All Things Reconsidered

The next generation of public media draws up a game plan to attract diverse, new audiences.

You listen to National Public Radio. You tune in to Public Broadcasting Service stations. But does Public Radio Exchange ring a bell? PRX, a clearinghouse for archived quality programming, is part of a new wave of public service media that has arisen in response to rapid technological change and segmenting audiences. But can these relative upstarts and their mainline public media forebears keep pace in a digital marketplace where change is the only constant?

Fifty years after their creation, PBS and NPR remain bedrock American institutions. In a 2007 Roper poll, Americans declared PBS the nation's "most trusted institution" for the fourth consecutive year. Other polls show public confidence in NPR and PBS surpassing all other media outlets, including newspapers, network broadcasts and cable news. And yet some wonder how these public media institutions are adjusting in an environment of ceaseless technological shifts. Almost two years ago, a blue-ribbon panel headed by former Netscape CEO James Barksdale and former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt examined the state of public service media in a report, "Digital Future Initiative: Challenges and Opportunities for Public Service Media in the Digital Age."

In the foreword they wrote: "As the public broadcasting system approaches its fifth decade of service to this country, it is confronted by technologies and trends that are fundamentally reshaping the American media landscape. The ongoing transition to digital media technologies is for public broadcasters both a great challenge and a momentous opportunity. ...If today's public broadcasters can successfully adapt to this new environment, the potential for enhanced public service through digital media is vast." While the technological challenges and opportunities facing public broadcasters are indeed profound, they are not the only forces at work. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, aroused new interest among American audiences in news, ideas and perspectives from around the world. And America itself has rapidly diversified, with minorities making up a third of the population for the first time, according to U.S. Census figures released last summer.

How are public service media responding to these forces, developing new programming and employing new platforms to reach increasingly diverse and expanding audiences? "Freed of certain restraints of mass media audience and corporate return, publicly funded media can be experimental and targeted," says Karen Brown Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute, a media think tank. "They can tell the stories of groups and issues that are usually ignored. They can draw closer to communities and help neighbors learn more about themselves and those around them. They can also cover the world as some corporate organizations retrench."

It is precisely these unique democracy-enhancing abilities that convinced the Ford Foundation to become a key player in the formation of public broadcasting from its infancy. The foundation helped develop the educational broadcast channels that led to the 1967 passage of the Public Television Act and the formation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Over the past 55 years, the foundation has invested more than $448 million in global public media.

In 2005, Ford made its largest investment in the sector in a quarter century, providing $50.5 million in grants to 14 entities representing public broadcasting, ethnic media, documentary filmmaking and Internet enterprises. The goal is to diversify audiences, create new programming, add more international perspectives, strengthen the public media field and ensure that the public media sector becomes more financially stable. "An informed citizenry is vital to good governance and community life, and these grants challenge advocates to strengthen public service media," says Susan V. Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation. "In the midst of a new media revolution of changing technology and shifting audience expectations, public media must once again innovate."

Adding New Voices
One of the hurdles faced by public service media is inventing ways to reach out to new sets of audiences with diverse cultural experiences and expectations. New America Media is based in San Francisco and run by longtime media innovator Sandy Close. Her organization is the country's first and largest national collaboration of ethnic news organizations. Close is working with ethnic news outlets across the United States to build a national network of ethnic media to share content and form partnerships on projects that will resonate with their targeted audiences. New America Media's newswire streams work from its own writers, media publications and broadcasts, with content from more than 700 partners into one subscription-based service.

"Our mission is to diversify the public forum at a time of unprecedented diversity in the country and bring voices and ideas that would otherwise not be heard," says Close. Part of Close's challenge in working with ethnic media is bringing them together for journalism development workshops so they can witness the potential power of their sector and diminish their suspicions and rivalries. She is working with 10 ethnic media publications, each of which is investing in multilingual polls, sampling opinion on national and international issues among non-English-speaking minority populations. The National Minority Consortia, part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, works with African American, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander and Native American filmmakers and producers to create culturally varied programming that appeals to broader audiences.

As an example, the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) created a Hurricane Katrina Web site that reflects a black perspective on the catastrophe. With a Ford grant, NBPC formed a partnership with NPR, which aired its special Katrina coverage. But getting more minority voices on the air remains an uphill battle. "The sad fact is that nearly 30 years after this organization started, we are still looking at a very small percentage of PBS hours devoted to the programming we support, less than one in 50 broadcast hours in prime time," says Jacquie Jones, president and CEO of NBPC.

