Public Radio: It takes at village (or at least a crowd)


The Band 'Public Radio' in concert

O.K. everyone knows that listener donations play a huge part of public radio’s ability to remain vital, vibrant, and on-the-air (think pledge drive).  But did you know there are now internet “end-user” donation platforms that may change the way that individuals – journalists, artists, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, designers, and authors – get their work funded and out into the world?  It’s known as “crowdfunding” and — yes — there’s even a band called “Public Radio” (above) that’s poised to capitalize on this growing DIY trend.

Maybe you’ve heard some of the buzz by now. has covered this phenomenon in earlier posts. By pitching their projects on websites like “IndieGoGo” and “Kickstarter,” independent makers are finding that they can successfully finance their work without the help of foundations, government grants, traditional media institutions, venture capital investors, or selling a kidney. Too good to be true? Here’s how it works. You decide.

Let’s look at Kickstarter.  Founded in April of 2009, it’s reputedly the”largest platform for creative projects in the world” (at least according to their website).  On this site, independent makers submit a video presentation in which they use direct-to-camera appeals, music, photographs, personal back-stories, film clips, animation, product demonstrations or anything they can think of to convey a sense of the work-in-progress and spark a prospective donor’s interest. Some of the presentations are thought provoking, some clever, some openhearted, some exhilarating, some technically dazzling, and others — not so much. 

Beyond the content, what’s interesting at Kickstarter is the way the funding model is designed. Their idea is that this is a new model of commerce and patronage.   If you’re on the site and see a project that excites or interests you, support it. For as little as a $5-$10 pledge in many cases you can receive a copy of the finished work. When you click on a project’s Kickstarter page you’re immediately greeted by three boldfaced numbers: the project’s number of backers, how much of its funding goal has been met, and how many days are left on its funding deadline. Each maker gets up to 90 days to reach or surpass its funding target.  If a project fails to meet its deadline it forfeits all pledged funds and no money changes hands.  In other words, it’s all or nothing.  “It’s better to aim low,” advises DIY film distribution consultant Peter Broderick. “And having a deadline is a good thing. People want to help you reach your goal.”

While it may be best for you to aim low, Kickstarter itself may be headed for the big time.  At the end of 2010 Kickstarter reported a fourfold increase in the number of projects submitted its inaugural year. In all there were 3,910 successfully funded projects, 386,373 total pledges,  $27,638,318 in total pledges, and more than 8 million site visitors. Just last week, Kickstarter announced a new partnership with the prestigious Sundance Institute.


2010 also saw the first Kickstarter “blockbusters.” In Kickstarter’s first year, the largest project was Designing Obama an exploration of the Obama campaign’s design, which raised $85,000. By the end of 2010, that project ranked just seventh on the website leaderboard. Last May an open-source social networking project called Diaspora topped $200,000; in October the film Blue Like Jazz hit $350,000; and in December a nano watch design project called TikTok took in just under a million dollars (their funding goal was $15,000).


So does all this mean that independent makers’ days of struggling to raise money are over? I doubt it. “You’re only as good as your mailing list,” cautions a visual artist friend who has been invited to crowdsource on the USA Artists website. 


Filmmaker Roberta Grossman who just completed fundraising on IndieGoGo supports this outlook adding, “Get partners with different e-mail lists and keep expanding your audience.” Of course all of this occurs in an environment in which foundations and government arts agencies are turning away from funding individuals as opposed to institutions. Looks like raising money and getting your work out there just got easier (and harder).  What do you think? If you’ve done this we’d love to hear about it.