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.


Blogger Mike said...

FYI, my understanding from talking with Vinnie is that CPB does plan to tie these financial incentives to outcomes in these areas. Stations will not be rewarded simply for doing these things. But he did tell me that working it out is "messy." -- Mike Janssen

5:00 PM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Thanks for the update Mike. It will be interesting to see how CPB gets audited or third-party confirmation of the outcomes. John Sutton

10:36 PM  

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