Feature article from the April 2010 AIRblast  

Unpacking PRSS and PRX:

Distro Dancing Part 2

By Barrett Golding
In Distro Dancing part I, we sent Barrett Golding on a fact-finding mission to unchartered territories of pubradio distribution, where PRX and PRSS ContentDepot reign. He explained the mechanics of how each works and discovered that getting your work to program directors is easier and cheaper than ever. Now he's back to clue us in to what's selling and who's buying.

Distro Dancing Part 1 and Part 2 are available together in this PDF.

Listen to the corresponding AIRmuse audio:

"Confessions of a Heavy User": Producer Gregg McVicar delivers on ContentDepot (8:41)

Really, we're talking about money, aren't we? So before re-delving into distro, let's devote some lines to monetary matters.

Producers cobble together program production budgets mainly by getting grants from funding agencies (e.g., CPB, private foundations) and/or collecting fees for broadcast rights, paid directly to producers by the shows or stations (NPR, KQED, Marketplace, etc.) that air the program.

Making a quality program can cost from $10,000 to $50,000 per hour (see CPB-funded radio programs). According to AIR's Pitch Page, few program acquirers pay more than $100 per minute, equivalent to $6,000 per hour. (One bright note: This American Life pays double and sometimes triple that of other series, G-d bless 'em.) Producers can sometimes negotiate higher rates. More often, though, they try to find additional funding.

The Free in Freelance

Lately, this viable but fragile business model is showing signs of coming unglued.

These are dark days in the indie world. The two most freelance-friendly radio shows (Weekend America and Day to Day) got canceled in 2009. The remaining NPR shows had their freelance-acquisition budgets slashed. And CPB hasn't issued a Radio Program Fund request-for-proposals since December 2006. Together, these cuts total several millions of dollars U.S. that once annually went into indie productions.

But we independents are hunter-gatherers, proficient at piecing together a living from diverse sources. Maybe that's what makes us such versatile storytellers.

If fewer shows are buying, and fewer pieces are being bought, why do producers flood both ContentDepot and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) with free programs? Often the reason is they have production funding in place (grants, etc.). Now their goal is maximum airplay. They're hoping no-cost will translate into higher carriage.

Not necessarily: 40 percent of all pieces on PRX are free, but 59 percent of the PRX Most-Licensed Pieces lists are not free. So cost and carriage aren't always proportional. Program directors (PDs) tell us quality and topicality can trump price.

For this article we talked to six of the most active acquirers of indie pieces. Only one was concerned with cost when choosing a program. The rest ended every year with unused PRX program-purchasing "points," so piece-price was not a big factor.

PRX "recommends starting with the default price," then, "if you sell content, raising the price." Executive Director Jake Shapiro calculates that more than half "of individual producers earned more than they paid for their membership. Most of what PRX receives from stations it pays out to producers: "At least 80 percent of station fees goes to the royalty pool for producers."

Producer Richard Paul sells a lot of stories on PRX. He believes, "Producers should put a value on their show. If you offer it for nothing, stations will consider it worthless."

Homelands Production's Jonathan Miller agrees: "The [PRX] dollars are very small, but if we were to put any work into trying to sell our old stuff on our own, it would be extremely inefficient."

He points out, though, that he does sometimes contact a show about reselling a piece, and when they take it, "the pay has been incomparably better" than PRX. "For instance, World Vision Report picked up a piece [originally on Marketplace] I'd done about a marathon runner for their show before the NYC Marathon. They paid $750. I'm afraid to look at what I would have gotten from a PRX sale - maybe $24?"

One producer was more pessimistic: "What is so revolutionary about a forum where radio directors can download stories for free (or thereabouts)? I do not post on PRX because the concept that we should fundraise for our work beforehand, then offer it to the customers for free, is bunk. If people can't pay for the product, the 'business model' is not a viable business."

Hour of Power

At this point, we should distinguish between hour-long programs that producers distribute directly to stations and shorter pieces that air within existing series. (N.B. Many producers produce short pieces, then package them into hours.) 

Stations want hours. Overwhelmingly the pieces they pull from ContentDepot and PRX are hour-long programs.

Peddling a short piece via these online distro outlets alone will not get you substantial station carriage - statistically, at least. Genevieve Sponsler, who compiles the PRX Most-Licensed Pieces lists, has noticed, "Over the years what's been consistently most popular is 54- or 59-minute pieces." In fact, every one of PRX's "most-licensed" was a single or multiple hour (2004, 05, 06, 07, 08, 09; also see Most-Licensed Piece Lengths 06, 07, 09).

