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From AIR’s Archive: Build That Buzz!

Editor’s note: “From AIR’s Archive” brings forward long-buried profiles and advice about audiocraft that we’ve collected over the years. 

This week’s From the Archive comes from Learn from Legends mentor Dmae Roberts of MediaRites and Dmae Roberts Productions, LLC, who has been independently marketing and distributing her documentaries for 25 years and shares her experience. Her article offers answers to the question: Just how do you get to those ears you’re sure are eagerly awaiting your gem?


by Dmae Roberts

The first series I produced and distributed in the late ’80s was a series of 10 three-minute audio cartoons called True Heart Radio Funnies. Getting the word out proved a challenge with a limited budget (roughly $6,000) for the series. I mailed out postcards and cassette tapes. Then, I personally called as many stations as I could afford (no such thing as unlimited long distance back then!). In the end, the series aired on some 100 stations. In the early ’90s, I started applying for CPB grants for a 13-part series of half-hour multicultural personal stories, Legacies: Tales from America. I thought about collaborating with a station until they told me to earmark 25 percent of my total budget for marketing. Not wanting to devote that much of my hard-earned grant money, I ended the station collaboration and applied independently.

After I got the CPB grant, I got a call from NPR who ended up marketing and distributing the series for free. They provided satellite time as well as postcards and ads in Current. NPR also paid my registration fee to the Public Radio Conference to promote the project and even designed and printed postcards to stuff into conference tote bags. A pretty sweet deal and I was grateful to NPR for all this support.

Now, one would think the station carriage would be incredible, right? But NPR didn’t make station calls. This being my first major project, I was naive enough to think that it was unnecessary. At the same time, NPR also produced and aired their own series, Wade in the Water, featuring the a cappella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock who gave a moving concert at the PRC. Needless to say, Wade in the Water blew my little indie documentary series right out of the water. In the end, fewer than a hundred stations carried the series. That was disappointing after investing two years and $150,000 in the production.

Ten years later, I got another CPB grant to do a major series, this time to create Crossing East, an eight-hour Asian-American history series. The project budget was close to $400,000. I hired about 50 people. There were two full-time staff positions (including me), plus independent contractors like managing editor Catherine Stifter, engineer Clark Salisbury, a marketing designer, dozens of producers (many from AIR), musicians, actors, and a team of scholars.

Around 10 percent of the total budget was spent on marketing and promotion. It’s hard to say exactly because much of the work was in-house with staff and independent contractors doing multiple jobs. Public Radio International (PRI) made substantial in-kind contributions, paying for ContentDepot fees and e-mail/website promotions. Steve Rathe and Murray Street Productions provided valuable marketing ideas for the PRPD. Kathy Gronau and Creative PR made crucial telemarketing calls and sent well-designed e-mails to stations. Crossing East aired in 2006 on more than 230 stations.

For this three-year project, I incorporated what I’d learned through marketing several single-hour documentaries after the Legacies series. Whether you’re distributing a single hour, a series of modules, or whole hours via the satellite system, online or through PRI/NPR networks, there are some essentials that will help you get the best station carriage possible.

Here are seven things you really need to market and distribute your program:


1. 
A plan with a deadline at least three months in advance of project launch. The earlier the better. It’s never too early to start promoting your project and to build an audience.

2. Website. It’s amazing to me that a project would ever be funded without a website. I recommend starting a website as soon as you get funded, if not before. Sites are a great way for a potential funder to view your project idea as well as your track record and credentials. The site should be visually appealing with condensed targeted text and technically easy to navigate with an obvious “station page” including clips and downloadable graphics.

Example: Steve Rowland and I have partnered to work on his Shakespeare Is radio series. I’ve helped develop ShakespeareIs.com. We’ve been creating audio clips, slideshows, and YouTube/Vimeo movies to provide “On Demand” content to potential funders, listeners, and stations that might air the series.

3. Marketing Consultant. Most indies do a good portion of the marketing by themselves, whether it’s approving a postcard design, a logo, graphic material, online listings, or more. A portion of your budget should go toward a sharp and hardworking marketing consultant who will makes phone calls on your behalf and has an up-to-date station list of program directors and station managers.

Station calls remain the single most effective way to get program directors to notice your show. A majority of PDs don’t really like indies calling them, though individually written, personal e-mails might not be as intrusive. For me, it’s better to hire a marketer who has a good relationship providing programs to numerous stations.

The main thing I look for in a marketing person is someone who cares about the project and is tech savvy. A marketer must have good relationships with station gatekeepers and keep an up-to-date e-mail/ mailing list. Most important, a marketer needs to follow up.

