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Public Radio Invests in Commercial Citizen Media

I have written a lot about Minnesota Public Radio’s Public Insight Journalism, but not of its tie to a citizen-oriented commercial venture called Venture capitalists just stepped up to the plate to help fund with $6 million.

First a note, this gets complicated. Minnesota Public Radio falls under the American Public Media Group (APMG) umbrella. APMG is the nonprofit parent organization of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), American Public Media (APM) and the sole shareholder of the for-profit Greenspring Company. Mixed into this are Southern California Public Radio, Marketplace and A Prairie Home Companion.

I was the editor for six years of Minnesota Monthly, which is a for-profit within Greenspring, at the time so was Rivertown Trading.

A September, 2005, Minneapolis Star Tribune explains:

The last time MPR launched a for-profit business was in 1987, when it created Rivertown Trading, a mail-order catalogue company. Rivertown was criticized for blurring the lines between nonprofit and for-profit businesses, and (William H.) Kling (the CEO of all the companies) was criticized for taking a salary from the operation. MPR sold it in 1998 to Dayton Hudson Corp. (now Target) for $120 million.

Rivertown Trading grew from the Garrison Keillor, Prairie Home Companion success. The sale of Rivertown Trading produced a nice healthy endowment for MPR, hence the ownership of Southern California Public Radio and Marketplace and now an early, approximately $1 million investment in, which is based in Boston.

Back to the Star Tribune article:

Kling has been named Gather’s co-founder and board chairman. His two top APMG executives, Tom Kigin and Jon McTaggart, also are board members. While none of them will draw a salary, the trio, plus 10 other members of APMG senior management, have been offered the opportunity to buy shares in the venture, Kling said.

Kling said he doesn’t expect that Gather will prompt a replay of the Rivertown Trading experience: “We have done it very carefully. There are special committees in place to be sure that there are no conflicts.”

Gather seems built in part on the OhmyNews in South Korea or Northwest Voice in California models, both are citizen media operations, with overtones of, but for the public radio audience.

Personally, I find all this very interesting because I thought that public radio, because it is not commercial and has very loyal audiences, could really be in the forefront of the citizen media, citizen involvement model.

Now the management of Minnesota Public Radio has decided to dip its foot in a for-profit venture in citizen generated media. They are aiming to tap public radio audiences nationwide, and they did make Rivertown very successful, which made many things possible for MPR. As it boasts in this own press release:

MPR is the largest public radio entity in the nation outside of NPR in Washington D.C. American Public Media is the second largest producer of public radio programming following National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington.

MPR has more than 80,000 members of the public who contribute to it each year. It claims some 13,000 people have signed up for its Public Insight Journalism project, the website of which states:

The aim is to engage listeners in the newsroom’s information gathering, to find fresh sources of expertise, to uncover new perspectives and to discover emerging issues and stories that are not yet on the public agenda.

Bill Kling has a Midas touch and has grown MPR from a closet operation into a behemoth. He hardly needs my advice. But I will give it any way. A reading of the open source content and software literature provides one warning: The public will get involved and volunteer time and energy for a greater cause, but if they think they someone is making a profit off their labors, they will disappear. Indeed AOL community volunteers felt so hurt by AOL that they not only left some sued for back wages. In the Gather model, citizens can get Gather points to buy stuff and maybe money too. It will be an experiment worth watching.

One Response to “Public Radio Invests in Commercial Citizen Media”

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