Some quick calculations: The most-licensed pieces are all hours and were licensed 20-40 times. So pieces less than an hour, even popular ones, have fewer than 20 licenses.

Let's say your 10-minute piece was bought by 15 stations. This might net you a PRX check for $130 (average PRX payment is not quite $1/minute/station). Not bad if you sold it before to a national series, but meager if that's the only income it generates - and remember this best-case scenario is for a very successful short.

Now let's look at some well-played hours, such as Paul Ingles' music specials. He once distributed them via Public Radio International. PRI paid him $3,500 in production support and helped with the marketing.

In 2007, PRI could no longer offer him that support. Ingles decided to try distributing exclusively via PRX. His specials tend to be two hours long and can get 40 licenses. This nets him $4,000 from PRX - $500 more than PRI paid (though, he estimates, maybe 20 stations fewer in carriage).

Because he has "streamlined the production process," has a great track record with PDs, includes a lot of music, and has low overhead, that $4,000 covers the cost of making the hours: PRX pays the bills. He says, "It's like getting a small grant."

But, he cautions, his specials cover very PD-desired topics (e.g., "the most popular band in the world"), and are often tied to an event or anniversary. "Unless the subject is wildly popular to a general audience," the piece will likely have less PRX success.

What PDs Want

In talking to PDs, other preferences emerged. Stations get most of their regular weekly programming from ContentDepot (Morning Edition, This American Life, etc.). But few PDs find pieces for their flexible "specials" slots there. Some PDs never go to ContentDepot; their ops folk deal with that.

Todd Melby fills KFAI's weekly Listening Lounge with PRX pieces. There are several things he "never wants," chief among them: "No profanity. Why is it even allowed?" What words are out? Since this article isn't FCC-censured, we can list them: "Definitely 'fuck' and 'shit' and probably 'cunt.'" In general, "a mention of sex is not a problem." And "'nigger' depends on context." Another of his "never-wants" is a host intro; edit that off before posting.

John Dankosky of WNPR also requires audio "self-contained, needing no production on our end." He finds that "too much needs to be heavily edited." A related piece peeve is stories "with even a whiff of outdated-ness, referring to President Bush instead of Obama," for instance. "Clean up" your piece lists, he advises; "some stuff shouldn't be there. There's too many options and pieces which aren't up to date."

(A good resource to find what programming PDs prefer is PRX's real-time list of recently purchased pieces.)

Dear PRX

AIR surveyed its members in March 2009 (424K PDF). They found that 13 percent distribute via PRSS, while 65 percent use PRX. Of the latter, 55 percent said their PRX use was minimal, 24 percent said moderate, and 3 percent heavy.

For this article, almost all of the comments offered by PDs and producers were about PRX. Their most common comment: "I love PRX." When prodded to suggest improvements, many had ideas about how pieces get discovered by programmers.

Producer Nancy Solomon was "a little frustrated with how much promotion" PRX-project series get. "This has nothing to do how worthy those shows are, but it frustrates me to see those shows practically live on the PRX home page, while my documentary got one week - it's no fun being on the outside."

She worries this practice might "muddy the relationship of trying to build a co-op distribution network. If the mission of PRX is to widen access to the airwaves to independent producers, then it seems problematic to me to heavily promote PRX-sponsored projects; then it just becomes another network/distribution company."

WNPR's John Dankosky says, "Run it like newspaper." Put stories "happening right now on the front page. Have columnists: the music guy, the news person, the guy who can't stand Ira Glass." Otherwise, he says, "stuff won't get found. We're awash in a sea of programming and don't have time to sift through it all."

WCAI's Viki Merrick would find helpful "more PRX lists" of topic-related programs, and "a way to tag a piece to go back and look at later, to bookmark it, without telling the world about it." (PRX already allows publicly viewable favorites and playlists; private bookmarks are under consideration.)

Some lament the loss of the PRX Editorial Board, hired to generate reviews. Merrick misses Ed-Board opinions "from people like Bill McKibben."

One former paid reviewer questions "their transition to user reviews. I can understand this is the model to shoot for - but I question whether it works very well. I put a lot of time and effort into my reviews, and people valued them."

But user-generated critiques unquestionably help PDs find pieces. "I read the reviews," says KUOW's Arvid Hokanson. "I look at the ratings and who did the rating."

Charles Lane of WHSU News wishes there were a way to "target certain stations." Mountain West stations would likely want to know about a piece on the Rocky Mountains, for example. Right now PRX offers "no easy way to tell them all about a really great story."

