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Full Q&A with NHPR’s Bear Brook team

For more detail on the Direct Donation Experiment.

Building off my column about the Bear Brook Direct Donation Experiment on Tuesday, I thought it would be additionally useful to run the whole interview I conducted with NHPR’s Maureen McMurray and Rebecca Lavoie, because there’s loads of more detail in there that might be useful for teams thinking about developing similar initiatives.

Two quick things. First, a few readers wrote in to respond to the observation I made in the following lines: “In the larger scale of things, $38,000 isn’t a lot. I know that. Hell, some big for-profit podcasts can stand to beat that amount with a single episode (e.g. 1 million episode download × $25 CPM × 2 ad slots = $50,000). But this story isn’t for them. It’s for everybody else.” They pointed out that, given Bear Brook’s 500,000 per episode download average, it’s likely they could have beaten $38,000 with two episodes sold at two ad slots. While theoretically true, you still have to consider the broader circumstances: at the outset, they had no material evidence to garner a pre-launch revenue package that would meet those outcomes, and that the realization of a 500,000 per episode download average came over a longer time frame. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the team could have got back into the advertising market mid-way through the season, with a little more download information in tow, but that’s still no guarantee. Markets are weird things.

Second, a reader raised a good question: would this experiment have worked if Bear Brook wasn’t a true crime podcast? My guess: the limited-run series’ efforts to quickly develop an audience was probably made easier by the genre. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that non-true crime shows couldn’t pull this off. As the Apple Podcast Charts and the strategies of many a network tells us, true crime is the path of least resistance, for now…

On to the full Q&A.


Let’s start with the basics. How did Bear Brook perform as a podcast, what were your expectations going in, and how did it do?

Maureen McMurray: 4.5 million downloads — and counting. Most of the downloads came after the last episode dropped, so we’re continuing to grow audience as people discover it. Going in, we were confident it would perform well. It’s a compelling, bingeable, true crime story… so that’s automatically going to get people to try it out. The quality of Jason Moon’s reporting and writing combined with Taylor Quimby’s production skills, meant people would stick with it.

I’m most surprised by the tail of its performance. Aside from a few peaks, the download rate has been steady since December. As the case continues to unfold we’ll see entirely new audiences coming to it.

Rebecca Lavoie: Bear Brook didn’t exceed our expectation — it absolutely met them. From the outset, our understanding of the true crime podcast landscape and the desire for really high-quality reported narrative stories like Bear Brook meant we knew it would get millions of downloads — and we were right! (As you know, I host my own podcast, Crime Writers On…, a true crime review show that talks about other podcasts, among other things. I knew there was nothing like Bear Brook out there, and that people would love it.)

The popularity of Bear Brook continues to grow as more people discover the podcast, and we are about to take the show on the road with five city tour. Again, this wasn’t a surprise for us, but we’re really glad we weren’t wrong about what we thought would transpire.

Tell me about the fundraising campaign.

Lavoie: The inspiration was two pronged. First, before Bear Brook came out, we shopped it to several ad agencies, and because we didn’t have a track record of making hit shows, they all passed. One, however, offered us ten-thousand dollars to have Bear Brook live behind their premium content paywall for six months. That wouldn’t have worked for this series for a variety of news-driven reasons, so we passed, but Maureen and I were CERTAIN we could make at least that much with a campaign like that one Serial did, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t regret rejecting that offer. (To date, by the way, we’ve made nearly four times that much!)

McMurray: One thing we didn’t consider when we shopped Bear Brook around was the value of our intellectual property. If we had partnered up we may have lost full-rights to the IP for Bear Brook.

Lavoie: Second, as a Serial listener, I remembered the one-time, $20 ask they did in the middle of its first season. It was a simple request, something like: “This podcast was a risk to make, and we want to make more of it, but we need money to get that done.”

With Bear Brook, I knew a similar one-time gift ask was appropriate, because this was a limited series and a proof of concept for more content we planned to make in the future — very much like what Serial was for the This American Life team. Also, $20 was a nice amount to ask for. It’s enough to actually add up, but not so much that it would be off-putting to folks who’d only heard one or two episodes of the podcast. It’s also about what people are used to paying for on-demand movies and seasons of series on platforms like iTunes.