I look for people who understand that indies work on a tight shoestring and are really giving a greater portion of their hard-earned grant money to get the word out.

4. MP3s OR Targeted CD mailers to the top 50–100 stations or select group of contacts that would be interested in your programming. I know it may sound outdated, but a good amount of station gatekeepers still prefer being able to pop a CD into their car on the commute home.

It’s also crucial to have a website with audio clips and sample program that can be streamed and downloaded. Offer an option of a CD that can be mailed to them or an MP3 they can download onto their iPod or phone.

The CD as well as the online audio should have a sampler and a finished sample program. Stations need to know if the program is formatted to the NPR clock with five-minute news breaks and music transitions. A good many stations such as KUOW won’t run anything without those breaks.

Bottom line: Most stations want to hear the whole show at least three months in advance before they’ll agree to put it on their schedules.

5. Promotion Plan. Promotion can start as soon as production starts. Create an eye-catching graphic for your project you can use in all your materials such as postcards, CD mailers, and ads. These need to be sent out in the months before airdate. Constant attention to marketing and distribution while the project is being created will help garner station carriage.

Example: During three years of producing Crossing East, I started a mailing list with Asian-American organizations throughout the country. I gathered a group of scholars for a meeting early on to talk about the program ideas as well as a way for them to spread the word. I also connected with ethnic papers to alert their readers who then requested the program from their public radio stations. Crossing East also developed three flash movies that we could take to public outreach events with communities in six major cities on the West Coast to help promote the series.

We set up a booth at the PRPD (Public Radio Program Directors) annual meeting and broke ground by offering to hire a Lion Dance team in St. Louis to start off one of their sessions. Our marketing designer drew personalized Chinese brush paintings for anyone who came to our booth.

I followed the same strategy for the single-hour Coming Home: The Return of the Alutiiq Masks I produced with Koahnic Broadcasting and KNBA in Alaska. At the PRPD, we gave away home-canned Alaskan salmon made by an Alaska Native high school. That was a big draw to our booth as well as a mask maker who created individualized masks for anyone who dropped by.

6. Social networking is also important to friends and grassroots communities as well as growing an e-mail list of supporters to lobby for your project to their pub radio stations. Before I air a program, I build a Facebook page and try to amass good numbers of followers to virally help publicize the project. I do the same with Twitter. For a larger project than a single documentary, I recommend starting a Twitter account and a Facebook page. You need to update at least daily if possible with newsy items about your project or closely related topics.

I also recommend producing short slide shows with audio clips and YouTube movies on your own channel to draw traffic to your site and project. I often wonder how many more stations Crossing East might have added had social networking and YouTube been around at the time.

7. Distribution sites such as PRX may help carriage a great deal, especially when they showcase your program on the home page and in e-mail updates. Peer reviews also help with promotion. Asking several colleagues or reviewers (respectfully) to take the time to write a review may draw attention to your program.

Crossing East was distributed by PRI through ContentDepot and was also available via PRX. Stations particularly liked being able to preview and download the program directly from PRX, which we offered free.Indies may use free distribution sites so abundant right now and/or podcast, which is easier than ever. Many are music sites such as Blip.fm or Reverbnation, which can be used to distribute modules or sample segments. I’ve used the latter as an audio application on Facebook. Odeo, Radio4All, AudioPort, and Podpress have been used by producers to podcast longer shows. Many folks distribute on archive.org and a Google search for Creative Commons sites reveals pages of free sites. I think those may be helpful in reaching out to a broader than public radio audience, and younger producers may not worry about keeping control or copyright of their work. For me, it’s a debate since I’ve made a small amount of revenue from CD sales and downloads. Steve Rowland has created a website called ArtistOwned.com that makes downloads available for sale. It’s a promising site he’s created to allow content producers to sell directly to the public and get 75 percent of royalties.

It’s all about building that buzz.

There is so much more I can say about marketing and indie distribution. These are a few ideas that can be adapted to fit your own project. While indies face fierce competition for precious airtime, producers can call attention to their programs to increase carriage and make sure their work is heard.

For the “Shakespeare Is” project, which will be completed next year, we’ve begun a Facebook page (with nearly 200 fans after one month!) and a Twitter account (@ShakespeareIs) to help build a buzz early on. Through this we’ve been building national and international contacts. That may help us develop of potential audience members as well as help secure funding for an educational component and eventual TV version.

On the local level, I’ve started a fundraising project through United States Artists to develop my Stage and Studio arts program at KBOO radio into a regional arts show to air on several stations. I’ve created a dedicated website, the first after 14 years of volunteering to do the show. So far, I’ve marketed it locally using social media, but if I receive funding, I hope to put some of what I’ve learned working nationally into action!