Community Radio Syndication Tips

One of my most popular pieces is a list of tips for community radio producers looking to syndicate. It gets its first update since 2011.

Many individuals who do local programs on community radio stations want to take their shows “national,“ or receive program distribution to stations around the country. This evolution is perfectly understandable when a person thinks her/his program is especially good, unique or serves an audience many stations are interested in drawing.

Before you go down the national syndication/distribution road, I want to give prospective national programmers some tips to follow and mistakes to avoid.

Whether you have a one-time special, a regular program, or just some terrific unedited audio you’d like to share, you’re able to distribute it to other stations through a variety of means. This power is an important and fun part of community radio. However, distribution is also a lot of work. Syndication involves production, digital editing, uploading files to share with stations, and doing it all regularly and consistently on time, all while maintaining great content and a reliable schedule.

This article is intended for independent (i.e. volunteer or minimally funded) producers of similarly independent weekly or daily local programming. It is an introduction as well as a how-to for radio syndication. I assume you work with a community radio station. I assume you understand syndication is, largely, about delivering preproduced programming to a content delivery system for access by stations (though possible, live programming is less common for reasons I will get into later). I also assume you have aspirations to see other radio stations carry your program at no cost. However, maybe you’re not sure what to do, how to prepare and how to make your dream a reality.

While not complete, this article will hopefully give you a good overview of the issues and process and get you started.

As a disclaimer, I’m not an independent producer of such programming. Aside from pitching to PDs national Pacifica specials I’ve produced, my experience is limited. However, my advice might prove just as valuable, as I write from the perspective of someone an independent producer has to win over. I’m a program director who gets pitches all the time for syndicated programs, and who has worked with plenty of good and not-so-good producers. I’ve made many mistakes and had many successes, and I’m sharing this tutorial in hopes of helping interested community radio programmers pursue syndication. It’s a common request, and there are a few things you should know before diving in.

I write this with a big thanks to Nathan Moore, who formerly served as Pacifica’s Network Programming Coordinator and from whom I’ve lifted some of this piece, as well as KPFT’s Dean Becker, who gave input.

Tip #1: Prepare mentally for distributing programming

Thick skin, a willingness to take criticism and a genuine commitment to get better and adjust your content with feedback are all essential qualities for those looking to distribute their programs. Expect to not get lots of callbacks. Expect to get blown off by busy PDs. Syndication is incredibly competitive, and there are established programs with larger production budgets vying for spots you want.

Ask a program director for a brutally honest assessment of your show, so you get a frank review of your strengths and weaknesses that might be corrected before you get polite, vague rejections. A real evaluation is important. Do not settle for “good program”; actively ask for critiques, and take them to heart. There is a fine line between explaining your premise and arguing; if it has to be explained, you probably should be quiet and listen because you have a learning opportunity.

No matter how great your program, you will likely be told “no” by three dozen stations before one expresses interest, and even then they may not pick up your show. You will likely face many hardships before you see success, so be prepared for that. Don’t get discouraged too quickly.

Tip #2: Make sure you have the time and resources to seek distribution

Most community radio stations don’t have the budgets or staff to dedicate to market your program. In virtually every case, you (alone or with your program collective) will have to call (not email) stations during business hours, set up a website and send out marketing materials. Some stations can give guidance, but as the producer of the show, you’re the best person to talk up your show to potential affiliates.

On the technical side, remember you’ll often be the sole person responsible for ensuring the show gets to stations. This means uploading your shows on the time you tell stations you’ll have it available. Be realistic. If you regularly miss the time/day you are to deliver your program, many stations will look elsewhere for programming.

Tip #3: Get technical skills/help

You will need to be technically skilled or have producers that are technically skilled enough to edit audio, upload your show, etc. for stations. I’d also suggest mic skills, interview techniques and program flow are part of technical competency. If you aren’t confident now, get trained by your local station to do so. Getting your skills good and fast has to be a top priority to distribute successfully.

Tip #4: Do your homework with every station

Listen to community radio across the United States and the world via the web. Smartphone and computer applications make that discovery process even easier. Know what makes your program truly unique. There are hundreds of local and national call-in shows, music shows, interview shows, topical shows, cultural shows, self-help shows and so on. What makes your program special or different?

