“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. They could also, however, change public radio forever.
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 such celebrities as Bono, Martin Scorsese, and Tim Gunn, wants to use that money to produce 30 new radio show episodes as well as to turn them into animated YouTube videos.
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.
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 have since 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 5,000 people.”
The potential Kickstarter has for shows like 99% Invisibleand 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 demonstrate there’s an audience that values their ideas. “It’s a new way to bootstrap new programs, new voices,” explained Public Radio Exchange (PRX) Chief Executive 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,” Shapiro said.
Of course, it could also play out 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.
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.
All 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 such as 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 work only 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.
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