In 2008, the Open Media Foundation (then Deproduction) received a $380,000 Knight News Challenge award, and it was a major turning-point for our organization. We added staff, formed new partnerships, and maintained a level of growth that had us approximately double in size each year over our first five years after forming in 2004.

The Open Media Project grant is for a four-part effort that began with a re-building of the software we developed to automate an unprecedented approach to user-generated and community-powered TV in Denver. The second phase saw our team implement this re-built Drupal software and business model in six additional public access stations across the country. Third, we took the lessons learned from the beta-test implementations and released an installation profile that incorporates the contributions and lessons learned in the seven beta-test sites.

The fourth and final phase has our team focused on content-sharing among these stations, enabling us to cooperate as a true network by sharing the top-voted content from each station, and building a collection of truly engaging content unlike anything else you can find on TV. As we tackle this fourth phase, we are also facing the challenge of sustaining this project (and our team) without ongoing support from the Knight Foundation.

Earned Income

From the beginning, we anticipated that the long-term sustainability of the Open Media Project would be based primarily on earned income. We hoped the success of the Open Media Project would generate a strong demand from public access TV stations and other organizations looking for support in implementing a similar model. This approach enabled Denver Open Media to thrive even without the general operating support most public access TV stations enjoy from their local government or cable operators.

Our first such client arose in San Francisco after the city drastically cut operating support for public access and then selected the Bay Area Video Coalition to launch their new public access TV stations, SF Commons. We have found a great partner in BAVC. They are now poised to set a new standard for participatory, community media, and are committed to be a part of an open source movement that has each of us benefiting from the investments of the others. The earned income from this project (and others to follow) will hopefully help our team sustain its success and continue to build upon the expertise we’ve gained over the past five years.

Cooperation and Partnerships

No successful open source project can be carried by a single organization. The Drupal modules we’ve developed have been downloaded by over 100 organizations, ranging from public access TV to community colleges. Several of these partners have contributed back to the software in ways that are benefiting the entire community. But this hasn’t come about easily.

Over the past decade, many public access TV stations have developed open source software, but few projects are built in a way that enables the software to be truly useful in other environments. Our initial foray into Open Media Project tools included myopic code and assumptions that made the software more difficult to leverage in other stations than if they built their own software from scratch.

Developing the code in a manner that makes it useful in diverse environments involves a sacrifice that few organizations have been willing or able to make. It requires investing resources in development that we hope will pay off in the future when partners use and contribute back to the code.

Early partners made the same mistake as us, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into code that is practically useless in any setting other than their own. The Knight News Challenge award enabled us to take the time to better collaborate with the Drupal community, host code sprints, attend conferences, and, ultimately, back-track and re-design a more extensible code base.

With our grant period soon coming to an end, we have a number of partners poised to take the reigns and collectively help ensure the continued growth of the project. Davis Media Access in California has devoted significant time to improving the code and is a clear success story. Their work has, among other things, extended the OMP code to integrate with a new broadcast server.

Our growing relationship with Tightrope Media Systems, and their recent commitment
to open source software
, can largely be credited to the efforts of Darrick Servis and Davis Media Access. Other successes and failures of the beta test process are equally valuable. Ongoing cooperation with Boston Neighborhood Network, Channel Austin and others will continue to yield benefits to the project.

We’re most excited about our newest partner: the Bay Area Video Coalition. They bring a commitment to open source collaboration that we’ve not yet seen in previous partners. Everything about their SF Commons effort gives us confidence that they will set a new example for the next generation of networked, user-driven public access TV. Though their operating support is meager, they have strong, visionary leadership in Ken Ikeda and Jen Gilomen. They also stand to benefit from their close proximity to organizations like Archive.org, Creative Commons, and the Wikimedia Foundation, all of whom inspired our software and business model from the beginning.

Even if the Open Media Foundation were to shut our doors, I’m confident that organizations like BAVC would keep the project alive and growing… of course, we’re working on making sure that isn’t the case.

Expanding the Open Media Project

While earned income has the potential to maintain the level of activity we’ve enjoyed here for the past two years, our true vision of building an entirely new kind of participatory media network is going to require a significant ramp-up of the project. The Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program funding available through the stimulus plan represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just that.

We partnered with Free Speech TV, the Alliance for Community Media, and 20 other public access TV stations across the country to apply for $2.2 million to expand the Open Media Project. The proposal addresses the many lessons learned from our Knight-funded beta test, and proposes a more self-contained and supported solution that can transform a wide range of public access TV stations into gateways for broadband adoption for disconnected communities.

Statistics show the primary factor preventing individuals from using broadband is not a lack of infrastructure, but the perception that the Internet is not relevant to their life. Our partner stations will encourage and support these communities by conveying the relevance of broadband access from the perspective of those communities. Together with Free Speech TV, we will collect the best of this content and provide national exposure to perspectives on broadband’s relevance that simply haven’t been seen before.

In case our first round application doesn’t receive funding, we’ve invested heavily in planning an application in response to the second BTOP opportunity for funding. I encourage other Knight News Challenge grant recipients (and rejectees) to read the Notice of Funds Availability and investigate if their Knight News Challenge project would be a candidate for BTOP funding.

Regardless of future grants and funding, we are optimistic about the future of the project. We’ve had our share of pitfalls, but that’s to be expected when you’re pioneering new territory. The Knight News Challenge experience has opened doors and helped our organization grow in a way that will forever alter our work. If we can sustain the project beyond our KNC award, we’ll be part of an entirely new kind of non-commercial media system, serving interests and engaging communities that are left out of today’s commercial media conversation.

Every change begins with a new conversation.

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