A public broadcaster battles the recession and the evolving media world

How does a small nonprofit public broadcaster survive – and thrive – in a down economy? One answer: with a clear sense of purpose, a compelling vision and a comprehensive strategic plan.

KBDI was founded by a group of television visionaries. They were citizens, volunteers, community activists and media organizers who imagined a different kind of public television, one dedicated to serving diverse populations throughout Colorado, providing vigorous community affairs debate and giving voice to independent, underrepresented and frequently unpopular views. They wanted to provide a real alternative, even to the otherwise important and still somewhat new PBS service of other public stations.

That spirit still infuses the KBDI hallways in Denver’s Five Points Media Center. But we’re working now in a much different media environment than our founders. In those days television was largely a mass medium, and the number of outlets far fewer. With the rise of the broadband digital world and the Internet, the conditions of television production and distribution have dramatically changed, and the nature of the communication process is rapidly transforming into an interactive, nonlinear, blog-driven process. Audiences are now themselves their own producers, and they don’t necessarily need traditional media institutions.

How, then, does a small outfit like KBDI navigate these turbulent waters without getting sucked under? If once mighty daily newspapers with strong national corporate backing are facing extinction, how can a modestly budgeted independent local public service medium survive? During the past eight years Colorado Public Television has gone through two strategic planning cycles. While stretching to improve its technical infrastructure and to increase services, the station has not overreached. Production and distribution systems and overall facilities have been slowly, steadily improved, all within a carefully monitored budget.  In short, KBDI remains lean and light on its feet.

As we considered the new digital world, we saw that many manufacturers and broadcasters saw in digital only the higher resolution experience of high-definition television – prettier pictures. KBDI looked at digital and asked, “How can we use the DTV opportunity to do more of what we do well?” 
In addition to enhanced video we chose to provide more video streams. We strengthened local public affairs programming (doubling it) and added two new multicasting channels – The Documentary Channel (12.2) and MHz Worldview (12.3), both of which were national and internationally based program services that perfectly fit the traditional KBDI mission.

Our strategic planning encouraged across-the-board discussions and analysis of the new broadband world. The resulting changes are most visible to the public in the station’s highly interactive and user-friendly website, complete with on-demand video. We are gradually improving the on-air look and steadily expanding the range of core services. KBDI coverage of the 2008 elections was perhaps the best example of the strategic plan bearing highly productive fruit. That programming, including an 18-part debate series, comprehensive coverage of the Democratic, Republican and even Libertarian conventions, special truth-in-political-advertising reviews, and wide-ranging analysis and commentary in weekly public affairs shows, all were enhanced by a whole set of Web-based support elements. Partnerships with Denver media in the election debates and coverage were critical in meeting the plan’s objectives.

Also key to our strategic plan has been a commitment to keep it actively in front of our work. The plan is not a one-off report to be deposited on some filing cabinet and forgotten. It is seen instead as a living, dynamic document, to be regularly reviewed and updated as conditions require. Our strategic plan, of course, could not have anticipated the extent of the nation’s economic woes since it was adopted, but having the plan in place and being regularly reviewed turned out to be a tremendous boon when the economic situation began to decline. Having already been tightly budgeted also helped us be better prepared to deal with whatever might come.

A measured, evolving sense of its traditional mission, maintaining a strong cost-benefit ratio, and hewing to its “living” strategic plan document will remain essential to KBDI’s ability to continue to be an independent voice in Colorado media, providing services that otherwise would be sorely missed.

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