Will Kickstarter Disrupt Public Radio?

Will Kickstarter Disrupt Public Radio?

Kickstarter is one of several crowdsourced funding platforms.  Have a pet project?  Post it there and let the crowd fund it for you (or not).

Recently the folks at public radio program developer PRX (friends of mine) have been experimenting with crowdsourcing development funds for some of their programs, including the third season of a show about design and architecture, 99% Invisible.

The results for this show in particular have been very strong:  Almost $100,000 raised as of this writing – more than double their goal.

GigaOm argues that this kind of funding model might upset the public radio apple-cart, since the local station affiliates are almost universally the front door through which funds enter.  These funds are essential to their survival, and they also make those stations the content “gatekeepers,” as most managers who hold the purses tend to be.

If fans of a show can fund that show directly – if they can go around the stations – then this will potentially spark far more program innovation and risk-taking, since the presence of funds actually reduces the risk.  And this will happen even as stations are starved of funds.

I’m oversimplifying a bit, but the tone of the GigaOm piece (quoting the Kickstarter post) is downright breathless:

If we do this, I guarantee that independent public media will never be the same. 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.

So here I go, bursting some bubbles….

First, I have long argued that fans of shows should be allowed to fund those shows directly rather than indirectly through the affiliate stations – if, in fact, it’s the show they want to support and not the station (and it may or may not be). Under this model, it’s the show that pays the station, not the other way around. In the commercial world, this is called “buying time,” and it’s a perfectly good model.  If the funds to support a show shift from the stations to the shows, look for stations to demand that those shows put their money where their mics are. After all, there will remain advantages for any radio show to actually be on the radio, too.

Second, how appropriate is it for 5000 people to dictate to tens or hundreds of thousands of listeners what they should or should not be able to listen to? Ratings are another legitimate metric of program success – and stations actively use that metric to attract sponsors…er…underwriters to their most popular programs. Are we programming our stations to a broad audience with diverse tastes?  Or are we programming to a sea of passionate niches? What makes a good show is not necessarily what makes a good station.

Third, it’s great that passionate folks can directly fund the development of their favorite shows, but who are these fans?  Are they folks who seek out these shows as standalones in digital platforms?  And if so, aren’t they really supporting the show and its universe of content as a standalone?  In other words, who says this has anything to do with “radio” per se, whatsoever?  If you have thousands of fans who support a show and can get that show on demand, then who needs for it to air on the radio at all?

Fourth, it seems to me that supporting the development of a show on Kickstarter is quite close to the idea of subscription or “membership.” Indeed, why shouldn’t fans be able to subscribe to their favorite shows (see point 1 above for how that relates to affiliate stations).  Why not just dispense with the whole crowd-funding charade and acknowledge what these folks are really doing: Subscribing.

Fifth, if fans will subscribe to a show, then they will subscribe to a universe of content that swirls around that show. The show will no longer be all the content provider creates.  I will subscribe not just for “show premiums” but for premium experiences around the show. This goes well beyond the utility of Kickstarter and well past the antiquated baked-in funding model for most public radio shows.

Sixth, GigaOm misunderstands why most people support their local public radio station.  Most do it not to support any one show but to support the whole package of content and public service that their local station represents. Even if the show is the most important part, it’s not the only part.  Not nearly.

Seventh, I think it’s far more likely that the development money flowing to these shows directly will be “found money” – new and incremental dollars, and not dollars which come from the pockets of local affiliates. Under this assumption, it’s good news for all.  Not every situation is “I win, you lose.”

Eighth, funding programs on Kickstarter will work a lot better for already-existing programs (or producers) with a “tribal” following. Who wouldn’t want to support the next project from the gang at This American Life? But Joe Blow’s pitch for his unproduced dream public radio show is unlikely to attract much attention or support – just like most Kickstarter projects.  As with your local bank, it’s easiest to get a loan when you don’t need it.

Finally, the GigaOm piece seems to have this sense that people give to public radio to fund innovation.  I don’t think that’s generally true at all. People don’t give for the show that might be, they give for the show that is. They support what public radio is doing today, not so much what it might do in the future.  From the GigaOm piece:

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.

