concluding thoughts about public media

Today is the last day of a great meeting on public media, a rich discussion enlivened by presentations of excellent projects (for instance, the National Black Programming Consortium, OneWorld, Global Voices Online, Location One, Public Radio Exchange, and PRI’s Open Source.)

“Public media” comprises all forms of communication that help a democratic public to do its work. The public’s work includes deliberating and debating issues of common concern, mobilizing people to participate in formal politics, and creating cultural products that represent and preserve a people’s heterogeneous values.

Three sectors can serve these roles; each has advantages and disavantages:

1. Corporations (broadcast networks, cable-TV providers, big software companies, newspapers, and publishers) can help the public to do its work. They sometimes meet public demand for news, debate, and information. They apply expertise, talent, and discipline; and they have access to mass markets. However, they generally make more money by providing and advertising commercial goods, rather than encouraging civic and political participation. They can attract the largest audiences by presenting politics in ways that amuse or arouse viewers but make them less likely to participate themselves. Corporate consolidation and market fragmentation make these problems worse.

2. “Citizen media” means material created and disseminated by individuals or small, voluntary groups: blogs, personal websites, photo galleries on Flickr, podcasts. These “many-to-many” media are far more diverse, open, and innovative than corporate programming. However, there are questions about the citizen media: Can unfunded individuals and networks create products that are more ambitious than short snippets of text, snapshots, and video–for instance, lengthy narrative movies and original news reporting? Even if a few very talented people can create these ambitious products, how can we help those with average skills to participate and find audiences for their work, which will not look professional? And how can we prevent all these individual producers from forming small, insular groups–how can we create a public dialogue?

3. The traditional “public media” are broadcast stations and producers funded (at least in part) by tax dollars. They have a strong tradition of commitment to the public’s interests, although they can certainly be criticized for attracting and serving a narrow slice of the population. In the United States, the organizations in the orbit of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have some strengths: reputation and public trust, a national network of local institutions, archives of excellent programming, talented employees, and some broadcast spectrum. They have the power to put individuals “on the air,” which attracts participation. However, their advantages are diminishing as more competitors arise (including citizen media producers), and as viewers shift from radio and TV to the Internet, where they have far more choice. People are increasingly alienated by the traditional model of station membership, in which you pay dues, receive some goodies, but have no direct impact on programming–and the fundraising drive just drones on. Public broadcasting stations must learn to use their spectrum and other assets to enhance public discussions and cultural collaborations. Their job is to help form publics that demand genuinely public media from all three sectors.

[Rebecca MacKinnon’s summary is on her blog.]