News from the Lab

Advice on Running Revenue Experiments in Public Radio

Now is the time to try out new revenue ideas

WBUR launched BizLab because of a desire to ensure public radio stays financially strong, vibrant, and relevant to our audiences. BizLab is dedicated to evaluating new membership and revenue sources, identifying new markets for content, and developing new partnerships with business, education and tech communities. 

Since I joined WBUR a year ago, my team at BizLab has earned a little revenue and a lot of sweat equity. We are at a point where we are looking for stations to join us in this approach to finding and testing new ideas for revenue. To shed light on what that means, I’d like to share a bit of what we’ve learned and our approach to running revenue and innovation experiments in public radio.

Use the best tricks of User-Centered Design, Lean Innovation, & Agile Development

I’m a believer in the methods of user-centered design, lean innovation, and agile development, but I’m not a stickler for the details on how you apply them. My advice is to use these methods in so far as they get you towards your goal. And in the case of revenue and innovation experiments, your goal is to figure out if the idea has revenue potential.

You need these essential pieces:

  1. Create a project plan with an end date. I’m talking about documented deadlines and a realistic, week-by-week schedule so you know if you’re on track. Define what “done” looks like for your experiment (and take inspiration from Agile’s two week sprint).
  2. Document your hypotheses. Why do you believe this idea is a good one? If you can’t articulate it, you can’t make progress. As soon as you define why you think this idea will work, you can think of a way of proving it will work. I like using the Strategyzer’s Test Card as a way of planning out an experiment.
  3. Create an artifact for testing your idea. Whether it is a webpage, a survey, or a paper sketch (e.g. the Lean Startup MVP) you need something to show your idea to others. The only way to find out if others like your idea is to show them, not tell them.
  4. Collect as much feedback and behavioral data as you can. User data is your guide — collect as much behavior data as you can (e.g. any method from UCD). Our natural biases, opinions, and stubbornness can only be put in their place with lots of hard evidence contradicting us. We’ve used interviews, surveys, click throughs, as well as completed purchases and donations.
  5. The moment you learn something, reflect & adjust your course. Use every lesson learned. Change the project plan. (e.g. Lean Startup’s Pivot.)
  6. Talk regularly with your peers about these learnings. The people in your organization who will be impacted by your projects… keep them engaged with your progress. Put another way, if you want your projects to have impact, you need your peers to be engaged and interested in what you’re learning. Your only hope for transferring successful projects out of the test/learn cycle and over to the core operations of your station, your peers must be engaged. Must read: The Stage Where Most Innovation Projects Fail.

Biggest Opportunities

BizLab ran three experiments last summer engaging our listeners in different ways and there were a couple of common themes which likely apply to other stations:

  • Content is king. Our target market is looking for deep, engaging content. We found that WBUR’s listeners love our book content — articles and lists of books. And it was easier to get users to click on links for books than ads for t-shirts.
  • Curation is our unique value proposition. WBUR shares content that is pulled out from the deluge of information available to us. Our listeners appreciate us for our curation, and they trust the voices and people who make these editorial decisions.
  • Women are leaning in. We have more female than male donors, and our merchandise store had 60% women shoppers, and the women’s shirt was the top seller.  In every opportunity, the female perspective should be the first use case we focus on.

Biggest Challenges

I’ve been surprised by some of the challenges we have encountered while designing and running our experiments. We have so many loyal listeners and only 15% of them donate, so I thought it would be easy to find the 85% and engage with them. It is not. In each of our experiments, the people signing up, filling out the surveys, buying the t-shirts, and looking for book recommendations are… existing donors.

Reaching new audiences and engaging them will be challenging. Whether you are looking for younger, digital-only, non-donors, or a new demographic, the path to them has not been tread, or else they’d be engaged already. I’m looking forward to cracking this open next.

The other enormous challenge is culture. We like to say at WBUR “culture eats strategy for lunch,” and no matter what the best laid plans we have, if the culture of the station isn’t ready to receive the project’s findings, there is no point in doing the project.

Your Station’s Context Matters, A Lot

When considering an idea for new revenue for your public radio station, your ideas are naturally constrained by your station’s capabilities and resources. For example, if your station does not have a website with significant traffic, then you cannot monetize that traffic (with ads, cross-promotion, etc.). If your station doesn’t have any email addresses of non-donors, any email marketing campaigns will be handicapped.

But the constraints go beyond this. This summer we opened an online merchandise store to test out if merchandise, separate from a pledge drive, would sell. We hoped that non-donors, who like WBUR, would buy a $25 shirt, even if they don’t donate. We also hoped donors would spend money on getting an item they really wanted. We found that the market for WBUR merchandise was much smaller than we’d anticipated. Of the customers we obtained, 60% were already donors. And from many informal comments we got about the merchandise we’ve concluded that WBUR fans 1) automatically assume WBUR merchandise is a gift from us (so FREE) and 2) already have more than enough fan merchandise because we’ve given it to them (for FREE). In short, we eroded any market for merchandise by supplying our best customers lots of free stuff.

Your existing revenue channels are influencing the available market for your revenue idea. It is important to know those factors going in, and make deliberate decisions about how to work with or around them.

Staffing and Skills

I had the amazing good fortune of hiring three fantastic Fellows last summer (hi, Wendi, Suzie, and Cynthia!) and they taught me a lot about what kinds of skills a station needs to kick start some innovation experiments. The BizLab summer experiments couldn’t have happened without a bunch of this:

  • Hustle — given a goal they run with it and update you two hours later.
  • Can quickly move past blockers. Inevitably there are a lot of “no, that can’t be done” moments, and your team needs to immediately come up with a new game plan that gets you to your goal in a new way.
  • Visual design sense — know how to layout a webpage, create a logo, and use imagery for conveying the right message. This is important for designing prototypes, user interfaces and internal presentations.
  • Social media savvy — know how to write a tweet, post on Facebook, and ideally know how to run paid social campaigns.
  • Can learn new platforms very quickly — Facebook ad manager, Google Ad words, Shopify, Google analytics — all these tools were learned by my fellows within a day so they could build something, test it, and move on.
  • In awe of NPR and public radio — If your team has respect and admiration for the station’s work, it goes a long way in establishing trust and rapport with collaborators. And when this is the case, you do not need your staff to know much about how radio actually works.


If you’d like to chat with us about your innovation experiment, reach out: