Successful programs these days are “sustainable.” That seems to be the way we describe programs that appear to be viable financially. Through underwriting sponsorships, grants or pledge support, a sustainable program attracts support for its staff and expenses. It isn’t considered a drag on the station’s overall resources.
But, other than using “belly-button logic” or intuition, how would you actually know if a program is truly sustainable?
Well, you can start by counting. What does it cost to produce the show? What are the direct expenses — like staff — that you would not incur if you didn’t produce this program?
In doing your counting, though, it is easy to fool yourself that these direct costs are the total budget of the program. They’re not. In order to know what you’re really spending on every show, you need to make a “fully loaded budget” which includes all costs. For example, do you use studio time? If so, how much and what does it cost? You need to identify the program’s fair share of the station’s general expenses. These would include a small portion of all of the station’s support staff. A share of the rent and utilities. Office supplies, insurance, legal, etc.
There are two ways to handle these additional expenses:
1. If you can, identify the expense … like long distance telephone or office supplies and postage … and list them as a direct expense in your budget.
2. If you can’t identify them precisely … like a share of security or management staff … add up your estimates and determine the overhead as a percentage you will charge each project to help pay the overall bills.
You may ask, “Why is this kind of budgeting necessary?” Here are a couple of answers:
• Anything you donate to the program, like studio time, is an “in-kind” form of funding and will count when you’re trying to match cash donations;
• You’ll want to know what your show really costs so there are no surprises down the road. For example, you count studio time because at some point, your studios will be “maxed out” and you may need to buy studio time elsewhere.
• Studio facilities need to be replaced. Have you been depreciating and “escrowing” the cost of replacing that board?
There’s another kind of “sustainability” that a program needs to have. It is intellectual sustainability. Is the idea of the show deep enough, rich enough, to sustain listeners’ interest?
Lots of ideas are exciting and engaging the first few times you hear and consider them, but don’t “have legs” to sustain interest 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year. The best way to test this is to have a brainstorming session with creative/editorial staff and Indies. User them to come up with manifestations of the idea – stories you could do to illustrate the central theme. In the brainstorming session, do the ideas come fast and furious? Can you come up with 50 ideas in an hour? Does it feel like there are many more that would be really gripping to the audience? Or do you find yourselves petering out and losing touch with the main idea? Other examples include exciting minds you can tap, great intellects or storytellers.
The best test of “intellectual sustainability” is to pilot segments or the entire program. Then you can put it on the air, telling your audience it is a test and one you need their reaction to. You can put up a short survey on you web site and invite listeners to go online and indicate whether they liked the pilot and if they would like to hear this kind of program on an ongoing basis. More and more stations are including “the public” in such testing. You could even produce a call-in show following the pilot to allow listeners to quiz you about this potential new program.
Finally, not every worthwhile program will attract a lot of underwriting or even pledges. Some programs you do because they are central to your mission as a public radio station, serving your community. In judging sustainability, be sure not to ignore “mission fulfillment” as a measure. While it is hard to quantify, it certainly can be a “tipping point” when a program is viable financially and sustainable intellectually. If it also contributes to fulfilling your station’s mission, you probably have the winning combination.