Been gone a long time, yet I can’t quite say goodbye to this blog. Since I’ve gone to work for the United Methodist Church, I’ve hung back from the music scene and public media.

I’m ready for that to change.

Part of the reason I stood back for awhile was that I needed the break. My years at West Virginia Public Broadcasting were great, especially the last few, when I had the opportunity to do some cool stuff with some really talented people.

In the end, though, I wanted to explore options that my role there would not have allowed me to. I wanted to get better at something I felt a natural affinity with: connecting story with an audience. When this is done with care and attention, the community wins – and grows – with the content. In the end, it’s something you make together. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than that.

The years at WEKU were incredible. I learned so much there about the other side of public media. PTFP grants, stretching the hell out of a budget, watching our work reach new platforms and audiences. Really cool stuff – and incredibly hard work.

The recent struggles at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, highlighted by Phil Kabler have provided a glimpse into the struggles I experienced – and a few that I haven’t.

There’s no question that the Great Recession had an impact on revenues for public media. But, as this data shows, Public Television audience and revenue are where the hit was severe. In fact, public radio has grown in audience and revenue:

Between the years 1995 and 2010, public television stations’ cash revenues rose, plateaued and then crashed with the 2008 recession, falling altogether 14 percent: down $291 million (adjusted 2010 dollars).

Public radio stations, meanwhile, expanded their revenue by 67 percent: up $355 million.

– From “Current”, the publication for public media, January 2012

I will save the reasons for public television’s demise for another post. It can be summed up in one sentence: Public television forgot it’s core values and mission a long time ago. All you have to do is watch it for a week during a fundraiser and you will get the idea. The bottom line: you can’t insult your audience by replacing shows like the The NewsHour, Frontline, and Nova with Yanni at Red Rocks and expect revenue and viewership to go up. People have been pointing this out for a long time.

With all due respect to women’s sports (I’m a woman, after all) – WVPB’s decision to air WVU women’s basketball is a classic example. When I heard about this decision – I knew desperation must be behind it. Anything to get viewers, even if it is completely incongruous with your mission.

Kabler’s column makes the case for why public media is still needed – and necessary – in American society:

Some would argue that Public Broadcasting is an anachronism in an age when there are multiple cable networks that provide similar programming, as well as dozens of satellite radio stations and innumerable Internet radio channels.

However, not having legislative coverage through public television’s outstanding “The Legislature Today” would be a major loss for viewers around the state.

Commercial TV stations in the Charleston-Huntington market generally do a poor job covering the Legislature and, presumably, coverage is even worse (or non-existent) on TV newscasts from stations in outlying cities.

       – Phil Kabler, The Charleston Gazette, June 10, 2012

Quality local programming is a must for public media’s future – West Virginia Public Broadcasting has some great stuff on the air now. The Legislature Today and West Virginia Morning (on the radio side) are examples of local programs that serve West Virginians with high-quality content.

The problem is that WVPB simply doesn’t have the personnel at the production level to do more than they are in terms of local programming. There are some very talented, hard-working folks over there who make great content. Unfortunately, it appears that upper management at WVPB is out-of-touch with them, public media best practices, and the needs of their audience. Commercial broadcasting is driven by very different interests than public media – and right now WVPB’s top management has a commercial perspective in terms of how they run things.

That’s a problem.

Brave New World
Knowing who you are as a media organization has never been more important than it is right now. Digital and social platforms have transformed the industry, pushing us all into unfamiliar ground. It’s the classic challenge/opportunity coin. One public media outlet, Ideastream in Cleveland, Ohio, is adjusting to the new world.

Instead of a newsroom, there is a content center, where a staff of 18 prepares news and information and educational content for television, radio and the web, with support from another dozen technical and support staff. CEO Jerry Wareham, the former president and general manager of WVIZ-TV, and COO Kit Jensen, the former president and general manager of WCPN-FM, share a vision of multimedia community service. “I think this radio and TV stuff is so 20th century,” says Wareham, speaking of the traditional separate organizational structures of the services. Their numerous collaborations include Cleveland’s newspaper, The Plain Dealer, which partnered with ideastream on a four-year multimedia project“The Quiet Crisis” on the economic downturn in northeast Ohio.

Think of the possibilities this kind of silo-busting presents for the state of West Virginia.

I highly recommend Rethinking Public Media, a white paper written by Barbara Cochran in 2010 for more on the challenges and opportunities that face public media. The possibilities are there; in fact, they are limitless. And we as a society need it.

But, the leadership at the top must have a deep understanding and commitment to public service with the community. They must love and cherish public media and what it can do to enhance the lives of West Virginians.

I hope they do, because West Virginia needs and deserves a great public media service.

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Posted in Life, Music, New Media, Public Media

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