From the Archive: How to Fund a Radio Documentary

Editor’s note: “From AIR’s Archive” brings forward long-buried profiles and advice about audiocraft that we’ve collected over the years. Robin White, the founder of Radio College, championed entrepreneurship before it was a popular term in public media, and wrote several pieces about how independent journalists could make a living wage (or better). For more about funding projects in 2014, check out our Media Fellowship and Grants wiki, the Media Impact Funders’ grants database (search for funders, not grants awarded),, and our archived webinar about creating a successful crowdfunding campaign with Lea Thau (“Strangers,” “The Moth”) and Kickstarter’s Stephanie Pereira. 

This column has been edited since its first publication in 2001.

by Robin White

In an earlier article, “How to Make $60K Freelancing in Public Radio,” I outlined a strategy for selling radio pieces multiple times.

… There are a number of freelancers in public radio who have the organizational sense and the willingness to put in long hours selling short pieces to national shows or to make a decent career by doing radio pieces and selling spin-offs to magazines.

The shortfall with multiple selling is not that it’s difficult (it is) but that the freelancer is always limited in the degree of creativity and quality that it’s possible to generate when constantly on deadline.

He or she is usually restricted to short stories and a fairly superficial treatment of any subject. And the only way to make a go of freelancing is by doing strictly conventional radio journalism: personal essays and one-of-a-kind sound pieces don’t have the same potential for multiple sales.

… But for those who come to the medium with the passion of artists, who yearn to do longer, more creative projects, to work in depth, or to spend more time, another way forward is to think about working on independent radio documentaries.

There’s no easy formula as to how to support oneself making long pieces. (Note that this article is not entitled “How to Make $60K Making Radio Documentaries.”)

There are a very small number of producers around the United States who do succeed working in the long documentary form. Each has a different approach and in this article I will try to synthesize some of these approaches.


How Much Do You Need?

A discussion on the AIRdaily ListServ in 2001 focused around the question “how much does it cost to produce and distribute an hour of radio documentary?”

One person suggested that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has a rule of thumb gauge of $30,000 per hour. That figure is actually the lower end of the CPB’s scale, which, according to the CPB’s Jeff Ramirez, runs as high as $50,000 per hour as of the time of writing.

However, even the low figure provoked some surprise among the list denizens. Judith Kampfner pointed out that she was happy making $4,000 to put together a 30-minute documentary for “Soundprint” and thought that others must live in a rarified world to be able to command budgets of $30,000 per hour.

On the other hand, Gregg McVicar wrote “Some really exciting and unexpected good things can happen when you start working with bigger budgets. You can pay talented people what they’re worth and have access to sharp tools. … Sometimes low-budget projects hit big and massive projects tank — and we’ve all done projects for cheap or free and for good reasons.”

There are some crucial differences between putting together a half-hour for “Soundprint” and putting together an hourlong independent project and distributing it yourself.

With “Soundprint” you simply work as a producer, but when you are putting together your own project you have to hire your own editor, engineer, and marketing person.

You have to pay yourself.

You might have to pay for translators, rights, archival sound, travel.

You might need to build relationships with radio stations, or maintain them by going to conferences and by spending time on the telephone.

Before very long, that $30,000 can start to look like a low figure. One national producer whose work involves much international travel told me that some of his projects might go as high as $75,000 per hour. For production companies, that figure can reach as high as $100,000 per hour.


Side Note about Budgets

Whatever the final budget, it should be grounded in a projection of actual costs rather than a figure pulled out of the air.

The key is to break things down into small bits, estimate the cost of those small bits based on actual costs, and then build that back up into a budget.

It’s useful when writing grants to get into a lot of detail (at least for your own calculations) as to who is going to be doing what, how long it is going to take and how much it is going to pay. Funders don’t look kindly on padded figures and they are easy to recognize.