Interstitial programming (i.e. 2-3-minute daily programming, like BirdNote or the Hightower Report, etc.) is very attractive to stations. Have you considered not doing your program nationally, but doing elements of it as daily short modules for stations? They’re likely to pick them up, as there is less schedule disruption, though the same rules still apply and the work is still considerable. Just an idea.

If the content and production quality of your show honestly and objectively doesn’t compare yet to the best of the other programs out there, consider focusing on improving your show first to where it is at that level. Remember, when bringing a syndicated program, stations are replacing local shows or content that listeners are otherwise hearing each week, so you need to be at a higher production and broadcast level.

Tip #5: Have unique content

This one is obvious enough that it need not be number one, but it still must be stated. Locally produced programs with the most success at national distribution have the following characteristics. Effectively, these are the requirements to get promotional support or carriage from the network or local stations. Nationally distributed programs should:

    • Deal predominantly with issues of national interest.
    • Include no references to local-specific issues, personalities, or events, though a local issue reference in the context of a national topic being covered might be okay.
    • Do not contain local station IDs in the program as distributed.
    • Are extremely reliable week-to-week, including a plan for pledge drive weeks.
    • Deal with unusual, fascinating, strong, or thought-provoking topics, or deal with issues in a special way — local stations can cover the usual news analysis just fine on their own, so yours has to stand out somehow.
    • Have high quality and production standards — local stations will not pick up a syndicated program unless it’s as good as or better than their best programs.

Additionally, programs should follow a hard clock if you want to get on with an NPR affiliate or one that carries BBC. The clock conversation is entirely separate, but critical.

Many community stations accept programs with a total running time of 29 minutes for half-hour shows or 59 minutes for hour-long programs. Longer shows, such as two-hour programs, tend to generate more interest with nationally known personalities. Otherwise, most stations are seeking 29- or 59-minute shows.

I recommend listening to great, widely distributed programs and understand what they do in the context of carriage. For example, each week, Alternative Radio explains its purpose for being on the air, its website, etc. Notice that many shows do an opening (billboard), standard close, break, etc.

While you don’t need to do exactly the same thing, recognize listeners have expectations for programming, and it’s important to deliver what they expect, while giving them a little extra.

Tip #6: Master digital distribution

In old editions of this tutorial, I noted free distribution of locally produced programs happens through Pacifica’s Audioport.org website. But technology has made everyone a content provider.

About Audioport, if you’re curious. Audioport is Pacifica’s online audio distribution site, and serves as the primary method for sharing audio. Once you have an account, you can upload any of your productions. Producers get their own accounts through the local stations (if you don’t have one, ask your PD or GM). Then it’s easy enough to upload your program to the site each week. Or if you’ve got some really great one-time audio, it’s easy enough to upload that too. There are many other free delivery methods too, such as Radio4All.

PRX and ContentDepot are popular, as is Libsyn and even a simple feed via RSS. Research your options and be prepared to promote how you’ll get content to everyone.

Live programming is more challenging, because there needs to be some demand for your program from stations with the right setup/equipment; willingness from stations to change their schedules to put on your program on live and alter their local schedules (a prohibitive task depending on the time zone); money to pay an engineer to handle feeds and other items, but it’s a possibility.

Tip #7: Understand automation

Stations, particularly large ones but small ones as well, are turning to automation to manage their on-air production. Even if stations you reach out to don’t use any sort of automation, it’s a technology you’ll want to understand. The Public Radio Satellite System’s website makes the following suggestions for those interested in getting programming picked up by stations using automation. These tips could serve you well generally:

    • Producers should deliver detailed information about the program in advance to the stations. Cue sheets and accurate timings are a must. If your program uses a standard …clock“ and you deviate from the regular format, communicate a …format breaker“ message as far in advance as possible and on the day of broadcast.
    • Be accurate and consistent in your timings. Use standardized (14:00, 28:00, 58:00, etc.) program lengths whenever feasible. Time the program and report it on the cue sheet.
    • If you are providing stations with the opportunity for cutaways during your program, hit your time posts. Use standardized cutaway timings. Allow a …grace“ second prior to and after the cutaway. Few things sound worse than upcut or downcut audio.
    • Some systems use what’s called a reference tone (that tone you sometimes hear before programs as a frequency signpost). Check with your stations before adding one. Generally, reference tones must be set at 12 decibels below your program’s peak audio level. Setting the tone too high or low could mean your program is distorted or clipped or quiet pieces are lost in the individual station’s recording process, so be very careful.