Well I’m publicly advising stations to tell Ira to mind his own business. “New voices” and reruns of Car Talk are not mutually exclusive.  There are lots of other hours in the week than the few that Car Talk occupies.

This is a little known fact, but one of the most popular feature programs on SiriusXM is Casey Kasem’s American Top 40.  Yes, the one that dates back to the 70’s.  Who are we to tell our audience that they need to “move on”?  Who are we to dictate that their tastes are dated or wrong-headed?  If they want to hear Car Talk reruns and want to support those reruns, then I say let them have the public radio they want to pay for.

PBS viewers are still paying for the Lawrence Welk show, and Mr. Welk has been dead for twenty years!

So there you go.  Will Kickstarter disrupt Public Radio?


That job should be left to Public Radio.  And I hope they do it soon.

* = required field
  • Excellent article Mark. I agree it should be on the radio show to prove its worth, like you say, and not a radio station programmer to decide what the masses should hear. It is so easy in this day for a listener to find another radio station or switch to podcasts instead.

  • Thanks for your comment, Mike!

    Audio is bigger than “radio,” but a radio station is more than a bunch of popular niche shows.

  • Overall Topic: Agree 100%

    Bubble 1: Bullseye. If these podcasters are doing these shows, and doing it free (99 percent invisible podcast comes to mind in this topic), and these shows are succeeding to the point where they are collecting 80k from their listeners when they set a goal of 20k, and they are BLOOMING with an audience, Why, oh why, is their not bells going off in a station programmers head that says “Gee, this guy is passionate about doing this, how much would I have to pay to make him an exclusive show?” That would completely restore order to what makes radio great and competitive. Even if its paying him to be an exclusive podcast through your network, offering him an 80k contract over 5 years, getting your commercial sponsors in the mix, and marking territory with your logo.

    Exclusiveness is the mark everyone’s missing here. Thats the screw thats being thrown in the cog of media networks. Supernatural. Its a sci-fi show. My wife loved it, and we used to watch it together. As soon as it started airing on TNT, competitor networks, ect, I stopped following it as much. Didnt care if new seasons were airing. It was everywhere, and it put a vanilla taste in my mouth. Im sure programmers are still looking at the boards wondering what happened between season A and season B to do that?

    Bubble Burster 2: Its not important that the 10 decide what the 100 watch, if the demographics are panning out. Let them decide on kickstart, and let it go to I tunes. If the 10 is all idiots, than they got what they paid for. If that show gets syndicated, all we have to do is question ,” What where the other 9 thinking???” now.

    Bubble burster 3: same thought as 2…

    Bubble burster 4: This is the powder keg every Profitable media wagon needs to set a watch on. Podcasters always set the trend on these things first. NOW, theirs going to be a time where every microcaster with a “Im going to be the greatest” mentality is going to jump on this bandwagon. Im talking radio and internet video sites with the paypal donation button on them. The kind that dont display their month to month quota, because it cant get them a meal at mcdonalds. Nothing wrong with them if their doing this JLA or microcasting licensed with BMI, SX, ASCAP, or PPL, or whatever licensing they need to pay. So what happens when they start posting on kickstart” For $500 a month, I will set up x station legally?” then they do get enough support, because they cater more specifically to YOUR audience. Legally.

    If kickstart didnt just put a bad taste in your mouth, you might have worked in the music industry when napster came out, thinking ,”This is an interesting idea…” or maybe you worked in the cable industry when streaming channels became the popular thinking it would become a nice little outlet, and expand the need for cable television?”

    Bubble 5: Micro media is smart. They started with nothing, and they can thrive on nothing. They could walk away with no loss. Thats the beauty of it in their own mind. The “I’m the boss” mentality. The second they feel its not their helm, they are going to grab and steer it, or they will jump ship. They may have to reshape at times, but they are going to reshape like burger king… their way.

    Bubble 6: Yep. and when these small shows band with other moving parts, they either become one with that entity, or they completely fall apart. Happens with micro-casters all the time.

    Bubble 7: Doesn’t matter which money it comes from. On demand content is never a win for a network unless its carries a logo and support. Otherwise its a place where people will find entertainment elsewhere.

    Bubble 8: Then Joe Blow will turn away from radio/television, and hes going to go where the money is to make it a reality. Hes a micro media, hes a survivalist by default.

