An option for This American Life, self-distribution dwindles among public radio producers

By Andrew Lapin

After This American Life parts with longtime distributor Public Radio International July 1, it could become public radio’s most widely carried show without a major distributor representing it.

That’s if the show pursues that option. Program host and creator Ira Glass has hinted in interviews with the New York Times and Chicago media reporter Robert Feder that he’s considering self-distribution.

But there may be good reasons that few shows have gone that route. Self-distribution poses challenges that few resource-strapped program creators are willing to take on, including handling their own billing, marketing and station relations.

Interfaith Voices, a weekly program about religious issues, is among public radio’s few self-distributed programs with significant carriage. It airs on more than 70 stations nationwide, in markets including Washington, D.C.’s WAMU; KKFI in Kansas City, Mo.; and WVTF in Richmond, Va. Other independently distributed shows include interview program New Dimensions, which airs on more than 180 stations, and music programs such as Hearts of Space and Harmonia.

Fiedler

Fiedler

When Interfaith Voices host Maureen Fiedler started the program in 2002, self-distribution “was the only thing we could afford,” she told Current. Today, the decision isn’t a choice but a necessity, because no distributors have offered.

“In many ways, it would be nice to be part of a group where you could hand it off,” Fiedler said. “But no one has ever approached us about that, and I was never quite sure how to approach the groups that actually do that.”

Interfaith Voices devotes no resources to soliciting stations for carriage. The program’s three full-time staffers, including Fiedler, all focus on producing the show, and its carriage is all due to word-of-mouth.

Fiedler followed advice she heard from others in public media and decided to give away the show for free. “People tell me we couldn’t get [a carriage fee], that stations wouldn’t pay it,” she said.

In 2013, Interfaith Voices won a $300,000 grant from the Luce Foundation in support of its “God and Government” series. Fielder is allocating a portion of the two-year grant to retain the services of pubradio consultant Steve Martin as a station-relations manager. The foundation agreed that building carriage of the program hewed to the spirit of the grant.

One upside of working with a major distributor is the “stamp of approval” it provides for stations, says Martin, who also consults for the self-distributed weekly show BackStory with the American History Guys in addition to several programs that have major distributors. A distributor’s presence implies that the show has been vetted, he said.

Some programs pursue self-distribution with hopes of eventually landing national representation. The variety show Live Wire launched in 2004 under independent distribution using digital-distribution tools offered by Public Radio Exchange but signed a carriage agreement with PRI in April.

State of the indie market

Fewer and fewer producers have opted to self-distribute in recent years, according to Ken Mills, a pubradio consultant and former news director at PRI. In 2001, Mills studied carriage of 93 nationally distributed programs, including 54 self-distributed shows. Nearly half of the independent programs Mills surveyed have since ended production.

Most self-distributed shows do not charge station carriage fees, Mills said. If TAL were to go independent, it would need to buck that trend and develop a system for accepting carriage fees from stations without an intermediary. This would require an investment in staffing and resources or a contract with a third-party vendor.

“A show the size of This American Life would have to replace many of the services that a network would provide: the relationship with stations, who’s going to solicit new stations, who’s going to do the day-to-day follow-up on stuff,” Mills said. “They would have to staff up if they did it.”

Some producers skirt the difficulties of billing stations and handling other administrative tasks by working with PRX. Its Internet-based distribution platform provides an alternative to the Public Radio Satellite System, and it doesn’t charge affiliation fees for stations to air programs, unlike the three other distributors.

Yet PRX devotes limited resources to program marketing, which mainly involves a weekly newsletter to station managers, said Jake Shapiro, PRX’s c.e.o. The provider markets some shows, such as The Moth Radio Hour, directly to stations, but most of those are programs that PRX has invested in. Other PRX-distributed shows such as American Routes, which Mills consults on, must find ways to market themselves.

PRX’s marketing is a “tiered system,” Shapiro wrote in an email. The bottom tier includes display and promotion on PRX.org, while the middle tier, which PRX curates, gets promotion via the newsletter and other platforms. PRX takes a more active role in station outreach and boosting carriage for its top tier, which Shapiro defines as “weekly shows and other bigger impact programs.” The distributor forms exclusive partnerships with its top-tier programs.

A self-distributed TAL would break new ground for a show of its reach. But most listeners would likely remain unaware of the route the show takes from Glass’s studio to their radios.

“Everything [audiences] hear on public radio, they refer to as NPR,” Martin said. “From an audience perspective, I don’t think distribution has any impact. . . . It’s all internal to the system. A listener, they either like a program or they don’t like a program.”

Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org
  • Aaron Read

    I worked for a show that self-distributed to over 200 stations via the PRSS. We didn’t charge carriage fees for two reasons: one was that we got more in grants than we would’ve in carriage fees, and grant-givers wanted to see impact. So it behooved us not to charge. But the second reason was just logistics. It was a ton of work managing those affiliates even when they weren’t paying. I can’t imagine trying to invoice them all and cut off stations that didn’t pay. It’d be a nightmare.

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