Ford, Knight, MacArthur Reflect on the Role of Independent Producers in the Current Media Environment

This post by Amanda Hirsch was originally published in the January 2011 edition of AIRBlast, the newsletter of the Association of Independents in Radio, Inc. Grantmaking information about the three foundations featured in this story appears at the end of this post.

What’s the forecast for independent media makers in 2011? Amid an ever-shifting media landscape, what are the key obstacles that makers should be aware of — and what are the opportunities? I posed these questions to decIsion makers at three foundations. All three individuals are invested in the success of public media, and their positions allow them to observe multiple dimensions of producers’ work, from funding strategies to project execution and public response.  I spoke to: bagwell, bracken, revere

Let’s start with the good news. It’s easier than ever for independent producers to get their work in front of audiences, says Revere, thanks mostly to the Internet, where producers can bypass traditional gatekeepers to distribution. In turn, audiences can discover independent content more easily than ever before, thanks to search engines, social networks, and the almighty link.

Bagwell — both a grant maker and a veteran independent filmmaker — shares Revere’s enthusiasm about the opportunities that the Internet has opened up for independent artists. In particular, he emphasizes the power of the Internet to connect artists with new audiences — attracting fans from communities they might never have thought would take interest in their work. Because of the Web’s ability to reveal unanticipated sources of support for independent content, Bagwell suggests that producers share their work online as early in the production process as possible, using the Web as a kind of focus group that can help inform distribution and marketing strategies later on.

But the Web isn’t the only medium that shows promise. Revere remains a big believer in the enduring power of radio. “I think that the growing popularity of radio is a wonderful opportunity for producers,” she says, observing that “in the last few years, the creativity of audio form has really blossomed, and there’s no sign of it slowing down.” She points to the success of This American Life, crediting its popularity with creating audiences for creative programs such as The Moth, StoryCorps, America Abroad Media, and Radio Diaries. In addition, she notes that AIR’s Makers Quest (MQ2) has “made a major contribution to creative multimedia projects.” Further, Revere praises Public Radio Exchange (PRX) for making “a much wider set of audio programming available to audiences,” and, in turn, connecting audiences with a broader set of radio producers. Finally, both she and Bracken see the growing popularity of radio programs and podcasts on mobile devices, especially among commuters, as a sign of continued audience interest in audio content.

Bagwell sees another creative opportunity for radio producers, one he feels is largely untapped: the classroom. More and more teachers are recognizing audio as a powerful entrée to teaching social issues, he says; for example, he’s heard from a number of teachers who consider This American Life a valuable educational resource. The power of audio in the classroom isn’t just about the content itself, he explains — it’s about the power of the listening experience: “Students can close their eyes and imagine.”

So, are we living in the Age of the Independent Producer? New distribution and marketing opportunities … new audiences … a rebirth in radio — things sound pretty rosy. Except …

Show Me the Money

“The Internet provides an opportunity for everyone to be a producer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all those activities will have financial support,” says Bracken. He notes that even the most critically acclaimed, popular podcasts don’t necessarily earn a dime. “Even the most successful podcasters on PRX … if you just live off PRX money, you can’t pay rent.”

Bagwell is more optimistic about opportunities for revenue generation. He reports, for example, that the filmmakers at Skylight Pictures have made their two most recent films widely available for free (online and through other channels) — and earned more revenue than ever before. According to Skylight’s Paco de Onis, “Having the film available for free is kind of like an advertisement.” By giving away The Reckoning, for example, their film about the International Criminal Court, Skylight sold more DVDs than they had for any previous film, including numerous sales to law schools worldwide. [Editor’s note: At the time of publication, the Ford Foundation announced a new $50 million initiative — JustFilms — headed up by Bagwell. The funding covers a five-year span to support partnerships with organizations like Sundance and ITVS, with the lion’s share to go to filmmakers working on documentaries “defined broadly, including online-only efforts, that are focused on social issues.”]

Bagwell says he has other case studies showing the same results. And in fact, the theory that giving away content leads to revenue is the central argument of Free!, the 2008 book by Chris Anderson (you can find a summary of the book’s ideas in this Wired article). Anderson, who also wrote The Long Tail, posits:

“Once a marketing gimmick, free has emerged as a full-fledged economy. Offering free music proved successful for Radiohead, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and a swarm of other bands on MySpace that grasped the audience-building merits of zero. The fastest-growing parts of the gaming industry are ad-supported casual games online and free-to-try massively multiplayer online games. Virtually everything Google does is free to consumers, from Gmail to Picasa to GOOG-411.”

Still, while giving content away may generate revenue in some circumstances for musicians, filmmakers, and gamers, there’s no evidence that this strategy is universally effective; and it’s certainly not clear whether this revenue model would be effective for independent radio producers. Plus, as Bracken notes, many popular podcasters don’t earn a dime for their work — a reminder that audience alone does not equal revenue.

