An open source approach to fixing public media funding

Christopher Lydon's RadioOpenSource is one of the best programs on radio. It's not about open source code, but about radio modeled on open source values and methods. As the show puts it, Open Source has become one of the most talked-about experiments in public media — a civil union of online and on-air communities that trust each other to talk about pretty much anything.

Right now the project is The looking for funding directly from listeners and other participants. So the rescue ships are approaching the harbor, and still the wolf is at the door.

If you listen to the show, you're one of those ships. If you write code, you can float a lot more boats — not just for one show, but for all of public media (a term that encompasses public radio, TV, podcasting and live online streaming).

What we need is an open source project, or code put together from a number of existing projects, to reduce the friction involved in paying for public media — and at the same time to increase the opportunities for participation by listeners, producers and everybody else with something to contribute.

This is the first development project we've taken on at ProjectVRM, which I head as a fellow at the Berkman Center. If you care about public media, or just about fixing markets by making buyers more independent of sellers — yet better able to relate to sellers, on the buyer's terms as well as the seller's terms — we could use your help.

To show the problem we're trying to solve, here's an interesting exercise. Take any educated crowd of adult Americans. Ask how many listen to public radio. Nearly all hands will go up. Then ask how many pay for it. All but about 10% of the hands will go down. Then ask how many would make the effort if paying were easy. Nearly all the hands go up again.

Clearly there is too much friction involved. That even goes for online payments. So we need a new model — one that radically improves on the one that's been used for as long as listener-supported radio has been around. That would be since 1949, when Pacifica, which was born, twenty-two years before NPR started up. What we came to call public broadcasting has had a high-friction funding model based on appeals for donations by listeners. These are facilitated by a combination of fund-raising "pledge breaks" and old fashioned direct-marketing, mostly to current and former contributors.

With pledge breaks, programming is slowed or halted while station personnel and guests plead for money on the air as volunteers take pledges over phones. Contributions are baited with matching grants, plus station schwag (tote bags, coffee mugs, t-shirts) and promotions (CDs, concert tickets).

Pacifica pioneered pledge breaks, which they called "marathons". Public radio in general copied the system, supplementing listener sponsorship with underwriting by what today have become the equivalent of advertisers.

RadioOpenSource's appeal follows the former model, but also short-circuits the distribution chain along which public media programming customarily flows toward listeners, and along which the money flows back up. That chain begins with program producers (such as RadioOpenSource) and runs through distributors (NPR, PRI, American Public Media, PRX) to stations (what you hear on a radio or through your computer or other online listening device). Stations are the retailers.

Stations-as-retailers is a system that is commonly misunderstood. What we call "NPR stations" are not run by NPR. Nor do they get money from NPR. They pay NPR for programs. In fact NPR takes no money directly from listeners. They get paid by stations, which buy programming from NPR and other suppliers. Yesterday I was talking to a friend who said she didn't pay for NPR programming because "my tax dollars go for that". This is almost entirely wrong. Federal contributions (mostly through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) account for only 2% of NPR's income.

RadioOpenSource's short-circuit — appealing directly to listeners and others for help — is a matter of urgency. In this respect the program is squarely in a long-standing public broadcasting tradition. Since the early days of Pacifica, stations have raised money by making appeals based on the need to keep from going out of business. Self-pity isn't pretty, but it works.

Same goes for pledge breaks. Even at their most positive and upbeat, fund-raising breaks are notoriously annoying and widely disliked by both stations and listeners. Complaining about pledge breaks has been going on as long as pledge breaks have been around. And, as this post at Oregon Media Insiders says, "No one has found a better way to get that money than the beg-a-thon."

That's our challenge here. We can fix this thing. This isn't 1949. We have computers now.

Even beg-a-thons bring in money from 10% or fewer of stations' listeners and viewers. One good reason, obviously, is that the goods are free: anybody can listen or watch. Nobody has to pay for it. But, as we saw in our exercise above, the biggest reason is friction. It's too hard.

For example, take the PayPal link on the RadioOpenSource donations page. I just used it to send a few bucks their way, and the whole process took about forty seconds (not counting finding the donations page). That was relatively quick, but hardly a one-click (or better, no-click) exercise. And this represents the fast end of the range. A couple days ago I decided to send some bucks to WCPE, because we listen to it nearly every day and because I like the dedicated and pioneering work Deborah Proctor and her staff have been doing for both on-air and on-Web radio, going back thirty years. Making that payment took three minutes and forty seconds — and I hurried as fast as I could. Among the many choices presented in the series of forms to fill and questions to answer was one that gave me the opportunity decline receiving membership schwag (CD, coffee cup, t-shirt), which would save the station additional money. I checked it off — not just to spare the hassle, but because I'm not interested in "membership", either. Not if membership just means getting hassled by direct mail (in addition to trading money for schwag and fuzzies). And I'm not alone in that sentiment. Back in February Dave Winer wrote,

9 times out of 10, I don't give money to public radio stations, because once you do, you never hear the end of it.

A few weeks ago, in response to a request for support from On The Media podcast, I gave $100 to WNYC. I don't even live in NY. Now I'm getting a steady stream of spam from them with all kinds of special offers. This really sucks.

I listen to WNYC-AM almost every day I'm home in Santa Barbara (mostly over our Linux-based Sonos system). I haven't sent them money yet, though I might if I could be assured that I wouldn't hear them pitch for something every time I tuned in one of their Web streams — and if I could be spared the direct mail pitches Dave talks about. The will is there. We just need a better way.

I don't mean to pick on WNYC, incidentally. On the contrary, I want to salute WNYC for joining us at ProjectVRM in discussions about how to come up with a system that will reduce the friction that has persisted for the duration.

Back in March we met for a workshop on Public Media and VRM (Vendor Relationship Management — the reciprocal of CRM, or Customer Relationship Management) at the Berkman Center in Cambridge. Representatives from WBUR, WGBH, WNYC, RadioOpenSource, NPR, Public Interactive, the Berkman Center itself and other organizations participated, and we made progress. ProjectVRM itself has moved forward since then as well, through an active mailing list, weekly conference calls and meetings at unconferences such as IOS in Brussels and IIW in Mountain View.

Next Monday afternoon we'll have another Public Media & VRM workshop at the Berkman Center. The first time we looked at the problem as a whole. (Here's what I wrote as we were leading up to that.) This time we'd like to concentrate on the technical side of the challenge.

Here's the goal: Make it possible for listeners to pay for what they want, when they want, in any amount they like, as easily as possible. That means paying by card, by cell phone, over the Net, on cell phone, on a listening device, whatever.

We don't want to approach this from the stations' side. That, in fact, is a big part of the existing problem. Right now stations are all doing their own fundraising, their own ways. They all have their own methods, their own online forms, their own databases, their own CRM systems — each with their own set of "relationships" (which barely qualify for the noun), and so on.. But they all work as exclusive silos. This is no different for public media than it is for most companies with CRMs. The entire burden of the "relationship" is borne by the supply side. There is little or no room for variables of the customer's own choosing on the demand side. VRM should provide a way of putting those variables together and presenting them to the supply side.

Most of the programmers I've talked to have told me there's a good chance that most of the components we probably need are already developed, or adaptable in some way. In other words, we don't need to start from zero. David Sifry, for example, suggests this:

How about using a shortcode from your mobile phone to 'vote' on your favorite shows while they're playing? Think 'American Idol' style, and you'll immediately see how interesting and lucrative this could be. First off, you're getting your listeners and viewers more active, and what they do has an immediate effect. But what also happens is that the people formerly known as the audience are then in control - they don't get signed up on a list, they don't have to give their name, address, and credit card number.

It has been suggested that the listener doesn't need to be completely on their own here. VRM might be handled by a customer-advocating intermediary without media or silo-maintaining loyalties, such as Facebook (which has many millions of members already) or Google Checkout (in fact, I'm meeting with some Google folks today).

There are other ideas we've been thinking about, but I'd rather have yours.

If you're in the Boston area, or feel like coming in to meet with us next Monday afternoon, please do. For details contact me at doc at or doc at

Hope to see you there. And if not, post your ideas here. Maybe open source can go beyond saving RadioOpenSource — and help the whole noncommercial media industry prosper.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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Can we find ways to fund some Copyleft content?

drew Roberts's picture

Can we find ways to fund some Free Copyleft content?

That is what interests me most in this area.

For instance, with movies and documentaries, etc. something like what the folks at A Swarm Of Angels ( ) has done but with a Free license instead of the NC one they chose. ( CC BY-NC-SA ) as far as I can tell.

This should also be possible for radio programming. And for music.

If anyone is interested in this aspect, I have some ideas that may be of use. Email me if interested.

all the best,


What Open Source Values?

drew Roberts's picture

"It's not about open source code, but about radio modeled on open source values and methods."

I got excited when I saw that quote. Then I went to their site.

"We make every show available under a Creative Commons license, so store them, copy them and pass them on."

And the license they use is...

And I wonder exactly how is not allowing commercial uses anywhere near open source values... Would a non-commercial software license get approved as Open Source Software? As Free Software?

Why is it so hard to actually find people in the non-software space who are willing to experiment with real Free or Open content? Especially those seeking public support...

all the best,


Open Source Values

Barry Nelson's picture


I understand your point about the dichotomy of the Open Source name and the propietary nature of the Creative Commons licensing of the show content. However, ya gotta eat.

The creation of free or open content is a noble idea, but I have to wonder who, other than a trust fund baby or Kept woman, has the time and abundant resources to offer excellent intellectual property to the world for free? Linux is amazing because of the thousands of people who collaborate on the software, but even those people have to make car payments.

What should the 'payment' be for those who develop free content for the world to play with? How do we keep open source values alive and put food on the table?

Money for "with"

Doc Searls's picture

Linux and other forms of open source code are not the same as radio programs, podcasts and the other produced goods we call "content". The money made because of Linux dwarfs the money made with it. That's because Linux is inherently infrastructural. It's building material.

While the "because effects" of open source code are enourmous (and provide financial incentives to development as well), there persists the need of many creative artists to make money with the goods they produce. As you say correctly, they gotta eat.

