Originally published in Current, April 3, 2006
By Steve Behrens
Over and over, in 18 years in public radio, Sue Schardt had heard variations on the same conversation between a program buyer and an independent producer.
“The acquirer would say, ‘We have this new project. We want creativity, new voices. We want independents.’ The independents would say, ‘What are you paying?’
“The acquirers would say, ‘We’re not paying much or not at all, but we’ll get you onto 150 stations.’ And the producers would say, ‘Are you out of your mind?’”
“The guy on one side has no idea what’s driving the other.”
Though indies bring pubradio many of its awards and driveway moments, there’s a yawning cultural chasm between some of them and system insiders.
With her report “Mapping Public Radio’s Independent Landscape,” Schardt wants to help the two sides become acquainted. She has widely distributed the study and put it on her website (schardtmedia.org), along with underlying surveys by consultants George Bailey, Craig Oliver and Steve Martin. CPB was the primary funder.
Schardt — a Boston consultant who has worked for years at a news shop (the late Monitor Radio) and then as an indie, program marketer and free-form deejay — says many indies and program buyers don’t understand the others’ motivations or their language.
Based on 345 surveys and 70 interviews with indies and program acquirers, the study finds that buyers seldom know, for example, that many of the indies counted on freelance fees to pay for groceries and rent. Half of indies surveyed were trying to make a living as freelancers, though a third of those say they have no net income from it. Four-fifths had part-time or full-time jobs, including many at pubradio stations.
Though Schardt decided not to focus on pay rates, a 2004 survey for the project found that indies were earning an average of $235 for a commentary and $796 for a news or feature story.
Facing program buyers across the table, indies often assume stations have the money to pay more than they do. But the acquirers are caught between funders who expect pubradio to operate on the cheap and indies who expect a living wage, as one program decision-maker told the researchers. To each group, the other is sadly “out of touch.”
They’re farthest apart on whether audience research has helped improve public radio, surveys found. As system veterans would expect, indies are more likely than pubradio programmers to think public radio has lost its creativity and the drive to serve its mission.
Where many agree is that indie work does belong on pubradio. In surveys, 81 percent of indies and 55 percent of acquirers say indie work is more innovative than staff producers'.
But that doesn’t move stations to fill the air with indie work. Schardt sees a gap between what acquirers say and what they choose to buy. Of all the individual pieces aired in a sample of stations’ schedules, just 2 percent of the broadcast hours were made by indies.
That’s the independents’ share of the total 2,646 hours of broadcast programming aired on 21 random stations in a sample of seven days. But by that count, it’s not surprising that the typically short, labor-intensive pieces indies sell to national networks are far outnumbered by the many hours of non-indie needle-drop music and talk shows, each airing on just one station.
An additional 3 percent of broadcast hours went to entire programs that were independently produced, but Schardt focused the study on individual producers who do shorter work. Indie programs such as Living on Earth tend to be made by staffed nonprofits.
Those views about pubradio are only averages, of course. Schardt and colleagues found wide variation among indies, defined as freelance individuals who made programs for pubradio during the year and raised the money themselves.
The takeaway is that indies are not entirely homogenous. Bailey found three clusters of indies based on their views:
Some indies want to make what stations seldom air. Schardt observes that “the culture of sound” among indies who love audio artistry is running up against pubradio’s ascendant news culture.
“Producers tend to think their craft isn’t appreciated at the networks, and that isn’t necessarily the case,” NPR programmer Margaret Low Smith told the researchers. “But they would do well to have a better sense of shows’ priorities rather than wishing the appetites and needs were different.”
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