Yet, if it wasn’t for the initiative and the foresight of Marc Hand and Susan Harmon, co-founders of Public Media Company (originally known as Public Radio Capital, and originally founded as a project of Station Resource Group, a public media incubator of sorts), dozens of listener-supported public radio and viewer-supported television stations would no longer exist.
To fully understand the story, you must go back to the 1990s, when a wave of deregulation in the radio industry gave way to massive consolidation. The tipping point came when Community Resource Educational Association, Inc. (CREA), a non-profit religious broadcaster, bid an astounding $13 million for the WDCU public radio station’s license owned by the University of the District of Columbia.
The offer sent shock waves through the local listener community, NPR and stations across the country. Since a majority of public stations are owned by institutional licensees (colleges and universities), if such bids persisted, the temptation of multi-million dollar offers for university-owned stations could lead to the disappearance of public radio stations in markets all over the country. And with them, outlets for diverse, local voices.
Identifying the Need for Preservation
Like others in public media, Hand saw the looming threat to the diversity of media ownership as contrary to the best interests of a diverse nation in need of shared experience and common ground, and potentially damaging to the 21st century free press — the critical leverage point that makes possible an informed citizenry.
Out of this concern, Public Radio Capital was born. In addition to creating a mechanism to respond to the changing marketplace for the noncommercial spectrum, Public Radio Capital sought to counter the concentration of commercial TV and radio channels in the hands of dramatically fewer corporate owners.
The endeavour was highly entrepreneurial and new for public radio and television. Public Radio Capital would deliver specialized business consulting and financial services at the local level, such as helping stations and community groups apply existing tax-exempt public finance tools, to preserve and expand public media.
The model is similar to that of the Trust for Public Land, which provides a mechanism for people all across the country to pool resources and protect or promote community-driven conservation plans. Public Radio Capital sought to do the same for public radio, believing that local, non-commercial programming was as valuable a public resource as a park.
Turning Up the Dial
Fast forward to today, Hand and his experienced team have seen the wisdom of this approach borne out through more than 300 client projects. And the company is not limited to radio stations anymore. In 2014, Public Radio Capital saw a similar need in public television, as well as social media and other new distribution platforms, and subsequently changed its name to Public Media Company.
Since 2001, Public Media Company’s role in expanding and preserving public media has driven an audience expansion of more than 1.53 million public radio listeners every week, or 23% of the 6.5 million new weekly listeners that public radio garnered from Spring 2001 to Spring 2015.
Across the country, Public Media Company has strengthened public media in communities such as Sacramento, Denver, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Portland (Oregon), Nashville, Salt Lake City, and the state of Kentucky.
According to Hand, law firm Garvey Schubert Barer’s steadying influence as well as the legal team’s non-traditional approaches have been critical to Public Media Company’s track record of wins. Hand claims that he has a picture of GSB attorney John Crigler on his office wall – and you get the feeling he might not be joking.
New Challenges, New Opportunities
If the 1990s threatened public media with license sales, the Internet and the recession combined to threaten public media in different ways in the early 2000s. Stations faced reduced budgets that crimped programming, coupled with daunting, yet necessary investments in new technologies in order to compete with a changing listenership.
Once again, Public Media Company stepped in to fill the void. In 2014, Public Media Company broadened its mission to include the execution of collaborative partnerships with companies such as Channel X and VuHaus, to help drive overall growth and sustainability in public media.
In early 2015, Alison Scholly, Public Media Company’s Managing Director, launched Channel X as a digital-based video news exchange that brought new programs and journalistic reporting from diverse, independent and often underrepresented sources to public radio and television. Channel X is committed to bringing ideas and issues to the fore and helping to distinguish public media in a rapidly changing landscape of ownership, technology and distribution models.
Public radio’s music stations, meanwhile, are among the country’s leading engines for music discovery, finding and supporting the careers of emerging artists everywhere. In 2015, to help these stations reach a wider audience — including those online and on mobile devices — Public Media Company partnered with five leading public radio music stations to launch VuHaus, a digital video platform that now includes more than 20 prominent music discovery stations. Today, under the leadership of Public Media Company’s Managing Director, Erik Langner, VuHaus is providing audiences with access to live artist studio sessions, interviews and much more—and is solidifying public media as a key player in the contemporary music scene.
Hand says Public Media Company’s work is not done. Political forces are once again threatening funding for public media. Funds are drying up elsewhere as well: a recent spectrum auction, which was projected to bring up to $6 billion in funding for public radio, came in closer to $2 billion. Both developments have been big disappointments.
In addition, the pace of technology innovation and evolving consumption preferences all demonstrate that, according to Hand, “it’s now more than ever critical to have new and innovative approaches to funding, programming, content and technology” for the overall sustainability of stations.
But perhaps the biggest technological opportunity lies in the forthcoming new standards for television, called ATSC 3.0, a transformative technology that moves broadcasting to an IP-based delivery system. Essentially, it converts a broadcast transmitter to a high-power IP data transmitter.
The ATSC 3.0 platform has an impressive list of enhanced features, including: enhanced “traditional” television; custom delivered content to specific devices; interactive features; mobile delivery to portable devices; storage; fee-for–service programming; enhanced emergency alerting; and improved accessibility for viewers with disabilities.
All of these have significant ramifications for public television stations, and Public Media Company is hard at work helping them to plan for this coming new standard.
So the next time you’re enjoying your public radio station, you can thank Marc Hand and his team for working relentlessly on behalf of public media, ensuring that this national treasure will be around long into the future.