar screen to begin with. NPR calls these "driveway moments" -- the stories that trap you in the car lest you miss a second of a gripping tale.

PRX has a growing catalog of tens of thousands of these stories, and mostly we help get them out to local stations for broadcast. Last year we distributed over 9,000 pieces, but, with the exception of some superb showcase programs like KUT's O'Dark 30, the best stories aren't tied together to create a collective impression.

Another is the sore need to experiment with a new public radio format. The main flavors of news/information, classical, jazz, and Triple A have largely stayed the same for decades in public radio. The focus on consistency has been a necessary and successful strategy to build audience, but it's also led to uniformity and lack of innovation around new local/national channels and new program development. (See Bill McKibben's article in the New York Review of Books that underscores this and highlights some promising programs.)

While public radio has been making serious investments in new digital capacity and experiments on the web and now in mobile, there's little systemic strategizing or experimentation (with the notable exception of Vocalo) for the industry's biggest platform by far: Audio broadcast and streaming.

Then there's the fact that many of the best stories that air on public radio aren't heard by the majority of listeners because they air only once or twice, when only a fraction of a station's "cume" (weekly total listeners) is tuned in. This is especially true for short pieces.

Remix Radio has turned a necessity into a virtue: Since we have 24 hours a day to fill, we inevitably have to repeat a lot of content. Rather than hide that fact or resort to big blocks of looping programs we hand pick hundreds of stories that bear repeated listening and much like a music station we put them in heavy, medium and light rotation (with help from our friends and partners at Backbone whose Internet radio automation software is a linchpin of the service). We set patterns and ways of tagging and categorizing the pieces, but it's an algorithm that chooses what to play when and we ourselves aren't sure what might play next.

And lastly is the somewhat paradoxical and intriguing notion that at a time when the world is going on-demand and we all have the tools to stitch together our own media menu, there's an interesting opportunity to rethink the lean back experience of a curated channel. Where's the sweet spot between the rapidly fading value of "appointment listening" ("tune in this afternoon at 3 o'clock to hear...") and the unsustainable expectation that we will meticulously assemble podcast playlists, sync our devices, and devote time to discover new stuff?

Remix Radio is plunging into that question and using it as an excuse to reimagine radio from the ground up.

New Ideas

Some ideas we're cooking up:

  • Mobile participation -- How might Remix enlist listeners to help shape the channel, submit content, vote on playlists, and connect with each other? We've been keeping an eye on Jelli, a commercial music radio attempt to do some of this. And we're in love with Twilio as a way to integrate our web applications with voice interactivity.
  • Networked DJing -- One great advantage of our Remix Radio setup is that anyone working on the channel can manage it remotely from their laptop. All of the audio is stored in the cloud, streamed directly for the web and mobile, and delivered over the Internet as broadcast-ready files for XM and terrestrial delivery. There's no physical station, control room, master control engineering, satellite dishes etc. This means we can have a distributed network of program directors, show producers, on-air hosts, etc. -- all collaborating on Remix from different locations.
  • The continuum of sound -- We're thinking hard about how audio pieces traverse the various platforms that audiences use, what form factors apply, and where smart systems can help make that migration smooth for producers and listeners. What kind of technology, design and editorial input is needed for a podcast to become a segment of a radio program, for it to live as an embedded widget on a page, or a swipable screen on an iPhone app? It doesn't make sense to focus exclusively on one end of the continuum or the other; listening happens everywhere.

    How does all of this tie back in to Story Exchange? At PRX we're rethinking the whole life cycle of content creation, distribution, and engagement. Story Exchange will create opportunities to find and fund new stories, and Remix will help connect them with audiences in new ways.

Stay tuned!

September 23 2010

17:30

A Guide to Rising Public Media Networks in the U.S.

While it's taken public broadcasters awhile to catch up to the possibilities and dynamics of social and mobile media platforms, over the past year on MediaShift we have been documenting a flurry of innovation that reveals new possibilities for how the sector might share content, do business, and engage publics. Here's a guide to several types of rising public media networks, and a look at how new policy models might better support them.

Networked Content

Content networks are nothing new to public broadcasters -- NPR and PBS serve as closed and centralized hubs of content aggregation and distribution to member stations, and PRX has demonstrated the benefits of a more open, digital conduit between producers, stations and the public. But the June announcement that NPR would lead a coalition of such distributors in developing a joint Public Media Platform (PMP) upped the ante. A prototype, slated to be done by the end of the year, will build upon NPR's successful API and related experiments, which have powered a variety of mobile and iPad apps, allowed local station sites to feature national content, and enabled external viral distribution of public radio content via data mashups.