Not many independent producers will use these tips, but if you are using PRSS (which is popular among a massive base of National Public Radio (NPR) stations) these tips are a must.

Tip #8: Know the law and station policies

Self-explanatory. Stations have varying rules about a host of laws and policies. A few include calls to action, advocacy, underwriting, permitted topics, music licensing, ownership of content and copyright. Make sure your program adheres to the basic legal framework of your home station and generally before shopping it around. If you get picked up, make sure to ask for a copy of all relevant station policies.

For breaks, I recommend using Creative Commons licensed music. The law is shifting and the burden for covering music licensing could shift to independents in some cases. Consult with an attorney.

Tip #9: Make calls

To get stations to carry a regular program or segment, you pretty much have to call them up and ask for the Program Director or whoever makes decisions about programming. Contact information for Pacifica stations and affiliates is online at pacificanetwork.org. The National Federation of Community Broadcasters maintains records of this sort as well. It is a good place to start.

At this point, it’s probably smart for you to choose initial stations to which to reach out. One of the best syndicated producers I know prepares a database to track contacts, numbers, calls, mailings, hits and misses. If you don’t have the standard Microsoft products, OpenOffice (openoffice.org) has a great database tool, and it’s free.

Information you will be asked (and should be prepared to answer):

    • How popular the program is locally, how well you raise funds, new members drawn and your fulfillment rates. Your popularity and ability to draw funds for stations could cinch a slot, as many stations are looking for great content that generates new member streams and revenue.
    • Other stations that are carrying it, demographics for such stations and any references they might provide.
    • If you have unique premiums (e.g. videos of the show or something cheap for stations and proven effective).
    • Where can people hear a sample program (Audioport, your website, a CD you’ll send, etc.)
    • Will you provide it to stations via Audioport, RSS (website syndication) or other method.
    • What day/time the program is available (sometimes called when it ‘feeds’). Only give a time you can virtually guarantee it will be available, and can inform stations when it won’t be there. Unreliable delivery is the fastest way to lose a station, so plan carefully.
    • Types of promotions you will do for a station (i.e. will you promote the station on your site, do promos for the local airing, pitch with the station, cut prerecorded pitch promos for the station, provide premiums, visit the area to promote the show (at no or little cost to stations), etc.)
    • How you can participate in any station program approval process, such as providing demo CDs for a program committee.

Because schedules can change for various reasons, many PDs will tell you to check back in one to six months, so make note and do it. Once you get through to someone and they want to get an information packet (most want you to mail them something, but many prefer email), send it out as soon as possible, preferably the same day. Make followup calls.

Don’t let too much time pass between the initial conversation, your package and the followup call; you’re unofficially being evaluated at this point, and your attentiveness, pushiness, punctuality, etc. are all being considered right along with the show. The longer it takes you to get those packages out, the colder your warm lead gets, so move quickly.

Tip #10: Recognize it’s sometimes just about timing

Even with the other nine factors at an optimal place, it’s tough to get stations to carry independent productions. Community radio stations are committed to localism and community access to the airwaves. Additionally, the programming grids of many stations have gotten tighter over the years, and your program needs to be particularly remarkable to find a schedule slot. Sometimes the right moment comes along where you get a station’s interest, someone locally quits and you get the call to be added. If this isn’t that moment, be prepared to take weeks, months and even years to sway a PD or a program committee; depending on the committee, its turnover and the people and station politics, you may have to wait for new committee terms to get serious consideration.

Tip #11: Understand the value of new media

Nine times out of ten, when I suggest podcasting to those who might want to syndicate, I get wrinkled noses and sighs from those who, frankly, do not grasp the technology or its power.

