Creating the Digital Future
First Monday

Creating the Digital Future by Robert Coonrod

This paper is the keynote address given at the Web-Wise 2003 Conference on Thursday, February 27, 2003 in Washington, D.C.


Good morning, and thank you for asking me to join you here today. As I look around the room this morning, it occurs to me that, like politics, digital technology makes strange bedfellows. Certainly, it has brought together the institutions we represent — museums, libraries, and broadcasters — in ways that we could not have predicted just a few decades ago.

Back then, we could draw clear boundaries between our functions. We knew what museums, libraries and broadcasters did, and we had well-defined, time-tested methods of operation.

Broadcasters sent out signals that people could watch or listen to at specified times. Museums contained objects that people could visit, again at specified times. And libraries had collections, primarily of printed matter, some of which could be borrowed for a specified time.

But then came digital technology — and with it, enormous change and the biggest professional challenges most of us will ever face. Let me tick off just a few of them:

First, we have to guide our institutions in reaping the full benefits of digital technology — while prudently managing our investment of time and money.

Next, we have to ensure that our institutions continue to fulfill their public service missions — while, at the same time, fundamentally changing the way they interact with the public.

We have to preserve the identities and reputations we have built in our communities — while morphing into entities that may be very different.

Oh, and finally — we have to raise the money to pay for all this.

Today, I'd like to offer a few thoughts on what these developments have meant for your colleagues in public broadcasting, and share some ideas about how our institutions might make common cause in the future.

It is no accident that I just referred to us as colleagues. For those of you who may not be familiar with CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting), we are a lot like IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services), but with a constituency of public television and radio stations rather than museums and libraries. One major point of difference is that CPB is not a government agency. But we do receive federal dollars and, like IMLS, we use them to make grants, hold conferences, and issue reports.

But CPB — again like IMLS — is a conduit for much more than federal dollars. We are also a key conduit for the ideas and values on which our democratic society rests.

As Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said recently: "Unlike a monarchy, a democracy is not self-sustaining, and the history and values have to be passed on from generation to generation." We see ourselves as one of the institutions playing a key role in this effort.

The role of museums and libraries as custodians of democratic values is well-recognized — most recently, by a proposed 15 percent increase in the IMLS budget. But public broadcasters also play an important part. Every time we spark curiosity, encourage debate, or even provoke controversy, we are helping to create the informed, educated citizenry that is vital to democracy.

That mission remains constant. But today, our model has changed — to the point where the "broadcasting" no longer really describes what we do.

You may know that the word "broadcast" originally described a method of sowing seeds — it meant to toss them out over a wide area. By analogy, that term came to be applied to transmitting radio or television signals over a wide area. But we are no longer only about broadcasting in that traditional sense.

Once, we dealt in the most ephemeral of media. Our electronic signals were available only when we broadcast them. But now, with digital technology, we can gather permanent collections of material, and make them accessible to a virtual audience. And as we become more like museums and libraries, we also face similar challenges — maintaining and managing our collections.

Over the years, we have widened the scope of our activities. One of our first steps was making sure that all CPB-funded television programming had a Web site; that is standard operating procedure for us now.

Then we funded efforts to consolidate content across the boundaries of television and radio. The new CPB-funded African-American World Web site is a treasure house of essays, photographs, music, and interviews — and it ensures that this material will be accessible on the Internet long after the programs it inspired and informed have aired.

And now we have truly become "non-broadcast broadcasters," with the launch last year of five new Internet-only sites. Unlike the sites designed to accompany the various PBS shows, these five have no broadcast component. They exist only on the Internet, where the nine to 12 year olds they are designed for are spending more and more time.

But creating these digital resources is only the first step. The larger and continuing challenge — not only for broadcasters but for museums and libraries as well — is to sustain them.

Part of the challenge is ascertaining the value — inherent and future — of our assets. We all want to make our collections more widely available. And digital presents such tantalizing possibilities. Imagine — the entire Library of Congress collection digitized to fit in a file drawer or every television program ever made available on demand.

But digitizing, organizing, storing and preserving content all have costs, and we all have budgets. That means that we have to make judgments about the scholarly, historic, cultural, strategic or financial significance of our content.

What should we keep — interviews with historians and scientists, our e-mailed jokes, old advertisements, or even today's advertisements? Who would value microphotography of the AIDS virus, our family snapshots, letters and diaries from the Civil War, or recordings of national and local political debates? Some answers are obvious, others much less so. We are going to have get very good at this very fast.

We must also get a lot better at recognizing, obtaining and managing the intellectual property rights of our content. Content created for the American people, and in many cases paid for through their taxes, must be available to them without encumbrance or unreasonable cost.

Second, we as public broadcasters see the need to advance our own skills is in preservation and archiving. We have a great deal to learn from you in this area — through training, participation in national library and museum efforts, and partnership.

Third, all of us — that is, museums, libraries, public broadcasters, and other educational and cultural institutions — must find viable business models to support the creation of public interest content.

This may mean seeking out new partners or developing new markets. It may mean finding new ways of demonstrating value to the governments, corporations, foundations and individuals who provide our funding. It may mean saving money on redundant operations, or developing new service bureaus for digital archiving, metadata tagging, and storage.

And fourth — and most important — we must work together to serve the public interest using digital technologies. We need a new vision of public service media in the digital age — one that embraces and builds on the changes we face.

Perhaps public broadcasters, along with museums, libraries, universities, schools and others, could work together to create, aggregate, mediate and distribute content.

Perhaps we can form new community-based public service media collaboratives that will increase our impact and provide wider audiences for our content.

Or perhaps we can simply come to some basic agreements about tactics and strategy.

At this point, there are more questions than answers about how we can proceed. But I am confident that we will bring our unique status as public institutions; our local presence; and our reputation for integrity to the challenge of serving the public in a digital age.

Thank you very much. I look forward to working with you all. End of article


About the Author

Robert T. Coonrod was appointed President and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) by the CPB Board of Directors on October 1, 1997. He had been the Corporation's executive vice president and chief operating officer since December, 1992. CPB is the private, nonprofit entity created by U.S. Congress to develop noncommercial telecommunications services for the American people.

Under Mr. Coonrod's leadership CPB has increased its efficiency, effectiveness and productivity by streamlining its operations and reducing costs. Mr. Coonrod and CPB foster the concept of public service media. They encourage partnerships between public broadcasters and community institutions in an effort to address the goals of education, diversity and an agenda to help position public broadcasting for the future.

Prior to joining CPB, Mr. Coonrod was deputy managing director of the Voice of America (VOA), the global radio and television network. He oversaw VOA, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (both Radio and TV Marti), and Worldnet Television and Film Service as well as technical operations, programming and budget.

Mr. Coonrod joined the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1967, serving as a Foreign Service officer in Italy and Yugoslavia. He has also held senior positions in USIA's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Mr. Coonrod graduated from Fordham University in 1966. He has also studied Arabic, Italian, Serbian and Slovene.

Editorial history

Paper received 23 April 2003; accepted 24 April 2003.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2003, First Monday

Copyright ©2003, Robert Coonrod

Creating the Digital Future by Robert Coonrod
First Monday, volume 8, number 5 (May 2003),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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