Dr. Gregory Ferrell Lowe is professor in residence at the Northwestern University in Qatar, where he is also the Director of the Communication Program. Besides his broad academic experience in Tampere University, he has also worked as a Senior Advisor for Strategy and Corporate Development at the Finnish national broadcasting company, Ylesradio (Yle). During this tenure at Yle, in 2001 he founded the Re-Visionary Interpretations of the Public Enterprise (RIPE), an international initiative for the development of public service media. He has served as the initiative’s Continuity Director since 2002. He is a former President of the European Media Management Association (emma) and Chair for the World Media Economics and Management Conference (WMEMC).
Can you tell us about your current projects? Which issues are in your spotlight right now?
I continue to be involved with the RIPE project, of course. The 2020 conference marked the 20th anniversary of the conference and book model created with an international group of colleagues in the late 1990s. It has been a lifetime’s work. I am proud of all that we have accomplished and grateful for the role I have played in this. Many colleagues and friends have been involved and merit credit for the success of this initiative in university-industry collaboration. I know many colleagues who were Ph.D. students in the early days of RIPE and are leading figures in the field in their respective countries today. That is enormously satisfying, although I am not implying that I deserve any credit for their success. It is only to illustrate why I feel good about my work and service for RIPE.
In recent years I’ve been wondering how to be of useful service to the wider world beyond the OECD countries where PSM is well established. There is continuing need for RIPE@ which serves the developmental needs of established PSM institutions. But most of the world lacks the heritage, support and scale of resources to create a public media sector. How to support efforts to develop a public service orientation and media services in the public interest in the highly diverse countries of the so-called “Global South?” I am working with another group of colleagues on that question. We are calling it RIPE+ and have hopeful intentions to develop useful answers. I am collaborating with Minna Aslama Horowitz and a brilliant student at NU-Q, Mr. Temesgen Tewolde, on meta-analysis of media-related publications featuring GS research. We will produce an article based on the analysis and findings, perhaps involving several others. The RIPE@ model won’t work in non-Western contexts so work is needed to construct contextualized approaches that require collaboration with colleagues with situated engagement and nuanced understandings. Colleagues involved in the RIPE+ project include Marius Dragomir who directs the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University, Winston Mano at the University of Westminster, Anis Rahman at the University of Washington, and Bouziane Zaid at the University of Sharjah.
Looking back, what are your thoughts on the development of PSM scholarships since RIPE began (that is, in the last 20 years)
RIPE has produced the most comprehensive catalogue of scholarship about the digital turn in public service media available today. Much thanks belongs to Nordicom at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Although that long-term publisher relationship is coming to an end after the forthcoming RIPE Reader that Manual Puppis is editing, due to changes in Nordicom’s orientation and needs today, the partnership has been valuable, appreciated and fruitful. We have co-produced an impressive and impactful body of published work that documents the digital turn in public sector media from the early period when PSB firms were first wrestling with the Amsterdam Protocol to the transition to PSM, to the development of networked and collaborative models, and more or less every area of R&D over the past 20 years and more. Of course, there has been a lot of important work outside the RIPE context as well, and I don’t mean to downplay any of that. But RIPE has been a unique and uniquely fruitful initiative. All without a formal organization and financed on a voluntary basis by universities and PSB firm. What I find most exciting is the growing interesting, engagement and body of scholarship on PSM from countries outside the OECD club. Since 2014, partly as a helpful consequence and continuing legacy of funding from the Open Society Foundations for the Tokyo conference, RIPE has become increasingly global and inclusive. That is very exciting, and quite satisfying.
Looking back, do you think there is any particular discussion or debate around Public Service Media that remains unsolved, despite being the object of extensive academic research?
Three aspects immediately spring to mind. We have struggled with the problem of how to separate the PS orientation from the PSB/PSM organization, without abandoning the importance of these organizations. It remains an open question as to how much public service provision is done outside the formal institutional framework, as well as how much self-serving organizational factors complicate provision within that framework. A second aspect is related. There is continuing need to critically examine the normative foundations of public service theory. Most of us who have been deeply engaged with this specialization are trained and grounded in Western cultures – primarily northwest Europe and North America. It is difficult to think outside and beyond our cultivated perspectives that are rooted in particular intellectual and cultural experiences. So much of the work on PSM is about policy and focused on recommendations for protection or progress of existing institutions. That is needed, certainly, but the Western-centric heritage in scholarship and normative theory is both an asset and a problem. Which is what depends on the context for its application.
