Traditional Media

Public Radio Unfiltered

Here’s the beginnings of an opinion about blowing open the creative process behind public radio written by Dave Winer, and I think it’s a simple idea that needs some work.  Dave mentions that he created a form of public radio in podcasting, which I essentially agree with, but as it stands right now the podcasting industry is missing some essential ingredients to make it as effective as public radio: a filtering mechanism, taking the form of limited radio spectrum space in pubradio.

What the filtering helps to ensure, essentially, is a stability in production values: a limited spectrum means only certain people get heard over the airwaves, and they largely (largely, I say) have to be good at what they do in order to get there.  For local affiliates, if they don’t have a local producer that can put together a well-produced local/regional show, they’ll default to national programming, and that limits the amount of perspective you get, making it less “public”.

With Dave’s argument that everyone should have a hand in what the public wants, I mean, that’s a bit utopian.  It may not turn out the way he’d like it to.  Look at You Tube (video, I know, but it’s analogous) to see what happens when you let the public decide what programming they want; the masses out there could very well be driven to turn public radio into something drastically different than what public radio listeners are used to, which is education first and foremost, not only cheap entertainment.

That doesn’t mean the people in charge of making the decisions of what to put on the public radio airwaves are willing to take risks with new programming that raises the bar — that’s a different story on how the overall quality of public radio, or any true “public” media, could be improved.  NPR has built a network of podcast programming on their sites that they fund exclusively, so they are taking more chances on that front and introducing some new perspective and ideas, even if they don’t make it to the airwaves (it’s my opinion that the most successful and listened to podcasts in the NPR canon are extensions of their radio shows anyway, not podcast exclusives, but that hopefully will change).

Traditional public radio absolutely does need to open up to more producers with more unique ideas, which happens to be the mission of the PRX.  They’ve been doing it for years, using a ranking and recommendation system of sorts that cultivates new producers, helps producers help one another.  My opinion is that good producers and good ideas are somewhat limited, but having a helpful production community helps everyone to collectively raise the bar and make each other better.

Maybe that can happen with podcasting.  I don’t see it yet.  I see it now as a “me too” sort of thing that’s too heavily indebted to technology to be effective in its message (although the potential for those messages to be effective, in the niches of the programming, is much greater).  It’s the role of an effective filtering process, similar to how the technical limitations of radio spectrum limits how much public radio gets out there, that can ultimately allow podcasting to have the same effect as the founders of public media envisioned in the late ’60s and early ’70s: to educate, to entertain, all while keeping the bar high.


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