Feature Article from the November 2008 AIRblast      

From the Ground Up:

A New Paradigm for Independent Program Development and Distribution

By Catherine Stifter and jesikah maria ross

Our two-and-a-half-year multimedia project, Saving The Sierra: Voices of Conservation in Action, is almost over. The digital files are all tucked into a nice big hard drive, and we’ve recycled all but the most important papers. But before the project’s co-director and I head off to the spa to spend the $648 in PRX licensing fees, we'd like to share a few lessons learned along the way that any producer can use in planning a national documentary special.

Saving The Sierra, or STS, was a true collaboration, co-directed by a public radio producer, Catherine Stifter, and a community cultural developer, jesikah maria ross (not capitalized because, she says, “I’m not a capitalist.”). Together, we came up with an ambitious plan to tell the stories of what rural folks are doing at the “dirt level” to conserve the environment, economy, and culture of California’s Sierra Nevada — a 400-mile-long mountain range with two million inhabitants. We set out to talk to everyone from Indians and ranchers to students and Sierra Clubbers. The work of regional scholars guided our inquiry.  

Tip #1 Have a clear, strong organizing principle that drives your project from start to finish.
STS was rooted in social networking. By definition, the project flipped the usual approach to creating and distributing a documentary upside-down. Instead of starting with a radio program, we began by simultaneously building two platforms in two places: 1) on the ground, with individuals and organizations engaged in conservation throughout the bioregion, and 2) online, with Web stories and news from those same sources. Our goals were to develop a deep understanding of the issues, build a foundation of community connections that would help us make better radio, and ensure that our investment in research and program production had maximum impact.We invited three community organizations to be our key partners and advisors: The Sierra Fund (our fiscal sponsor), the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College, and the Sierra Nevada Alliance. Then we wrote a successful grant to the California Documentary Project of the California Council for the Humanities.

Our first media production was a mobile "storybooth" (thanks for the inspiration, David Isay!) that traveled around the mountain range, taking the pulse of the region. Within six months, we launched an info-packed Web site with 100 Web stories plus a blog by local writers. By the end of the first year, we’d gathered nearly 100 subscribers to the project e-newsletter, made appearances on regional radio talk shows and in many local papers, raised $16,000 from individual donors, produced a three-part feature series for The California Report, and won the Dottie Award for Best Arts and Cultural Web site in Northern California.  

All this BEFORE we produced a minute of national radio programming.

Early in the second year, we convened an advisory council to help shape an hour-long national radio documentary (finally!). We agreed that the most compelling stories were about rural communities facing threats of urban development. And we believed we could tell that story from the Sierra in a way that would resonate with audiences everywhere. We consciously kept a regional focus because: 1) our goals and resources only stretched that far, and 2) we were committed to working from inside the community that we had come to know well.

Tip #2 Never work alone.
Corollary to Tip #2 Hire an AIR member!

STS relied on free words of advice from many AIR members and paid more than half a dozen to work in editorial, production, and marketing roles. The project kicked off with an AIR mentorship with attorney Ernie Sanchez. He helped us write a Memorandum of Understanding with our fiscal sponsor, who had never before worked with media partners.

Tip #3 Cultivate the right funder.
It comes back to Fundraising 101: You need to really understand your project in order to write a good funding proposal or donor appeal. Then do your homework until you find that perfect match between your project and a funder who appreciates what you want to accomplish.

The California Documentary Project was a great match for Saving The Sierra.

However, all but one of our seven subsequent grant applications were turned down. We weren’t solely broadcast. We were regional, not national. And we weren’t doing on-the-ground conservation activities either.

The Morgan Family Foundation was the one that finally came through. We stayed in regular contact with a program officer for nearly two years before our efforts paid off. The foundation partnered with the Sierra Business Council to provide $20,000 to reach urban audiences. This money helped us upgrade our Web site, to make it truly interactive, and create an online listener toolkit as a companion for our documentary.

Tip #4 Enter into symbiotic relationships with project partners.
Producers often look for partnerships in a self-interested way. Our criteria for partners included community-based organizations with a Sierra-wide reach that could serve as project advisors; whose members could inform our research through their participation in our digital storybooth; and who could benefit from both the online and broadcast media we produced. We agreed to journalistic firewalls and wrote clear MOUs. Here are just a few examples of our symbiotic relationships.

We presented a storytelling workshop for the Sierra Nevada Alliance annual conference to help increase the capacity of conservationists to tell compelling stories about their work. More than two dozen members ended up contributing to our storybooth. Now, their words, audio, and images are available for use in SNA print and electronic communications. Win-win.

Our documentary and many of our storybooth recordings are streaming on the Sierra Nevada Virtual Museum, the Web site of the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College. We provided training in digital media for college interns who traveled with our mobile storybooth. Our award-winning Web site was originally designed by a faculty/student team from the computer art department at the college. Another example of a win-win partnership.

Tip #5 Stay on the cutting edge of social networking, even if you bleed a little.
We see more and more AIR members on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. Dmae Roberts’ Facebook group for her new radio documentary, “Coming Home,” had more than 50 members and a Flash movie before she completed production.

Visitors to the STS Web site can rate, comment on, and share our digital stories on any of the social networking sites. All of our media can be downloaded, and we make it available for use, with attribution, through Creative Commons licensing. We get 100 new visitors to our Web site each week, without doing any additional outreach, and our documentary is podcast on the WGBH Forum and iTunes.

