Celeste Headlee: What it Took to Crowdsource the Middle Ground Launch

Celeste HeadleeCrowdfunding is a blazing topic in public media at the moment. Here, we catch Celeste Headlee for a guest post on her recent successful Indiegogo campaign for a new heartland-focused show, and the reasons behind her decision to strike out as an independent producer:

Last Wednesday at about 1:00 in the morning, my team and I met our $20,000 crowdfunding goal on Indiegogo and we’ve now launched a brand new public radio show called “Middle Ground.” I’m now the host of an independent production after working for 15 years at the networks (PRI, NPR, the BBC) and local stations (WDET, KNAU, WNYC). I’ve learned an incredible amount from the crowdsourcing process. It’s been a growth experience and I hope I never have to do it again.

Middle Ground Kickstarter Video from Middle Ground on Vimeo.

We originally launched our campaign on Kickstarter but fell short of the goal and so—after 6 weeks of intensive work, heroic effort and long hours—we walked away with nothing. That’s the core problem with the Kickstarter model; the success rate is only about 40% and most of those succeeding are pedalling video games or electronic gadgets. (Editor’s note: Kickstarter rang in with a correction—the most successful projects on Kickstarter come from the theater and dance communities.)

It’s great to create a platform that allows creators direct access to possible funders and eliminates the need for a middle man. In a situation like mine—launching a new, nationally syndicated program—there are typically layers of executives and focus groups and required approval from multiple departments. Crowdfunding should allow producers to avoid all of those layers, but the difficulty of raising the money is so intense that you can’t succeed without bringing them in to help anyway. Meeting your goal without the help of trained marketers and fundraisers is quite difficult. 

Crowdfunding is a full-time job. Expect to spend 6-8 hours on it every day. You can’t just hit “launch” and walk away while the money rolls in. In most cases, it’s a mistake to launch your campaign unless you have some high-dollar donors lined up to kick in.

Still, I’m glad that we stuck with it until we were successful. We had to lower our goal significantly and agree to slash salaries until the show is off the ground, but we now have a small chunk of cash and complete autonomy in how we move forward. The first few months of a show are often the most creative: producers are trying out new things, we’re discovering new voices and reporters, the editorial meetings are punctuated by the phrase, “How about this…”.  

Middle Ground team

Having this time to experiment and tinker and take bold risks without answering to a VP or CEO is invaluable, and that’s what crowdfunding has allowed us to do.

Crowdfunding forces you to be transparent, in a way, because you have a responsibility to the hundreds of people who gave expecting nothing in return. And in our case, I will send notes to our backers telling them, “Your gift of $150 paid for this dispatch from rural South Dakota,” and “Your pledge of $250 paid two reporters—one in Cleveland and one in Missouri.” 

Crowdfunding is one step in a long process and not a panacea for all that ails you. Unless you are lucky enough to raise significant amounts of money (like the 99% Invisible podcast), what you raise is only launch money. It gets you started and then you have to make it sustainable on your own. That means forging those relationships with local stations, finding sponsors and getting 501c3 status if you expect to apply for grants.

If it sounds like I’m trying to scare you, I am. We did weeks of research and still went into the process unprepared for how labor-intensive it is and how difficult it is to convince people to give when they’re not getting a tangible reward. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it. Just know that it’s harder than you think it is.

The bottom line? Crowdsourcing may not be a great place to raise money for independent radio yet. But if you can make it work, it’s worth the heartache.

Want to contribute to Middle Ground? Find the show on AIR’s pitch page.