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How Kickstarter could disrupt public radio

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“We interrupt our regular program . . .” These words, uttered into microphones across the country every few months, are the beginning of a recurring nightmare for public radio. Listeners dread the seemingly never-ending pledge drives, and radio executives sweat over the fear that their funding goals aren’t being met in times of economic hardship and declining public funds. The good news is that Kickstarter and other forms of crowdfunding could eventually replace these pledge drives. However, they could also change public radio forever.

Blank on Blank successfully raised more than $11,000 on Kickstarter. But getting there wasn’t easy: “It’s a long 30 days,” said the show’s producer David Gerlach.

Some radio producers have already begun to turn to Kickstarter, Indiegogo and similar sites to raise funds for their shows. This week Blank on Blank successfully closed a Kickstarter campaign, raising a modest $11,337 in the process. The show, which resurfaces “lost interviews” with celebrities like Bono, Martin Scorsese and Tim Gunn, wants to use that money to both produce 30 new radio show episodes as well as turn them into animated YouTube videos.(s goog)

Blank on Blank producer David Gerlach told me during a phone call on Tuesday that a big goal was to reach new audiences through the Kickstarter campaign, which indeed led to tons of media coverage. “It was beyond successful,” he told me.

Changing public media forever

Design show 99% Invisible is another Kickstarter success story in the making: It was able to achieve its $42,000 funding goal within 24 hours. Listeners since have pledged more than $74,000 at the time of writing, with 24 days to go. Producer Roman Mars now wants to raise money from a total of 5,000 backers.

“If we do this, I guarantee that independent public media will never be the same,” he wrote on Kickstarter, adding:

“I want the stations, producers and networks to know that if they each take the leap and invest in making something driven by passion and vision, . . . there are people out there that will help in any way they can: at least 5000 people.”

Bootstrapping new voices

99% Invisible raised more than $42,000 in 24 hours to finance its third season. “It was unbelievable watching that happen,” said fellow radio maker and Blank on Blank producer David Gerlach.

The potential Kickstarter has for shows like 99% Invisible and Blank on Blank is indeed exciting, because it gives the audience a new way to support them at a much earlier stage. Previously it took years to establish a new show on public radio, and the process involved grant writing and lots of politics. Now radio stations and producers themselves can turn to Kickstarter and show there’s an audience that values their ideas. “It’s a new way to bootstrap new programs, new voices,” explained Public Radio Exchange (PRX) CEO Jake Shapiro during a phone conversation on Tuesday.

PRX is distributing both Blank on Blank and 99% Invisible, and it helped both programs with their Kickstarter campaigns. Shapiro told me he sees crowd financing through platforms like Kickstarter as a kind of continuation of the idea of publicly financed media, which has been at the core of public radio for decades. Adding a new way for people to contribute could be hugely beneficial, he argued, especially if you reach new audiences that haven’t given in the past. “My hope is that it expands the total pie of giving,” said Shapiro.

Cutting out the affiliate

Of course, it could also play out in another way. Radio producers that directly connect with their audience online are circumventing a key piece of the public radio puzzle: the local affiliate. Over decades these affiliates have been licensing shows and paying for them through their pledge drives. Changing listening habits have slowly been eroding this relationship, with audiences increasingly tuning in through podcasts and mobile apps as opposed to the local broadcast signal.

Audiences are already listening differently. What if they also started giving differently?

Now crowdfunding threatens to further circumvent the local affiliates and their pledge drives — and the effect could be dramatic. What if listeners stopped giving to their local stations and instead just spent all their money to directly fund producers via Kickstarter? “That is a shift that entails some disruption,” admitted Shapiro. Local broadcasters are still huge, he argued, but they’re not immune to change. Some of them have already started to embrace this change and put more energy into content production, but others could face a rude awakening. “They have to rethink their relationship with their audiences,” said Shapiro.

Not just another pledge drive

All of these developments are happening while one of the oldest debates in public radio has bubbled up once again: How much time and money should stations spend on popular programming, as opposed to new and emerging producers? Last month This American Life’s Ira Glass publicly challenged stations to drop Car Talk reruns once the popular show retires in October and instead give new voices a chance.

Crowd financing could help these new voices get some momentum. And chances are that people will look to shows like 99% Invisible and Blank on Blank to study how to tap into this new revenue stream. Asked what others can learn from his experience, Gerlach told me running the campaign was harder than it might seem. “It’s a long 30 days,” he told me.

