Times of great change represent an opportunity to shift power, and the power shift many of us are working towards here is the democratization of the media. We seek to establish truly effective alternatives to the commercial media system, alternatives that are not relegated to obscurity.

To build an effective alternative, we must begin by identifying the needs that are neglected by commercial media. Then we can capitalize on the competitive advantages that non-commercial media institutions have over our corporate media counterparts.

Today, the media serve three primary needs:

  1. The media facilitate consumerism: The media informs consumers about products and services available to them. Designed specifically to deliver audiences to advertisers, most media organizations do a superb job of connecting corporations with consumers.
  2. The media provide entertainment: The average U.S. resident spends more time watching TV than all other leisure activities combined. Whether advertising-based or subscriber-based, corporate media is very effective at entertaining, at least for mainstream audiences.
  3. The media represent social communication: The media represent the collective conversations of a community. It’s how diverse perspectives are shared and it serves as our primary connection to life outside of our immediate surroundings. It is the forum where we debate and plan collective action.

Except to the extent that it fulfills the first two goals, corporate media falls short of fulfilling this third goal, especially in low-income communities that are of little interest to advertisers. This is where opportunities exist for non-commercial community media.

The advantages of non-commercial media organizations

If non-commercial media organizations hope to play a more significant role in the next evolution of the media landscape, we have to identify and capitalize on the strategic advantages of our unique structure:

  1. Constituent-led: Whereas commercial media have to balance the needs of the audience with the needs of advertisers and shareholders, we have an ability to focus entirely on the needs of the communities we serve.
  2. Unbridled distribution: Commercial media must cling to their intellectual property and pursue distribution models that support digital rights management (DRM). We are able to spread our perspectives as widely as possible and engage in the distribution methods that our communities want, without regards to IP.
  3. Mobilizing the underserved: Because they’re driven by advertisers (or paid-subscription models), commercial media are not interested in engaging communities that represent little or no buying power. We have the capacity and motivation to engage these large, underserved audiences that are neglected by commercial media.
  4. Cooperation: Whereas commercial media institutions compete with one another, we have the ability and incentive to collaborate with other non-commercial production and distribution entities to share content and lower costs.

Capitalizing on our advantages

Instead of capitalizing on these strategic advantages, most non-commercial media entities have developed a model that mimics commercial media. They embrace business practices that put them at a significant disadvantage. PBS is a perfect example. According to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS’s mission is to “ensure universal access to non-commercial programs and services that inform, enlighten, and enrich the public,” especially content that “addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences [and] reflects America’s cultural diversity.” This mission is very similar to those of the public access TV stations where I work, but the approach most PBS stations take to accomplish that mission is not one we should emulate.

1. Constituent-led. Few PBS stations are truly community-driven. They cater to advertisers through underwriting, and do a worse job of it than commercial media. We have an opportunity to serve the audience above advertisers. Our communities can engage in programming and scheduling through collective voting and user-generated content.

We can focus on programming that serves audiences further down the Long Tail, diverse interests often neglected by commercial media, as opposed to creating the same content that corporate media produces to target affluent audiences. While PBS produces more home-improvement, financial planning, and travel shows to appeal to mainstream audiences, we have an opportunity to focus on content that truly addresses the needs of the underserved and reflects America’s cultural diversity.

2. Distribution. If universal access to information is our goal, it’s simply antithetical to release content with the same rights restrictions that commercial media entities follow. How can PBS stand for universal access while telling teachers that use of their content in an elementary school is “punishable by civil and criminal penalties”? Very few non-commercial media organizations make any significant revenue from IP anyway, and its time for us to be embracing Creative Commons instead of traditional copyright.

Universal access, especially for the underserved, means releasing the DRM/IP shackles and making content free to distribute for any non-commercial purpose. Any non-commercial media institution that is not embracing Creative Commons is missing a significant opportunity to have their content spread widely through channels our corporate media counterparts resist.

3. Mobilizing the Underserved. Underserved communities cannot be reached by replicating the content or approach of commercial media, or they wouldn’t be underserved. With diverse interests and values, it’s generally not cost effective to produce content targeting small, disengaged communities. But public access TV stations across the country have shown that, given the opportunity, these communities can represent their own perspective in the media by producing their own content.

PBS has been confusingly slow in embracing or innovating around use of user-generated content. They remain focused on a production model in which they are greatly outmatched by commercial media institutions; instead of being the leaders in engaging the underserved, they compete for the very same audiences targeted by corporate media.

Like most of the emerging business models of the Internet age, the opportunity exists in serving audiences further down the the Long Tail. We should be at the forefront of empowering our communities to contribute niche content for hyper-local and fringe audiences, and embrace subject matter and audiences that are distinct from those targeted by commercial media. This requires a shift away from content creation and towards content organization: encouraging and improving upon user-generated content while developing better searchability, categorization, and community ratings and recommendations that enable viewers to find the content they want to see.

4. Cooperation. PBS does not collaborate effectively within PBS, much less other non-commercial content producers and distributors. There is an opportunity for PBS stations, public access stations, and other non-commercial media to behave as a unified network, distinct from the commercial networks in our commitment to our local communities.

Imagine each local PBS or public access station serving as a conduit to accessing the very best in user-generated or pro/am content nationwide. We can go beyond sharing content, and share open-source software designed to put our communities in charge. Alone, even the largest community media organization lacks the budget to provide online services and features that rival most corporate media institutions. However, by cooperating in the development of open source tools like the Open Media Project, we collectively have the resources to surpass the online experience of any commercial media institution. That, combined with our interest in truly engaging and empowering new audiences, could result in a participatory community of viewers unlike anything we’ve seen before.

These four opportunities are the focus of the software we are developing for the Open Media Project. The software has been beta-tested in seven cities across the U.S., and we’ve recently applied for a $2.2 million BTOP grant to support further development and implementations in an attempt to realize the full potential that exists for a cooperative non-commercial media sector. Other organizations across the country are beginning to work with local development firms to implement the software on their own, and we hope that this project can play a role in reaching our collective goal of democratizing the media landscape.