Planet Money and Kickstarter: Is web-based crowdfunding the future of public media?

When the reporting team at Planet Money — a joint venture between PRI’s This American Life and National Public Radio — decided to do a series tracing the creation of a T-shirt all the way from the cotton fields to the department store, producer Alex Blumberg says that Kickstarter seemed like a natural way to engage listeners in the project. In a sense, he told me in an interview, the web-based crowdfunding platform is really just a more modern way of doing what public radio has always done, which is to allow fans to support journalism they care about.

If launching the project via Kickstarter was a gamble — and one that apparently took a certain amount of convincing before Planet Money’s corporate masters would sign off on it, according to Blumberg — it certainly seems to have paid off: the campaign hit its goal in a single day, and has since raised about $300,000 or six times as much as it was originally looking for (the audio of my interview with Blumberg is on SoundCloud and also embedded below).

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Crowdfunding and public radio both go direct

Blumberg, who works for This American Life and created the Planet Money show in 2008 along with NPR economics reporter Adam Davidson, said that when the show decided to set up the T-shirt project — an idea that stemmed from a book by Pietra Rivoli called “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy” — he thought Kickstarter was the most obvious way of allowing listeners to not only follow the experiment, but to become participants in it as well.

“We wanted to try and figure out a way to do the project, to do the journalism, but also to sell the T-shirts to people who wanted them, as a way of involving them in the project — so you can either guess about how many you need and borrow the money or sort of get it pre-funded, or you could just go on Kickstarter and find out exactly.”

One of the reasons why it seemed like such a good fit, Blumberg said, is that public radio and the NPR model already involve reaching out to listeners and supporters directly, so it seemed natural to blend the two (a public radio podcast called 99% Invisible took a similar route last year and raised more than $180,000).

“The other part about Kickstarter is that it’s just a great way of sort of involving folks in the project as you go along, and… it felt like with our audience there’d be some interesting overlap there between Kickstarter and public radio — it felt like they would sort of feed on each other. The public radio audience and the Kickstarter model are so close anyway, so why not combine them — it’s sort of surprising that it hasn’t happened before.”

The internet turns everything into public radio

Networking / deal making

In fact, Blumberg said, it feels like “the internet is driving the entire world towards a public-radio model” in a way, as more media companies — and even individuals such as Daily Dish blogger Andrew Sullivan, who is relying on direct reader funding for support — try to find a way of surviving when advertising revenue is declining and other business models are not obvious.

“You can get lots of stuff for free now, and so the trick is to get people to pay for stuff they can get for free. It’s a trick that public radio has gotten pretty good at, but now other people are sort of eclipsing us — Kickstarter is very ingenious in the way you can involve people in the story, you can build all sorts of different levels, and it’s very very easy. So part of it is about learning what we can from our Kickstarter experience and then feeding that back into the public-radio world.”

Blumberg said that he was pleasantly surprised at the amount of money the project has been able to raise, and that he originally expected it would take most of the campaign’s time limit to even get to the $50,000 goal. The majority of the money raised will go towards travel and production costs, as well as the cost of buying and making the shirts, he said — and anything left over will be used to create a development fund for NPR member stations and put on a series of workshops about the kind of reporting Planet Money does.

A chance for a public-funding revolution


And will evangelizing Kickstarter be part of that program? Blumberg said that the project seems to be doing its own evangelizing, just because of the overwhelming response, which he says executives at NPR and throughout the public-media world are watching closely and are “very excited about.” The American Life producer said he also hopes the project will spark more discussion about the ways in which public radio can use crowdfunding platforms.

“Public radio has been a little insulated from some of the ways the internet has changed other media organizations, but the internet is upending radio as well, in a way that I think can be very advantageous, it just depends on how you do it. I think there’s always been a realization within the public radio system that there’s revolutionary potential, and I think this will add to that conversation and hopefully move it forward.”

Blumberg said that he believes public radio can learn a lot from seeing how crowdfunding works in practice with a focused project like the T-shirt campaign, and that the connection between fans and creators that Kickstarter and other platforms help to create is very much like what public media has been doing for some time without the internet. “I feel like we’ve been out ahead of this whole thing for a long time,” he says, “and we didn’t even know it.”

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Christian Scholz and Shutterstock / Wilson Rosa and Shutterstock / higyu