I also knew that offering premium content in exchange for an ask is something podcast listeners aren’t just used to, but have come to expect. And we had some secret sauce here: every episode of Bear Brook has an awesome cliffhanger, so in this instance, the most compelling premium content to offer would be an early listen to the following week’s episode.

After the original run of episodes was over, we changed that transactional premium content message into a more altruistic one: “This kind of journalism is hard to do, and was a stretch for our public radio station to pull off. If you like it, and if you want us to make more, please support it.” (That’s paraphrased, but you get the idea.)

McMurray: Additionally, we knew that even if we matched $10,000 we’d come out ahead because we’d have the donor data. With that data we were able to create a targeted newsletter, promote new episodes, and announce our tour dates to donors. And the newsletter is a great way to promote other NHPR properties that may be of interest to Bear Brook fans.

I’m really interested in what the data can tell us about the New Hampshire donors. Was this their first time donating to the station? Do they listen to NHPR on a regular basis? Are they an existing member? These touch-points are a tool for building listener loyalty and, potentially, cultivating new sustaining members and even major donors. So, yeah…own your data.

What were your major learnings?

Lavoie: First, we didn’t have something like Patreon, Supporting Cast, or other custom RSS technology in place here, so we basically built the content delivery in a low-tech way.

Listeners would pay via PayPal (this was important to me because PayPal is the most popular way to pay for transactions online and extremely credit card and mobile-friendly), and then they would be sent to a hidden web page where the early episodes and RSS feed instructions lived.

We weren’t able to create custom RSS links for each listener, but ultimately, we decided it was worth the risk of them sharing their RSS links with others. I mean, were we really going to complain if we created a bootleg market for people who were DYING to hear the next episode of Bear Brook? Of course not! But in the end, the listening numbers tracked really closely with the PayPal donations, so that turned out to be an okay risk to take, and I’d probably risk it again.

Second, I think it’s really important to understand that one has to consider the type of show they are making when they create a donation-based monetization strategy. Something like Patreon (or, in the public radio world, the “sustaining member” model) wasn’t appropriate when Bear Brook launched, because we knew it was a limited series and NHPR didn’t have an existing slate of premium podcast content to offer Patrons/sustainers. This won’t (and shouldn’t) be the same approach we take with podcasts that are produced weekly or biweekly, or perhaps even with future series once we have a bigger catalog on offer.

Finally, it’s critical to understand that what you are also building when you ask for money this way is an audience of self-identified, opt-in super-users. The PayPal donors were the first people on our Bear Brook email list, and later we made sign-ups for our email available on the show’s website. To date, Bear Brook’s newsletter enjoys an open rate higher than 70%, so we know it’s an audience we can go back to when we have other things to promote in the future. And who knows — perhaps future podcast fundraisers will begin right there as well.

Do you think its replicable?

Lavoie: Of course it’s replicable — after all, we were simply replicating some well-known industry best practices.

I would really like to see more public radio stations look outside their own funding models as they approach podcast projects, because indies and for-profit publishers are doing so many things that work that are so easy to replicate. Long before I started building my Patreon for Crime Writers On…, I relied on a one-time, “tip jar” gift model through PayPal that monetized my show for two years before we were big enough to sell ads. I didn’t innovate anything with that model, I just copied it from a lot of indie podcasts I was listening to. There’s no reason public radio creators can’t do the same thing, because non-public radio creators are certainly stealing the best of what we’ve always done.

Think about it. Slate Plus is basically a sustaining membership model, and so is Patreon, but neither relies on “public radio” things like mailed premiums, program-interrupting fund drives, nonprofit CRMs, or direct mail pieces to be successful. Podcast creators are simply more tribal and transactional with their listeners, and the simple tools we all use seems to get the job done just fine, whether we’re trying to earn money or collect email addresses.

It’s not about those tools, after all, it’s about how we communicate with listeners about what we’re doing, and what they will get in return for their podcast membership/patronage. These are all the best practices that work.

In what ways is it not replicable? What’s unique here?

McMurray: I think a station’s culture and strategy play a big role in whether it can replicate an effort like this. NHPR’s strategic plan emphasizes innovation and technology. It’s not just bandied about, it’s a board-approved priority. Perhaps more important, the station invested in its strategic plan. Last summer NHPR successfully concluded a five-million-dollar Campaign for Innovation, which supports forward-thinking editorial initiatives and allowed us to expand our news and production teams. That campaign gave us the bandwidth to try new things.