If it works, the PMP will expand the audience for and utility of public broadcasting content. It will also serve as a point of entry for new public media contributors, most immediately from non-commercial and hyper-local news projects. And it will create new opportunities for content to flow across public media silos, making collaboration much easier. This would encourage curated cross-platform projects like WGBH's new World Compass site, and targeted aggregation on public broadcasting sites, such as the "Public Media Resources" section on the site of the PBS NewsHour. Plus, as the graphic below suggests, the PMP would support entirely new uses of content by developers, educational institutions, and non-profits.

public media platform grab.jpg

(You can see a larger version of the image here)

Although it represents a much needed (and much discussed) integration of content, the project is not without its tensions. There are many rights issues to be worked out, and public stations are leery that products built via the PMP will pull audiences and dollars away from them. But as Eliot Van Buskirk notes on Wired's Epicenter blog, "Ultimately, the upside to all of this sharing, repackaging and distribution will likely be bigger than the downside, so far as the public is concerned. This Public Media Platform will bring competition to member stations that didn't exist before, and should result in a large number of apps, sites and publications over the coming years, if things go as planned."

What's more, NPR's Kinsey Wilson told Poynter that the PMP could serve as an "engine of innovation" for journalism, powering reporting experiments like NPR's new Project Argo.

Networked Outlets and Producers

Creating a big content repository is just one step in the process of building a vibrant public media network. Both public broadcasting outlets and independent makers need help understanding how best to curate and package digital content, and how to attract networked users [PDF] to it.

Over the last several decades, trade organizations have emerged in the public broadcasting sector to represent the interests of and provide services to discrete groups of outlets and makers, including the Association of Public Television Stations, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated, the Association of Independents in Radio and others. But while most of these are organized according to platform, innovators working in cross-platform, digital and mobile production don't have a central hub to share success and failures and hash out new standards.

While the Integrated Media Association has served this role, currently it's in a transition phase; as a result, the organization will not hold a 2010 conference. In its absence, a number of less formal networks have sprung up to connect stations, makers and developers.

MediaShift has reported before on two of these rising networks: the Public Media Chat (#pubmedia) on Twitter, which is organized by a revolving group of volunteers, and the Public Media Camps, jointly organized by NPR and PBS. (Full disclosure: I've been involved in hosting both, including the next national PubCamp, slated for November 20.)

The PubCamps and #pubmedia chats have been growing and deepening over the past few months, in part because both provide openings for new thinkers and doers from outside of traditional public broadcasting to participate. The chats encourage this interaction because they take place on an open platform, and overlap with other networks of Twitter users focused on the future of news and community media. The Public Media Camps are explicitly designed to bring developers and community members together with both stations and national public broadcasting organizations to brainstorm new projects and apps.

With support from CPB, the pace of local PubCamps picked up over the summer. But even stations who haven't received any hosting funds have started to organize their own camps. These events not only foster the creation of local networks, and feed into the emerging national network of PubCamp participants, who are connected across a variety of social media platforms. Take a look at this presentation from the North Carolina PubCamp to get a sense of how this works.

While such social media-driven exchanges may seem chaotic to those used to more traditional nametag-and-plenary style conferences, they can produce surprisingly effective results. For example, a recent #pubmedia chat prompted WGBH's Chris Beers to whip up an archive of public broadcasting web sites over the course of a few days. Such a resource -- potentially a valuable tool for stations, developers and policymakers -- could have cost thousands of dollars and wasted numerous agonizing hours in planning meetings. But because Beers is operating from an open source perspective, he built this tool with the expectation that the community would use it, contribute to it, and improve it in the process. A similar spirit is on display on the PubMedia Commons site, which archives the chats and offers a shared code repository.

The chats and PubCamps also serve as generative spaces for exchanges between media makers who may share similar goals goals but don't usually interact. For example, this weekend's PubCamp in Champaign-Urbana promises to bring both public and community broadcasters together with open source developers and staff from CU-CitizenAccess, a civic engagement project based at the University of Illinois, designed to both report on and develop solutions with locals living in poverty.

As Jason Pramas of Open Media Boston writes, "we had public media staffers, community media staff, and independent producers involved in planning PubMediaCamp Boston from the get-go ... [with an] overarching goal of holding an event that would help network people from all these communities and encourage collaboration."

He said that his session spawned yet another small network, "a FuturePublicMedia email list where all kinds of public media supporters from the communities represented at PubMediaCamp Boston can talk about the public media system we want to build, and how we might advocate for it."

Networked Publics

Networked content and outlets alone aren't guaranteed to attract new audiences. The real growth area lies in the ability of public media organizations to use digital platforms to meaningfully connect with users around issues, communities and events. This involves both reaching out on existing social media platforms where they already congregate, and creating more specialized networks of users around particular goals.

