the future of radio will be, it must be funded.
James Del of Gawker Media and Bob Garfield of WNYC/“On
is an inevitable truth, whether we’re talking about commercial or
noncommercial stations; those owned by universities or those run by
nonprofits; private companies or public corporations. This issue was
front and center at WFMU(FM)’s third RadioVision festival last fall
in New York.
Curator Benjamen Walker describes the event as “a convergence of
radio and technology.” WFMU Station Manager Ken Freedman says, “We
sort of define radio a lot more widely than your typical conference,
encompassing everything that a radio station should be doing,
especially online.” RadioVision’s website called the event “a
festival celebrating radio’s future as it takes on new forms in the
digital age for the medium’s fans, tinkerers and future thinkers.”
is a scrappy and award-winning free-form station based in Jersey
City, N.J. It has an international reputation, in part because it
embraced live and on-demand Internet streaming early. The U.K.’s
Telegraph newspaper recently named WFMU one of the best Internet
radio stations and “possibly the world’s coolest.”
said a central question for RadioVision is how a broadcaster can
“stay true to yourself and find the right path.”
to Freedman, this is about “being sustainable,” particularly if
you are an independent producer, a public broadcaster or a
participant in community radio. Furthermore, “Being noncommercial
is becoming a more interesting question all the time.” Blurring of
lines between commercial and noncommercial was evident during panels
dedicated to financing.
When it comes to
fundraising, “You can’t treat people like consumers. It has to be
a relationship.” So says Chris Bannon, vice president of
advancement for New York City public station WNYC, who shared a panel
about new funding models for radio production. “We’re not sure we
can make enough money on the radio alone to support what we want to
The station produces
“Freakonomics Radio,” based on the popular Freakonomics books by
journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt. The program,
in its fourth season, was born as a podcast and also airs on public
Internet programming, noncommercial stations are freed from FCC
restrictions on underwriting, potentially opening public radio
podcasts to more traditional advertising. But that doesn’t mean
programmers always use that freedom.
will never do that because we’re deeply in NPR,” said Alex
Blumberg, contributing editor for the program and a producer for
“This American Life.” Bannon of WNYC agreed, saying, “Our voice
is a noncommercial voice. … (While) we’re slightly looser online,
we’ve decided the tone on-air is what we want to have for our
sponsorships online.” Thus for example you won’t hear an ad for
Stamp.com at the top of a podcast hosted by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer,
even though that company is a prominent podcast and radio advertiser.
to Bannon, an advantage of producing “Freakonomics Radio” as a
podcast is that, “We can figure out where and when (people)
listen.” He said the podcast alone now reaches 3.5 million people a
month, whereas the radio numbers are harder to track because the
program is aired at different times in different places.
From left, Chris Bannon of WNYC, Alex Blumberg of
“Planet Money” and Liz Berg of WFMU.
so, Bannon said the program loses money; so WNYC launched a
membership campaign for the “Freakonomics Radio” podcast. An
element of the campaign was a pre-roll announcement for the online
version similar to on-air pitches during pledge drives.
said “Planet Money” conducted a Kickstarter funding campaign to
design and manufacture a T-shirt; the initial goal was $50,000 but
the campaign ended up raising $580,000 for 25,000 shirts.
the show raised money only for the shirts, not the program. Why?
“You’re always in an awkward position at NPR when you’re
fundraising because of the relationship with the individual
stations,” Blumberg said. The program is a co-production between
NPR and “This American Life,” and its stories air each week on
the nationally syndicated “All Things Considered” and “Morning
public radio stations are independent and they have their own
fundraisers. So if we all raise money at the same time, it’s a
paid subscriptions could be another option for supporting online
content, Bannon said, “My hope is that we continue to give
everything away for free.” Appealing to the founding principles of
public broadcasting, he said, “We don’t want to deny people
access from things that are publicly funded.”
radio broadcasters explore new sources of income, Walker and Freedman
said, the experiences of other online pioneers in the area of native
advertising hold lessons.
has been growing debate in the media press about the practice. It
flared when The Atlantic received stinging criticism for a native ad
it ran for Scientology, an ad it subsequently pulled within a day.
journalist and author of the book “Consumed,” moderated a panel
and posed a provocative question about native advertising: “Is this
a new opportunity for creators? Or a fresh hell of heartbreak,
corruption and lies?”
Garfield, co-host of NPR’s media analysis program “On the Media,”
said native advertising isn’t necessarily new. There have been
“things called ‘advertorials’ that sort of look like a New York
Times article … (but) the Times makes sure the headline type is
different … so nobody can be confused.” Such confusion, he said,
is where lines are problems arise.
Del, advertising director for Gawker.com, compared contemporary
native advertising to “when a radio broadcaster reads some ad copy
he or she didn’t write,” blending it seamlessly into a voice
takes “the frame of the content, (like) a tweet or a post” that
is similar to a site’s typical output but is sponsored by an
advertiser. Walker said this “looks the same as regular content,
but is labeled as sponsored content.”
advertisers know people will click on native advertising “at a rate
vastly greater than anything that looks like an ad, because they
don’t know it’s an ad. They’re being tricked, duped. It’s
insufficiently labeled.” The risk is not just for the audience, he
warned. “Every single ad that you run that tricks the reader, you
slice the golden egg, one slice at a time. The trust and credibility
will be gone.”
also drew parallels between native advertising and radio
enough, at least on the national level there is more of a direct
connection” between funders and producers, he said. “Advertisers
have more control over content than they had in commercial (radio)
because you can earmark for science coverage or something like that.
... That has always made me a little queasy, too.”
about the rise of native advertising, Garfield said, “The Internet
creates a vast supply of content needing advertising. So the money
that used to flow in to underwrite content is just drying up,
disbursed upon millions of individual media. Nobody has the critical
mass of advertising revenue to create quality stuff.”
echoed a point made by Alex Blumberg of “Planet Money.” He said
that with the ubiquity of free content online, “The whole world is
moving to the public radio model, and I hope we all get better at it.
… If you can steal anything or get it online for free, it is
incumbent on the artists to make the pitch for why you should pay for
questions of integrity, especially those who want to work in public
and noncommercial radio, along side the ever-present need for
funding. Garfield advised, “Don’t sell your creative soul along
the way, or trick your listeners. The main thing is editorial
takeaway from RadioVision is that there are many emerging models for
financing production, but it’s not yet clear which ones will pay
off over time.
Riismandel is a 20-year veteran of community and college radio. He is
co-founder and technology editor of RadioSurvivor.com.