Working on RIPE+ has brought this issue sharply into focus for me. I am a white, male, American boomer. I have the advantage of having lived in Finland for more than 20 years, and how in Qatar for four so far. I think it fair and safe to say my views are not as provincial and narrow as might otherwise be the case. But I am not from other places with different cultures, histories, languages, communities and systems. I want to help, but it is not my place to be proscriptive. The third issue that springs to mind is how to provide greater applied value from the scholarship the conferences and books produce? This challenge is not unique to RIPE, but it is especially pointed given our key intention to function as a platform for university-industry collaboration. The scholarly side of the partnership has more clearly benefitted than the practitioner side. Perhaps not, but it seems so and in the absence of evidence I maintain this position. More needs to be done to assess how much practical value RIPE@ has added and where, and to develop higher applied value. Given the volume of funding from PSM organizations, this is an equity issue in my view.
As the founder of the RIPE initiative, which topics affecting Public Service Media do you feel will require the most involvement of both researchers and practitioners in the short future?
Let’s face it, the public service orientation and institution is in deepening trouble despite all the good work accomplished to develop both the theory and practice over the past 25 years. The shift towards the harder right in politics continues in so many countries and there has been recent worrisome growth in preferences for populist parties and authoritarian leaders even in Western democracies. There is persistent, relentless pressure to reduce financial resources for PSM, to narrow remits, to expand commercial opportunities and roll back incumbents, and so forth. There is less fulsome support among many populations where PSM companies are established, and most efforts to transition state media organizations to PSM organizations have failed or are in retreat.
At some point we will have to think deeply and critically about how to articulate, defend, promote and develop the public service orientation in media beyond dedicated organizations. We need to also accommodate the simple and compelling fact that PSM companies are not the only sources of public service provision. Newspaper companies provide important public services. The same for community media and alternative media. Commercial media, too, for that matter. The era when a dedicated organization could be the end all and be all for public service provision may be coming to a close. That is how it looks to me, at least. And given my keen interest to support development of a public service orientation anywhere and everywhere in the wider world where there is opportunity to do so, the need for rethinking much of what I have been discussing feels pressing. Of course, there are many aspects within established PSM organizations that need research and further development. I don’t mean to minimize that. I support that, of course. Always have and always will. Such would include development in financial and organizational structures, advances in participatory engagement, building network collaborations, crafting compelling contemporary missions, and achieving innovation in service and program formats and platforms.
What would your advice be for a young scholar who is starting to work around Public Service Media?
It is important to be clear about why you have chosen this area as a specialization. Why does this resonate with you personally? What do you want to accomplish? I was attracted to this for two reasons. First, I worked in American commercial radio for more than a decade and became dissatisfied with its short-term, profit-driven orientation. This was also the period when automation was introduced and that was the nail in the coffin for me. I did not know anything about the public service approach until I started graduate degree studies at the Ohio State University when I decided to change career tracks. This decision led to a Fulbright Scholarship year in Finland and Ph.D. studies at the University of Texas in Austin. I was a preacher’s son and several professors opened my eyes to an orientation that resonated with that upbringing and value system. That is the second reason I chose this specialization. My father believed in the value and importance of having a mission for one’s life. He believed a life of service was necessary reason for living life well and to the fullest. He had nothing against business and started several himself, but that was not the focus of his life. It was not his calling. Three mentors reshaped my world in facilitating my need to find a calling and purpose as well – Thomas McCain, Dallas Smythe and John Downing. When I discovered PSM under their tutelage I found something to invest myself in – something that felt important and was fulfilling. My eyes were opened to a great wide world beyond the USA – to other ways of thinking about media, structuring media systems, and practicing professional mediation. Over the years my interest evolved to primarily focus on management and leadership in media organizations based on considerable personal experience working for a PSM company as a strategy and development advisor and as a manager (10 years at YLE in Finland and engagement with the EBU as a result).
My career is nearing the end of the formal employment years. It has been wonderful and an amazing journey because I chose something I care about – something that matters on the basis of principle, ethics and intrinsic value, not because it is popular or materially enriching. When I retire, I will finally be able to do some things I have long wanted to do but haven’t had the time or possibility to devote enough time and attention to. Some of them will be focused on this very specialization. Your career needs to be about something more than a job. The job part is the least rewarding aspects. The good stuff hinges on having a vocation, a calling and walk of life. Whatever you choose as a specialization, make it about something bigger than yourself. Dream big dreams and do the hard work necessary to realize as much and as many as you can. It won’t feel like hard work most of the time, even when it is, because you will enjoy it and find meaning and purpose in what you are doig. That is the way to enlarge your life and make your life’s work worthwhile. An academic career is not easy. It is a demanding, often stressful and frequently difficult experience. But it also one of the best career paths anyone could choose. So, in choosing that realize that you have the opportunity and obligation to dedicate your work to something that makes the bad stuff less important and much easier to handle.