For many stations and public broadcasting programs, this is still very much a trial-and-error process. They start Twitter accounts, post Facebook pages, and then wonder disconsolately why no one is friending them. Or, perhaps worse, they approach these two-way platforms with one-way expectations borrowed from PR and broadcast, only to discover that their users have more than enough to discuss with them.

Mississippi Public Broadcasting learned this lesson the hard way when it canceled the broadcast of Fresh Air after Terri Gross interviewed controversial comic Louis C.K. The station's Facebook page quickly became a rallying point for protesters, and the crusade has continued on a dedicated page titled "Bring Fresh Air Back to Mississippi."

Beyond interacting with users as content consumers, public broadcasters are learning how to interact with them as sources, and even in some cases as content producers. What's more, they're developing both online and offline contexts that allow publics to form their own networks around shared interests or cultural gatherings such as The Moth, a storytelling slam and radio hour. The National Center for Media Engagement has been cataloging such promising engagement efforts on its Pipeline page and in a series of peer webinars.

American Public Media's Public Insight Network(PIN) has been one of the most tenacious and creative hubs for building effective public media user networks. Now, in the middle of a three-year, $2.95 million grant from the Knight Foundation, PIN is aggressively expanding to new cities and adding new partners and capabilities as it goes.

Joaquin Alvarado, APM's senior vice president for digital innovation, calls PIN an "engagement platform" for public media. Users are recruited as sources with particular expertise, and tapped by journalists in partner newsrooms for interviews, focus groups and story suggestions. Alvarado explains that PIN developers are now working on a Drupal-based ecosystem of tools that will both make it easier for reporters to find relevant sources and networks for their stories, and allow users to track how their own contributions are making their way into coverage. The bet is that seeing themselves as part of the network might increase sources' already impressive response rate to PIN email inquiries.

PIN is broadening the network of public media entities by serving as a conduit for stations to partner up with local commercial and nonprofit news outlets. Take Miami, where WLRN is working with the Miami Herald to recruit local sources; as a result, PIN developers are working on a Spanish-language version of the network's tools, which can then be deployed elsewhere.

Beyond that, however, PIN is uncovering the power of tapping sources' own personal networks. For example, a query to the network about Lutherans' response to a vote allowing gay pastors to serve as clergy yielded a huge response: More than 2500 new sources joined the network to weigh in.

"Every community contains within it fault lines that can, under the right conditions, break open into chasms," reflected PIN Editor Andrew Haeg on the MPR site. "We agree, sometimes silently, to disagree -- or at least not to address our split for fear of upsetting the status quo. Our inquiry became a sort of social Richter scale revealing a community rocked by a temblor that the rest of us hardly felt."

Building New Models of Networked Public Media

Against the backdrop of widespread public experimentation with social media platforms like Wikipedia, Twitter and Facebook, these efforts by public broadcasters may seem like too little too late. But what's notable is that all of these networks have been built without policy support, earmarked funds, or consistent collaboration designed to link them together. Right now, taxpayer, underwriter and member dollars are still mostly dedicated to supporting broadcast stations and content. Imagine what would happen if that equation shifted?

Center for Social Media Fellow Ellen Goodman makes that imaginative leap in a forthcoming article for the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology. Goodman, a professor at Rutgers University School of Law at Camden, worked with University of Pennsylvania research fellow Anne Chen to develop a new model for making public media policy based on a layered structure borrowed from the Internet's own architecture. Right now, they point out, the primary focus of policy and funding is the broadcast station. Future policymaking designed to support a public media network, however, could be focused on four discrete layers of function: Transmission infrastructure, creation of content and applications, curation of public media content and archives, and connection to the public. Note that these layers roughly mirror the emerging networks described above.

Dedicated digital infrastructure, more flexible funding, and a renewed emphasis on connection could work to knit public broadcasting's currently fragmented and resource-starved networks into a powerful national platform for learning, public dialogue, and problem solving. This would not require centralizing operations at the coasts; instead it would involve constructing a network of networks, connected via shared protocols and standards. Such a network could also support the capacity for local reporting, encouraging civic engagement on the ground and feeding diverse content and conversations back up to national programs and sites. It could foster local and national connections with other noncommercial partners who share a public mission.

"Public media has the potential to meet some of the nation's most critical information
needs," write Goodman and Chen, "but only if public media networks are reconfigured for more collaboration, innovation, and service in a networked environment."