But we also use traditional networking methods. The Mono Lake Committee (featured in our documentary) acquired the rights to repackage a segment of our national documentary. Jesikah produced and recorded a new introduction and the committee will distribute 1,000 CDs to Eastern Sierra travelers who drop by their organization’s headquarters.

Tip #6 Hire a marketer, but cocreate the messages that will sell your show.
Marketers have built relationships with stations. They phone and e-mail and shake hands at conferences. It’s a job producers don’t need to spend time learning.

But makers still need to help shape the messages that marketers will employ to convince PDs to reserve your place on-air. You know the strengths of your program, the best target dates, the strongest message points. Creative PR believed in our program and worked hard to get the carriage we wanted.

Our goals for STS were to reach every station in California, every state in the West, and as many stations east of the Mississippi as our budget would allow. We had a targeted city list, and we timed our initial broadcast release for Earth Day (April), with a second release in the summer.

We used our relationships with station staff to promote the program by phone, by e-mail, and through Facebook and LinkedIn contacts.

We even directed our marketer to ask stations to be fair and license the program through PRX, whether or not they had other options. But we also made CDs available for stations that requested them. We employed all options.

Tip #7 Consider taking advantage of all distribution channels online and off. 
If the subject of your documentary is of national interest, you can consider submitting it for distribution through a national network, such as PRI. This is a highly competitive application process that, if successful, provides both advantages and disadvantages to your distribution strategy. For example, when PRI picks up your show and applies their brand to it, stations rely on the network’s reputation for excellence when making decisions about whether to air your doc.  But one downside is that only PRI member stations will have access to your program for a period of time. This limits your show to airing on mainly large, urban stations. And don’t expect a huge cash infusion to your marketing plan from the network. You’ll still need to raise marketing dollars and have a hand in those efforts. (See Tip #6.)

When the folks at the PRI told us they didn’t have staff to support distribution of our program on our timeline, the door opened to a much better distribution solution for us. Our doc about rural responses to urban development pressures became available simultaneously to all public, community, college, and LP stations, with no restrictions. This allowed us to:

•    reach every station in California without format or market preference.

•    target the suburban and rural stations around the U.S. that might be more likely to run our documentary because of its content.

•    use many online distribution methods simultaneously.

We saved marketing dollars by sending out fewer than 100 CDs and instead directed stations to use these outlets: Ask AIR members to review your programs, then review theirs! And don’t forget to e-mail each licensee a nice thank-you note, pointing them to your fabulous Web site and asking them to report time and date of broadcast, as well as audience numbers. Create a tune-in guide linking to stations that report this info to you. Your funders will appreciate this.

PRSS Content Depot A source of programming for most public stations. Producers may list programs, send program-related messages to stations, and view download reports. Unlike PRX, producers pay for use but don’t get paid for play. Distribution site for Pacifica affiliates. Free producer registration, but no pay for play. Upon approval, you can upload programs and program information, and you can view a count of downloads. The most open source of distribution outlets used widely by Low Power stations. Free registration for contributors. No pay for play, but you can view download count.

Distributing independently means there’s a lot of marketing to do in order to establish your own brand. There’s no avoiding the hard costs of that work, but Web 2.0 production and distribution tools are opening up new doors for socially networked producers. With a bit of persistence and willingness to DIY, you can reach the local, regional, and international outlets that are ready and waiting for your programs.

Saving The Sierra by the numbers
Broadcast stats
- 50 California public, community, college, and LP stations
- documentary aired in all 11 Western states
- 197 stations and 147 translators in 33 states
(stats from Creative PR)

Web stats
- 100 new visitors per week spent an average of two minutes online
- 600 views/downloads of Online Listener Toolkit
- 124 online listeners (avg) per day to STS segment on partner Web site Sierra Nevada Virtual Museum from April to September 2008
(stats from Google Analytics)
- 2007 Dottie Award for Best Arts and Cultural Web site

CD stats
450 CDs distributed to Sierra conservation leaders at two regional conferences
1,000 CDs (of reversioned Mono Lake segment) distributed to visitors to Mono Lake Committee headquarters in Eastern Sierra

Saving the Sierra Project Timeline:
First meeting of project co-directors August 2005
Project grant awarded January 2006
Project partnerships established January–March 2006
Web site launched summer 2006
Storytelling events summer–fall 2006
Donor campaign November–December 2006
Doc recording/editing/production February 2007–January 2008
Outreach grant awarded January 2008
Marketing campaign February–September 2008
Web site re-launched March 2008
National doc broadcasts March–September 2008
Project presentations to partner and community groups May–October 2008
Spa Day December 2008

Saving the Sierra Budget Overview
Total project budget 205K

CDF Grant $80K
Morgan Family Foundation $20K
Individual donors $20K
Partners Match (cash + in-kind) 85K

Staff hours = 1 FTE/year
Staff budget = $40K/year

jesikah maria ross is Director of Art of Regional Change at UC Davis. Her most recent project was Up from the UnderStory, a community revitalization project with a youth media training component.

Catherine Stifter is Web and Media Co-Director at
New Routes to Community Health, a national project to improve immigrant health using immigrant-made media. She has shared two Peabody Awards for groundbreaking national series. According to her Twitter bio, she's "a public radio producer learning to be an online community manager."