How 99% Invisible is Changing Public Radio

by Tim Maly

Wired, July 20, 2012

If you don’t know the show, here are the basics: Episodes run 5-10 minutes, and cover some undersung element of design: from the shape of tugboat hulls to the carefully engineered clicks that keyboard keys make to the work of a blind architect. “I like that it’s an ongoing series of short episodes because there’s no pressure to answer every question or touch on every topic in each installment,” says Mars. Instead, themes and characters re-emerge over the course of the show.

If you do know the show, you’ll be delighted to learn that Mars’ Kickstarter has been funded. Now he’s looking to knock it out of the park. To do this, he’s added two new metrics.

First, he has a series of stretch goals, with commitments ranging from hiring a part-time collaborator to building a smartphone app. Second, Debbie Millman‘s Design Matters Institute has agreed to put up $10,000 if Mars can achieve 5,000 backers.

Stretch goals are becoming commonplace on Kickstarter, but Mars’ second goal that counts backers at any level is something new. Since the show began, Mars has gotten offers from fans who wanted to donate. So, for Mars, Kickstarter is only partially about filling the coffers. He posted the campaign with an eye toward long-term funding and wanted nothing short of a spectacle. “I wanted … everyone to feel like we really accomplished something incredible, instead of the constant call for donations where you don’t know if your couple of dollars matter.”

Using Kickstarter as his call to arms, Mars has created a flurry of PR, which has resulted in new listeners. It’s also creating a strong case for sponsors and granting agencies that the show has a large and slavish fan base. “Good metrics are hard to find when you’re not like a normal radio show, so this gives a potential funders a little more to go on.”

But Mars has set his sights much higher than a single campaign. He wants nothing short of a sea change in public radio. Because it’s cheaper for local radio stations to play national content than to produce original programming, the projects that get funded are hour-long, weekly, high-production value shows. That leaves shorter, indie blasts like 99% Invisible to fend for themselves.

But the growth of the Internet as a distribution channel is beginning to level the playing field. “Radiolab could never be a weekly production. It’s too labor-intensive, but as a podcast and short run, regular series, it’s a phenomenon,” he says. “Small productions driven by a singular voice can make it…. They just need a significant initial investment, freedom to experiment, and time to find an audience.”

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