It takes a while for over two-hundred people to introduce themselves individually. As names and affiliations are called out on a floating microphone at NPR and PBS’ Public Media Camp/”unconference” October 17th in Washington DC, I ponder why I am in this room. Probably because I never wanted to be Quentin Tarantino in film school. Or Martin Scorcese like every third NYU student. I gravitated to public media by chance but have loved every step of my evolution via the National Black Programming Consortium, and nowadays public media’s untapped potential keeps me restless. The convening was held at American University, a partnership with AU’s Center for Social Media. NPR and PBS’ attempt to jump start real conversation to “strengthen the relationship that public broadcasters have with their communities through the creation of collaborative projects.” So professes the Public Media Camp website. As we introduced ourselves in the collegiate setting we were to attach three(3) idiosyncratic “hash tags” to our introduction. (Life imitating Twitter). This was policed vigilantly by the NPR/PBS team. Our introduction “tags” provided a telling glimpse into the community gathered for this conversation on the future, or rather birth — if there is to be one — of Public Media 2.0.
“Drupal” was the winner by far in frequency, speaking to the obvious attempt to include developers and the technically inclined in the projected conversation; “open source” was another favorite, and in the words of the well-represented station representatives, it all too often sounded like a wish, rather than an anthem; “diversity” made three appearances, one of them from me. At this point I had convinced myself against using “diversity” for all three of my allowed tags in my self-tagging. That might have been obnoxious but the question of diversity within public media is a serious weakness in the structural core of many “public broadcasting gone public media 2.0” conversations I have witnessed in recent months — at conferences, webinars, and “unconferences” alike. If I were to assign a rough percentage to the people of color gathered for Public Media Camp I’m not likely to top five percent, a few notches below the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s 2007 data on minority employment in public TV and radio – stagnant at roughly 19.5%* in the last decade. (*And even this figure is given a significant boost in large part by the all-minority staffs at the dozens of small Black, Latino and Native radio stations that fall under the umbrella of the CPB.)
The implications of this large gap in representation are scary. As Ernest J. Wilson and Sasha Costanza put it in a May 2009 publication from USC’s Annenberg School of Communication, “…at this rate, public radio and TV stations will never look like the American people.”
In reality the stunning lack of diversity reflected at Public Media Camp speaks to a problem that is deceptively observed as separate from this issue of integrating 2.0 infrastructure into a legacy system such as American public media. The challenge of truly representing the full range of America’s ethnic and cultural make up. The diversity of this country is terribly misrepresented within conversation spaces like Public Media Camp, spaces ironically touted as workshops for conceiving new models of interactivity, openness and inclusion. Yet in moments of circuitous conversation during a “breakout” one cannot help but observe instances of a choir preaching to itself in the absence of a true congregation. At the end of the day what the numbers tell us is this: the public media infrastructure has stagnated; in content, employment demographics, and stakeholders in its future. The system seems inherently incapable of gathering outside voices.
Instructive moments that illuminate this diversity blind spot came during a session titled “Content Creation and Distribution.” The Q&A part of the session quickly turned into challenges on the system’s current plan for broadening the range of voices creating content, and broadening the platform destinations for that content. The frame of these questions of course were not direct challenges to the glaring lack of inclusion, but more polite dances (less polite from the “code warriors” of course, than from the “station people”) through back alley questions like “what are you doing about digital rights management?,” “why are there not more public access programmers at this conference?,” and “You use the word ‘brand’ a lot, can we discuss replacing it with the word ‘reputation’?” The answers did not flood forth. There were no revelations that PBS had a grand plan for revamping its methods for reaching new content producers. Jason Seiken, SVP of PBS Interactive, offered general comments about a plan in its “embryonic” stages.
The well-framed question on PBS’ plan for digital rights management came from CPB’s Vice President of Digital Media Strategy Rob Bole. PBS’ soon-out-the-door Chief Content Officer John Boland replied candidly, “we’re not the leaders, we don’t set the rules, commercial media does.” A reference no doubt to outlets like iTunes which presumably set the standard on producer’s perceptions of compensation for digital rights. Boland’s statement was later challenged by an independent filmmaker who plainly asked why public media could not think of itself as leading the way, not following the commercial media. This question of digital rights is an interesting one as content becomes more ubiquitous and the true reach of it is determined beyond the television set. However, digital rights is ultimately an indirect approach to the true question of creating a new, dynamic content type/category for media created in the public interest or service as the technology evolve. A new content type does not mean the banishing of professional producers and their “iTunes ready” content from public media. No. They and their storytelling are sorely needed as a function of any new infrastructure that is created. (Hey, every “web star” turned “public media 2.0 star” needs a target to aim for, right?). However compensating Ken Burns, for say “National Parks” clips, should not interfere with innovating a new model for finding other, perhaps more malleable content. And at the end of the day this content can come from within public media on a local level. The question is, what systems are in place for letting “unconventional voices,” into the public media system as creators, stakeholders, community wranglers, and co-innovators? Such a system needs a plan farther along than its “embryonic stages.”
All the questions at Public Media Camp were at once about diversity, yet said very little about it; the citizen journalists got into the standard bloody brawl with the traditional journalists in a session called “Engaging Citizen Journalists,” and everyone wanted to know how do you spark engagement? How do you measure it? And then how do you sustain it? Important questions, for an important moment for public media. Too important to make the same mistakes of old. If public media is going to be different, if its content is going to truly be useful to all American people, (if it is to respond to the October 2, 2009 Knight Foundation report stating “Americans…lack the information they need to participate effectively in political and civic life,”) if it is in earnest to compete for young minds being spat out of legacy infrastructures everywhere, Wall Street, and who knows what other industries affected by the current technological moment, it is terribly important who is employed by public media. It matters who makes it to these conferences.
If the current job profiles within public media still do not represent true American people and experience then public media does not, as the FCC defines it, “serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” We must then create radically new job profiles, go shopping for novel infrastructure replete with new job titles and valued projects that accommodate more platforms, many more demographics, and more communities. A large scale overhaul is scary. (It’s not like you can just pick up new job profiles at Staples, or something). However the cost of investing in new voices at the table is nothing compared to the benefit in relevance, reputation, dare I say “brand power” that awaits public media in short order. Having the right people in the room is not the final destination. But it is also not simply the step we missed on the way to the “unconference.” It says that we still see as successful things that marginalize and exclude the very voices that can renew us. It says we are not ready to succeed.