Podcasting is not exactly new media, but it saw a boom in 2014-2015. Plenty of established programs use podcasting to leverage mindshare among listeners.

Independent producers should look strategically at using new media. Use of new media can include podcasting one’s program parallel with radio syndication efforts (don’t be shy about mentioning the podcast during the program, or cutting a special open for podcast listeners, ala This American Life, asking them to request the program on local stations) to use of Facebook fan pages, Twitter and other tools. Tools for web systems like WordPress automate podcasting for site owners, and lots of social media applications can help producers build a presence quickly.

All these cautionary tales said, there are many rewards to syndication. Beyond simply the low-level fame of getting your program heard elsewhere, the hours of work and frequent rejection, the opportunity such distribution affords you feels great, is exciting, and gives you a chance few people in the world get to share ideas, culture and more the world over. The rewards will make the labor seem worth it.

Help reap those rewards by avoiding pitfalls. Some mistakes to avoid:

Mistake #1: Not knowing your target

One of my favorites is an extreme, but salient, example. I keep getting voicemail messages to this day from a production company looking for carriage of the Phyllis Schlafly Minute (or somesuch) and a Christian family segment. Schlafly’s the ultra-conservative icon best known for her opposition of the Equal Rights Amendment, among other causes. The content would most certainly offend our listeners and have no relevance to our schedule, as religious broadcasting is not our format, but they keep calling, blithely leaving messages without a clue.

I also get calls from people hawking shows that may be identical to programs already produced locally. Unless that local program is particularly bad, that offering better be really good, because listeners usually want their “regular” hosts and will tune out if they don’t hear them and whatever is on isn’t super.

Nothing irritates a program director more than calls from people pitching shows that don’t fit the station schedule, that don’t mesh with the station values and format, that don’t abide by existing program processes, and people who haven’t bothered to come up with a pitch for why that program is important for the station in particular. Know your target stations, embrace their missions and visions and be able to articulate why your program belongs in their mix. You are appreciated more when you know something about the station, its audience and what communities they wish to serve that you reach.

By the way, I haven’t called the abovementioned company back. If they won’t bother to take the time to know the station, I won’t be bothered to waste listeners’ money to call them long distance.

Mistake #2: Not getting to the point

Most program directors are busy and may not take too many calls, because they’re overtaxed with tasks. Small talk is something to play carefully, as many will want to know what you’re after. You’re calling for a reason, so get to it.

Be courteous, but direct, and let them know what you need in the first few minutes. Send a followup email thanking them for the conversation (PDs talk to dozens of pitchers each week, but a followup via email is unusual). And don’t get off a call without getting something concrete (i.e. you will send a link or CD (their choice) to them and check back in two weeks, you will email the programming committee, etc.). Being pushy about it can go either way, so use your best judgment.

Mistake #3: Not making it simple

Take a long look at your program and sample delivery processes and consider whether the casual listener would understand or make the effort. Remember, you’re asking stations with significant local demands to put your syndicated program on; ease of finding materials will be key in giving you a chance against steep odds.

I may sound like I’m writing down your overlong URL, and I can probably repeat it back to you, but I doubt I’ll refer to it later. Pick a simple URL for your website, preferably the show name. Make reaching you really easy. Provide your show to stations in many digital formats (in addition to MP3, many stations use MP2 and WAV). Ask the PDs you talk to what formats they want, and how you can deliver your show better. Do a promo for the program tailored to a local station. The more prohibitive it is to find your show, review it and reach you, the less likely you are to receive the carriage you want.

Mistake #4: Being uninspiring

Everyone has shiny portfolio folders, color brochures, printed mailing labels and those round CD cases. Trust me, I have a drawer full of them that I recycle for other uses. While I’m all for being professional, professional doesn’t have to be boring. A handwritten note, a creative flourish here and there, or some unusual means of making yourself distinct from the herd will make a PD remember you. If you don’t convey motivation, upbeat energy and passion with your show, who will?

Creative swag is never bad and does not need to be expensive. I get lots of pens. I get memorable extras less often. Don’t be shy about throwing something attention-grabbing in your package.