And he cautioned that Kickstarter may only work if you can really offer your audience something new. “You can’t keep coming back to them,” just because it’s time to pay the bills, he argued. Otherwise, it would simply turn into yet another dreadful pledge drive.

Radio image courtesy of Flickr user C.P.Storm

10 Responses to “How Kickstarter could disrupt public radio”

  1. We had good luck last year with an IndyGoGo end-of-year giving campaign for UnderCurrents. A number of the more avid fans among our national audience stepped-up with donations to fund two very specific needs: 1) funds to help expand and fill gaps in our music library, and 2) replace a key RAID hard drive that holds the library. This mini-campaign gave appreciative listeners an opportunity to do something important for the continued success of the show without preempting support that they might also wish to provide to their local listener-sponsored station.

    Gregg McVicar
    Facebook: undercurrentsradio

  2. Dwight Bobson

    If you think that this would be disruptive, wait until the GOP House gets through killing all their federal funding. That will weed out a lot of the small stations and kill a lot of the programming dollars that all stations use to allow NPT, PRI, APR and all of the other producing entities to make programs and innovate with social media.

  3. Dave Thomas

    “If we allow?” What a scary phrase to post. Who is “we” and who gave “we” the power to not allow to to allow anything. Also the idea that popular shows “take” money from less popular shows (why not use “unpopular” in place of less popular) also exposes another scary attitude. If a show if “popular” its listeners will support it, PERIOD. A show that doesn’t survive on its merits is not popular, PERIOD.

    The old public radio guard that has failed us so miserably is being swept aside just like print journalism that failed as well. Just like old radio shows that couldn’t hang with television.

    Nothing stays the same except relentless change. Embrace it!

  4. Just to be clear, a public radio station (KALW in San Francisco) was part of 99% Invisible from the get-go. Roman Mars’ original quote without ellipses was: “I want the stations, producers and networks to know that if they each take the leap and invest in making something driven by passion and vision, like KALW and PRX did with me, there are people out there that will help in any way they can: at least 5000 people.” Innovative local stations continue to be great partners for genius producers like Roman. And we at KALW (yeah, I’m the station manager) are damn proud 99& Invisible has taken off, and that Roman continues to go forth and kick ass.

    • Indeed. The reason why 99% Invisible hit its initial goal in about 24 hours was because 99% Invisible had been releasing episodes for a year and a half and built a good following online (thanks in large part to Radiolab). That time to grow was a luxury provided by the support of an amazing local station (KALW) and then later a distributor (PRX) who believed in the project and invested accordingly.

      • Mr. Roettgers:

        I read your comments with a great deal of interest and would like to suggest that your analysis would be stronger if you included (a) some explanation of how shows launched by kickstarter fared after launch and (b) you highlighted the continuing role of the legacy elements of public media in >sustainingsustaining< a new effort. If I understand his comments, above, Roman Mars has KALW; Terri Gross has WHYY; Garrison Keillor has MPR; Ira Glass has WBEZ, Jad Abumrad has WNYC. Kickstarter is a phenomenal breakthrough, but unless there are new ways of supporting shows "post-launch," it looks to me like most or all of the leading producers will continue to rely on legacy organizations for the economic infrastructure that supports their creative life.

  5. Madlyb

    “Radio producers that directly connect with their audience online are circumventing a key piece of the public radio puzzle: the local affiliate.”

    This is a good thing. My local affiliate has refused to properly invest in maintaining their equipment resulting in a much poorer signal than just 5 years ago and even experienced downtime measured in days. In the meantime, they have expanded studio facilities in another town and setup a second transmitter for that area.

    Then they come to me and ask for a dollar a day, which is is almost twice as much as Satellite Radio which gives me NPR Now, PRX Public Radio, SiriusXM Public Radio and BBC World Service. I miss Morning Edition and ATC, but I do not miss those pledge drives.

  6. mat catastrophe

    This is actually bad for public radio, which already has some serious problems.

    But if we allow a sort of “mob rule” funding platform to take over, it will only engender a similar “dumbing down” of programming similar to what happens in corporate broadcasting. The most popular shows, regardless of content, will thrive and will take funding from the less popular shows, regardless of quality.

    If you don’t understand why that’s a problem, then you don’t understand public broadcasting or how governments and public entities are supposed to work.