In order to be most viable, such a public media network would need to be developed in concert with a series of larger policy efforts: to extend broadband access to all Americans, maintain net neutrality across both wired and wireless broadband services, create network linkages between noncommercial "anchor institutions" in communities, and subsidize new equipment and hosting costs for public media producers. In a March article in Current, APM's Alvarado offered a complementary model for understanding these various needs, as depicted below.

alvarado-pyramid-smaller.jpg

Alvarado urges public broadcasters and regulators to act boldly, citing education and journalism as two major areas for beta-testing the power of new network functions. "The gaps in our current business model will widen quickly as broadband develops nationally," he writes. "We can address them only by radically shifting what we and the public expect from the system and from our individual organizations. Incremental steps will not concentrate enough resources to leapfrog the compounding limitations in resources, ambition and effectiveness."

Jessica Clark directs the Center for Social Media's Future of Public Media Project , and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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September 15 2010

17:18

PRX Story Exchange, Spot.us Bring Crowdfunding to Public Radio

Story Exchange (formerly Story Market) is a way for local public radio stations, producers, and listeners to pitch, find and fund documentaries and stories on important local issues. We're also one of this year's winners of a Knight News Challenge grant.

Here's how we envision it working: Let's say that in Kentucky the issue of mountaintop mining needs a deeper investigative look. On Story Exchange, the Louisville public radio WFPL station can invite producers to bid on reporting the story, ask listeners to contribute funds as well as ideas, and see the story through to completion for broadcast and digital distribution.

You can also watch this video to learn more:

Story Exchange has deep roots as an idea at Public Radio Exchange. Since we first launched in 2003 the core service of PRX has been an open online marketplace for public radio stories -- audio documentaries, interviews, features, and other pieces that might have already aired somewhere locally or nationally but have continued value in distribution. Over time we have built a robust market where today over 2,500 local stations, independent producers and others regularly buy, sell and distribute tens of thousands of stories (over 8,300 purchased so far just this year), reaching millions of listeners through broadcast and digital channels.

PRX Today

PRX's approach has been to create efficient tools for distribution and discovery that reduce barriers and friction, establish incentives for participation, and increase the overall pool of talent, content, access, and reach. (PRX has expanded its services and recently announced a significant round of funding.)

But even as this has succeeded on PRX.org, we see ongoing gaps in supply and demand, and new ways to use PRX's growing community and platform to connect stations and producers -- and the public -- around issues that need coverage.

Today a typical transaction on PRX might consist of a local public radio station looking for an hour-long documentary on, say, urban agriculture. They search the site, find a handful of results, audition them and then license one for broadcast. PRX charges a license fee and pays producers royalties when their work is used.

If the results turn up empty, or stations wants something customized for local use, the most PRX can typically do is help connect them with producers as a kind of talent broker. (Producers maintain LinkedIn-style resumes and portfolios on PRX.)

But what if stations, producers, and listeners themselves could use PRX as a way to seed, surface, and fund original content matched to a direct distribution opportunity? What if donations from "listeners like you" weren't just for the news you already use, but for what's missing?

This is the idea behind Story Exchange.

Story Exchange

When we were gearing up to pitch Story Exchange as a News Challenge project, we came to an interesting conclusion. While we had been kicking around the idea for several years, by now there were similar projects taking shape. Some were in adjacent fields like indie music (i.e. Sellaband), and one in particular in journalism (Spot.us, a previous and prominent News Challenge winner).

The News Challenge states up front that criteria for selection include innovation and originality. Rather than try to claim Story Exchange as a unique insight, we stated what our idea had in common with Spot.us and proposed a code-level collaboration as a signature approach of the project.

By joining the open source development of the Spot.us codebase we're going to help develop and extend the platform, integrate it with PRX's own services, and add functionality specific to the public radio system. We see this as a unique opportunity to build on a promising new model with an open source approach.

Knight's commitment to open source software sets an important threshold, but while there's important value in ensuring that investments in software stay accessible, most open source projects fail to attract a community of developers beyond the project's original team. A benefit of PRX joining forces with Spot.us is the greater likelihood that the codebase will evolve and stay relevant as ours and other projects incorporate it.

Story Exchange is just getting under way, we're planning our first pilot later this year with our partners at Louisville Public Media. Right now we're working out the details of various APIs and user authentication integration with our friends at Spot.us (If you're a coder you'll be interested to know that Spot.us and PRX are both using Ruby on Rails -- one more incentive for our collaboration -- and you'll be able to track our progress on GitHub).

We anticipate (and will blog about) some of the challenges to come, including the ways that Story Exchange runs counter to some of the ingrained public radio culture, the obstacles we encounter integrating a new model into the existing PRX system, the tech partnership, and the overall merits and successes of the emerging crowdfunding model for journalism. Stay tuned!

September 09 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of public radio’s Argonauts

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Overnight, it seems, journalism has been transformed from a daily grind to an heroic quest. Rupert Murdoch has dubbed his adventure to get readers to pay for tablet (and other) content Alesia (after a Roman/Gauls battle) and now public radio formally launches Project Argo. Ah, journalists pursuing the golden fleece. Forget Woodstein — the pursuit of journalism itself is now an against-all-odds mythic trip against budget monsters and business model slayers.

