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July 19, 2018, 9:21 a.m.
Audience & Social

The hit podcast In the Dark is bringing “meaningful interactions” — and money — to the investigation

The podcast has found opportunity with a donors-only Facebook group. Its second-season subject Curtis Flowers is still in prison, on death row — so “giving somebody a mug for donating doesn’t feel right.”

There’s little argument over whether In the Dark is a quality podcast. Some listeners feel it’s even worth $50 to join a Facebook group for it.

That’s one way that American Public Media is fundraising for In the Dark, the investigative/true crime podcast hosted by Madeleine Baran (and named as one of the best podcasts of 2018 by our podcasting expert Nicholas Quah of Hot Pod, with accolades from critics at Vox as well). In its two months of existence, more than 250 people have joined the group, which is for donors only. (And $50 is only the minimum donation.)

“I’m a millennial, so I’ve been focusing more on experiences for listeners and how they can dive deeper into the programs they love,” said Emily Kittleson, APM’s national fundraising manager. She said more than 1,000 people have donated to In the Dark this season (a “big increase in donations” compared to the first), and the number of donors in the group is comparable to how many would actually accept a material incentive, like a mug or a tote bag.

As Facebook’s algorithm pivots toward “meaningful interactions,” publishers are considering ways to monetize groups in ways that actually make them valuable, for both the organizations and for the paying members. Local news organizations often have groups just for subscribers, and topical publishers have created interest communities for their audiences or set up groups sponsored by advertisers, for example.

On the heels of its subscription accelerator for select local news publishers, Facebook has introduced a subscription component for some groups (but none related to news — more about decluttering your house and meal-planning). This could help the money flow more directly to the content creators (though it’s safe to assume Facebook would eventually take a cut), but it is a strictly-a-test-and-don’t-get-your-hopes-up experiment, according to Facebook.

The In the Dark Donors group is not a part of this test. But by keeping it closed and vetting potential members through a donor registry cross-check, the members of this group contributed at least $12,000 (according to my basic math calculations, though I’m sure the existence of a Facebook group wasn’t the sole driver of that amount).

In the Dark is about law, order, and criminal justice, but not in a sensational, CSI way. (Another podcast about a death investigation you may have heard of is now under criticism by the estate of the man it centers around.) The second season of In the Dark investigates the conviction of a black man tried six times by the same white prosecutor in Mississippi. Curtis Flowers is still in prison, on death row — so “giving somebody a mug for donating doesn’t feel right,” Kittleson said. Instead, listeners congregate in the group to brainstorm ways to send Flowers support mail, organize a political campaign against the district attorney, and connect with Baran and the other journalists working on the podcast. The season ended this month, but the conversation seems to have just begun.

As a nonprofit, APM needed to strategize ways to encourage listener donations, especially for such a resource-intensive podcast. Baran and the nine-plus-member team spend a year poring through tips and carrying out the investigation that is then featured in each season. (The two seasons so far have totaled roughly 20 hours of audio.) Kittleson had experimented with a Facebook group for some of the other podcasts she manages fundraising for, like Terrible, Thanks for Asking, a podcast about straight-talking human pain and awkwardness. She created a group with just a $5-a-month (or one-time gift of $60) barrier to entry in order for listeners to connect with each other; it has drawn more than 1,000 members. But with the heavy lifting of In the Dark, Kittleson felt its group was worth a bigger ask.

“It was a tough decision,” she said, after comparing the average gifts for the first season, other podcasts at APM, and for investigative journalism at Minnesota Public Radio. “I tried to set it at a place that would be pushing people to give just a little bit more than they might be originally comfortable with but not way out of the price range.” Some donors chip in more than $50 when joining, she added.

Fans who don’t want (or can’t) contribute at that level are welcome to follow along with the podcast’s Facebook page. Kittleson reinforces that message in the group’s member-filtering questions, and the page itself has a bustling community with 7,800 followers. (Facebook data indicates that many of those are from the town where the crime that sparked Curtis Flowers’ trials took place, she added.)

But the page is subject to Facebook’s algorithmic whims (like, well, the rest of the platform is). The group provides members with notifications about new episodes (when Kittleson posts to start an episode discussion chain as they’re released), updates on Flowers’ case (and his family), and Baran’s work on the story. Members who have committed money to the podcast may be more likely to have productive, engaged conversations. They’ll also be there for donation drives and APM campaigns in the future, if Kittleson chooses to post about it there. Plus, the Facebook algorithm favors the “meaningful interactions” of groups over pages and all that jazz.

In the show’s off-season, the group’s admins don’t plan on monitoring it too much or introducing more information, aside from updates on Flowers’ case, but the members are welcome to take the conversations basically wherever they want. (Baran says she reminds members who ask her about what they could do to help that it’s not her job to “advocate any particular action. We just report the facts, and leave it up to the listeners as to how people want to respond”).

But Kittleson is intrigued by the possibility of Facebook’s infrastructure taking on her administrative overhead fielding the group’s donors. Facebook could likely add in or remove donors instantly rather than waiting for Kittleson to cross-check with their database, but that also means Facebook has the contact data for their specific donors in their court. (Kittleson said she hasn’t removed any donors from the group yet — it’s a one-time donation, but subscription-driven groups would likely be a recurring event to be cross-checked.) And while the details are still being wriggled out — remember, it is ONLY A TEST — there’s a chance Facebook could pull a transaction fee from the donations, either on APM’s side or the donor’s side. A Facebook spokesperson told me they are still evaluating the possibility of what a Facebook cut would look like beyond the test, though the administrators of subscription groups will receive a monthly payment from Facebook starting two months after the test launches. All payments are processed through iOS or Android in-app payment methods, depending on the user’s account, and TechCrunch noted that Apple and Google typically take a 30 percent cut of the payments during the first year of subscription and 15 percent after.

Can publishers trust the platforms with their subscribers — and their money?

“There’s always the issue of being totally dependent on Facebook delivering this thing that we want to give to our fans,” Kittleson said. “If Facebook decided there was for some reason inappropriate content on our page, could they just shut it down and we lose that connection?”

POSTED     July 19, 2018, 9:21 a.m.
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