How are distinctions among nonprofit, for-profit, and public media becoming harder to draw?
There's an important addendum to the story we've laid out so far about public and other nonprofit media. Journalism scholars often write about public media in the United States as if it is an alternative to the corporatized, advertising-driven (and increasingly Silicon Valley-oriented) commercial press. However, these lines are quickly blurring, especially but not only in public radio. The vastly underfunded but relatively popular American public media system is turning to advertising, and to a variety of Silicon Valley-inspired organizational innovations, in order to make up for the shortfall of shrinking government support from the CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting).
Many of these developments are new and likely to evolve in the years ahead, and so these are just a few examples of the shrinking line between public and commercial journalism in the United States. Most of them are drawn from the world of public radio, where the changes in journalism and news seem the most pronounced, though the move of the iconic children's television show "Sesame Street" from PBS to HBO is emblematic of the larger pressures faced by public media outlets regardless of content type and media format.
Following the success of the podcast Serial in the fall of 2014, there has been a veritable podcast "gold rush," with a number of innovative new shows taking advantage of the fact that the FCC did not impose sponsorship guidelines on podcasts like they did over radio airwaves. For traditional, terrestrial public radio, the FCC limits the types of sponsorship that programs can receive and the length of the underwriting segments that can appear on air (usually limited to fifteen seconds). All this is done in order to keep public radio "commercial free." However, there are currently no guidelines for podcasts, which means that there are greater opportunities to raise revenue without running afoul of regulations.
According to one website that monitors public radio, "NPR's revenue from podcast advertising had doubled from fiscal year 2013 to 2014. Downloads of NPR's podcasts grew
40% over that time____And NPR's podcast ad income from
the first five months of this fiscal year has outstripped its take in all of fiscal year 2014." The podcast explosion also helped advance the business prospects of Radiotopia, a collective of digital-first audio programming which pioneered new story-driven shows and allowed its members to share technical and audience-growth expertise. Launched a few months before Serial in February 2014, Radiotopia was funded with a $200,000 initial grant from the Knight Foundation, raised over $600,000 in a Kickstarter campaign, and received an additional $1 million grant a year later.
Finally, we should mention PRX, perhaps the most far- reaching experiment in hacking the public radio paradigm. Founded in 2003, PRX acts as a digital "exchange" through which NPR stations can trade audio content, including finished programs as well as streaming audio. The goal of PRX is to inject digital savvy into what its founders see as the staid world of NPR. The most important contribution of PRX lies not in its content (though much of that content is excellent) or even in the notion of a digital exchange; rather it is really shaking things up because of its economic model and its overall worldview. One of PRX's projects is Matter, a public-media "startup accelerator" in San Francisco that began as a collaboration between PRX, the Knight Foundation, and KQED. Startup accelerators take small chunks of startup equity in exchange for mentorship and early access to capital; after a few months, the participants in the accelerator "graduate." While common to the world of Silicon Valley, it's clear that at this point we have left the world of old-fashioned public radio, with its CPB funding reliance on congressional appropriations, pledge drives, and tote bags far behind.
Now it's possible that none of these initiatives will last very long. On the other hand, some of them may turn out to be very successful. What matters is not so much any individual initiative; rather it should be clear that even the relatively sedate world of public broadcasting is changing rapidly and will likely change more in the future.