March 13, 2006

Public broadcaster launches open source software portal

Author: Stephen Feller

A small public radio station in upstate New York launched an open source software community for non-profit broadcasters last month, and made its own content management system (CMS) the first project hosted at the site.

North Country Public Radio (NCPR), a 27-station network based in Canton, New York, launched PubForge on February 20. The site is to act as a center for free and open source software (FOSS) for public broadcasters. Dale Hobson, Web manager for NCPR, says bringing this information together in one place, and making it easily available, should help public broadcasters make better use of the Web through site automation.

Public Media Manager (PMM), built by Hobson and former NCPR Web manager Bill Haenel, is the first featured project at PubForge. A demo is available in the site's Playpen, and version 1.3 of the software was released on March 3 at the PMM site on SourceForge.

PMM automates some functions of posting and generating content for Web sites. The software, which uses a browser-based interface, is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Automated free software may be the only way for small stations with single-person Web staffs to develop a real presence online, Haenel said. Because they're supported by the public and by grants, public stations have tight budgets. Haenel says it didn't surprise him while developing PMM that the only public broadcasters using automated content management software had homegrown solutions, and tended to be the largest of public stations.

New York City's National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate WNYC uses a self-developed CMS that manages every part of the station's Web site, says Bill Swersey, director of interactive media at the station. Making CMS and other applications easily and freely available to public broadcasters, and getting broadcasters to develop software together, would be good for that part of the radio industry, he says.

"Some of those tools," Swersey says, "if you build them yourself, they don't evolve. There's advantages to collaborating like this. And there's already a very strong community ethos in public broadcasting."

WNYC is toying with the idea of making parts of its CMS open source and available through PubForge, Swersey says, though the station has not figured out how to do that. He says their concern right now is that new users might expect support beyond light instruction to get everything running, but that something will eventually be offered to broadcasters from the station.

Haenel says one of the primary objectives of PubForge is to make sure that open source software and public radio are the natural match they appear to be. "Public broadcasting and OSS have something in common -- working together and building a community. That's what those two institutions are built on. You're talking about media operations that are created by the community and serve the community. Tools should come from there first."

First project on the block

NCPR hired Haenel and Hobson in 2000 to build a Web site for its network of stations. After six months of work on the basic site architecture and design, Haenel says it became clear that the need was really to make all of NCPR's on-air content available online.

They started developing PMM as part of their work to offer station programming on demand "in perpetuity, and for free," says Hobson. After making content available to listeners through email, download, and podcast, the goal of the CMS project was "deprofessionalizing" the process of putting content online. Individual reporters and editors needed to be able to update the site without a Web developer doing the work for them.

Haenel says the software eliminates the need for a Web developer to individually assemble pages and then post them on the Web. "We've developed an application that you don't need to have a Web professional on your staff, or budget for it, because it's open source software that's designed for people who don't know what they're doing [with computers]."

PMM is run in an Apache environment, and can be hosted on a server run by the station's Internet service provider. Users interact with the system through Web-based forms. The software has support for transcripts and podcasting, and is extensible for other text, transcript, and content packaging options. PMM automatically generates podcast headlines and makes certain specified files are available for podcasting.

Hobson says that PMM works because "at least one person in the universe has a vested interest in having it work." NCPR has been using and improving the software for more than three years, he says, and depends on it to keep a database of more than 7,000 audio stories available to its listeners.

Buying services you can't do yourself

Aware of stations' need for useful Web sites, some companies are beginning to offer the services and software that PubForge seeks to make freely available. One large provider of these services is Public Interactive (PI), a non-profit company funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Ford Foundation, which sells Web consultation, design, and hosting services to public broadcasting stations.

PI sells its own suite of content management products, which are available as a package or individually. All of the products are built on open source software, says Adam Rubin, director of software development at PI, though the products themselves are not. Among the open source software PI has used in development are Eclipse and all of the Jakarta libraries, Rubin says.

Rubin says PI had not considered open sourcing its software until hearing discussions about PMM and other FOSS for public broadcasting at the Integrated Media Association's 2006 Public Broadcasting New Media Summit last month in Seattle. PI may find it can maintain a revenue stream while making its software open source, but Rubin says they'll wait to see how active the community at PubForge becomes. Rubin says, "It's not every station that can afford to build their own products, but they need products."

Interest already strong

With PubForge active for only a few days, Hobson says he is just beginning to get feedback on both the site and PMM. He has begun a blog and a bulletin board on the site. He says interest has been higher than he expected, with more than 40 logins requested for the site's PlayPen demo area. And in addition to hearing from several low-power FM broadcasters, he has had interest from two US Air Force organizations and a few international groups.

Hobson also has had several inquiries from projects that would like to be hosted by or linked to from the site. He says that even for projects that do not get hosted on PubForge itself, there will a section on the site that offers information about other FOSS for broadcasters.

Haenel says more people are turning to public broadcasters as they look for reputable, accurate sources of news and information on the Internet, including local NPR affiliates such as the ones that make up NCPR's broadcast network. He says broadcasters are looking for ways to meet their supporters' needs.

"There is a real need for public broadcasters to have a solution to providing the information that the community demands," Haenel says. "These people get money from the community to provide it with information, and they're just struggling to do this."