Looking for ways to get more ethnic voices in the 2008 presidential campaign, National Minority Consortia members are working on a yearlong election initiative, which started in November 2007. The project will produce audio and video content for public radio and TV Web sites, such as NPR, "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and the "Tavis Smiley Show."

Offering Global Perspectives
Coverage of international news by the U.S. media is shrinking. According to a 2007 study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard, the number of foreign bureaus operated by U.S. news organizations has fallen. "The television networks were the first to make cuts; as cable news cut into their audiences, ABC, CBS, and NBC shuttered a number of their bureaus in the 1980s," the study said. Yet NPR has added bureaus, notably four in Africa, a continent that is largely ignored by the mainstream media, and international news now comprises more than one-third of NPR's output.

"By expanding our foreign coverage, we have expanded greatly our awareness and capacity," says Kevin Klose, NPR president. "We look at the world differently than we did five years ago. Our coverage is much less U.S.-centric."

Some of the most intriguing public service media programming focusing on international news comes from Link TV, the first nationwide, 24-hour television channel dedicated to explaining global perspectives to American viewers. "The mission of Link TV is to connect Americans with the world by engaging, educating and motivating viewers to take action," says Kim Spencer, Link TV's president. Established in December 1999, Link TV reaches 29 million Americans through satellite television and an even broader audience by streaming programs on its Web site. The channel produces 180 hours of original programming in a 12-month period with the remainder acquired from independent producers.

In April 2007, Link TV premiered six original documentaries, including "Nobelity," which looks at the world's most pressing problems through the eyes of nine Nobel laureates, and "Gitmo: The New Rules of War," which examines the interrogation practices at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention facility. In a nationwide audience survey of viewers who watch the channel an hour or more each week, 40 percent said they changed their perspective on an issue because of something they saw on Link TV. Twenty-seven percent said they became more involved in a political activity and 17 percent were motivated to donate their time or money to a cause, says Spencer. Link TV is also the force behind the pioneering half-hour daily news program, "Mosaic," which features selections from TV news programs produced throughout the Middle East and translated into English. "Mosaic," which won a Peabody Award in 2005, can be seen worldwide on satellite TV or on the Web after a show is broadcast.

"'Mosaic' allows you to see one Middle East story covered from different angles," says Jamal Dajani, who started the program six years ago and now serves as Link TV's director for Middle Eastern programming. "Mosaic" includes television news broadcasts from selected countries and regions. These news reports are regularly watched by 280 million people in countries throughout the Middle East

"With all the new satellite technology, one thing for sure is [that] pluralism has been created on the air. For years, some dictatorships tried to silence the masses. Now there are no longer any borders," Dajani says.

Ford also supports and OneWorld TV, launched in 2000 and 2002, respectively. They are multipurpose Internet sites that use Web resources to promote human rights and democratic values by offering news, commentary and criticism in a variety of languages.

Since 2005, Independent Television Service (ITVS), another Ford grantee, has funded more than 50 programs from more than 40 countries through its international division. The resulting documentaries help compensate for all-too-rare opportunities to view public affairs TV programming about international issues.

"These programs bring to viewers seldom-seen perspectives that range from Colombian children to Bulgarian villagers to the first woman in India to publicly announce her HIV-positive status," says Sally Fifer, president and CEO of ITVS. "We have expanded to fill the void of international perspectives on American television, where audiences only hear foreign news through sound bites, if at all."

"Documentaries have this unique power to make people feel for other people," Fifer says. "If we could stir that kind of understanding and empathy and interest on public broadcast television, we could capture the imagination of Americans to be more interested in and knowledgeable about international affairs."

Building Audiences
What good is improved programming if no one tunes in to it? Building audiences and making public radio more widely available are essential for growth and innovation. Public Radio Exchange (PRX) has developed an online marketplace that distributes independent radio programming. Its Web site, started four years ago, is based on the recognition that most informative radio features are heard once and then archived. PRX provides a central database where material is catalogued and made available for purchase by other public radio stations or for the public to hear for free. The Exchange, which already has 12,000 radio pieces on its site, helps independent producers reach wider audiences.

"This makes it easier for producers and stations to make money and to extend the life of the radio work they have already created," says John Barth, PRX's managing director. "One of the things I'm amazed at is there are pieces from 2003 and 2004 that are still being licensed. That means we've built a living catalog that has some real value." While PRX strives to expand the reach of quality radio programming, Public Radio Capital (PRC), another Ford grantee, is a leading adviser in the planning, acquisition and financing of new public radio channels.

