Monday, November 9, 2009

Chicago Public Radio—an internal report on its new Strategic Plan

Posted By on 11.09.09 at 01:23 PM

Chicago Public Radio has a new strategic plan (pdf), a tightly held internal document approved by its board on October 30 after lots of discussion. One of the first orders of business has CPR changing its name to Chicago Public Media—“a more accurate depiction of what we already do, certainly the only fair depiction of what we intend to do over the planning period,” which is 2010—2013.

These are dangerous time for the media, asserts the plan, whose subhead is “Progress amid perils.” But “amid this media carnage,” CPR is engaged in a “gutsy transformation”: WBEZ is being reinvented “around news and information.” Vocalo, which describes itself as "like YouTube for radio," is still in the process of being invented for the first time.

The 15-page plan wrestles with the critical question of what the new mission of Chicago Public Media will be. The current mission statement calls CPR a "a community-supported, public service broadcasting institution [whose programs] speak with many voices to community needs. . . . We are principally a broadcaster."

But going forward, that won't do. “If, for instance, we define ourselves as a public radio station in Chicago," says the plan, "we are, at a minimum, confused. More likely, we’re sunk, since we will systematically overlook and ignore many competitors and substitutes.” (All italics here are the plan’s.)

So the new mission is this: “Chicago Public Media serves the public interest by creating and delivering diverse, compelling content that informs, inspires, enriches and entertains. Through a broad range of media platforms we connect diverse audiences in our service area and beyond to one another. We help them make a difference in our communities, our region, and the world.”

How does CPM do it? “By remaining involved, accessible, inquisitive and respectful to our public and creating content that is inventive, thoughtful, and evocative that they consider essential to their lives.”

And what does CPM see ahead? “In fulfilling our mission we will deepen Chicago Public Media’s relationships with users and become an indispensable part of cultural and civic life.”

The new plan claims that this mission was arrived at by “strategic consensus.” But my soundings of people within or close to the organization suggest that the plan is generally regarded as an expression of the will, vision, and rhetorical flourishes of its president, Torey Malatia. Though the plan is written in the third-person plural, there are occasional lapses into I and my. Its eccentricities are regarded as Malatia's—for instance the way it begins with parables, the first concerning Tide: "They made a bet-your-company risky decision to reformulate around enzymes instead. Now their detergents are better for your clothes and better for the environment than any detergent with surfactants. Oh, now Proctor & Gamble is the world's only profitable major laundry products firm!"

But staffers seem less willing than Malatia to be inspired by the example of a laundry detergent. The document has caused consternation within the ranks for its treatment of two separate but related issues. The first is public affairs programming at WBEZ. The second is Vocalo. If the WBEZ public affairs staff didn’t already feel that what they do has been slighted, starved, and diminished by Malatia because Vocalo matters most to him, the strategic plan's rhetoric might roll off their backs. But they do feel that, and so it doesn’t.

The soaring plan rings with high-mindedness, but what is there about CPM’s declared mission that distinguishes it from, say, the mission at WFMT? Compelling content? That could be anything. Public affairs staffers point to the word that isn’t there, the word nowhere written in the strategic plan: journalism.

Yes, “news and information” is the organizing principle. And among the opportunities CPM faces, the strategic plan observes: “The weakening of daily newspapers and the disinvestment of local news by local competing commercial electronic media creates a significant opening for trustworthy, comprehensive and context-setting news.” But where is the strategy for seizing this opportunity? None’s given, and the section on CPM’s core competences makes no specific mention of news at all. A listing of CPM strengths says only this: “The format switch to all news/discussion came at an opportune time (when news was especially important to a broad swath of citizens). While our switch generated significant controversy in some circles, this served to catch the attention of those consumers who find the news to be of paramount import.”

To WBEZ journalists who would've welcomed a vote of confidence, this isn’t one. The strategic plan’s attitude toward news seems to be this: there are those like it, maybe not as many as there used to be. Then the plan moves on to CPM weaknesses and asserts: “We have a culture of radio production that often blocks more catholic ways of conceiving of content that would provide multi-platform product.” This doesn't call out the news staff specifically, but there's a strong suggestion that anyone who's been around for a while—like most people on the WBEZ side of the operation—is a part of the problem.

It might be unfair to read a strategic plan any more closely than we read a party platform. In this age of confusion and high anxiety, any medium's battle plan is apt to be 50 percent intuition and 50 percent cheerleading. There is a timeline at the end of the CPM strategic plan, and here's where it gets down to business. CPM intends, for example, to introduce a “database of content modules” by the first quarter of 2011, to establish “links between current stories and related content” by the third quarter of 2011, to provide “more comprehensive links for libraries” and make “ideas, content, talent available to other media outlets” by the first quarter of 2012.

And the plan does speak with some clarity about three-year-old Vocalo. It admits that Vocalo “has not yet built visibility or loyalty consistent with norms for successful internet startups, and remains a costly early stage venture for us.” It calls Vocalo “one of the boldest moves Chicago Public Media has ever undertaken . . . a real world crucible where we can change the nature and pace of experiments we undertake.” As a radio experiment, it “can be seen as significant and strategic.” But it warns that the foundation support that has come close to paying Vocalo’s way might not continue, and it concedes that “as a website Vocalo must be seen as unsuccessful. Great websites exhibit a much steeper growth pattern than we have experienced—something our staff and General Manager are urgently working to address. This must be fixed urgently.”

An endnote tucked away at the rear of the report is blunter: “It must be said that many listeners, staffers and even several CPR Board Members find the content and listening experience of Vocalo to be substandard and unappealing thus far. Some of the challenges posed in making user generated content truly engaging may be inherent—after all, it would be asking a lot to have free content rival the production values and polish of This American Life. As with any media experiment in history, it takes time to find the essence of something new. An important strategic question for some is how much time we think the experiment deserves before we elect to intervene. Answering this question is difficult without determining whether it should be evaluated as radio programming or a website, since it is clearly a hybrid of each.”

That's an odd way to frame the question — and I wonder if it was chosen to make an answer harder to come by. Why does CPR need to choose whether to evaluate Vocalo as a website or as radio? Malatia created Vocalo to be both — according to the strategic plan, media hybridization is the future. Let it rise or fall as a hybrid.

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