The Algebra of Quality (Part 2)

With a tip of the hat to Lake Wobegon, our goal at The Conversations Network is for every program to be above average: broadcast-quality audio and content that is inspirational, educational and entertaining. Of course, we don’t always get original recordings that meet those criteria. It seems to me (and perhaps to others) that the content quality of the programs we release has dropped somewhat over the past two years, and I think it’s due in part to our success. We have a terrific team of writers and audio engineers who produce our programs — 396 new ones last year alone. We’ve got a great content-management system and a streamlined and automated workflow. In short, producing a steady flow of programs has become routine for us.

The Conversations Network per se isn’t the source of the programs we publish. Most are received in raw form from conferences. Others are recorded independently by host/interviewers and submitted to our CMS for post-production. Whatever we receive goes into the pipeline and comes out the other end. I’d estimate that fewer than 5% of the submitted programs aren’t ultimately published, and those are usually canceled due to problems with the audio, not the content.

Nearly five years ago when I started IT Conversations, I applied a much stronger editorial filter. I had to because it took a lot of time to produce each program. The production process was a scarce resource. That’s no longer the case. It’s almost too easy now.

Public radio has a solution, which is also their limitation. They’re constrained by the clock. With only 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week, program directors are always exercising their editorial muscles. There’s a lot more good content trying to get ontp your local public-radio station, and this phenomenon tends to keep the average quality level high.

This brings into question the role of The Conversations Network, which doesn’t have the inherent constraints of radio, and what our listeners expect of us. You can go to the websites of many conferences and find audio or video recordings of all or most of their sessions. The quality of the audio, descriptions and supporting material may not be as good as what we publish, but it’s all there. So why visit our web site? Why subscribe to our RSS feeds? And why should you support us financially? I think it’s to a great extent because our listeners expect quality over quantity. And it’s not just good audio, but even more it’s all about great content.

We’re therefore now instructing our Series Producers (SPs) to be much more aggressive in their decisions about what programs to publish. There’s no quota system in place, but I’d expect that of the 25 or so recordings we get from a typical conference, perhaps 10% or 20% shouldn’t be recommended to our listeners. That’s just a guideline. There are some events for which we shouldn’t publish even a single session.

In support of this policy, we’ve given our SPs two tools to deal with below-threshold programs:

Option 1: Kill the Show

If you’re an SP, not only can you kill shows that aren’t great, it’s your job to do so. We’re not YouTube. Our listeners expect us to select only good shows for them. Work with the channel’s Executive Producer (EP) to see how s/he wants to handle each series, but let’s start using our curatorial skills more aggressively.

If you’re a post-production engineer (PE) or website editor (WE) and you come across a show that has poor audio or boring content, bring it to the attention of the SP ASAP. If the two of you agree that the show should be killed, then it’s killed. If you can’t agree, run it past the EP to break the tie.

Note that we will pay anyone who completes a show even if it’s killed. We don’t want the money to be a reason for us to keep a show that our listeners shouldn’t ever hear.

Option 2: Archive the Show

There are some situations in which it’s “politically correct” for us to publish a program that doesn’t meet our audio or content criteria. A good and common example is when a major sponsor/underwriter of an event or some other VIP delivers a keynote speech. They may be boring, but the event producer really needs us to publish the show to keep their sponsor happy. What to do?

The same is true for our host-based interview shows. One reason I always want at least two people involved with every show is to get multiple opinions. I doubt Phil (Technometria) or Jon (Interviews with Innovators), as examples, would kill one of their own shows. They put the work in, and they feel an obligation to their guests. But let’s face it: Not every show is good, and not every show is good enough to be published on our home pages and RSS feeds.

In cases like these, we can produce the show like always, but ask the EP not to add it to the homepage or RSS feeds. It’s there for anyone who is looking for it — you can find it with search, and we can send the URL to our partners and their sponsors — but we’re not going to push it to our listeners. This is a great solution for any show that you’d otherwise kill, but that you believe should be in the archives for the sake of completeness or politics. Yes, I can see even 10% of our hosted shows getting this treatment.

The MLK Example

From my blog last year: “I’m as fanatical about quality as anyone, but having published spoken-word events now for four years, I’ve developed a sort of algebraic view. The absolute need for quality is inversely proportional to the underlying value of that content. For example, if we had the only recording of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, I’m sure we’d publish it regardless of the quality. We would tolerate distortion, noise, etc., because the message is so compelling. But not every conference presentation is quite as powerful, and as the content trends towards the mundane, our tolerance for poor audio or video rapidly decreases.”

So let’s get more aggressive about delivering the best-possible experience to our listeners by exercising our editorial muscles via the two options above.

There’s a forum thread on this topic from last year.

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