Thursday, May 04, 2006

Organizing Our Thoughts

The New Realities forum was a good first step in bringing public radio people together to take on the many challenges faced by our industry.

For some, it wasn't nearly large enough of a step. The Open Space meeting format, designed to encourage free-flowing conversation, revealed how bogged down public radio is in its past and its current problems. That said, several good ideas emerged from the event and many people came away inspired to invest more time and positive energy in finding solutions to problems large and small.

One of the more interesting conversations I heard centered on where public radio invests its resources. It was pointed out that only about 5% of stations' budgets are spent on new technologies. The other 95% are spent on our core radio business.

This was contrasted to where public radio's strategic resources are allocated, especially on a national level. It was suggested that 95% of our mental energy was being spent on new technologies and only 5% on our core business.

Those percentages might be off some, but I think the concept is right. Our resource allocations are not in alignment. There is an old saying, "budgets reflect priorities." Our financial budgets show one priority, our strategic thinking budget reflects another.

This hasn't happened because public radio spends too much time thinking about new technologies. It happened because we've spent too little time thinking about our core service in the face of new technology, increased competition, and a decline in audience.

One of my takeaways from the New Realities forum is that we simply haven't organized our thinking to effectively deal with the two separate but inter-related challenges of nurturing our core service while embracing new opportunities. About the time a station manager gets around to thinking about audience loss, she has to turn her attention to the latest big announcement about podcasting technology.

There is an opportunity for public radio's national leadership to develop parallel agendas to address the challenges of growing the radio service and planting a flag in the digital world. Both goals are critical. Each needs its own strategy.

Right now, the conversations get mixed. The subsequent confusion is costly, slowing our progress on both fronts.

I'm not sure exactly how those twin agendas get developed, adopted, and quickly applied on a national level. But if there is one other takeaway from the New Realities forum it is this -- there are new openings to start the conversation.

So we will.

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