A central issue that remains for producers like Nancy Solomon is that "carriage is pretty low. That's not PRX's fault, but it's a problem we, the public radio community, need to deal with." She has some ideas. "A place to start is the program directors and their conference. I think PRX and AIR, jointly, need to sponsor events that bring producers together with PDs. One person suggested a speed dating-type event, where you get five minutes with a PD to pitch your doc/show."

Paul Ingles would also like to see PRX and AIR "advocate to PDs to free up more documentary hour slots, to create places" for specials in their schedule, "like Sundays at Cape Cod." He suggests, "Maybe host a lunch at the PRPD."

Isn't That Special

PDs often say they'd like a specials slot; they hope to have a specials slot; they just haven't got around to opening up one yet.

Hearing Voices is now a weekly series, but we once created stand-alone specials. In 2005, we wondered how many stations had a committed spot on their air for hour specials. We inspected the programming schedules for all the top metro stations, all station networks (i.e., pubcasting entities with multiple stations), and the 100-plus stations that regularly played HV specials. In all, we looked at 220 public radio skeds, representing programming on 700-plus different stations (i.e., call letters).

What we found: A total of 26 program schedules (for 74 stations) had hour-specials slots (11 percent of stations).

Some crotchety old fart was quoted in Current when PRX launched in 2003:

Money isn't the point for independent producer Barrett Golding. What does matter is access to stations, particularly non-NPR stations that do not subscribe to the Public Radio Satellite System. "That's worth more money to me, because I can then go get funding," he says.

Normally, I'd dismiss anything uttered by that quack "Golding" (if that's even his real name); but other more-esteemed producers have expressed similar sentiments. Dmae Roberts is unsure "if PRX made a significant impact yet. But it's still growing; and it's nice to put on a grant proposal. It's a good resource." A public resource, she explains, "a great place to archive our stories and to hear things for the first time, especially for people not so familiar with independents' work."

Depot Distro

The Big Daddy of pubradio distribution is ContentDepot, delivering 400,000 hours every year. Programs come from the 200-plus registered producers - national networks and individual indies - and flow to 430 interconnected stations.

It's run by the Public Radio Satellite System. PRSS leases bands on a communication satellite. Whatever bandwidth public radio doesn't use is sold commercially. This covers half their $10 million annual operating costs. Station interconnect fees and producer program-distribution charges must pay for the rest.

PRSS is managed and located at NPR, but owned by a separate charitable trust. "It's housed at the mother ship," says Peter Loewenstein, NPR VP of Distribution, "but NPR is also one of PRSS's biggest customers - it pays a hefty share."

ContentDepot is where stations get most of their series and many of their specials. PRSS outperforms PRX in its auto-delivery of weekly series episodes and in its mass-messaging system, which better connects producers with stations. And ContentDepot can feed programs live, which PRX cannot.

But ContentDepot is not the place to put single short programs; PDs are much less likely to find them there than on PRX. PRX has a superior search engine. It has an active review process, including its 100,000 public members. (PRSS is a service for stations and producers only, and not open to the public.)

PRX more aggressively promotes individual programs than does PRSS. PRX producers get unlimited storage at no cost other than their yearly member fee. PRSS charges producers per hour for storage (and requires insurance).

Both provided us additional info since our previous article. Here's an updated table of comparisons:

        Producers-                         Stations-                            Distro - 
 No. of
To Publish
No. of
 PRX  2216$50 yearly$0/hour  213 $500-$6K/year Yes, 26 hours  7K
 PRSS  200$25 lifetime$95-182/hour 430 $500-7K/year No, 0 hours  400K

 *PRX 2009 active station members up 42 percent from 2008

Producers often use both PRX and PRSS to distribute their work, and the two organizations have had conversations about working together - someday. Until then, producers will continue to use both these online outlets as part of their distribution strategy.

(See related piece: From the Ground Up: A New Paradigm for Independent Program Development and Distribution.)

One last note: Whether you distribute with PRX, PRSS, or on your own, don't forget about marketing: i.e., making stations aware your series/story exists. Best bet for better carriage is often an experienced marketer. (AIR members Izzy, Kathy, Ken, Steve, and Sue are among the best). Expect to spend at least 10 percent of your total budget for minimal but effective marketing; 25 percent is not unrealistic for a full-on campaign. And thank your stars you're not a moviemaker where the marketing budget can be half to twice the size of the film's production budget.

Barrett Golding is Fearless Leader of the independently produced Hearing Voices radio rodeo, and a regular user of PRSS and PRX.

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