A DIGITAL MEDIA STRATEGY
ILLINOIS PUBLIC MEDIA
“Digital Strategy” has become something of a buzzword. Since almost everything we do now is
digital, our digital strategy could relate to almost everything we do. But in common use,
digital strategy means almost everything we do on the Internet: websites, podcasts,
streaming, apps, social media, and the growing universe of online services and platforms
people use to connect with us.
I like to go hiking in ancient landscapes, because they tell stories that are hundreds of
millions of years old. This helps me keep things in perspective when I try to think about
where human media is going.
Consider that our modern brains are about 200,000 years old. Nothing signiﬁcant about our
bodies has changed since then. What has quite radically changed is our culture.
The invention or development of spoken language was the ﬁrst New Media. The current
guess is it happened about 100,000 years ago, probably by a Neanderthal geek. There are
competing theories about language emerging as a gradual process, or a instantaneous
emergence of the language faculty. Check out Noam Chomsky sometime. There’s also an
argument that language is a type of technology. Regardless of how it happened, the
emergence of spoken language was an essential turning point in the development of human
Different types of media have different effects on our brains and culture. Understanding the
different effects of media has practical relevance to the world of multimedia journalism we
are now all in. For example: Spoken language and the oral tradition are powerful ways of
unifying people in a shared experience. As Walter Ong points out, when a speaker is
addressing an audience, the members of the audience can become a unity, with themselves
and with the speaker. Think of a religious sermon or political rally... music is another
example of this but at a deeper level. I think this is an important reason why radio remains
relevant. Radio can be, when it wants to be, an extension of the oral tradition in the
electronic age. We have all these choices, but people still want a shared experience.
We have modern brains and spoken language for 100,000 years. Suddenly around 3200 BC
there’s an astonishing innovation: written language. Writing is a new media technology
which translates oral language into visual symbols. Instead of sound to carry language, we
embed it on a physical medium we can then read with our eyes. At ﬁrst we could only embed
it on durable things like stone. But you can’t do anything super designy with stone, and it
can’t hold many bits of information. Granted it is beautiful, but stone is really freaking heavy
to carry around.
Soon we came up with improved carriers for the amazing new medium of written language.
Stick something pointy in a jar of pigment, apply it to a dried leaf, and now you can put your
band poster all over the village. Fast-forward through fashions and trends in papyrus, vellum,
scrolls, and in a few thousand years you arrive at the new big thing, a book. Books have much
greater information density, and are easier to produce and transport. Books became the new
carrier of the new media called text, which is itself an encoding of spoken language.
500 years ago comes the biggest step yet toward the age of Big Media: the movable type
press. Books go boom...new authors and styles, new forms of narrative and design. The book
was big, along with pamphlets, broadsheets, diaries, screeds, denunciations, love letters,
contracts, ﬁling cabinets, tax forms, and parking tickets. We hit print and there was no
By the mid-1400s we could have lots of books and even libraries (if we’re wealthy and
connected). But books were treasured by all, and there were popular sentiments about public
access to the knowledge and joy contained in books. In 1598 the ﬁrst public-lending library
was established in Grantham, England. That library actually still exists. The idea of public
libraries took root and grew. In Massachusetts, the ﬁrst public library in the United States, the
Cambridge Public Library, was built in 1888. Public libraries represent a historically new idea,
made possibly by the large-scale production of books.
As libraries acquired more and more books, we had new problems. How do you ﬁnd a book?
How do you organize knowledge? Every library was solving this in different ways. We invented
new technologies and methods like the Dewey Decimal System, which standardized
organization of books across all libraries. We still have wonderful pieces of furniture
containing card catalogs.
So now we’re in the 1800s and we have lots of books and even public libraries, we have more
public education and literacy spreads. More and more people are writing books, publishing
newspapers, pamphlets, declarations, ransom notes, spy novels, party invitations, all types of
printed works. But distribution of all this stuff is hampered by another type of technology:
This is where innovations in energy production and distribution merge with new media
technologies to transform human culture once again. When electricity became part of
everyday life, just about every technology began to change.
So we come up with this thing called the telegraph, which uses electricity over wires. The
telegraph transmits language in the form of dots and dashes that represent letters and if you
add them up you get words...really just another form of written language, but now it can be
transported over long distances in a matter of seconds, instead of weeks or months.
Major telegraph lines in 1891
We should pause and appreciate the impact of this. For the ﬁrst time you could instantly
transfer news and ﬁnancial information, conduct business transactions, and have an actual
conversation with other people around the world. This was quickly understood as incredibly
valuable and important. We dropped telegram cables across oceans beginning in the 1860s.
By 1902 the entire world was wired for the ﬁrst time.
