One of the first questions I ask producers who approach me about help is: “Is your show a hobby or a business?” Either answer is OK, but I think it is important to know the answer from the beginning. A hobby is something you do for pleasure, something you invest in because you want to — not because you have to. A hobby is sustainable as long (or as short) as you want it to be. No apologies or recriminations if you decide to stop.
But, a business is sustainable. It may require investment to start with, but it needs — over time — to pay its own bills and even to pay you a decent income for the time you invest. A great many independent producers in this country think they are in business, but they are really “in hobby.” They work at something else to put food on the table and cover their health care and other needs. The very best of these think they “break even” if their out of pocket costs are covered — but hardly ever realize that a true break-even would include paying oneself!
I saw an excellent and poignant article about this recently. I urge you to read it and think about whether you are a hobbyist or a business person. The article’s author wrote “Podcasters and community broadcasters gotta eat. We shouldn’t expect them to starve for our art.” The writer went on to say:
“Most fundamentally, a potential radio producer or host needs to be able to put food on the table and pay the rent before she can think about making a show. While some people have the means, time or simple drive and wherewithal to create something, sometimes with little regard to their material circumstances, this isn’t something we should expect or demand of our independent media creators.”
Jim, thank you for posting this. It captures the difficulty of sustaining a “hobby” show. But it misses on two counts I think. The first is that it suggests there are only two categories: hobby and business. There is also a third option: to offer a show as a service.
What I most wanted from the article was a sense of how to transition from “hobby” to “business.” Or in my case, from “service” to non-profit. The article suggests that this is very difficult, and ultimately people stop doing it because they can’t sustain the time and effort to keep the show at an acceptable quality. I’d love to see you write a response article where you give several suggestions for how people can make that transition. Surely, there must be several success stories in this vein. Even the most successful , sustaining shows had to start somewhere….I can’t think of anyone in a better position to know these stories than you Jim Russell!!! Can you tell us some? with hopeful anticipation (and a small measure of mischievous apology for putting you in this position…!), Anne
Good thoughts, Anne. Yes, I agree there is a third category — “service” — but that describes the MOTIVATION, probably not the BUSINESS MODEL. And, unfortunately, these “mission shows” have become rare in public broadcasting. From a business standpoint, programs need to be able to sustain themselves. This doesn’t mean make a profit, but at least pay the light bill and pay their staff. Otherwise, they just aren’t sustainable. You asked me to identify some “service” programs that have succeeded. One could say that ALL public radio programs provide service. Of course, NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition can be counted, as well as APM’s Marketplace. Perhaps more to your point though, some programs seem focused more tightly on service as their mission. StoryCorps is very well known and is just celebrating its 10th Anniversary. Under the leadership of inventor and chief funder David Isay, it has prospered and grown. Many programs produced or spawned by Jay Allison are also in that category. Another such program is Fresh Air. Regretably, it is hard to name many that are RECENT startups. This is because the public media world is a lot more risk-averse than it used to be … at precisely the time when the media sphere is exploding with new opportunities. A real dilemma.