Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Other CPB Issue

CPB held a session on possible changes to its Community Service Grants (CSG) program at July’s Public Radio Development and Marketing Conference. A few of the proposed changes, such a greater financial transparency, are essential and long overdue.

Others could end up creating bad public policy.

They include incentives for stations to earn additional CPB dollars by putting content on new media; spending a certain budget percentage on local news; and e-mailing newsletters to their listeners. The premise is that these kinds of activities will make stations stronger community institutions.

That premise has a fundamental problem. Many of the incentives under consideration are inputs, not outputs. They are activities, not outcomes.

While these activities might strengthen a station’s service to a community, the current proposal does not require a station to demonstrate that they are having any impact. It's a huge leap to assume that spending money on podcasting makes a station more relevant to its community.

This is a throwback to decades ago when our industry thought public radio's very existence made it "a public good" in the community.

Public radio graduated from this level of thinking years ago thanks to folks such as Tom Church, David Giovannoni, and Tom Thomas. They helped us focus on outcomes rather than activities. They helped us understand that making a program and putting it on the satellite isn't providing a public service. Getting a program cleared on a station isn't providing public service. Public service is achieved when the public uses the service. It's not a complicated idea.

Yet, on no fewer than four occasions in his PRDMC presentation, CPB Senior VP for Radio Vinnie Curren referred to these new criteria as complicated and difficult to understand. That should be a hint that there is a problem. How can we create stronger community institutions with greater financial transparency when we are confused by our own metrics?

The CPB panel working on this project still has much to do. The next step is applying the lesson we learned long ago -- significance is not achieved by what we create but by how it is used.

Friday, July 01, 2005

It's A Great Time To Be In Public Radio

"It's a great time to be in public radio" -- the late Rick Madden, accepting public radio's Edward R. Murrow award in May 2001.

That's still true today, though it might not feel like it with the recent the attempts to cut federal funding and efforts to cast a chill over the public radio editorial process.

In my view, those are the reasons it's a great time to be in public radio. We've been given a wake-up call. Public radio is being attacked on multiple fronts and that's not going to change any time soon. How we respond will shape public radio for the next decade and beyond.

Choose one set of actions and we will find ourselves in a never-ending battle to maintain the status quo. Choose another set of actions and we can create a public radio system immune from partisan politics.

We can create that public radio system. We have the programming, technology, financial, and creative resources to do it. More important, we have tens of millions of weekly listeners behind us.

The value our listeners place on public radio is our greatest asset. We waste it when we use it to fight for the status quo. We should be tapping it to create a secure future for the public service we provide.

In his Murrow award acceptance speech, Rick Madden talked about breaking away from our tendency to focus on obstacles and to start looking forward so we could raise public radio to it's next level of significance. He was speaking of the opportunities that existed in 2001. An even greater opportunity is before us today. Let's seize it.

Note: Rick Madden was CPB's first Vice President for Radio. His contributions to our industry were so great that, without him, public radio would not be nearly as significant or strong as it is today. The full text of his Murrow award acceptance speech is at Current on-line For more about Rick and his work go to