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Turning "public radio" into "public media"

Hub resident Jenny Barnes; photo by Inye Wokoma

Seattle, 23rd/Union area resident Jenny Barnes; photo by Inye Wokoma; source: KUOW-FM

An interesting new report on an interesting public radio experiment has just been released. The document is rather elaborately dubbed Spreading the Zing: Reimagining Public Media Through the Makers of Quest 2.0. Once you get past the title, it’s definitely worth a read.

The gist of the survey is a review of eight Corporation for Public Broadcasting funded radio/multimedia projects that have flourished at various public radio stations around the county. They were designed and administered by the Association of Independents in Radio as the Public Radio Makers Quest 2.0 competition.

These include Jenny Asarnow of KUOW-FM’s The Corner: 23rd and Union. “An installation across a city block located at the epicenter of Seattle’s historically African-American community that inspires citizen storytelling and engagement. Cell phone, radio, and Web technology combine to document, broadcast, capture, and archive the contemporary history of this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.”

The Corner is quite something, a collection of sounds, text, pictures, audio memories. Visiting the project made me nostalgic for a place I’ve never been to, and worried about its future. Spreading the Zing asks a really difficult question. How do we evaluate the success of this site? The study concludes:

“A new methodology must be developed for assessing multiplatform public media projects that combine television, radio, online and social media, mobile and other emerging platforms. This methodology should be distinguished from commercial impact assessment schemes in that it prioritizes assessment of public media’s core function—providing content, platforms, and trusted contexts that move users to act as engaged citizens.”

Lots of stuff for thought here. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the CPB tethered both public and community radio funding to Arbitron ratings. As public radio becomes public media, that policy is obviously challenged.

Publicly supported radio has always struggled to find a system of accountability that avoided two pitfalls. The first pitfall is a system that links the public radio project solely to a metric of market success. Such a formula will invariably filter out concerns and themes that don’t fit into the market, but whose associated voices we need to hear.

The second pitfall are methods of accountability that are self-fulfilling. They identify the participants of the project and the project itself as worthy, and so conclude the results must be worthy too. Their advocates are often afraid to conclude anything else. These sort of systems have always spawned and perpetuated mediocrity.

I wonder whether public broadcasting has ever solved this problem, or ever will. Anyway, Spreading the Zing is a good start.

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0 Responses to Turning "public radio" into "public media"

  1. Julie Drizin May 17, 2010 at 7:11 am #

    Thanks for spreading “Spreading the Zing.” Matt, I appreciate your unwavering commitment to media in the public interest. For the past several decades, nonprofits and governments have been encouraged to operate and think like businesses, embracing the language and tools of the corporate sector. But makers of public media know that measuring impact is more complex than a balance sheet. One of my college professors once said, “Statistics are people with the tears wiped away.” Some storytelling is so powerful that is can have an emotionally transformative impact on the listener. Try measuring that?
    Best wishes,
    Julie Drizin

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