Mistake #5: Not being ready

Thankfully not a widespread problem, but you’d be surprised how many shows I hear that want to “go national“ where the production is weak, host delivery is average, listeners don’t financially support the station during the program and the program isn’t especially original. I’m not saying an unoriginal program with poor production, weak listener support and stumbling hosts absolutely can’t be picked up by a station, but it’s highly unlikely. Nathan Moore once stated it’s better to do a great local show than a mediocre national program. Doing an incredible, memorable program each week locally is the first step to creating buzz that will get stations calling you, rather than the other way around.

Postscript: The Legal Stuff

Since I originally wrote this piece, I have been approached by dozens of producers with follow up questions. One issue comes up frequently, and I want to encourage everyone to tread carefully if it is you, because the legal implications are serious.

Here is the scenario: a volunteer or part-time paid DJ/programmer produces a program at a community radio station or public radio station. Said DJ/programmer wants to syndicate that program, signing up client stations on her/his own to contracts that pay that DJ/programmer for the show. DJ/programmer buys a domain, and decides she/he wants to get a trademark and assert ownership rights over the name, concept and production.

I cannot emphasize this enough: consult with an attorney before going this route.

The traditional understanding of intellectual property and copyright law is that if the concept did not exist before a person was affiliated with an organization, the organization (in some capacity) has some copyright or intellectual property claim, or can certainly mount a legal challenge if a person attempts to take the concept for themselves. Consider IBM employees, volunteers with nonprofits, etc. Even having the domain or trademark first is trumped by first use — meaning an organization can claim a name was used first with it and trademarks, etc. were claimed after the fact, and win. Courts historically side with the organizations, which are credited with giving the creative space that allows a concept to flower, be tested, tinkered with, improved and refined.

Translation: you may have come up with the idea, name and format, but a court may rule the station, which gave you the opportunity and place that the production was realized, has ownership rights.

If you developed a successful idea under the umbrella of a radio station, which otherwise never existed beforehand, and you want to take that idea and sell it, it is smart to talk about it with your station and to get legal representation. An attorney friend tells me the case law here is murky, since producers may originate the concept, title and content for the program, but the broadcast station provides the facilities, the opportunity for presenting it, as well as the promotion and branding. Murky does not bode well for you, though, if your station decides to pursue a case against you personally for the name of the program, concept and profits.

The traditional model (and one courts have gone with in other industries) is that the station (or distributor) claims ownership of  all content. But it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. Broadcaster and producer can agree to share ownership of the copyright interests or one party can own the copyrights and license their use to the other. It’s much simpler if you negotiate the relationship sooner rather than later, when competing claims may have to be resolved through litigation.

At the very least, an attorney can draw up a contact or memorandum of understanding the station can sign off on that they are aware of your relationship with them as a contractor and cede all rights to the name, program format and current and future earnings. They could also draw up a different contract, where they get a percentage or some other proposal. You will need to treat your home station just as a client station and have a contract done. Until such documentation happens, at the very least, especially if you will attempt to take money personally or as a business entity or nonprofit, make sure you have informed your station about your plans.

All this said, is a station likely to sue you over a show and its use? Probably not. On the other hand, do you want to find out you’re wrong or, worse, lose a judgment? Probably not, so get your affairs in order.

When you decide to be an independent producer marketing a program, do not forget to contact groups like SoundExchange to pay royalties on music you play, even if you use music just as interstitials. Stations normally have these fees covered by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and DJs/programmers do not need to worry about it. Independent producers need to deal with this stuff on their own and compensate the artists they play.

It probably goes without saying that you should not right now, under any circumstances, be taking money personally for a program that is produced under the auspices of a station and no documentation of their agreement to this effort exists. If you are earning money of any kind now, a good attorney will strongly advise you to disclose that immediately, as not doing so can be legally sketchy for you personally and the station, especially if it knows.

But, again, if it is not clear: talk to an attorney before you consider taking your show bigger than your own station.

Conclusion

As noted at the start, this article is just a thumbnail. It surely isn’t complete, but it is a head start as you venture into these waters. Please feel free to share feedback, offer tips and critique. Good luck in your pursuit of syndication!