PRX embarked on a local journalism experiment last fall with Louisville Public Media (LPM) and Spot.us with the support of the Knight News Challenge.

We built a service that matches the pioneering crowdfunding work of Spot.us (itself a News Challenge grantee) with the public radio focus of PRX and LPM. The project is called Story Exchange, and it directs the power and reach of public radio to help drive listener support for ambitious local journalism.

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The early signs from Louisville, Ky., are encouraging. The news staff posted pitches for six different reporting projects starting in January. Each idea is more challenging than the day-in, day-out reporting that the feisty staff is known for.

And each project is one that needed extra resources beyond the station’s existing budget, to pay for extended reporter time, travel expenses or research costs.

The pitches appear in three places: on the LPM website, on PRX.org and on Spot.us — all three locations act as funnels for feedback and funding. LPM alerts its listeners through on-air announcements and emails to listeners, and PRX and Spot.us amplify through our own networks.

Two of the pitches have been fully funded: the impact of coal ash dangers, and a look at the environmental trade-offs of a new bridge project. LPM also broke news with its coal ash coverage by uncovering new evidence of the contaminant in one Louisville neighborhood.

The pitch and its full funding have resulted in a series that has already aired in full or part on other Kentucky public radio stations. And LPM is discussing a follow-on hour-long special.

A third story pitch about local food as a weapon in the fight against obesity in Louisville is off to a fast start.

When a pitch is hot

Why do some pitches catch fire with listeners and others do not? Todd Mundt, vice president of Content at LPM, suggested a variety of factors:

  • The timeliness of the pitch. Is the subject “hot?”
  • The amount of the request. When a pitch is struggling to reach a goal, Mundt experiments by adjusting the goal lower to see if that makes it less intimidating.
  • How the pitch is framed — too general, and the pitch loses focus.
  • How the pitch is promoted. On-air alerts seem to have an impact.
  • Whether the pitch has a local constituency. Evidence is anecdotal, but it appears that a Louisville environmental group picked up on the coal ash pitch and used its network to spread the word.

Generally, we see confirmation of the project’s premise that crowdfunding aligns well with public radio’s reach, the role of strong local stations, listeners’ active interest in critical topics, and sufficient willingness to contribute directly.

We’ve also successfully integrated PRX.org with Spot.us, extending the open-source software to enable more flexible presentation of stories and funding.

What’s next?

Story Exchange is seeking expansion to other public radio markets, and starting to look at national opportunities through our Public Radio Remix service. LPM is considering broadening Story Exchange to include pitches from local independent producers and a pitch for an original documentary for national distribution.

And on the technology front, we’re working with Spot.us to improve the handling of user authentication and payment processing to increase the ability for PRX and other partners to embed crowdfunding functionality efficiently.