Ernesto Aguilar recently drafted this document for the programmers at KPFT who want to “go national” with their shows. In my job, I often hear from hosts and producers who want to syndicate their programs. So with much thanks to Ernesto for bringing this information together, I am reposting his document here.
Many local programmers 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 show is really good. Before you go down the national syndication/distribution road, as a program director, 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 in the Pacifica network. This is an important and fun part of community radio. It’s also a lot of work. Syndication involves production, digital editing, uploading files to share with stations, and doing it all again a week or so later, all while maintaining great content and a reliable schedule.
This article is intended as an introduction for independent (i.e. volunteer or minimally funded) producers of similarly independent weekly or daily local programming about how to make syndication work for you. I assume you work with Pacifica or are an affiliated station. I assume you understand syndication, largely, is about delivering preproduced programming to a content delivery system for access by stations. In addition, syndication is, to a far lesser extent, live programming delivered to stations, such as call-in programming, though live is a bit more involved for reasons I’ll explain later. I also assume you have aspirations to see other radio stations carry your program at no cost. It’s an enjoyable and exciting aspiration, certainly! 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 in hopes of helping those of you pursuing 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 Pacifica’s Network Programming Coordinator Nathan Moore, 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. 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. Despite greatness, 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 stations, including KPFT, 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, send out marketing materials and upload your shows on the time you tell stations you’ll have it available. Some stations, like KPFT, can give guidance, but as the producer of the show, you’re the best person to talk up your show to potential affiliates and you’ll often be the person who is responsible for ensuring the show gets to stations.
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. I have a training page (http://www.urbanunrest.org/training/) and Nathan Moore has also posted some training documents at http://pacificaradio.wordpress.com/training-materials/ to give you a start, but 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. 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. If the content and production quality of your show honestly and objectively doesn’t compare yet to the best of these, 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 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 very few if any references to local-specific issues, personalities, or events.
- 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. Many community stations accept programs with a total running time of 28 minutes for half-hour shows or 58 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 28- or 58-minute shows, or, even interstitial programming (i.e. 2-3-minute daily programming, like the Hightower Report, 420 Drug War News, etc.). Have you considered not doing your program nationally, but doing elements of it as daily short modules for stations? They’re highly likely to pick them up, as there is less schedule disruption, though the same rules still apply. Just an idea.
I recommend listening to great, widely distributed programs and understand the elements of 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: Use Audioport (but don’t limit yourself) and understand the KU
In most cases, distribution of locally produced programs happens through Pacifica’s Audioport.org website. 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.
You’ll need an Audioport.org account, which you can get through your local station. (Each station has a master password and creates individual accounts from this.) Audioport is Pacifica’s online audio distribution site, and serves as our primary method for sharing audio. Once you have an account, you can upload any of your productions.
There are many other delivery methods too, such as Radio4All, PRX, ContentDepot (PRX and ContentDepot are paid services) and archive.org. Research your options and be prepared to promote how you’ll get content to everyone.
The KU satellite is available for some programming. Check pacificanetwork.org for the complete KU schedule. Large blocks of time are currently dedicated to Democracy Now in the mornings and Free Speech Radio News, Hard Knock Radio and Flashpoints in the afternoons. For live programming, the satellite is more challenging, because there needs to be some demand for your program from stations with the right KU 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.
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.
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 each Pacifica station and affiliate is online at pacificanetwork.org. There’s also the Pacifica Announce listserv, which we use for Pacifica program announcements. Your local PD can tell you more about it in terms of using it to announce your local program’s availability.
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 the KU.
- 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 programs from other stations. We are, after all, community radio stations and 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.
Enough of the laying out how tough it is to do syndication successfully. That said, there are many rewards to syndication. Beyond simply the low-level fame of getting your show 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. 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. I also get calls from people hawking shows that may be identical to programs already produced locally. 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 back.
Mistake #2: Not getting to the point
Please don’t ask me about the weather, football or my ball python. 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). 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?
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. As Nathan Moore states, 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.
As noted at the start, his 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!
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