If last year was the year of massive cutting, this is the year of new news creation popping up from unusual quarters. AOL’s Patch is probably the biggest hiring agent, with more than 400 new full-time jobs covering local communities. Sites like TBD.com and Bay Citizen are crafting new products and strategies and hiring dozens of journalists. Now Argo pushes forward, in a quest to stick a new flag of public media in terra incognita, and is hiring journalists in the process.

Argo is intended to bring a high level of attention to hot button topics, covered from a regional perspective. “We want to be the best means of authoritative coverage,” NPR Digital Media G.M. Kinsey Wilson told me recently. [We want] to be the top-of-mind choice for issues like immigration [now covered out of L.A. by KPCC with the Argo site Multi-American].”

Coverage is handled by the increasingly familiar reporter/blogger/curator, finding the most relevant coverage for readers. Largely providing a single new full-time position for each new site, “hosts” come from some impressive reporting backgrounds, like WBUR’s Carey Goldberg, former Boston bureau chief of The New York Times, and Rachel Zimmerman, former health and medicine reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Much of the content — and there’s an impressive amount at launch — is text, not audio.

At first, Argo seems hard to put in context. It’s public radio becoming public media becoming locally topical, but in ways that can inform more than local audiences — which we used to think of as public radio listeners, but who are now public media listeners and readers. Got that?

I’ve talked to a number of people in the emerging public media landscape — a fairly merry lot of Argonauts and other dragon slayers who see lots of upside — so let’s take a look at the emerging newsonomics of projects like Argo.

By the raw numbers, Argo is a $3 million investment. That’s not much by traditional journalism standards, but in this day and age, it wins headlines, like the minor economic development miracle of a new big-box store being covered on the Metro front. The money comes both from a foundation — the omnipresent Knight Foundation at $1 million — and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at $2 million.

That Knight funding reminds us of the good that’s still being done by the once dependable profits of newspaper companies, as Knight Ridder funding built one of the 25 foundations in the country, one that has been instrumental in seeding sprouts of the new new journalism.

That CPB funding reminds us that our tax dollars have been supporting news for more than four decades now, even as the debate rages abstractly on whether it’s a good idea to have “government” in the news business. NPR’s news effort — supported by members, philanthropists like Joan Kroc and yes, our tax dollars — makes a pretty good case that some government funding is a good idea, especially if we compare NPR radio news to what is elsewhere generally available in the growing desert of commercial radio news coverage.

Argo itself is 12 sites, produced by 14 public radio stations (two sites are jointly produced), each specializing in major topics like education, health, immigration, and ocean health, and exploring that topic regionally. Journalists are hired by individual public radio stations, each of which applied for the funding. The initial funding is intended to sustain the sites through the end of next year — and to provide “prototype products,” according to Wilson.

So that funding is one of the first things that tells us about the business of this effort. Like Silicon Valley startups, the effort is about building a product that seems to meet a clear audience need, building that audience — and then finding a sustainable business model. That’s what has built companies for decades in the valley, and it’s in contrast to how much of the journalism business has long gotten funded.

Looking under the covers, though, here are three more things to watch about the emerging economic model underneath Argo:

  • It’s local and vertical. In the conundrum that the web has been for newsies, publishers often felt compelled to choose “local” or “vertical,” the fancy term for topical. Of course, readers’ concerns encompass both, and an education site that focuses on local education (such as Minnesota Public Radio’s Argo site On Campus) creates double value and may multiply audience. Even though, it’s “local,” just as WBUR’s CommonHealth, it will find national audiences as well.
  • It’s built for networking. Public radio used to a fairly one-way street, with national NPR and then Public Radio International and American Public Radio essentially licensing or syndicating shows to local stations, of which there are more than 250. Now built on increasingly flexible technologies like NPR’s emerging API and PRX’s exchange, local stations can increasingly both syndicate their own work, Argo-funded and other, to each other — and pick up other stations’ work more easily. In a sense, we see an alternative wire in creation, especially as the Public Media Platform goes forward.
  • It builds on public radio stations’ local news push. A number of stations represented in Argo have also begun building out their local/regional/statewide news presences. KQED, in the Bay Area, which is launching MindShift through Argo, just hired eight new news staffers as it launched KQEDNews.org (Good piece by MediaShift’s Katie Donnelly on the initiative and its context.) So in KQED’s case, as in WBUR’s, KPCC in L.A.’s, and Oregon Public Broadcasting’s, the topical initiative receives more play due to the expanded news reach — and the expanded news reach gets more public notice because of the new topical coverage.