    Bubble 9: I’m a consumer of mass entertainment. I accept that. Ask me how much I would put into CNN. Now ask me how much I would donate into a vulger show like “Its always sunny in Philadelphia” which had so many complaints, If facebook had made a dislike button, it would topple likes 10 to 1. FX was a huge gamble, but its starting to win in my prospective of going to friends houses, and going to areas of public, where the owner is watching TV? Why? The content is original. Its new. Its something that someone else isn’t doing. Its usually low budget shows, that are appealing to the public, and when they come on, the owner of a bar (personal experience) is yelling for everyone to “shut up” and it happens. You couldn’t get some of these establishments to quiet down for the local news, but this miracle is happening on the local block. The gears arnt turning in our head when we see it, but it does.

    Why is that bubble very relivent? Because with so much media for the taking, at a fraction of the cost, these networks answers are to expand! Not make MTV3 with the same anchors as X show on MTV2, but more of that show to satisfy demographics. It should be new content. It should be a very trustworthy blind audience, and the only 2 questions should be

    1) where you entertained by this?
    2) what part of day can you relate to this content?

    The nice thing is with something like kickstart, they havent even UTILIZED any part of demographics yet to their supporters. When they wise up and start selling this info, it would be like weaponizing anthrax for your local programmer.


    Rob Andrews

  • Ummm, Mark. Shows cannot simply buy airtime on non-commercial stations under a free market system. It’s illegal. They may only pay to defer the costs of production and distribution.

    That kinda blows your whole premise away, does it not?
    (c) A noncommercial educational FM broadcast station may broadcast
    programs produced by, or at the expense of, or furnished by persons
    other than the licensee, if no other consideration than the furnishing
    of the program and the costs incidental to its production and broadcast
    are received by the licensee. The payment of line charges by another
    station network, or someone other than the licensee of a noncommercial
    educational FM broadcast station, or general contributions to the
    operating costs of a station, shall not be considered as being
    prohibited by this paragraph.

  • I was being metaphorical.


    Congress will take care of the non-commercial niceties in the long run, mark my words. When they rip away CPB funding.
    We will then be left with a system that must depend on its fans and its underwriters/sponsors – and it will have lots of great content and lots of great fans and underwriters who want to support it.
    Public broadcasters need to start imagining a system that is created in this technological environment, not the one given birth by Herbert Hoover.

  • I was thinking about the same thing Aaron, but how about this scenario: At the end of the program, X (x being the programming entity) says ,”Help support our show by donating (that’s a horribly loose term, like the word essence) at Y (Y being Kickstarter; a paypal button on their site) and they start succeeding?

    Maybe this scenario has happened already and I’m to ignorant to catch an instance where someone blew a whistle.

    Kickstarter has proven its a possibility. A donating public means tax bliss on what they will pocket for that show, and those “expenses” covered could include… tme and effort (two more words that are loose words like essence) . If I was asking for donations to cover time and effort, and I gave you a number, I’m sure I could run for the joke of the day…. except in the minds of anyone willing to ,”throw in the hat”.

  • There’s plenty of commercial viability for public broadcasting nationally and in most markets across the country. You can’t kill what’s commercially viable, I would argue. Nothing could be more “free market” than that.

  • It’s easy to get locked into terms but “commercial” usually is defined as “advertiser-supported.” The idea of listener-support is consistent with non-commercial broadcasting, obviously, so the idea of going straight to fans for support should, if anything, support public radio’s niches, not water them down.

  • Not if you carry it to the logical extreme. It’s always a more profitable business model to pander to suckers than to serve the smart folks. Inevitably shows will tailor themselves to become hour-long informercials that happen to adhere to FCC underwriting rules, because that will be more profitable than providing quality programming and hoping enough people support it. And stations, therefore, will air the “infomercials” because it will, in turn, make THEM more money.

    Actually, I shouldn’t say that scenario is “inevitable,” but the direct-fundraising/shows-pay-stations model puts all the incentives in the wrong places. I don’t see how that won’t ultimately result in an inferior broadcast product.

  • I think if the show’s fans cannot support it without that show watering itself down to find more fans, then the show deserves to be watered down.
    And oh by the way, that may not result in new fans 🙂

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