At the turn of the 20th century New Media things are happening fast. The telegraph is is a
major fact of commercial and social life. But the telegraph carries only bits of text, and
requires a skilled operator. The telephone was becoming more common, and while it also
required wires and human operators, the end-point could be in your house. And the
telephone didn’t carry a written language of dots and dashes, it carried human voices.
(Bell placing the ﬁrst New York to Chicago telephone call in 1892)
Music plays a huge role in what’s about to happen. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph,
allowing human beings to record and play back sound from a device you can actually use. In
4000 BC when there was no written language, we communicated only by sound, and sound
exists only when it is going out of existence (Ong). By 1877 this is no longer true. We can
record sound and play it back. We can re-hear things. We can share recordings, and hear
things other people recorded somewhere else. So kudos to Thomas Edison...who of course
also gave us the ﬁrst working light bulb, motion pictures, and the electric chair.
If you were young and educated or affluent at the turn of the 20th century and interested in
New Media, you must have been freaking out. Movies were invented at the same time all this
other stuff was going down. But it’s all so new we don’t know yet really how to use it.
Everything about media is changing so fast that there are no best practices. We’re making it
up as we go along, and we haven’t yet imagined all the possibilities and potentials. It’s all
So here we are in 1906. We have the ability to record and play back music, and we have
wireless telegraphy, but we haven’t put them together. Radio transmitter technology remains
about the level of smashing a stick against the airwaves, or more accurately shocking the air
with little sparks. Several clever humans ﬁgured out ways of using vacuum tubes to amplify
and project sound across long distances via radio waves. Lee De Forest was one of these, and
he might be the ﬁrst to imagine radio as more than a point-to-point medium. He loved
opera, and thought thousands of other music fans would love to have opera transmitted into
their homes. This seems obvious to us now, but it was a new idea in 1906.
Another crazy guy with a dream about radio was David Sarnoff. He claimed to have lead the
effort to conﬁrm the fate of the Titanic via his post at the Marconi telegraph station at
Broadway and 10th Street in New York. After this, Sarnoff was promoted to higher and higher
positions in the rapidly growing Marconi company. At that point, radios were only in the
hands of professional operators and hobbyist radio geeks. But by 1916 David Sarnoff was
pushing the Marconi Company to develop a “Radio Music Box,” forecasting a growing demand
for radio as a consumer device. They didn’t believe him for at least 4 years. Sarnoff eventually
became the general manager of the Radio Corporation of America. RCA began to sell radio
equipment made by GE and Westinghouse, and bought a number of important radio patents.
By the early 1920s, hundreds of thousands of Americans were buying radios, and demand
was growing fast.
But here’s a fundamental question that was raised about radio: What was it for? For the ﬁrst
time in human history, the sound of one voice can be heard by millions of people, all at once,
across thousands of miles. This is not a small change. What can we do with this? Many people
were building their own transmitters, trying new ways of presenting speech and music, new
business models or no business model. The meaning of radio was contested and unsettled.
Many people believed there was a vital public interest at stake, and that there should be a
prominent place on the airwaves for educational and public broadcasting.
By the 1950s we had working systems for broadcasting and receiving moving images along with
sound, and a mass market for television emerged. The same questions about the role of radio
broadcasting and the public interest were of course just as relevant and contested with the new
technology of television.
In 1945 Vannevar Bush, manager of the Manhattan Project that produced the ﬁrst atomic
bomb, published an essay in The Atlantic entitled "As We May Think." He noted the growing
challenge of mastering cross-disciplinary knowledge in a world where research was
becoming deeper and more specialized. Bush proposed a tool called a Memex to allow
knowledge workers to link together text from different sources, make annotations, and share
libraries of electronically stored information.
Vannevar Bush’s idea of the memex and hyperlinked text got ﬁltered and ampliﬁed by a new
breed of technology experts called computer scientists, who made it actually work.
People like Steve Jobs made it a mass-market consumer product.
“It took telephones seventy-one years to penetrate 50 percent of American
homes, electricity ﬁfty-two years, and TV three decades. The Internet
reached more than 50 percent of Americans in a mere decade.”
Ken Auletta, Googled (2009)
We’ve had speech for millennia, written language for maybe 5000 years, movable type for
600, moving images for 140, radio for less than 100 years, television for only 70 years,
personal computers only since 1981, and the web since 1994. We started getting smart
phones about 10 years ago, and the ﬁrst iPad was sold in April 2010.
A DIGITAL MEDIA STRATEGY
ILLINOIS PUBLIC MEDIA
So how does this history of media innovation inform our digital strategy? I might be missing
something important, and change continues to accelerate. But these are the points we’re
emphasizing at Illinois Public Media today.
We have a virtual server infrastructure that provides our core digital services. We also have a
wealth of network services and free bandwidth provided by the University of Illinois. We must
maintain this foundation over time as a strategic concern.
