Internet Nonprofit: Politics as Usual

FRAMINGHAM (07/06/2000) - Company: FreedomChannel LOCATION: Washington, D.C.

PRODUCT/SERVICE: www.freedomchannel.com gives politicians and special interest groups a forum to air their views without a media filter. LAUNCH: November 1999 Funding: Nonprofit; receives foundation support from the Carnegie Corp. of New York, the Century Foundation, the Markle Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, the Freedom Forum and the Robert W. Johnson Foundation Greatest Challenge:

Getting buy-in from politicians JUDGE'S COMMENT: "Politics hits the Web with a vengeance at FreedomChannel.com, where all you'd ever want to know about a candidate is in one place."

IMAGINE GEORGE W. BUSH AND AL GORE speaking candidly about their political views at the same forum without slinging a speck of mud. Such a refreshing change of pace is only a click away at FreedomChannel.com, a nonprofit website that uses video-on-demand technology to deliver views of candidates and interest groups to the public. FreedomChannel.com digitally converts 90-second videotapes of candidates discussing their positions on current issues and then makes the videos available to site visitors at no cost. The website provides access to more than 1,500 tapes on as many as 30 different public-policy matters, all of which are sans emotional music, compelling graphics and once-requisite baby kissing. To get exposure on FreedomChannel.com, candidates and special-interest groups submit 90-second videos to FreedomChannel, the site's parent company. Or FreedomChannel can do the taping for them--free of charge. The VHS or Beta tape is then converted to digital format and loaded to the site. To view the tapes, all that users need is RealPlayer7 Basic, which is downloadable for free on FreedomChannel.com's homepage.

But that's not all the site offers. It's also a one-stop resource for candidates' views and links to websites set up by specific politicians and interest groups. The site's "head to head" feature places the views of competing candidates side by side, allowing voters to compare by topic. A mouse click yields presidential and senatorial contenders' televised campaign spots (a fine way to find out whether candidates modify their views to the region they're addressing). For historical data, the site has a link to the Almanac of American Politics, which provides complete voting histories of incumbent candidates. Every day a new interview conducted by FreedomChannel staff appears on the site's Today's Interviews section. The site's most recent addition is My FreedomChannel, where visitors can register to receive e-mail updates about candidates they wish to track.

To date, the focus is on issue rather than hype, and voters are responding. The site receives between 130,000 and 150,000 user sessions a month, with an average session lasting 12 minutes. The site does not share registration information, so the information the site gathers remains private. With voters as hungry for information as candidates are eager to provide it, it's politics as-anything-but-usual.

SPIN-FREE DOCTORS LAUNCHED NOVEMBER 1999, the site is the brainchild of Doug Bailey and Roger Craver, two Washington insiders who worked for years on opposing sides of the political fence: Bailey as a republican political consultant and Craver as a democratic and progressive party fund-raiser. In 1987, the two friends formed The Hotline, a daily online and hardcopy news briefing that collated and summarized political news around the country. The Hotline, which eventually became The National Journal, was the partners' first attempt at bringing unfiltered, nonpartisan information to the American public.

FreedomChannel.com is their second. The idea emerged along with Internet technology, as Craver and Bailey recognized the Web's potential to encourage unity and information sharing within the political process. "Convergence is here," says Bailey, the company's president and CEO. "The FreedomChannel is the first step toward finding ways to demonstrate there are other ways to do politics."

Nobody, Bailey says, turns on a television hoping to see candidates' publicizing themselves. Those often negative, accusatory sound bites are crammed between ball games, situation comedies and made-for-TV movies, when viewers see them whether they want to or not. FreedomChannel.com lets users control the kind and the amount of information they get. On the FreedomChannel, "nobody presses the button to see George W. Bush on education without wanting to see him," says Bailey. "The [user is the] programmer. Users want specifics--not vague notions."

So far, FreedomChannel.com's videos have nary a negative accusation among them.

That's not to say there's anything stopping George W. Bush from slamming Al Gore on, say, morality in the White House. And FreedomChannel.com organizers wouldn't impede him from doing so. Because the medium is still new, says Bailey, this apparent decency is a happy byproduct, possibly because candidates are cautious--much as politicians were 40 years ago when they first recognized the power of television in spreading their messages.

Challenges moving politics from the television screen to the computer screen hasn't been easy, mainly because securing buy-in from politicians wasn't initially a slam-dunk. "Anytime you do something different, you encounter resistance," says Paul Zurowski, director of business development at FreedomChannel. Politicians are hesitant to test drive new vehicles when they've been comfortable with the old ones for so long. But after FreedomChannel solicited presidential, House and Senate candidates to post their views on the site, politicians and their staffs started to recognize this powerful opportunity. And it didn't hurt when the site started winning awards.

Another challenge was to design an intuitive site for users. "Breaking down the content so users could get at it quickly was the challenge," says Jake Schutt, AppNet senior project manager who designed FreedomChannel.com. Bailey has nothing but praise for AppNet, the Bethesda, Md., provider of e-business solutions that took a complicated project and made it user-friendly.

A FUTURE BEYOND ELECTION DAY? FREEDOMCHANNEL HOPES users will welcome a nonpartisan source of political information. Yet one industry watcher still prefers the unscripted moments television sometimes provides. Jay Stanley, an analyst for Internet policy and regulation research at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., likes the site's repository of political advertisements but thinks the videos are too contrived. He also believes that you can learn more about candidates as they maneuver their way through debates and stumble through off-the-cuff campaign remarks.

Lukewarm reviews aside, Bailey and Craver are in it for the long term, and they hope users are too. Bailey anticipates that the site will get more and more hits as the presidential election nears and voters get hungrier for information. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity for U.S. corporations to say to employees: 'In the week before the election, we don't want you to spend too much time on the Internet, but it might be worthwhile to take 30 minutes to really explore the candidates' issues.' And that site would be FreedomChannel.com," says Bailey.

But after November, will the need for information be as urgent? The site's founders hope so. Bailey hints at a few ways the site will stay relevant after the White House has a new resident. "I believe there's room for an equivalent in the broadband industry," says Bailey, who hopes the industry will provide a public-service site in much the same way the cable industry offers CSPAN as an industry gift to America. And FreedomChannel.com could be that site.

Besides, Bailey believes individuals will always need a place to find relevant, political views, whether it's ballot season or not. "When there is a vote on the floor of the Senate or House, shouldn't people be able to look up a site, find out how their representatives voted, and e-mail those representatives?

That is what the FreedomChannel is all about."

Do you think the Web could help you choose a candidate this election year? Tell Senior Writer Meg Mitchell about it at mmitchell@cio.com. Rebecca Lynch is a freelance writer based in Wayland, Massachusetts.

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