Each of those factors are multipliers, multipliers of public radio’s emerging digital news business. They multiply audience. They multiple the ability to get members and membership income. They multiply sponsorship opportunities, the “advertising” of public radio. That’s on the business level. On the journalism level, public radio’s news values — the closest to newspaper’s traditional ones — get to flex their muscles, another early test of just how far public media wants to go in filling the yawning local news vacuum.

July 07 2010

14:00

WBUR app inches public radio toward mobile fundraising

Apple just approved a local public radio iPhone app, now in the iTunes store, that promises to deliver “localism, journalism, participation and monetation” — goals set out by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in backing its development.

The app, from Boston station WBUR, is a test of sorts. It was built by PRX, creator of (among others) the popular This American Life app, with a grant from the CPB. The hope is that the app leverages the strengths of a local station and entices other stations to pick it up.

“PRX plans to offer the resulting code under an open source license to enable other local stations to develop additional apps, and encourage a developer community to help improve and extend the app for subsequent versions,” Jake Shapiro said in a blog post when the plan was announced. Shapiro told me in an email that at the moment the code belongs to WBUR and PRX, but they’re working with the Berkman Center on hashing out licensing issues.

Content and engagement aside, mobile offers another potential benefit for public radio: fundraising. Imagine being able to click “Pledge $60 Now” on your phone and then being able to sit out the rest of the pledge drive. But unfortunately for nonprofit journalism, Apple bars apps from letting users donate directly within the app. PRX worked around that issue by using pledge buttons that call WBUR (it is a phone, remember) or send you an email reminding you to donate online through your web browser.

Shapiro wrote about the issue here for Ars Technica, after the This American Life app ran into a similar problem. Apple claims it’s a liability issue for them: They don’t want to be held responsible for scammers pretending to be legit nonprofits, even if it’s an organization like NPR developing the app. (Shapiro calls that a cop-out.) The workaround Shapiro came up with isn’t ideal — who wants to read a credit card number over the phone instead of just pressing one button? — but it’s still a step toward mobile contributions. John Davidow, WBUR.org’s executive editor, shrugged off the issue: “We didn’t think of it as a problem.”

There’s also an alarm clock function that will play WBUR to wake you up, an idea submitted by a listener. And if you’re a WBUR member, the member discount card is taken to a new level with a location-based feature that shows you businesses nearby that will give you a discount. (Nice.) On the content side, the app lets you listen to show archives alongside the usual live streaming. Davidow said he wanted the app to also increase engagement with the audience: The app makes it easy for users to send in a photo or a news tip, for instance. “Mobile is a fantastic platform for radio,” Davidow told me. “It’s built for it.”

June 16 2010

19:30

Knight News Challenge: PRX’s StoryMarket will bring Spot.us-style crowdfunding to public radio

Most of the projects awarded grants in the Knight News Challenge come out on top because they offer something new: they’re innovative, they’re different, they’re unique. One of this year’s crop of winners, though, made a selling point of its similarity to a previous Knight grantee. The Public Radio Exchange’s StoryMarket project will build on — and collaborate with — Spot.us, one of the best known Knight winners, to bring crowdfunding to public radio.

Per Knight’s official announcement of StoryMarket’s $75,000 grant:

Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.

“This has been an idea that PRX has been kicking around for a while,” says Jake Shapiro, PRX’s CEO and the leader of the StoryMarket project. And it’s one that “really takes advantage of the platform that we have in place.” Which makes the project unique…by way of similarity. As Shapiro told me of the project’s proposal: “This would be one of the first ones, as far as I know, that help anchor a collaboration with another promising Knight investment.” (Another of this year’s winners also has a history of intra-KNC collaboration: Tilemapping has worked with past winner Ushahidi.)

The PRX-Spot.us collaboration will be a core component of the StoryMarket project — in particular, Shapiro points out, “at the code level,” where much of the partnership will be focused. The PRX technology team (some ten members strong at the moment, with an additional six or so working on a contract basis) will work with the Spot.us coders to “add value to the investment made in the open-source code base to date — and increase the likelihood that it’s a worthwhile investment.”

That synergy — wheel-reinvention, in reverse — also means that StoryMarket will be insulated in ways that ground-up, from-scratch projects don’t tend to be. “There are risks in all of this,” Shapiro allows, “but some of the things that are typically risks are not ones for us.”

At the user level, in turn, PRX will adopt much of the Spot.us approach to crowdfunding to raise money for its own stories — a significant shift for the public media platform. “The way that PRX had, for the most part, been available was more as an aftermarket for existing work,” Shapiro points out, “where somebody who had stories and had created documentaries would use PRX as an additional distribution path for broadcast and digital.” StoryMarket is an attempt to make PRX an up-front and active participant in the entire production process. “The fundamental driver of it, and the outcome, was to create original, new stories that are important on a local level,” Shapiro says. Only “instead of having the chain wait until you’ve identified, developed, and produced a story, and then look for a media partner” — the Spot.us model, essentially — we’re beginning with media partners.”