In addition, if you work out a lot of the details as you make the grant application, you are starting to draw up the plan of the project and you help yourself later. …

At the same time, producer Joe Richman adds that, “while you should not pad the budget, you also shouldn’t skimp. Don’t try to make it look like a bargain; it’s much more important for the budget to be realistic and detailed.”

It’s worth noting here that the actual length of the finished project won’t necessarily reflect the amount of time and energy that goes into making it.

Documentary producer Barbara Bernstein said that it costs her essentially the same amount of money, or not too much more, to put together two hourlong specials on the same subject, as it does to put together one. Another producer agreed, saying, “It does cost almost the same whether it’s 15, 30 or 60 minutes. The time spent gathering the sounds is the same.”


Where Will the Money Come From:

• National Funding

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is the largest funder of radio documentary series in the United States.

… Under the CPB’s Rick Madden, and informed by market research, the agency has evolved a pattern of funding material that can either be slotted into — or can be excerpted for — existing magazine shows on public radio. Producers should bear this in mind in constructing applications for the CPB.

The agency wants the work that it funds to reach the largest audience it can. Madden’s strategy has led to a strengthening of public radio’s magazine shows and some productive alliances between independent producers and show managers. …

As a point of reference, it’s worth nothing that the CPB has a very different funding pattern than its predecessor, the Satellite Program Development Fund or SPDF, which stopped funding in the mid-1980s. The amounts of money given by the SPDF were smaller than those given by CPB, but the number of projects funded was greater and the funding wasn’t tied to distribution in the magazine shows.

“Most people got a little bit of money,” said producer Ginger Miles, who remembers the days of the SPDF with fondness. The consolidation of funding, according to Miles, has led to a lessening of experimentation with form and content. Not all producers agree about the good old days of the SPDF, however. One well-known producer remembers being turned down for a grant because he was already “too successful.”

… The National Endowment for the Arts is another national funder that has a clearer track record of giving funding for individual documentary programs, although NEA media specialist Mary Smith stresses that it’s occasional and that the NEA does not fund individual artists (the CPB does), only production companies or fiscal agents that might commission work by individual producers. The NEA typically doesn’t give amounts large enough to fund even small projects outright. However, in the absence of full funding from any source, the best strategy for producers is to put together packages of funding. In this context, in combination with other sources funding, NEA could become a key component of your package, if you fit its funding guidelines.

The National Endowment for the Humanities’ Karen Miles said that the NEH, in principle, will consider any reasonable funding request.

However, Miles stressed that individual programs are sometimes difficult to place at radio stations. Since the NEH wants to see work that it funds get aired, Miles said that the NEH would be much more likely to fund a single documentary program produced by an experienced producer with a track record of distribution.

However Miles points newcomers towards the NEH’s consultation grants. These are relatively small grants (up to $10,000) with a relatively quick application process (two to three months) designed to allow producers a little time for themselves to plan projects and to consult with humanities scholars before projects are very far along.

All humanities-funded projects, whether national or state funded, require consultation and involvement of scholars.


• State Humanities and Arts Councils

Some independent producers are finding it easiest to start raising money locally — through small private foundations, humanities councils or arts councils.

Often a region will have small family funds that set aside some money to support artists in the local community, or to support media about a local area.

My own experience in California has been that the state humanities council is a good place to start. Humanities councils (which ultimately get funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities) are in the business of telling the story of their state and, as Ginger Miles, points out, “they need us,” because, as radio producers, we know how to reach the public with stories.

Documentary producer Barbara Bernstein has made a success out of putting together coalitions of humanities funding. Bernstein’s documentaries “The Malling of America” (distributed as part of David Barsamian’s Alternative Radio) and  “Rivers That Were” are about issues which span several different western states. While individual grants from state humanities councils are not enough to cover the cost of a documentary (typically $10,000 or less) several of these grants put together can bring a project up to full funding. Bernstein also got some funding from her home city of Portland.

Producer David Kunian has funded several documentaries on New Orleans musicians and an upcoming piece on a poet in the same way, drawing on the humanities council and the state-funded Louisiana Division of the Arts.

