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Sad news from Radio Open Source

My friends at Radio Open Source have just posted some very sad news – their show is going on “summer hiatus”, a break that will precede some sort of future reemergence and reinvention. I just spoke to the show’s host, Chris Lydon, and he’s looking forward to thinking through different ways Radio Open Source could exist, possibly with a new corporate sponsor, possibly as a web community and podcast. Chris is upbeat as ever, excited about new directions the project might move in, but is clearly sad at the end of “chapter one” of ROS, and as his blog post makes clear, heartbroken to lose the staff that he and Mary McGrath were able to put together to build the show and its accompanying website.

Radio Open Source has been very, very good to Global Voices, helping amplify voices and issues from our community to a global audience. Rebecca MacKinnon and I featured on the show’s first pilot episode, and I’ll be a phone-in guest on tonight’s show, a discussion about “The New Community”. The discussion is bound to address some of the questions about how one builds media – say, a radio show – in this era of online conversation.

Hang out with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs long enough and eventually someone will say, with a sigh, “You can always tell the pioneers – they’re the ones with the arrows in their backs.” It’s never easy to reinvent an industry, and the Radio Open Source folks have been on the front lines of reinventing public radio in the US. While several stations and programs have been partnering with services like Gather.com to plug community into their programming, ROS took a much more radical path, inviting their community to suggest and help build their shows. That community has also been able to provide some fiscal support to the show, but it hasn’t been sufficient to keep the show running at its current speed.

Public radio as a whole is going through transition, as is any media organization trying to provide serious, high-quality, journalistic programming. It’s pretty clear that you can make good money selling advertising on coverage of Paris Hilton; it’s much less clear whether you can make money with detailed coverage of coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While we’re doing okay fiscally with Global Voices, we don’t have a sustainable business model – without the support of corporations and foundations interested in the content we’re providing and the lessons learned from generating that content, we’d have to shut down. Radio Open Source is almost certainly going to need this sort of support to return to the airwaves – it would be a tremendous and helpful experiment for a media company to sponsor, or for a foundation to learn from.

I’m looking forward to being on the air with Chris because he’s one of the very best in the business. But I wish it were a happier occasion, and I wish I knew what Open Source’s current troubles mean for other innovative projects experimenting with media models that take advantage of the interactivity of the internet as well as the reach of traditional media.