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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.

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