At the Alliance for Community Media Conference in Tuscon, Ariz., I participated on a panel called “New Paradigms in Fundraising.” Despite the name of the panel, my focus was more on “financial sustainability” than on fundraising, per se. I’ve outlined a variety of fundraising approaches emerging in non-commercial media in previous posts. But to me, the true “new paradigm” for community media lies not with raising more money, but with finding ways to enable the community to serve more of their own needs.

Rather than looking for new ways to pay for doing things the same way we always have, there is an opportunity to explore approaches that can substantially cut the costs of operating a community media station while significantly expanding your reach and impact. This is the new paradigm, and it requires putting the “community” in “community media” on a whole new level.

New Paradigms in Fundraising Financial Sustainability

Everyone’s favorite example of the promise of this approach is Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s mission and goals are quite similar to those for community media organizations: focused on enabling the community to share information and making that information as widely accessible as possible. Five or six years ago, the Wikimedia Foundation (which operates Wikipedia) had three full-time staff and a budget well under $1 million per year. Wikimedia didn’t ask, “How can we raise enough money to recreate Encyclopedia Britannica or Microsoft Encarta?” The new paradigm for Wikipedia was finding a way to do it with less by engaging its community.

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That approach made Wikipedia incredibly popular, with a level of community participation it never would’ve reached if it had aimed to replicate the model of those who came before. Today, the organization brings in more than $10 million in donations each year in small, individual gifts. Wikipedia isn’t the only organization to do this. In fact, this people-powered approach is becoming the rule, not the exception for the world’s emerging media leaders. The majority of the top 10 websites in the U.S. started with a smaller budget than your average Public Access TV station, and the new paradigm for each of them that resulted in their success was enabling their community to do the work.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Blogger, Craigslist, even eBay started out with a budget and staff no bigger than an average Public Access TV station. Each of them are now ranked among the top 10 sites in the U.S., and while they may have a lot of funds now, the popularity came before the funds, not the other way around.

The opportunity exists now for community media to follow this same approach, and the result could be bigger than any of us imagine. Whether or not your station is facing budget cuts, the opportunity exists today for you to enable your community to create, curate, ingest and schedule their own programs, to truly manage their community media station. Your viewers can vote and decide what they want to see, and all your content can be made available online with little staff time or costs. With support from the Knight Foundation, the Open Media Foundation helped build a suite of software solutions that can put community members squarely in the driver’s seat, ingesting and scheduling their own programs, reserving equipment, sharing and voting on the best content from your station and other stations across the country.

A New Way of Putting the Public in “Public Access”

In its current state, the OMP software still requires a skilled Drupal developer to implement and customize. A year after the completion of our beta test, we’ve learned that it was unrealistic of us to expect the staff of a Public Access TV station to manage the Open Media Project software. It was like asking the editors at Encyclopedia Britannica to manage the server room at Wikipedia.

In its current form, the Open Media approach requires a distinct staffing makeup, and despite our experience in Denver, that shift doesn’t always represent a huge cost savings. The cost savings associated with automated content ingest and scheduling is often entirely offset by the increased cost of devoting a web developer to maintaining and upgrading the software. But the results are significant. Denver Open Media has more members now than any previous Public Access TV station in Denver, and according to Alexa.com, the denveropenmedia.org website ranks among the top 10 nonprofit websites in Colorado, up there with the top cultural institutions in Denver. This is what happens when the community feels true ownership over their community media station: They become more engaged.

Still, we recognize that the vision of the Open Media Project software will never be realized for community media until we can offer a version of the tools that are fully supported and simple to use, requiring no staffing changes or major retraining. With the addition of two key staff members today, the Open Media Foundation is embarking on a third phase of the project to help bring the vision of a collaborative Public Access TV network forward. Adam Mordecai, co-founder of one of the top Drupal development firms, Advomatic, joins OMF as our new Director of Special Projects, accompanied by Joe Meersman, a Drupal developer who has been developing nonprofit websites in Drupal for the past year through OMF’s Internship Program. Adam and Joe join a strong team of developers at the Open Media Foundation, dedicated to putting the power of media and technology in the hands of the people.

OMP: Phase 3

The changing face of media represents significant opportunities for us as noncommercial, community-driven media organizations. I’ve previously outlined four competitive advantages we have as noncommercial media entities, in contrast to our commercial counterparts: advantages that open up the opportunity for Public Access to become a global, user-driven network that could exceed the impact of PBS or many commercial networks, much in the same way Wikipedia’s impact has exceeded any similar effort that came before. And like Wikipedia, our opportunity can only be realized through a radical shift in the way we work with our community.

The Open Media Project software was designed specifically to help Public Access TV stations take advantage of these opportunities, and while the initial phases did not work out exactly as we had hoped, we learned a lot from the process. Over a dozen stations (and other entities) have implemented aspects of the software, though at least half of them are using the open-source nature of the tools to revise the code to fit their old ways of doing things — essentially stripping away the aspects of the software that position us to capitalize on the strategic advantages tied to cooperating with other stations, mobilizing the community, and designing your station to be more constituent-led.

The next phase of the Open Media Project will revise the approach, offering a more pre-packaged option for participating stations. Modeling after the example provided by NPR’s core publisher effort, the next phase of the Open Media Project will enable stations to benefit from our inherent strategic advantages on a level that hasn’t been possible before. Those who want to explore this new paradigm and hand more of the community media reins over to their community will be part of a shift in noncommercial, user-generated media that I’m confident will do no less than change the way the world sees Public Access.