Written by: Tom Rieland
Date: January 3, 2009

Over the holidays, I came across the first line of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and was inspired to use it as a review of where we are in the world of public media at WOSU. Tell me your thoughts.

“It was the best of times;”

The Obama administration platform plans to foster “the next generation of public media,” and “support the transition of existing public broadcasting entities and help renew their founding vision in the digital world.” A nice change compared to the previous administration, which zeroed out public broadcasting’s minimal federal support every budget. Let’s hope the Obama camp understands the power of public media to transform communities.

“it was the worst of times;”

The state of Ohio faces an incredible $7.3 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget. In the past two years, the state has substantially reduced support for public broadcasting. What’s next?

“it was the age of wisdom;”

Digital broadcasting was conceived for all the wrong reasons over a decade ago, but it may be the savior for over-the-air broadcasters like WOSU. We can provide more public service – more national and local programming – and better quality. We’ve become what I call “bitcasters” rather than broadcasters as we creatively think about splitting our digital signal to provide a number of new services in the future (i.e. mobile television, emergency alerts).

“it was the age of foolishness;”

As the February 17th federally mandated transition to digital broadcasting looms, the federal government is trying to help us transition analog television sets to digital, but many will still find their television broadcasts disappear in about six weeks.

As of today, some 8 million U.S. households are unprepared for the transition. The government has failed to focus the necessary funding and resources on those most in need of the financial and technical support – the poor and the elderly. Instead, they’re spending $1.3 billion on a coupon program for everyone with an analog TV. The money is great, but it is not placed where it is needed most. We made a special request to NTIA (the government org responsible for the converter coupon program) to assist us with coupons for our unique partnership with LifeCare Alliance and COAAA to help those most in need with the transition. We were turned down flat.

“it was the epoch of belief;”

We have faith that public media will survive this time of economic distress, because it is one of the only trusted media left in the country. As we’ve seen in Detroit and Chicago recently, the newspaper industry is in great distress. Media as a whole seems hyper focused on either entertainment or political extremes. It’s an opportune time for NPR, PBS and local public media to establish their base as providing serious journalism. If we do, we believe you support it.

“it was the epoch of incredulity:”

We are astonished to see our endowments shrink, our governmental funds at great risk, but also amazed at the commitment of our membership and underwriters, despite the times.

“it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair;”

We can only believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel – that public media stations across America won’t go dark as they face serious fiscal challenges. While WOSU has been able to weather the storm so far, many stations (WGBH – Boston, Chicago Public Radio, Maine Public Broadcasting, and many others) have trimmed their staff due to budget shortfalls. Even NPR has faced a “winter of despair” cutting 64 employees and the programs Day to Day and News & Notes.

“we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.”

At WOSU, we have such an amazing opportunity to use the new technologies for public service rather than profit. There is a necessity in this complex world for a non-commercial, nonprofit, locally based media organization. To assure that, we are changing before our eyes, developing more programming through unique partnerships, engaging the public online and through social media tools, and building new digital media streams. A single local radio or television program has relevance well beyond broadcast now and often the online value exceeds that of broadcast.

On February 17th, after 53 years on the air, the analog channel 34 disappears from the Columbus landscape and is replaced, incredibly, by WOSU HD (our new primary channel), WOSU Ohio, and WOSU Create. Three channels take the place of one. WOSU FM has two HD Radio channels and soon a third – expanding its public service remarkably due to digital technology.

It’s been an expensive ride, but we do believe we have “everything before us…”

What do you think?