Kickstarting coverage of middle America

An NPR veteran hopes to crowdfund coverage of the heartland

“Please God, open the government and start paying people,” Celeste Headlee half-joked in a phone conversation earlier this month. Headlee, a reporter and former national radio host for NPR and PRI, was itching to restart the Kickstarter project that she had temporarily canceled during the government shutdown. For a while now, she’s had an idea that she thinks can change the face of public radio.

Headlee’s proposal for a radio program called Middle Ground relaunched Friday on Kickstarter. It’s asking for $59,000 in donations over 30 days to begin producing a show centered on middle America.

Middle Ground stands out partly because of the cities it proposes leaving out of coverage. The show would take the unusual approach of barring stories about New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. Instead, it would focus on the middle states that fall in between the east and west coasts—states like Oklahoma and Kansas, which receive only a fraction of national media attention.

“It’s been rankling me for years,” said Headlee. “Not only do the middle states get less attention,” she added, “But the attention that they do get is not adequate.”

She likes to call east and west coasters’ perceptions of the middle states—backward, sleepy, conservative— a “fairy tale.” After spending her early years as a reporter in Detroit, Headlee became convinced that current news coverage didn’t do much to confront these stereotypes.

“There’s a certain fairy tale about Detroit,” she said, “that this fabulous metropolis is now dead or dying. And like all fairy tales, there’s elements of truth to that.” But she thinks the media often plays into these one-dimensional judgments. When a story runs about Detroit, “they have to show a story of a ruined building,” Headlee said.

On its Kickstarter page, the Middle Ground team writes that “National reporters only seem to visit middle America when it’s a presidential election year, there’s severe weather or a terrible crime.” The challenge, though, will be for the program to make middle America relevant for people who don’t live in middle America. LA, New York, and DC are easier to sell as national centers of entertainment, culture, and politics. But middle America can be just as relevant to national issues, in less obvious ways. Headlee points to gun control in particular: Discussions around gun laws are missing a piece if they don’t provide adequate coverage of the states where most gun owners live.

Headlee is one of several journalists who have turned to crowdfunding to support new projects. When Noah Rosenberg wanted to create a website dedicated to New York’s untold local stories, he took his pitch to Kickstarter. Thirty-three days and $54,000 later, Narratively was born. The site is one of several crowdfunded websites that focus coverage on issues specific to a certain region—among them, Cleveland’s Belt Magazine and Brooklyn’s BKLYNR.

Even if crowdfunded media projects succeed, they need to keep their organization afloat once the funds they raised run out. Belt Magazine sells t-shirts (though, disappointingly, no belts), and offers lifetime memberships, which come with bonuses like “eternal gratitude” for a reasonable $15. BKLYNR, on the other hand, used Tinypass to earn $10,000 in pre-subscriptions and continues to ask readers to pay for access to its three Brooklyn-centric monthly articles. Revenue from subscriptions has been “enough to keep the site running” and pay writers for their work, said site co-founder Thomas Rhiel.

Middle Ground could avoid having to market itself so aggressively if the program finds a station to support it. Headlee says radio stations and distributors have already showed interest in picking up the show. She plans to start by producing smaller segments that interested radio stations can incorporate into their broadcasts, along with longer programs that listeners can download as podcasts.

But Headlee still wants to get Middle Ground off the ground without the backing of a larger radio station. “Our whole mission is, I think, best served by an independent production,” she said. “We’re trying to be an alternative rather than part of the same.” If the Kickstarter project does succeed, Headlee points out that it would be “the first national show that was launched through crowdfunding.” That kind of endorsement from the public would be an apt beginning to a public radio program.

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Naomi Sharp is a CJR intern Tags: , ,