Community radio, by its nature, is a grassroots movement. It is all about localism. It’s not surprising that some industry observers find it a bit perverse that listeners to local stations turn to global platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or LinkedIn for intense discussions about local topics.
A for-profit offshoot of WFMU(FM) in Jersey City, N.J., is hard at work developing an alternative not only for public radio but eventually for other “media makers” like journalists, filmmakers and libraries that need online audiences. Part of the idea is to become a “revenue generation shop” for content producers who don’t have full-time IT staff.
The platform, called Audience Engine, is described as an “open-source suite of community-building, fundraising and publishing tools.” It aims to help organizations increase traffic, engage with people, “crowdfund” around content and thrive in the digital age.
For Ken Freedman, WFMU’s general manager, the story began years ago.
“We were one of the first stations to embrace the online environment. WFMU set up its website in 1992, on pre-Web technologies. We were on the Web as soon as the first Web browser came out, Mosaic, in 1993. We started putting audio on the Web in 1993 and started streaming and archiving audio in 1997.”
It also helped pioneer online fundraising strategies; and today, online contributions account for 75 percent of WFMU’s $2.5 million annual budget. The station believes it has the highest rate of online donations of all U.S. public radio stations.
Eventually WFMU was challenged by its own success. “The website couldn’t scale fast enough, and we needed to find a better solution. Audience Engine takes everything we learned about online communities and fundraising, and makes it available on an open source platform.”
WFMU is collaborating with Bocoup, a Boston software developer. The station will distribute it as an open source platform through its for-profit subsidiary Congera Public Benefit Corp., a “social benefit” corporation, of which Freedman is president.
The effort has received $500,000 in grants from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to develop Audience Engine; Congera’s goal is to raise $1.6 million in total foundation backing, and it is also seeking support from both investors and philanthropists. The latter can make tax-deductible contributions in support of Congera’s parent, Auricle Communications, a charitable non-profit supporting WFMU’s implementation of the program.
A six-year financial plan projects the project will become profitable in 2019. The goal is for Audience Engine to host 15 publishers in 2016, and 85 publishers the year after. Its revenue starts with a percentage of the crowdfunding done by participating publishers.
“Crowdfunding generated $16.2 billion of revenue worldwide in 2014. We’ve taken the crowdfunding platform and added new functionality and features required by media companies and content producers,” Freedman said.
Congera will collect 3 percent of each member’s online fundraising revenue. That fee, collected from a projected 325 stations in 2018, would generate $1.45 million. Additional revenue will be generated from member fees, including subscription, customization, implementation and maintenance fees. Other cash streams are anticipated from event sponsorship and advertising.
The organizers feel that their competition in this space comes from the likes of Airtime, NPR Digital Services and proprietary systems used by major publishers like the New York Times. But these either are radio-only or don’t interact with other publishing systems or tools.
How does Audience Engine build community? According to a project summary, “Publishing and broadcasting becomes a moderated event, accompanied by a buzz of listener and reader chat. Our tools let the best of that chat annotate and enrich each publisher’s content. User’s own pages, favorites and online behavior are gamified, resulting in a positive online social scene. Publisher- and community-organized meetups, appearances and discussions bring the online community together in public events.”
“The second screen is huge in online media,” Freedman told Radio World. “It’s a place for the audience to interact with the programming.” The issue, he argues, is on whose second screen is that forum taking place.
“The real problem for the content producer is that when they send their audiences to off-site destinations, the giant data mining operations skim off critical information that should be the lifeblood of the digital producer — information that should be sustaining the artist or producer, not the big data enterprises.” That philosophy is summed up in one of Audience Engine’s slogans: “Be your audience’s first and second screen.”
One of its goals is to facilitate the construction of sustainable media.
“Traditional media publishers build proprietary systems that segregate their content from other publishers and the rest of the digital marketplace,” Freedman said. “They see themselves as content distributors and ad dispensers, and not as community builders, which is what a 2015 publisher needs to be.”
He said independent and public media content producers aren’t managing content online effectively, they aren’t capturing information about their audience and they aren’t using tools to learn about the preferences of their audiences. By not engaging and building their communities, they forego revenue from crowdfunding, a viable option for media sustainability.
The dashboard for Audience Engine includes a responsively designed social content page for radio and news sites, engineered for live, positive audience feedback and created with self-sustaining crowdfunding in mind. Both Web and mobile pages have a built-in, interactive second screen, with incentives for positive contributions, and tools for stopping disruptive behavior.
On the back end, station staffers see a user-friendly interface where they can develop articles and playlists, as well as monitor user interaction. Fundraising campaigns give every air personality his or her own fundraising widget and “barometer,” enabling producers to harness distinct online fan bases.
Freedman thinks that Audience Engine will appeal to a variety of users.
“We envision that content makers who will utilize the Audience Engine platform will include public media organizations, emerging digital news sites, legacy media enterprises in transition and traditional advocacy organizations. Deployment of Audience Engine will not be limited to particular networks such as NPR; the platform’s flexible design can be adapted to a diverse range of users.”
Freedman believes the model eventually can help support “sustainable investigative reporting,” with news sites organized by writer and subject, and publication of content encouraging live reader interaction via a timed window.
Steps for a broadcaster to sign up for Audience Engine are straightforward. First, have a graphic designer create fundraising widgets, which will work on both the Web and mobile platforms. Second, if you are using the hosting service for Audience Engine, set up an account with stripe.com; they handle the collections. Third, use the Audience Engine API to set up the website, or use Congera’s hosting service.
Audience Engine’s open source software is being developed by WFMU and will be made available free via a GPL software license. For stations with limited IT staffs, Congera will provide hosting, implementation, customization and security services for this software.
In addition to WFMU, early adopters of Audience Engine include WWOZ(FM), a New Orleans jazz and blues station; WSOU(FM), Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J.; and WPRB(FM), Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.
A launch event for Audience Engine’s fundraising tool, called Mynte, was planned for this month in New York. Content makers and coders worldwide were invited to customize and create on the Audience Engine platform.
Freedman believes the current revenue model for the Web has pretty well run its course. “It’s getting easier for users to block ads, so it is important for those of us in the media to find new ways to sustain ourselves on the net.”
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