So, what funding models should radio producers pursue? Revere observes that many producers still rely heavily on foundation funding, “which is fine,” she says, “that’s why we’re in business,” but cautions that reliance on grants is not a sustainable business model. She is heartened to see producers experimenting with new approaches to getting their work funded and produced, from crowd-funding to collaboration with new entities like ProPublica, and is ultimately optimistic that such active experimentation will yield new funding models.

Bracken sees things differently. To him, shrinking public media resources mean that radio producers may need to go elsewhere to earn a living — to advertising and public relations firms, for example, that value audio production skills, or to other media enterprises, like ProPublica. He notes the career path of Curtis Fox, who started in public radio and now produces podcasts for The New Yorker and the Poetry Foundation — using skills he honed in public media in a new context.


With much in flux for independent producers, one thing remains the same, and that is their talent. “So much of the talent pool and creativity in public radio is coming from the independent space,” says Bracken, and Bagwell and Revere share similar sentiments, emphasizing independents’ storytelling prowess.

But with audiences seeking content on ever-multiplying platforms, the challenge, says Revere, is for producers to learn “the craft of producing appropriately for different kinds of media.” She supports the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) Producers Institute goal of helping independent producers learn to tell their stories in at least one other format, beyond their native medium.

Similarly, Bracken encourages radio producers to experiment with video and content for mobile phones, two areas of growth. He also sees opportunities for more mash-ups (my term, not his) between independent voices and the most established public radio programs; think Planet Money, which successfully blended the quirky voice of This American Life with an in-depth news report.

Listening to these funders talk, I came to believe that the best thing an independent producer can do is embrace this moment in media history as a “period of great experimentation,” as Revere characterized it. It’s a time of creative discovery and invention, when someone with passion and imagination can create entirely new ways of telling stories that improve people’s lives. At the same time, business models are in flux, and there are no clear answers on the horizon — but worrying will not change that. Instead, now’s the time to experiment, learn, and experiment again.

As a former boss of mine use to say, “If you don’t like change, it’s a bad time to be alive.” My advice to you: Embrace the change.

Amanda Hirsch is a storyteller who knows how to connect with audiences online and in person. The former editorial director of, she has more than 10 years of experience in digital storytelling, and is also an actress and writer. Amanda lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she blogs at and spends way too much time on Twitter at @amanda_hirsch.


A Quick Look at 2010 Funding Portraits
Ford Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation

The Ford Foundation
New York, NY

Financial Information
•    2010 Grant-Making – $16.9M for Advancing Public Service Media
•    Total Assets (as of 9/30/09) – $10.2Bil.
•    Ford has made 80 grants in 2010, ranging from $50K to $750K, average grant size of $211K.

Through its “Advancing Public Service Media” initiative, Ford is pursuing a strategy of developing “a vibrant public interest media that engages and informs citizens worldwide on critical issues”. Its grantmaking supports –
•    The creation of a pipeline of high-quality content, representing diverse and independent perspectives
•    To strengthen technology and distribution systems that allow people to access and contribute to this material
•    Boosting public discussion and research about the ways in which media can better engage and inform all citizens

2010 Public Media grants
•    International Women’s Media Foundation — $100K for grants and training to advance women journalists
•    Unity: Journalists of Color, Inc. — $100K for a training bootcamp and strategic mentorships
•    Public Radio Exchange — $300K to develop a new online and on-air channel
•    Atlantic Public Media, Inc. — $50K for the Web site
•    National Black Programming Consortium — $100K (1 yr) for roll out and first phase of the Public Media Corps
•    Bay Area Video Coalition, Inc. — $275K


John S. and James L. Knight Foundation 
Miami, FL

Financial Information
•    2009 Grant-Making: $101.7M
•    Total Assets (as of 12/31/09) – $2.079 Bil.
•    For the year ended December 2009, Knight made a total of 276 grants for $141M, a portion of which was allocated as follows:
o    Journalism – $15.3M
o    National – $5.7M
o    Strategic Initiatives – $3.8M

2010 Grant-Making Review
•    PRX Inc. — $75K to create StoryMarket, a crowd-funding platform for public radio,
•    Minnesota Public Radio — $2.95M to expand Public Insight Journalism
•    Institute for Interactive Journalism (J-Lab) — $1M to launch the New Voices program
•    Harvard University — $160K to support the management and coordination of “social media” tools

The MacArthur Foundation
Chicago, IL

Financial Information
•    2009 Grant-Making – $298.5M
•    Total Assets (as of 12/31/09) – $5.2 Bil.
The annual budget for MacArthur’s Media Program is approximately $8.5M. The grants range in size from $43K to $1.5M. The grants are from one-year to over three-year periods.

2010 Grant-Making Review
•    Association of Independents in Radio –?$250K (2 yrs) to support program development for radio + digital platforms
•    Bay Area Video Coalition –?$900K (3 yrs) to support the Producers Institute for New Media Technologies
•    ITVS –?$1.5M (3 yrs) to support the Global Perspectives Project,
•    Public Radio Exchange — $900K to support of general operations (over three years).
•    WBEZ Alliance –?$300K (3 yrs) to support the Third Coast International Audio Festival

Source: Foundation Center