While the amounts of money from Arts and Humanities Councils are relatively low, they are much more readily available than other kinds of money. In the last couple of years, both the California Council for the Humanities, and the New York State Arts Council have both reported being short of applicants for radio funding.


• Social Funds

There are a few national funds that will give money for radio projects with a social agenda. There are thousands of private funds, large and small, with many different kinds of social agenda.

The best place to start looking is The Foundation Center.


• “Special” Funding

In some cases “special” funding can be used for documentaries. Two examples are Gregg McVicar’s “Privacy Project” and “Hell’s Bells: A History of the Telephone.”

McVicar was able to make these projects as a result of a class-action lawsuit against the California telephone company, Pacific Bell.

The company was fined for overly aggressive marketing of phone services to non-English speaking immigrants. The $25 million fine was used to set up an education fund, and McVicar successfully applied. In this case his projects were multi-part documentary series, but there is no reason why smaller projects couldn’t be funded in this same way.

In 1993 I funded a small series of radio modules on alternative forms of transportation from a fund set up after the local air pollution control district fined Pacific Gas and Electric for excessive power plant emissions. The $2 million fund went to projects, like mine, attempt to reduce emissions.

McVicar’s advice is to find a way to tap into the esoteric world of class action lawsuits, which often result in the setting up of educational funds.


• Individual Donations

While grants may seem the easiest way to get big chunks of money, they are not the only means of raising the cash you need to fund your project. Many small independent filmmakers rely in part on fundraising to individuals. Only a couple of independent radio producers in the U.S. have pursued this avenue, but it may be ripe for exploration since by far the largest volume of charitable giving (64 percent) comes from individual donors.

Dave Isay is probably the documentary producer who has developed this funding source more than others. Isay warns that it’s very expensive to do direct mailing. His company, Sound Portraits, mails once a year to a list of 5,000 people and Isay says the return barely covers the expenditure.

However, Isay says that the mailing keeps him in contact with a community of people who support his work and can yield unexpected benefits in the form of surprise gifts from small foundations that need to capital before the end of the year. …

I have seen individual fundraising work well for documentaries covering a person or an issue that is perhaps neglected in the media but is precious to a particular, well-organized community.

I found a ready constituency for a documentary I did about the life of James Broughton, an obscure filmmaker and poet who had a cult following among a group of gay men.

Isay confirms this pattern. He is working on a Yiddish radio project and has been successful in approaching wealthy donors who have an interest in supporting Jewish culture.

People want to help get the word out. The trick is to gain access to members of that constituency. Start by talking to organizations that serve the community. For a radio project in keeping with their goals, organizations may be willing to share their mailing lists on a one-time basis.

Bear in mind that raising money from individuals can be extremely time-consuming. It’s necessary to stay in touch with a lot of people and to “do the ask” many, many times. However, it can be a way of raising a few thousand dollars to get a project off the ground.

It also helps demonstrate to grantors that you have an audience and it builds a community of support around you as an individual producer. At the very least, get out your address book and ask your friends to help out. They probably subscribe to their public radio stations — why shouldn’t they subscribe to you?


• Corporate Underwriting

Another new possibility for documentary funding is to look for corporate underwriting.

There are few independent producers who have explored this avenue, although it is well-developed at the show level and is, of course, a staple of radio stations and public television projects.

My own experience has been limited. I received a grant of clothing and equipment from The North Face as a contribution for my recent documentary project “Giving Back the Owens.” The North Face has a well-established tradition of giving equipment to worthwhile outdoor projects. My documentary, an environmental story that involved a hike along the Owens River in the desert of eastern California, fit the progressive, outdoor image the company wanted to project.



The reality of radio documentary funding is not exactly easy, but there are creative ways that make it possible to continue to produce small radio documentaries.

I’d like to issue a challenge to producers to be as creative in your fundraising as you are with your projects, and always to share what you learn with others — as the people here have done, so generously.


This article was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.