Jtm-dc-Wally Bowen

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Wally Bowen

Wally Bowen, Executive Director
Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN)
WPVM-LP 103.5 FM
IndyLink Access & Webhosting
828.255.0182 ext. 109

Wally Bowen describes the business model of Mountain Area Information Network.

The nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville, N.C. takes a radically different approach to the financial sustainability of citizen journalism. We believe the biggest challenge facing CJ projects is not the production of content, but the aggregation of audience and the creation of reliable revenue streams.

MAIN's model has successfully met both of these challenges since its founding in 1996. We are a nonprofit Internet service provider (ISP) operating on a simple principle: give citizens the option of spending their Internet dollars to support local, independent media. MAIN's primary revenue streams over the last decade have been dial-up Internet access, webhosting, and, more recently, high-speed Internet access via wireless networking. Other revenue streams include public radio-style on-air fundraising via our low-power FM radio station and underwriting from local businesses.

We currently have 380 broadband wireless subscribers; we estimate that we need 1,000 wireless subs to return to financial sustainability.

One of the biggest challenges facing any kind of independent media -- especially in the age of media consolidation -- is finding an audience, especially a local audience. Given the global nature of online experience, the challenge of finding a local audience is often overlooked. Yet, the local audience is arguably paramount. After all, public policy -- whether federal, state or local -- ultimately reaches and affects citizens where they live.

MAIN has addressed the challenge of audience-aggregation by creating a synergistic,"cross-platform" infrastructure including the Web, LPFM radio, and public access TV. These venues have enabled us to create and promote a regional news and information Web portal (http://www.main.nc.us) that now attracts more than 16,000 unique visitors per day, second only to the Gannett-owned Asheville Citizen-Times in our mountain region.

Meanwhile, our four-year old LPFM station, WPVM-103.5 FM, has attracted more than 80 volunteers producing 36 local programs each week. And we are now delivering content via Asheville's new public access TV station, URTV, which MAIN helped to create. Audio and video content we create for WPVM and URTV is streamed via our Web portal to reach audiences outside the broadcast and cable range.

Operating as a nonprofit gives the added advantage of presenting content in a non-commercial context, thereby overcoming one of the greatest shortcomings of advertising-supported journalism: fragmented, decontextualized coverage. We believe this is one of the reasons for the popularity of our regional news portal.

Today's fragmented, foreshortened journalism would be unthinkable to the framers of the First Amendment. Our nonprofit status and sustainable ISP business model frees us from the constraints of advertising-supported journalism.

With the rapid growth of broadband wireless, any independent media organization could become an ISP and use locally-generated Internet dollars to sustain a local CJ project.

Ideal organizations would be existing PEG access and community radio /community technology centers, as these organizations already attract tech-savvy volunteers. Operating a local ISP is not rocket-science. Tech-savvy students already operate ISP co-ops using affordable wireless technologies such as Meraki.com.