The Public Media Accelerator: A New Path Forward for Public Media?
The new Public Media Accelerator from PRX and the Knight Foundation is a fascinating concept, and if it works, it could reinvigorate public media and help position us for long-term success. How? By harnessing the business acumen of mission-driven entrepreneurs and tech smarty-pants; pairing them with public media’s existing assets, such as editorial excellence and community service; and fueling essential content and services in a financially sustainable manner.
(If you haven’t been reading about the Accelerator, then for additional context, I highly recommend reading this MediaShift article by PRX CEO Jake Shapiro and this Neiman Labs article by Andrew Phelps.)
To be clear, the Accelerator isn’t about incremental improvements to existing content and services. “We're excited about ideas that change the game through some systemic or business model insight,more so than smart improvements to the way things already work,” says Shapiro. In other words, the Accelerator is about disruptive innovation – ideas that fundamentally change business as usual, the way Amazon.com changed e-commerce, or Netflix changed the way we access video.
Shapiro cites donations and voluntary giving as one example of an area ripe for this kind of rebirth.
What good are these big ideas, I wondered, if the system resists adopting them? Shapiro’s answer: if a product or service is funded by the Accelerator, its business model needs to demonstrate that said product or service would be attractive to end users – which could be stations, producers, or plain-old members of the public. And in order to be funded in the first place, all projects need to demonstrate the strong potential to attract follow-on funding. The result? A good idea with no chance of on-the-ground viability would not in fact be considered a “good idea.”
Shapiro notes that this high bar could mean that ideas the Accelerator funds will need to address problems whose scope extends beyond the public media industry alone. And he’s the first to admit that given the experimental nature of all this, “if we’re taking big enough risks, some of the projects we fund won’t work.”
What Does the Accelerator Mean for You?
As of today, the Accelerator is a concept, with a $2.5 million commitment from the Knight Foundation behind it. It will exist as a project at PRX, with its own full-time director -- a position Shapiro hopes to fill asap. Currently PRX is hosting a series of advisory meetings with leaders inside and outside the public media community, including those who’ve been involved with other accelerators, to flesh out how, exactly, the Accelerator will operate in service of its grand vision. For example: What specific criteria will applicants be required to meet? What will the exact structure of the Accelerator be?
Shapiro says he hopes to have questions answered prior to the iMA meeting at SXSW so PRX can make some announcements at that time. He hopes the Accelerator will be making its first round of investments by summer.
In the meantime, he says stations should definitely be thinking of themselves as potential applicants -- as well as "potential investors, incubators, acquirers and users of Accelerator projects." In addition, Shapiro invites stations to consider: If you could invite the people inventing the Facebooks of the world in to tackle public media’s problems – what would you want them to do? He welcomes input and ideas via email (jake at prx dot org), as they can help influence the Accelerator team’s thinking (just note that the Accelerator isn’t set up to accept formal applications just yet).
As of now, Shapiro guesstimates that if the Accelerator funded, say, 12 projects… one third might be from known players within the public media field; one third might be “hybrids” -- teams that straddled public media and private enterprise, like PRX itself; and one third might be brand-new players – entrepreneurs with no previous involvement in public media, but who demonstrate alignment with core public media values.
The Accelerator Promise
The most exciting thing about the Public Media Accelerator, as I see it, is how it can start us down a path of leaning less on federal funding – or on any funding model that relies on us proving our collective value as “public media.” (Let me emphasize -- this is my take, not a stated goal of the Accelerator project.)
Here’s what I mean: We’re a disaggregate ecosystem – a motley crew of individuals and organizations motivated by a similar desire to serve the American public through media, but working toward different visions of what that service should look like. In today’s uber-competitive media and funding landscape, our disaggregation is a liability, because it keeps us from clearly defining a collective brand promise, and cohesively marketing that brand. As a result, we leave a scattered impression on the American media consumer of just what, exactly, public media is, and why it deserves government support.
But if we shift to new models – models that support our disaggregate ecosystem – then suddenly, a fundamental characteristic of our community, one that has often been a political and financial liability, may suddenly become, if not an asset, then at least, not an obstacle. In other words – there’s less pressure on us to tell a collective story, and prove our collective value, if our disaggregate content and services are supported by business models that truly take this disaggregation into account.
The potential downside? “Public media” as an entity ceases to exist. Citizens unite not behind “the need for public media,” but behind the specific content and services they love – islands they may not see as part of a larger whole. But here’s the thing – does this larger whole really exist, today?
I’m not saying the Public Media Accelerator will be our savior. Like any big audacious idea, it could succeed or fail spectacularly; based on PRX’s impressive track record, I’m inclined to bet towards success, but time will tell. Even if it’s wildly successful, though, it alone won’t free all of public media from reliance on federal funding. What it might do, though, is show us all a clear path forward.
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