One of the biggest challenges we face in this networked world is finding ways to get artists paid for their work. Your last two questions have been with us for the duration, and still aren't adequately answered. I suggest one answer in A public market for public music. There need to be others.

Whatever the answers are, they won't succeed if the creators of code and content see their purposes as inherently opposed. They are aligned as creative work. They also need to be aligned as goods that both make and fill marketplaces.

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal

Open Source Commerce for Plone / Public Broadcasting

John Tynan's picture

Hi Doc,

This is John Tynan from KJZZ. We were both at the pubforge discussion at beyondbroadcast2007.

Good to hear these ideas expressed so clearly. I know, I've thought about this when listening to Podcasts from Radio OpenSource, or WNYC's RadioLab or TedTalks... shows that I would gladly support, but are not aired at our local NPR station.

Have you talked with Boston developer Nate Aune about this? Do you know if there are plans to dovetail these ideas into his work with the GetPaid project for Plone?

Good leads

Doc Searls's picture


Good to see you here. And thanks for the Nate Aune and GetPaid leads, which we should be following in ProjectVRM.

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal

Prove out an aspect?

Keith Hopper's picture

(Full disclosure: I'm an employee of Public Interactive, a web services subsidary of PRI).

I like the idea of simplifying the giving process while engaging the audience in listener-driven interaction (e.g. Dave Sifrey's messaging idea). My concern is that offering a solution that gives pledge money direct to programs bypasses the existing public broadcasting infrastructure and will meet much resistance. For better or worse, distributors and stations are the current 'keepers' of public broadcasting and own the infrastructure (and costs) to keep it running - including production and broadcasting facilities that shows rely on to perform their most basic functions. It would be like the feds asking me where I'd like my tax dollars to be spent. While useful information and personally empowering, this would probably be a bad short-term way to do our national budgeting. Long-term, this might get our country re-oriented around the right priorities, but getting from here to there would require nothing short of a revolutionary upheaval of everything, and therefor be a barrier towards heading in that direction. To take that analogy to public broadcasting, perhaps we can start somewhere that puts the the listener in control of their data and proves the value of transaction simplification while engaging the listener as an active participant. If we can prove this out, I think it would help convince the industry to embrace further experimentation rather than seemingly calling for the dissolution of distributors and stations at the outset.

Where do you want your tax dollars spent?

drew Roberts's picture

"While useful information and personally empowering, this would probably be a bad short-term way to do our national budgeting. Long-term, this might get our country re-oriented around the right priorities, but getting from here to there would require nothing short of a revolutionary upheaval of everything, and therefor be a barrier towards heading in that direction."

Interesting that you should use this example.

I make this suggestion quite often and think it would help greatly.

And here is how I think we might be able to get there from here:

Set out a budget with all needed breakdowns.

First option on tax return:

Tick here to let us allocate your taxes as needed to meet the budget. [ ]

After that, let people choose down to whatever level of detail they wish. (Tree type structure.)

Have a site where people can see budget and actual at a glance. In as close to real time as possible.

Use the money from the people who choose the first option to smooth things out.

I welcome further discussion via email if anyone is interested in chewing on these ideas.

all the best,


How Hard is Hard?

Izzi Smith's picture

Love the idea of making it easy for stations to support the programs and stations they love BUT I question the idea that "it's too hard" as a starting place.

I live in Minneapolis and support about a half-dozen stations that I stream regularly on a Roku Soundbridge. I call them or pledge on their sites. Done. Is it as easy as Amazon? No. Does it impede or limit my giving? Also no.

I don't imagine the influx of support for Radio Open Source is being limited in any way by how "hard" it is to give.

With due respect to Dave and Doc, get over it. If you engage with a public media property, the odds are good you will be asked for money unless you opt out (and you should be given the chance to opt out).

The Berkman center and the readers of this blog can do so many truly amazing things to support the creation and sustainability of public media. Making it "easier" to give might not be the best use of such smart people.

Easy for whom?

Doc Searls's picture


You listen on a Roku Soundbridge. I listen on a Sonos system. Both of us are in a tiny minority.

The majority of public radio listeners are using radios. And a majority also pay nothing. But my own (and others') informal surveys show that many or most of that same majority would pay for the goods if doing so were easy. I think that provides an interesting challenge — one that's certainly worth thinking and talking about, and perhaps pursuing as well.

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal

Programs versus Stations

Rollie's picture

I appreciate the "editing" service of a station, but sometimes want something other than the choices offered. So I would like a system that let me "subscribe" to a station, but also let me pick individual programs from time-to-time. It strikes me that HD radio and the Internet both offer this possibility -- with a "descrambler key" type system. I buy the keys -- one for each station I want, plus one for each special program I want, via something pre-authorized (credit card, check account withdrawal, Paypal, et al.). If further solicitation is a problem, then use a third-party who promises to keep my info private and separate from the station and program recipients.

On a "receiver-only" radio the keys would probably have to be on some sort of dongle; via the Internet, they could be downloaded.

Great dialogue; please keep it going.