"There is such an appetite for public radio," says Susan Harmon, a managing director of PRC, founded in 2001. "It is based on the idea that more public radio engenders more programs and more audience. The bigger the audience, the more they will donate and businesses will continue to support public radio."

For example, PRC negotiated the purchase of an AM station in Denver, allowing Colorado Public Radio to create a two-channel network of news and classical music. Within 18 months, Colorado Public Radio had increased its audience 24 percent, donations rose 28 percent and membership grew by 34 percent.

PRC also works on projects to reach out to more diverse and younger audiences in an effort to expand public radio listening beyond its largely white audience. In early 2007, the Milwaukee public school system wanted to sell WYMS-FM, a taxpayer-supported jazz station. PRC helped Radio for Milwaukee, a group of investors, negotiate a contract to operate the station, which will feature local guests and music more reflective of Milwaukee's ethnic diversity.

PRC also works frequently with Radio Bilingüe, a nonprofit radio network that is the only national distributor of Spanish-language programming for public radio. PRC recently helped the Fresno, Calif.-based company acquire a new station in northern California to extend its service in Spanish and English.

"To be able to reach a broader and more ethnically diverse audience, public radio needs more stations in each market," says Mark Hand, a PRC managing director. "If you just have a single public radio station in the market, it tends to be the more traditional public radio news and information. If you have a second or third station, especially with a lot of the great content produced these days, then you have more opportunity to develop programming that will bring in new audiences."

Money Matters
One of the biggest challenges facing public service media is financial stability. Public broadcasting depends on the ups and downs of individual donors, corporate grants and federal funding. As a result, the work of the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) in New York can be critical.

Most public media enterprises need to rethink their business and funding assumptions and create new business models attuned to the digital age, says Clara Miller, NFF's president. With a Ford grant, NFF is investing $4 million over five years to help public media organizations negotiate business challenges and adopt financial plans that will help them sustain operations and grow. Link TV and the National Black Programming Consortium are two Ford grantees that NFF is assisting with business strategies and expansion plans. "From a business point of view, these are extremely diverse organizations," says Miller. "They all share an absolutely explosive business environment, because technology is changing moment by moment. NFF will help the groups better understand their business models and develop promising new or nontraditional business forms that will be shared with the national public service media community."

Miller's goal is to change the way managers think about financing in the nonprofit media world. "We are looking at what we need to learn about the changing environment that will help us deploy funds better in the future to accomplish the mission of public media."

Partners in a Changing Industry
A new generation of public service media leaders gathered recently in Silver Spring, Md., for their fifth Ford-sponsored meeting. The group of nearly 50 included representatives from PBS, NPR and Public Radio International, which, like NPR, provides programming to local radio stations around the country. But most of those in attendance represented relatively new types of public service media, including Public Radio Exchange, New America Media, National Black Programming Consortium, Link TV and ITVS. The group, most of them Ford grantees, spent two days together, sharing ideas and strategies to re-imagine the future of their industry.

In the midst of a new media revolution of changing technology and shifting audience expectations, public media must once again innovate. Ford's $50.5 million investment provides risk capital for new ideas and new arrangements that harness the power of mass media for the public good and ensures that public media remains relevant to new audiences.

"We placed our bet on a new generation of public-minded media pioneers," says Alison R. Bernstein, vice president of the Ford Foundation's Knowledge, Creativity and Freedom program, which houses its media work. "Let's see where they will lead us."

Support for Public Service Media

Support for Public
Service Media

Over the past 55 years, the Ford Foundation has provided $448 million in support to public service media. The foundation's recent signature effort, "Global Perspectives in a Digital Age: Transforming Public Service Media," was launched in 2005. The five-year, $50.5 million initiative—Ford's largest investment in public service media in a quarter century—is making grants to 14 nonprofits.

Public Television System   millions
Public Broadcasting Service   $10.00
Independent Television Service   5.00
Sundance Documentary Fund   5.00
National Minority Consortia   1.75
WGBH   0.50
Public Radio System    
National Public Radio   7.50
Public Radio International   2.50
Public Radio Exchange   1.50
Public Radio Capital   2.00
New Public Media Ventures    
OneWorld US   1.25
New America Media   2.00
Link TV   4.50
Policy and Sustainability    
Center for Social Media   3.00
Nonprofit Finance Fund   4.00
Total   $50.50