December 16, 2014

IowaWatch Connection secures underwriters, set to continue in 2015

Credidt: Flickr / morberg

Credidt: Flickr / morberg

The Iowa State Bar Association and two media outlets of the Gazette Company have signed on to be the first underwriters of an Iowa nonprofit news radio program beginning in January 2015, said the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism.

At stake is the sustainability of the IowaWatch Connection, an experimental radio program airing in more than a dozen stations across the state of Iowa.

The program is on its 23rd episode after it launched in July 2014 with initial funding from the INNovation Fund. The Investigative News Network awarded IowaWatch a $25,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to fund the project as an experimental effort to engage new audiences and become self sustained through new revenue sources.

IowaWatch is now out of INNovation Fund money, and it has repurposed existing programs for reruns in the last few months. The nonprofit has used a few grant dollars and donations gathered from community forums to keep the program going until the end of 2014, says executive director Lyle Muller.

And earlier this month, Muller says they sealed a deal with the Iowa Bar Association to keep the program going for another six months in 2015. It’s one of the first underwriters to financially back the program while revenue from other areas gradually emerge.

“I am adding that $5,500 in income to a $10,000 donation The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, IA, and KCRG-TV is giving IowaWatch for a third year to finance 13 more weeks of original programs and 13 weeks of repurposed programs,” Muller says. “Our underwriters as of the first of the year will be the Iowa Bar Association, The Gazette Company’s newspaper and its local television station.”

With Jeff Stein at the helm as host and producer, the show has been a success in terms of quality and delivery.

Since its launch, the IowaWatch Connection has consistently produced weekly investigative stories on a variety of topics from college debt, to the state of Iowa’s workforce, to farm safety, to payday loans, and more. Each episode runs just under 25 minutes to fit commercial radio formats at 20 radio stations.

Radio station executives like the program and have expressed interest in continuing it on the air, according to a survey done by IowaWatch in October. However, the survey also found that few would pay for it or share commercial dollars to sustain it.

Muller said that his original goal was to secure underwriter funding by no later than September. But in October, the program was running out of grant funding and still had no solid commitments from underwriters.

“Sales take time—lesson number one and a reality for a new program like this, especially when you consider that we started having any kind of sales effort for underwriting programs less than a year ago with no seasoned sales person,” Muller says. “So we created additional time to attract funders to this show, which radio station managers say they like and want to continue airing.”

Under the grant proposal, Muller hypothesized that IowaWatch would secure 10 stations to carry the program and that the grant money would help produce 13 episodes. Under these metrics, the program has already proven to be a success and is well on its way to meet another goal: to find revenue that helps sustain the program for an additional year.

“We are waiting for two potential funders who say they will let us know after the new year starts. If that comes through we will increase the number of original programs,” Muller said. “I am preparing to hire a sales person in early 2015 to deal with sales for this program and other things we were developing, pending the arrival of the second year of a two-year Knight Media Grant that the INN helped us get last year.”

“A lot is going on.”