We will continue to evaluate the efficacy of cloud-based solutions and adjust our
deployments as appropriate. Regardless of the technologies and platforms we’re using, we
will maintain ownership and stewardship of our own data.
KEEP OUR PUBLIC TRUST
Digital technology provides powerful new ways to reach, serve, and engage our audiences
more effectively than ever. Online and social media allow us to experiment and connect in
new ways. We will work to build new models of digital public media, but always remain
faithful to the mission of public broadcasting and our public trust.
November 7, 1967...President Johnson signs the Public Broadcasting Act. But his speech
showed a growing awareness that it was about more that TV and radio.
“I believe the time has come to enlist the
computer and the satellite, as well as
television and radio, and to enlist them in
the cause of education.”
This was the mandate for public media from the very beginning, and as a strategic concern
we will remain faithful to it.
“I think we must consider new ways to build a
great network for knowledge-not just a
broadcast system, but one that employs every
means of sending and of storing information
that the individual can use.”
PROVIDE AN EXCELLENT
EXPERIENCE FOR ALL USERS
We are committed to providing the best possible experience to online audiences.
We will work to make our digital content easily ﬁndable, accessible, and usable. Our content
and digital services will be available on all devices. We will work to continuously improve the
reach, appeal, and usability of our digital services.
Our online services must be accessible to all users, including those with physical or
perceptual impairments. We will help lead the effort for accessible media, and work to make
public media a model of online accessibility.
BUILD AND LEVERAGE AUDIENCES
ACROSS ALL PLATFORMS
We have new opportunities to build larger audiences across an expanding number of digital
platforms. We must work to understand how to reach and engage these emerging audiences.
As our digital footprint expands, we will extend our connections with new audiences and
communities. We will work to build healthy relationships in social media spaces, and leverage
our broadcast and online services to deepen our impact. We will also build new support
relationships with these audiences, and expand the base of funding and support for Illinois
SUPPORT DIGITAL CONTENT
Content producers need usable tools and workﬂows that allow them to focus on creating and
publishing great content.
We will provide training, documentation, and ongoing support for all staff involved in
creating, publishing, and managing digital content.
We provide and support a highly functional Content Management System, and work to
simplify and integrate our CMS with other broadcasting and IT systems.
We also recognize there are multiple digital platforms beyond our website.
New Media & Innovation will solve the technology problems, allowing producers to focus on creating
DO NEW STUFF
We will maintain digital media editorial and quality standards, and ensure that all digital
content meets these standards. We will work to enable and build new models, designs, and
methods for digital storytelling, journalism, and engagement, and to reach new audiences in
As technologies and best practices evolve in the digital realm, we will help lead the Illinois
Public Media content team to continued excellence and greater success.
We will work to enable and build new models and methods of digital storytelling, journalism,
SOLVE DIGITAL STORAGE AND
Managing media and preserving access to it in a time of rapid changing formats requires an
archival process. Our content systems will account for the managing of content over time, and
provide for the preservation of content and metadata as technologies, formats, and storage
methods change. We will participate in the American Archive project to preserve content from
all public media stations and producers. We will model how a local station with a rich history
can preserve it.
IF YOU DON’T KNOW
WHAT YOU HAVE
YOU DON’T REALLY HAVE IT
SUPPORT WEB SERVICES
We will support standard methods for exchanging data with other public media systems and
We want to interact with and leverage other digital content platforms provided by NPR, PBS,
and other vendors and partners
We will participate in other online public media environments, and collaborate with
colleagues on common core technology issues and solutions.
With digital media still in its infancy, there are many opportunities to innovate. Technologies,
services, and business models remain in ﬂux. In a time of such rapid change, we need to
explore new ideas, methods, designs, and partnerships.
We’ve done some crazy things, like broadcasting television from an airplane. We can’t be
afraid to engage in experiments, even though some of them may fail. Marshall McLuhan
observed that “most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness.” We can’t just keep
making the mistakes of the past. It’s time to make the mistakes of the future.
CONTRIBUTE TO PUBLIC MEDIA STRATEGY
WILL and Illinois Public Media have always been leaders in educational and public media.
We will continue this tradition by participating in formal and informal collaborations on public
media strategy at all levels. We will learn from others, freely share our experience and vision,
and work to help other stations and the public media system as a whole become more
effective and successful.
The Internet as a mass medium is barely 20 years old. Change in technologies, practices,
business models, and audience behavior continues to accelerate. We will embrace the demand
to constantly learn.
We will advocate for continuous learning as a matter of professional responsibility for Illinois
Public Media staff. We will support a range of formal and information learning activities that
build on our capacity as a public media organization in the digital age.
EMBRACE OUR ROLE IN EDUCATION
As part of an R1 university we have an opportunity to lead curriculum development and
instruction in the areas of our expertise.
We will work to engage the faculty and students at the University of Illinois, and play a
constructive and productive role in its educational mission.