Saturday, September 3, 2011

Re-evaluating my relationship with public media

I’ve finished my work with the amazing Knight-Mozilla Ideas Challenge and have been thinking about how things went. While there was an amazing amount of ideas around innovation, some of the advice that I took to heart late in the program was not aimed at fostering pure innovation as it was aimed at developing and strengthening an established idea or business; in particular, I had focused on the ideas of:

  • iterating, constantly updating your product, based on feedback 
  • and of listening, deeply to the goals of your audience (as suggested by Storify's Bert Herman)

With this in mind, there was one comment from Patrick which I had downplayed early on as I had been developing the Public Radio Roadtrip, but here it is, and it had still remained unforgotten:
It would we sweet if we could put [the public radio roadtrip] on our sites as a widget and define a certain starting area, such as our service area or state. I suppose the stories pulled would have to go back far enough to populate the less written-about regions.
Listening to this request had me re-thinking my approach and deciding that what I needed to build was an import/sync tool to update stories from NPR and then creating an automatically updateable, easily embeddable map that stations could use to show stories from NPR based on coverage area.

I was assuming, in the absence of significant use and regular feedback on the Public Radio Roadtrip in-which I could base frequent iterations of the product, that this one comment was indicative of a larger segment of my target audience.

Additional benefits of building an import/sync tool is that I could build upon KCRW’s NPR API module purely using python and contribute back to the project and possibly help other developers as well.

Yet, part of me thinks that all this is just me spinning my wheels.

And yet another part of me hopes that my work has at least added something relevant the larger conversation about public media, or even specifically around discussions regarding location-based audio. I wonder, for instance, if my post on Navigating Public Media Stories via GPS might well have been a footnote in the discussion that Zach Brand and others at NPR have likely been having leading up to their proposal for a presentation at SXSW entitled Auto Meets Mobile: Building In-Vehicle Apps.

While another part of me thinks I should refocus my efforts altogether.

Let me explain. Recently, in creating my Final Project for the Knight-Mozilla Ideas Challenge, I had a great experience with using the popcorn.js javascript library for syncronizing audio and images.  I found the process to be exceptionally fun. Here is a link to the presentation (Please note that, at the moment, this only runs in Firefox 4 and Google Chrome).  In working on this, I was reminded about how voicing for radio is about writing!

But I also was inspired about using this JavaScript library in other ways. Just like I had used proprietary animation tools to create an animation for an interview that Rene had done with me, I can see how this particular tool could be used to present existing radio stories visually, like what the Rauch Brothers are doing with StoryCorp, or Sarah Vowell’s collaborations with an artist friend using post-it notes (I wish I could find a link to these, they’re brilliant and inspiring), or the playful animations for KUT's O'Dark 30, or the excellent and inspiring New York Times' One in 8 Million project. I’m sure there are other examples that could be found in public media, and if you have them, I’d be glad to hear your suggestions.

So, I feel like I’m at the crossroads for my public media work.

I have found over the last year, that being an independent web developer with an interest in public media presents some interesting challenges.  While twitter, direct email and other avenues of communication give some glimpses of the goings-on of the industry, I wonder if  by not working at a station, or in coordination with a station, removes the independent developer from an important part of the dialog and presents a distinct distance from people who actually who would benefit from your work.  Supporting this idea, I was heartened by a recent post at NPR Digital's Core Publisher blog outlining the Program Director at Michigan Radio Tamar Charney's experience in Transforming our Web Strategy as one of organizational change.  Following twitter updates or following tumblr blogs give brief hints at larger changes, but I am pretty sure they are no substitute for being an integral part of the conversation happening at the station/national level.

And that's why I think it's pretty advantageous that the good folks at AIR and the CPB are sparking up a new new MQ2-inspired initiative “designed to pair inventive producers with local stations to increase the capacity for innovation in public media.”  I believe I can see the benefits that such a program would present for stations and for creative producers and developers.

But perhaps there are additional ways for developing my interests and talents within public media.  Perhaps joining AIR and pitching stories to news outlets or picking up tape syncs (especially while we're in Paris) might be a good direction to take.

Given that my family and I are projected to spend five years in China starting in 2013, I wonder if there are ways where this could be turned into an opportunity for both my friends and colleagues in public media, for their audiences and for myself?