All across the country, public stations and the networks that serve them are grappling with the question of how best to track and express their impact. Boulder-based Public Media Company (PMC) is poised to offer a one-stop solution: The Public Media Database.
Managing Director Erik Langner explains that the project was inspired by the company’s work with stations to help strengthen their business operations. While coordinating mergers, format changes and acquisitions, PMC leaders discovered a gap in the data that station managers have at hand to make decisions and predict outcomes. Traditionally, available data has focused on audience and membership, which Langer observes is “a relatively limited way to articulate impact.”
How Will it Work?
Currently in development, the Public Media Database will combine audience, revenue, and engagement metrics, “allowing managers to focus on and articulate performance,” Langer explains. By collecting both public and proprietary data from stations across the system, the PMC team will be able to also create cohorts of comparable stations in order to establish benchmarks. Once they have a critical mass of stations involved, they’ll make the data anonymous and create composites shared back to stations, allowing station managers to situate their performance in relation to their peers.
To begin collecting sample data, PMC convened eight organizations that represent a cross-section of station types: New Hampshire Public Radio, American Public Media, North Carolina Public Radio, Kansas City Public Television, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Colorado Public Radio and University of Southern California’s KUSC. They asked CEOs what data they currently collect, what they hope to collect, and how they might use a joint database.
Right now, PMC is casting a wide net in order to understand the various types of impact information to collect — Langer says the team looked at 200-plus data points for New Hampshire Public Radio alone. Their goal is to winnow their findings down to develop a dashboard that might display metrics for 20-odd variables, useful for both internal planning and external storytelling about a station’s audience, revenue and engagement.
“How can stations tell a more nuanced story about organizational impact?” asks Langner. “That’s the piece that we really need to help stations create.”
Given that this service is still a work in progress, the question of how to measure engagement will be the thorniest one. Various stations can have sharply different goals and audiences, and station managers have to walk a careful line covering controversial issues. Langner explains that PMC’s next step will be to hire a social scientist to help hone engagement metrics at both the station and story level, and to help sift through some of the kinks involved in working with self-reported data from stations.
This new hire would bolster PMC’s existing expertise in financial analysis. “As an organization we have deep fluency in looking at data and predicting trends,” Langer says. PMC is seeking funding to take the project to its next level, with an eye towards charging stations a modest fee to use the database once it’s established.
Distinguishing between “engagement” and “impact” will continue to be a complex process for both PMC and for the system at large. The Public Media Database will build upon ongoing efforts by both funders and system leaders to move beyond Arbitron and Nielsen numbers and establish the core civic values of public media in a communications ecosystem that’s increasingly cross-platform and participatory.
Not just an engineering question demanding new widgets or gadgets, this debate dives straight into the heart of public media’s mission, and has direct consequences for philanthropists, producers and citizens concerned about what ends up on air and online. See our AIM resources for an array of recent perspectives on this topic, including:
- the latest on NPR’s efforts to build a newsroom analytics culture,
- the methods that PBS is using to track the social media strategy for Downton Abbey,
- a report that I co-authored for AIR on the impact of public media transformation project Localore across ten stations,
- a parallel report on how public TV stations are establishing effective and sustainable models for civic outreach, and more.
Part of what’s making it particularly complicated to establish consistent impact evaluation methods is the ongoing expansion of the field to include new public media platforms and partners. Media Impact Funders will be examining this dynamic at our June 4 funders-only Media Impact Forum: Remaking Public Media. We hope to see you there.