Monday, April 28, 2008

Can Public Media Survive the Death of Listener Support?

Radio is dead. TV is dead. The Public Radio Membership model is dead. All have been declared dead is recent months by various Web 2.0 bloggers.

What's up with the whole "dead" thing anyway? It seems that declaring something dead is a rite of passage for freshman Web 2.0 gurus.

While the death of all these institutions is far from certain, let's play out these dire predictions.

Imagine a world where most public media is consumed via the web instead of over broadcast spectrum designated for educational purposes. Federal funding will go away.

Imagine a world where listeners are no longer the primary source of income for public media. Corporate and business support will rule.

Public media will morph into commercial media. Some entities will remain non-profit, but they will be dependent on commerce to succeed.

The industry is already well on its way to this commercial, non-profit status. Evidence of this is found in radio and TV underwriting credits and in pledge drive promotions designed more to satisfy business supporters than to generate listener contributions.

In this new environment, any content provider, commercial or non-profit, could adopt the "public media" label. This is already happening. XM has XM Public Radio. Many public broadcasting producers are for-profit entities. Most of the lines that distinguish today's public broadcasting from commercial media will blur and eventually go away.

Today's public radio listeners value what they hear because they know they can trust what they hear. That trust is built in large part on public radio's funding model. It's a cliche but listeners trust the content because "they are the public in public radio." Remove them from the equation down the road and "public media" will just be media.

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