Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nutshell: Neil Sandell

A central question: how does digital and the internet change radio features?

Abundance. It means listeners now have access to a tidal wave of features online. In the old era of terrestrial broadcasting, features competed with every other genre of radio for precious airtime on the schedule. In the old era, these limits were barriers to producers getting their work heard.

Now, features can be made and heard without a broadcast platform. Anyone can create content and make it available through a podcast whether or not they have the approval of a commissioning producer at a state broadcaster. Server space is low cost, and traditional broadcasting companies can now make hours and hours of content available for streaming or download. I am over simplifying, of course. But we are no longer constrained by a certain kind of scarcity...the scarcity of airtime.

The internet means that broadcasting companies are no longer the only gatekeepers for content. Secondly, listeners are presented with an overwhelming choice. Thirdly, though independent producers can put their work online, it is a challenge to get them listened to. How will anybody ever discover it’s there? The mainstream media can shout louder than the individual.

What does this mean? For broadcasting organizations, there is a need to help listeners choose. Curators of content and arbiters of taste become critically important. There is a need for reviews, whether they are professional or unpaid user generated. See Amazon.com for an example of this. Independent websites like Third Coast Festival which curate themes, reviews, interviews with radio makers are much needed. We must encourage sites that aggregate radio features.

Scarcity. There is an irony of course. Despite this abundance of bandwidth and opportunity to be heard, feature makers live in a world of scarce financial resources. Increasingly, big broadcasters are devoting less money to feature making. In house production is declining. Independent producers compete for fewer commissions. Aggregating sites like PRX in the U.S. don’t pay enough to sustain production costs. Yes, if you are an independent producer, there are fewer gatekeepers to getting your feature heard. But who wants to work for free? Making a feature should not be a privilege reserved for the independently wealthy.

In Canada, the CBC devotes fewer financial resources to radio features and documentaries than it did two or three years ago. One reason is that there is less money in the system. But I think the more significant reason is management’s reallocating budgets to other types of information radio: local live news programs, field news reporters, and programs that favour less expensive formats such as interviews and panel discussions. Radio features are deemed an expensive form of presentation. That’s expensive as in, cost per minute.

So, my friends, here a couple of questions I think you should tackle:
  1. How do we persuade decision makers that the feature is worth spending money on, even if it is expensive?
  2. How do we generate more money for the radio feature within broadcasting organizations, and from outside?
  3. What other financing models can we use to pay for features (with a particular view to the internet)?
Persuasion. Here are some strategies already in use to persuade the powers that be (politicians, policy makers, broadcasting management) that features are worth funding:
  • demonstrating audience growth
  • arguing that features serve a special mandate or objective of a broadcaster (e.g. Outfront, the show that I produced, was created to bring more diverse voices onto the airwaves of CBC. Diversity was part of the show’s mandate.)
  • position feature units as fulfilling a training function. Berit Hedeman was successful in winning support for radio features in at NRK by offering training and mentoring to others in the company.
  • find an advocate – a decision maker who is persuasive and influential -- who will make the case for the feature. Court these people with purpose and a plan.
  • Understand how the decision makers measure success. I think it’s difficult to persuade the powers that be that the feature is worthy, in and of itself. They just don’t care. They don’t see the world that way. To succeed, we need to understand the rules of the game they play by. That means, how do they measure success, and how do they reach their decisions? What’s in their self-interest?
Money. Some of you may know that I’m spending the year on a journalism. I’ve had the luxury of time this year. I have grazed in the field of ideas not directly related to radio making.

For example, I have met a new breed of business people, so called “social entrepreneurs”. Typically, these men and women have already made their fortunes. Now they’re turning their business acumen towards solving social problems. They are creating businesses with a “double bottom line”, that is, making money and doing social good. These people are bringing enormous creative energy to solving social problems, and are a genuine force in developing public policy today.

I wonder, how would they solve the money problems of the radio feature? What would they say if they were at the table in Leipzig? I think they would ask, how do we make the radio feature generate income? They would probably say, we need to abandon the artist’s aversion to commerce. They would say, think of funding radio features as a business proposition, that is, something of value. The question then follows, what is that value? To whom? What models already exist for selling content? (iTunes comes to mind.) Should downloads be free? What if they weren’t?

I know this is an alien way of thinking for creative types like us. But radio needs a business lens. I recommend we approach the philanthropic organizations (e.g. the Ashoka Foundation or the Schwab Foundation) that fund social entrepreneurship, and ask for their expertise in rethinking our financial model. In approaching these foundations, the trick would be to convince them that there is a social good from radio features. That would require some stellar examples of where radio features have made a difference in bettering people’s lives.

I understand that this suggestion may find lots of opposition. But I do think we need new revenue, as our traditional sources dry up. We need expertise to figure that out. It’s a matter of survival.

Process. Your discussions will range far and wide. They may even spill over to a venue where amber liquids are spilling over. Free range discussion is great. But I also urge you to budget your time so that, at some point, you focus on doing something. I urge you to come up with a set of actions to be taken (next steps) and deadlines for taking those actions. What’s the goal? What’s the action to get there?

I also suggest someone set up an online community to continue these discussions. (LinkedIn can be used this way, for example.)

Good luck."

Neil Sandell, CBC, Toronto, Canada

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