The first of those partners? Louisville Public Media in Kentucky — “a very forward-looking, ambitious station in a smaller market in the South, where historically there’s been less investment in this kind of work,” Shapiro says. Not only is the station not among “the usual suspects, which are the major-market stations that we work a lot with” — and not only is there “no shortage of important stories to be told there,” from mountaintop mining to race relations in public schools — but LPM’s size means that its status as a PRX media partner will offer a challenge. In, you know, a good way. A core goal of StoryMarket, as it is with most Knight winners, is scalabilty — and with LPM’s relatively small number of producers, “it’s going to be an interesting test of how much the network effect will kick in,” Shapiro says.

Helping that effect along will be the Public Media Platform, the behemoth digital distribution network launched on Monday. The platform, a collaboration among American Public Media, NPR, PBS, Public Radio International and, yes, PRX, should amplify StoryMarket’s reach. To collaborate with PRX is to collaborate, in effect, with the entire network.

At the same time, though, StoryMarket will also be a test of local news outlets’ ability to generate financial support for individual stories in addition to their broader, brand-based fundraising efforts. With national public programming widely available, stations now “have an even deeper interest in being relevant locally,” Shapiro points out. Competition means that “they’re increasingly wanting to differentiate themselves by making sure they do good local coverage.” And StoryMarket, for its part, will mean that the public has a new way to express what “good local coverage” actually looks like.

18:30

Announcing the 2010 Knight News Challenge winners: Visuals are hot, and businesses are big winners

They started out last year as a crowded field of hopefuls from around the world, each dreaming of a chance to perform under the big lights. Over months, their numbers dwindled as the level of competition rose; each successive round brought new disappointment to those eliminated and new hope to those left in the running. And now, whittled down to an elite few, they’re ready for the global stage.

Okay, I’m giving myself a yellow card: So maybe the World Cup isn’t the perfect metaphor for the Knight News Challenge. But the News Challenge is the closest thing the future-of-news space has to a World Cup, and while this year’s 12 winners — just announced at MIT — won’t be forced to battle each other for global supremacy, they do represent the top of a sizable pyramid of applicants — nearly 2,500 in all. You can judge for yourself which ones are Brazil and Germany and which are New Zealand and North Korea.

I’ve got information on all the winners below, but first a few observations:

Visuals seem to be this year’s theme: lots of projects about things like mapping, data visualization, video editing, and games inspired by editorial cartoons. Just one winner focuses on the business-model end of the equation (Windy Citizen’s real-time ads).

— This year’s new grants total $2.74 million. That’s up from last year’s total of $1.96 million, but still down substantially from the really big checks Knight was writing in the first two years of the News Challenge ($11.7 million in 2007, $5.5 million in 2008). The number of grantees is also up a bit from 2009 but well below earlier years (26 in 2007, 16 in 2008, 9 in 2009, 12 this year).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Knight’s overall commitment has decreased over time. Many of its grants are distributed over multiple years, so some of those early commitments are still being in force.

— Despite extending this cycle’s application deadline in part to encourage more international applicants, the winners are quite domestic — 11 American winners out of 12. In 2008, there were six international winners, and last year there were two projects that, while technically based in the U.S., were internationally focused — Ushahidi and Mobile Media Toolkit. (You could argue that this year’s One-Eight should count as international, since it’s about covering Afghanistan, but through collaboration with the U.S. military. And while Tilemapping will focus on Washington, D.C., a version of its software was used after the Haiti earthquake.)

That said, the deadline extension was also about reaching out for other kinds of diversity, and that happened in at least one way: Knight reports that nearly half of this year’s winners are private companies, up from 15 percent in 2009. That’s despite Knight’s elimination of a separate category for commercial applicants last cycle.

Below are all the winners — congratulations to one and all, and my sympathies to the thousands eliminated along the way. In the coming days, we’ll have profiles of all of the winners and their projects. In the meantime, for context, you can also read all we wrote about last year’s News Challenge and what we’ve written so far about this cycle.

CityTracking

The winner: Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design

The amount: $400,000

The pitch: “To make municipal data easy to understand, CityTracking will allow users to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally and that are as easy to share as photos and videos. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others. The creators will use high design standards, making the visuals beautiful as well as useful.”

