Public Media Accelerated

Public Media Accelerated

Matter has reached an important and exciting milestone with the announcement of four new media partners and the introduction of our fourth class of startups. As Corey reflects on a remarkable two year sprint and the journey ahead, I thought I’d take a look back at Matter’s public media roots with the two media partners who first got the ball rolling.

The prehistory of Matter dates back nearly four years to June 2011 when John Bracken (Knight Foundation) and I (PRX) first started discussing the idea of a “Public Media Accelerator.”

The phrase “public media” is often used to refer to the public broadcasting system with a new digital multi-platform reach. But it can also point to a more expansive vision of mission-driven media that transcends industry, platform, and tax status. And at first we used “accelerator” as a metaphor for enabling rapid change in public media — not yet an entire operational model and venture fund as it later became.

In 2011 accelerators had just started to reach the fore, with Y Combinator and Techstars already several years in operation and starting to bear fruit. It was clear these strategies were enabling innovation at a pace and scale that was difficult to achieve within the constraints of institutional public broadcasting and traditional nonprofit grant making.

The initial idea of a Public Media Accelerator was inspired in part by the growing success and influence of those programs, but also the convergent roles of PRX and Knight in that moment.

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Knight’s focus is on innovation in journalism in the digital age. In order to ensure that the information needs of communities continue to be met despite relentless disruption of traditional news sources, Knight has committed to a remarkable level of experimentation and open inquiry. The Knight News Challenge, Prototype Fund, Enterprise Fund — each are facets of an evolving strategy that grapples with this rapid change.

PRX has always been a hybrid organization, with one foot in public radio and one on the Internet: a nonprofit but also a technology startup; a growing marketplace but also a place for experimentation and risk-taking. At many points in PRX’s history we’ve sensed a moment of change and opportunity and found ourselves in a position to lead — from our earliest podcasting software in 2005, the talent quest that launched Al Letson and Glynn Washington in 2007, our first iOS app in 2008, The Moth Radio Hour debut in 2009, and this past year of Radiotopia and Reveal.

Together Knight and PRX in 2011 embarked on the Public Media Accelerator with a list of open questions about how to design a program that could effectively address problems in public media without being captive to institutional and legacy needs.

An early draft of the planning memo started like this:

“ Public media is a vital resource in a democratic society, but requires transformative innovation to ensure access, impact, and sustainability amidst the technological revolution that is rewiring how the world communicates.”
“The Public Media Accelerator will drive this transformation through an investment fund that identifies talented teams with game-changing ideas to advance and expand public service media.”

It’s an ambitious and admirable statement, but also overly filtered through the language of institutional philanthropy and public media. The accelerator was at risk of designing around industry needs and abstract public goods rather than bottoms-up innovation based on audience insights. The call to action has to resonate with entrepreneurs seeking to create something impactful. We needed a way integrate the means, methods and mindsets of technology entrepreneurship that was driving incredible change across the rest of media.

At a January 2012 advisory meeting at PRX it was clear that one of the participants I’d invited was embracing the idea with the kind of startup energy and insight we needed to break out of a narrow public media orbit.

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Corey Ford had arrived at the right moment with the right experience — a career path traversing PBS/WGBH FRONTLINE, Stanford Business School, the d school, and Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors. From the outset Corey helped nudge the accelerator into a new trajectory — more grounded in a culture, community, and a hands-on program, but also less tethered to the specific symptoms of public media. At Matter the focus is squarely on the entrepreneur — the founding teams building “tomorrow’s meaningful media institutions.”

In fall 2012 we officially launched Matter — no longer the Public Media Accelerator — with KQED as our first media partner and investor. Today we welcome our new media partners along with our newest class of entrepreneurs, and I believe we are accelerating public media in its most expansive, inclusive, and meaningful sense.

We are changing media for good.