“Innovation” can sometimes feel like an empty word, but it’s baked into our approach to content. We’re ambitious, we take risks, we experiment, we gather data and quickly change course along the way. Content managers keep a close eye on what’s happening in the industry and we constantly reassess how we’re covering and delivering news. Are listener needs and habits changing?  How can we best-serve our audience and the community? Which platforms will bolster our journalism and help us reach new listeners?

We’re hard-wired to experiment and iterate, and that extends to how we monetize our work. In this case, we got the green light and were able to move quickly. That’s not the case at every station.

Lavoie: Again, I think it’s critically important to consider what kind of content you are making, and what you can give your audience in return for a donation ask. I would caution anyone against building a fundraising model based on “what we’ve always done” rather than “what we are doing this time,” because frankly, the content will drive the kind of loyalty that will inspire donations, and we’d never make content based on a “what we’ve always done” strategy.

Also unique to Bear Brook (but not to content creators outside public radio), is that this whole process involved the show production team from start to finish. I’d tell anyone that if you’re not willing to do that, you won’t get messaging that works.

For example, we wanted to ensure Jason’s comfort with making the ask, so we let him write it in his own voice. We also wanted to make sure the team was willing — and actually could — finish the following week’s episode a week early. If they’d said, “that’s just not possible,” we would have had to come up with a plan B that they wanted to and could deliver.

This collaborative spirit was really critical to the success of this effort, as was some built-in flexibility and understanding that one of the goals here was just to see how it would all work.

How would you contextualize this effort within the organization’s broader fundraising efforts?

McMurray: 60% percent of NHPR’s funding comes from listeners and our development team has put a ton of effort into building our sustaining-member program. Monthly giving is a more efficient and stable source of revenue for stations, and we’ve seen a big increase in sustaining members over the last few years.

Our messaging around the sustaining-memberships is station-focused. We emphasize the value of public media, NHPR, and the work of our newsroom. We employ long-established fundraising tactics: on-air appeals and drives, direct mail, digital, major donor appeals, NHPR-branded thank you gifts, $ for $ matches, etc.

Podcasts pose new opportunities and challenges for fundraising. NHPR broadcasts across the state, but New Hampshire is small — fewer than 1.4 million residents. Podcasting allows us to reach potential donors all over the country. Bear Brook had a strong New Hampshire following, but our largest audiences were in California, New York, and Massachusetts. 19% of the audience was international. That holds true for our other podcasts, Outside/In and Civics 101.

Looking at a limited-series like Bear Brook, there’s a good chance a decent chunk of the audience doesn’t listeners to public radio. They don’t have a closet full of tote bags. This is the only NHPR production they’ve ever heard and they may binge it in one day and move on. Offering them a station mug for $5/month isn’t going to work. They’re listening because they’re invested in the story and Jason’s work. Lead with that.

That’s not to say sustaining podcast memberships aren’t possible at NHPR, but I think the model and tactics will look different and it’s going to take time to get there. Radiotopia and Maximum Fun are true networks. They’ve built an identity and a stable of podcasts they can fundraise across. Additionally, their fundraising efforts are focused on on-demand properties and listeners. Like many member stations, NHPR’s development was built on a broadcast model. We’ve been successfully appealing to local listeners for nearly 40 years. This is new territory for us.

At this moment, NHPR’s on-demand portfolio isn’t as large or diversified as Radiotopia, WNYC, or Maximum Fun. Our identity is still taking shape and we don’t have as many opportunities to cross-promote. As we build our portfolio, our audience will grow and stabilize, and the NHPR brand will strengthen and resonate among listeners. Those listeners, however, will likely have different expectations for membership and we’ll need to adjust accordingly.

The media landscape is evolving rapidly, and public media organizations need to adapt in order to survive. That’s true for content and development. We shouldn’t toss out long-established fundraising tactics, but we should be looking closely at emerging monetization models, as well as listener behavior.

For me, the big question is what do we do with our on-demand fundraising efforts right now? How can we appeal to listeners of Outside/In, Civics 101, and our upcoming projects like Supervision? At this moment, a blanket approach won’t work and I think we should take the opportunity to test and iterate.