The Cartoonist

The winner: Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech and Michael Mateas of UC Santa Cruz

The amount: $378,000

The pitch: “To engage readers in the news, this project will create a free tool that produces cartoon-like current event games — the game equivalent of editorial cartoons. The simplified tools will be created with busy journalists and editors in mind, people who have the pulse of their community but don’t have a background in game development. By answering a series of questions about the major actors in a news event and making value judgments about their actions, The Cartoonist will automatically propose game rules and images. The games aim to help the sites draw readers and inspire them to explore the news.”

Local Wiki

The winner: Philip Neustrom and Mike Ivanov of DavisWiki.org

The amount: $350,000

The pitch: “Based on the successful DavisWiki.org in Davis, Calif., this project will create enhanced tools for local wikis, a new form of media that makes it easy for people to learn and share their own unique community knowledge. Members will be able to post articles about anything they like, edit others and upload photos and files. This grant will help create the specialized open-source software that makes the wiki possible and help communities develop, launch and sustain local wiki projects.”

WindyCitizen’s Real Time Ads

The winner: Brad Flora of WindyCitizen.com

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “As a way to help online startups become sustainable, this project will develop an improved software interface to help sites create and sell what are known as real-time ads. These ads are designed to be engaging as they constantly change showing the latest message or post from the advertisers Twitter account, Facebook page or blog. Challenge winner Brad Flora helped pioneer the idea on his Chicago news site, WindyCitizen.com.”

GoMap Riga

The winner: Marcis Rubenis and Kristofs Blaus

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To inspire people to get involved in their community, this project will create a live, online map with local news and activities. GoMap Riga will pull some content from the Web and place it automatically on the map. Residents will be able to add their own news, pictures and videos while discussing what is happening around them. GoMap Riga will be integrated with the major existing social networks and allow civic participation through mobile technology. The project will be tested in Riga, Latvia, and ultimately be applicable in other cities.”

Order in the Court 2.0

The winner: John Davidow of WBUR

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To foster greater access to the judicial process, this project will create a laboratory in a Boston courtroom to help establish best practices for digital coverage that can be replicated and adopted throughout the nation. While the legislative and executive branches have incorporated new technologies and social media, the courts still operate under the video and audio recording standards established in the 1970s and ’80s. The courtroom will have a designated area for live blogging via a Wi-Fi network and the ability to live-stream court proceedings to the public. Working in conjunction with the Massachusetts court system, the project will publish the daily docket on the Web and build a knowledge wiki for the public with common legal terms.”

Porch Forum

The winner: Michael Wood-Lewis of Front Porch Forum

The amount: $220,000

The pitch: “To help residents connect with others and their community, this grant will help rebuild and enhance a successful community news site, expand it to more towns and release the software so other organizations, anywhere can use it. The Front Porch Forum, a virtual town hall space, helps residents share and discuss local news, build community and increase engagement. The site, currently serving 25 Vermont towns, will expand to 250.”

One-Eight

The winner: Teru Kuwayama

The amount: $202,000

The pitch: “Broadening the perspectives that surround U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, this project will chronicle a battalion by combining reporting from embedded journalists with user-generated content from the Marines themselves. The troops, recently authorized to use social media while deployed, and their families will be key audiences for the online journal steering, challenging and augmenting the coverage with their feedback. The approach will directly serve the stakeholders and inform the wider public by bringing in on-the-ground views on military issues and the execution of U.S. foreign policy.”

Stroome

The winner: USC Annenberg’s Nonny de la Peña and Tom Grasty

The amount: $200,000

The pitch: “To simplify the production of news video, Stroome will create a virtual video-editing studio. There, correspondents, editors and producers will be able to upload and share content, edit and remix with friends and colleagues — all without using expensive satellite truck technology. The site will launch as eyewitness video — often captured by mobile phones or webcams — is becoming a key component of news coverage, generating demand for supporting tools.”

CitySeed

The winner: Arizona State’s Retha Hill and Cody Shotwell

The amount: $90,000

The pitch: “To inform and engage communities, CitySeed will be a mobile application that allows users to plant the ’seed’ of an idea and share it with others. For example, a person might come across a great spot for a community garden. At that moment, the person can use the CitySeed app to geotag the idea, which links it to an exact location. Others can look at the place-based ideas, debate and hopefully act on them. The project aims to increase the number of people informed about and engaged with their communities by breaking down community issues into bite-size settings.”

StoryMarket

The winner: Jake Shapiro of PRX

The amount: $75,000

The pitch: “Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.”

Tilemapping

The winner: Eric Gundersen of Development Seed

The amount: $74,000

The pitch: “To inspire residents to learn about local issues, Tilemapping will help local media create hyper-local, data-filled maps for their websites and blogs. Journalists will be able to tell more textured stories, while residents will be able to draw connections to their physical communities in new ways. The tools will be tested in Washington, D.C. Ushahidi, a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps used to crowdsource reports on places needing aid.”

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