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Public Radio Podcasts as Direct Donation Vehicle: A Cast Study

Last October, New Hampshire Public Radio released Bear Brook, a six-part investigative podcast that amounted to a big swing for the station. The project had local flavor; the case looked into a series of unidentified bodies found years earlier in the eponymous state park, But the podcast had broad potential appeal: Bear Brook, after all, had all the hooks and trappings of the true crime genre, a.k.a. the Bloody, Beating Heart of Podcasting. (As an aside, a true crime podcast narrated by Dan Carlin features heavily on the second episode of The Twilight Zone reboot, as well as in an upcoming Awkwafina project. So, bloody beating heart indeed.)

And appeal Bear Brook did. By the end of March, the podcast has garnered over 4.5 million downloads across six episodes (plus two mini-updates) since its October launch, suggesting a roughly half million per episode average. That number continues to grow, indicating a strong consumption tail. It’s quite an achievement, particularly when you consider the station’s broadcast operation reaches slightly over 172,600 weekly listeners, and that the Granite State has a population of just under 1.4 million people.

Bear Brook wasn’t just an attempt at content and delivery innovation, however. The team had also implemented a direct donation test inspired, in part, by a similar campaign that ran during the first season of Serial (ah, simpler times): as the six-episode season unfolded, listeners were prompted via ad read to make a one-time donation to the station. In exchange, they would get early access to upcoming episodes. All this, you might notice, might not seem especially revolutionary or new. Except that, for a mid-sized public radio station hailing from a state that isn’t quite a media hub, a revenue experiment of this sort very much is.

At this writing, the campaign has brought in over 1800 donations, with a total haul of slightly over $38,000. 95% of those donations came from within American borders, the rest was international. The campaign remains quite active: “Like our listenership, the tail of giving is long,” said Maureen McMurray, NHPR’s Director of Innovation and Audience Development. “Contributions are still coming in on a daily basis.”

Public radio stations across the country, of all sizes, are experimenting with podcasts, actively and passively, for theoretical reasons well-documented in this newsletter: overarching shifts in media consumer preferences towards on-demand, the medium trends towards younger audiences, and so on. But such initiatives often rub up against a fundamental hurdle: how do these podcast experiments help our business and development models, historically structured around a broadcast operation? The question is often invoked as a rebuttal, but it’s one that very few — particularly among stations that share similar contexts with NHPR — have actually attempted to answer with any sincerity.

That’s a bummer, of course. As you’ve probably noticed, a lot has happened in podcast-land over the past few months. Gobs of money is flowing into the space as a matter of advertising and acquisition, and Spotify just spent hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire two content companies and a platform with a strategy that is, at heart, speculative. And while there is a possible future in which we won’t see much direct result from Spotify’s Splashy Q12019, we do know that the fundamentals are in play: on-demand audio consumption, and interest, is very much rising. Meanwhile, some original promises remains unrealized; namely, the capacity for podcasting to improve the plight of public radio and local news — not just for centralized nationally-oriented organizations like NPR, but for the entire American public radio system as a sprawling network of individual actors. The opportunity is still there; it just hasn’t been properly explored yet.

Which brings us back to New Hampshire Public Radio. The on-demand team notes that a direct donation campaign wasn’t always in the plans. Originally, the team had shopped Bear Brook to several ad agencies to suss out pre-launch revenue package. Almost all passed, citing the station’s lack of a track record for producing hit shows. One offered $10,000 to place the show behind a paywall for six months. As McMurray and Rebecca Lavoie, the station’s Digital Director, told me, a paywalled-release wouldn’t have been appropriate for a variety of news-driven reasons. There was also another issue: “If we had partnered up, we may have lost full rights to the IP for Bear Brook,” McMurray said.

The move to implement a one-time donation campaign, then, was driven by the circumstances. In hindsight, the match makes sense. After all, a direct support model is consistent with the way public radio has generally raised funds. (Notably, nearly 60% of NHPR’s revenues come from individual donors via sustaining memberships, major gifts, vehicle donations, and so on.) But at the outset, nothing’s certain.

In any case, the paywall offer gave them a target number to beat: $10,000. If they could hit that number, the thinking went, it was already a win with added value. “We knew that even if we matched the $10,000 offer, we’d come out ahead because we’d have the donor data,” said McMurray. “With that information, we were able to create a targeted newsletter, promote new episodes and new shows, and announce our tour dates to donors.” (A reminder: Bear Brook is on track to quadruple that target.)

The campaign required technical jerry-rigging. The team didn’t have pre-existing tools like Patreon, Supporting Cast, or any other custom RSS tech in place, so they had to cobble together one themselves. Listeners would pay over PayPal, which would send them to a hidden webpage containing instructions on how to manually set up an RSS feed containing early episodes. They weren’t able to create custom feeds for each unique payer, but they ultimately decided that the risk of the supporter sharing the feed with others was worth bearing. “I mean, were we really going to complain if we created a bootleg market for people who were DYING to hear the next episode?” said Lavoie.

Initially, the team had set up the PayPal page to default to a single one-time donation option: $20. But after a suggestion from Deb Turner, the station’s VP of Development, they included an “other amount” option to allow for some flexibility. The change resulted in the average donation increasing from $20 to $22.

So, yes, 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 X $25 CPM X 2 ad slots = $50,000). But this story isn’t for them. It’s for everybody else. And it represents a hopeful start, particularly when you consider that, according to a recent Pew Research study, only 14 percent have paid for or given money to local news of any kind — including public radio pledge drives — in the past year. (Though, I suppose you could quibble with perceptual definitions: did Bear Brook listeners view the podcast as local news? Does it matter?)

“The media landscape is evolving rapidly, and public media organizations need to adapt in order to survive — that’s true for both content and development,” said McMurray. “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? At this moment, a blanket approach simply won’t work, and I think we should take the opportunity to test and iterate.”

Moving forward, I’m told, NHPR’s on-demand team is focused on three things:

  • Launching New Projects. Three shows will debut in the coming months: (1) a four-part podcast from former NHPR criminal justice reporter Emily Corwin in May; (2) a show called Patient Zero: Lyme Disease, by senior producer Taylor Quimby, in July; and (2) a project looking at how New Hampshire become the first-in-the-nation primary, which will continue to unfold into the 2020 election season. That will be co-hosted by NHPR’s State of Democracy reporter Lauren Chooljian and Jack Rodolico.
  • Local On-Demand Content. “We recently launched Civics 101: New Hampshire, a local spin off of our podcast, Civics 101,” said McMurray. “We’ll be releasing our bi-weekly podcast Only In New Hampshire in the upcoming months. It’s Curious City-inspired series where we answer questions about things happening in the state.”
  • On-Demand to Broadcast Conversions. Finally, the team will be working to adapt its podcast efforts for broadcast distribution, which involves examining NHPR’s clock and developing appropriate broadcast schedules.

Anyway, there is a lot more detail from the interviews I conducted with the team, and I’ll run the full responses in the next Insider.