WFMU Wants to Change How Media Talks to Its Audiences and Raises Money -- For Free

"It's super ambitious -- and a culmination of my life's work," Ken Freedman, general manager of beloved independent radio station WFMU, tells Billboard. He's referring to Audience Engine, a free and (truly) open-source piece of software, developed by  Bocoup that Freedman oversaw the creation of. Audience Engine's goal is no less than changing how media outlets from radio stations to magazines interact with, and keep, their audiences. Oh, and make money.

The story begins 16 or 17 years ago, when Freedman requested a piece of software that would allow its non-technical radio staff to post their playlists online. (Up to that point, some tech-savvy WFMU disc jockeys had been hand-coding their lists in HTML live on the air. Freedman tried to teach his staffers the ropes succeeding with but one.) That piece of playlisting software was built by a single person, who kept adding to it as its features -- like online donations and crowdfunding, which account for 70 percent of the station's fundraising  -- became more and more popular. "It wasn't scalable," Freedman says with a laugh, explaining that the tech developed for the WFMU website was too unwieldy to be brought to any other station, even though people had been asking.

Three years ago -- 14 years into the development WFMU's website, for those counting -- the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which provides funding to New Jersey-based non-profits "whose work has a direct and meaningful impact," gave Freedman and WFMU a $15,000 grant to explore how to create a version of the software underneath WFMU that could be used by other organizations. A proposal was created after a year of research; the Dodge Foundation gave them $200,000 following its delivery, and $200,000 the next year, and $100,000 this year, to create it.

The result of that half-million dollars is Audience Engine. "It's to address the problems of legacy media dealing with new media platforms," Freedman explains. "It's much more difficult for legacy institutions to make that transition." This includes community-building -- when's the last time you thought of an article's comment section as particularly worthwhile? -- through, and this is key, moderation of online conversations around an article, radio show, or live event. A window of time is given to a conversation, and a moderator takes part in and oversees that conversation, ostensibly resulting in a more worthwhile discussion for everyone, helping to build a community of people who'd like to return. Part of the reasoning behind this is the practical requirement that publishers engage with their audiences on Facebook and Twitter, forfeiting that audience data to those platforms. While this practice is likely to continue into the foreseeable future -- the audience reach on Facebook in particular is too great for publishers to ignore -- there's no reason to assume things will simply get better for content creators by sitting idly by. Gawker has spent a great deal of time and money on its own platform, Kinja, which has a similar purpose and endgame. "Gawker, Twitter, Reddit -- they have millions of horrible people on their platforms," says Freedman. "What you do is you don't allow that from the beginning, and make it clear what kind of behavior is acceptable, and incentivize the behavior you want."

Equally important to creators? The almighty dollar. Audience Engine comes with a set of tools that integrates crowdfunding-inspired donation tools throughout a publisher's site, with on and off-site widgets for donations as well as gift reward management, and a full suite of analytics underlying it all for that publisher to gain insight on what is and isn't raising money. "Kickstarter did a great job of borrowing or stealing the concept of the pledge drive, and vastly improved it as well. Public media hasn't borrowed it back yet! That's what we're trying to do." To that end, Freedman says Audience Engine plans on integrating micropayments into the software, which would allow visitors to pay $0.50 or $1.00 to an author, article or vertical they particularly enjoy, a model that is gaining more and more traction in media and beyond.

To support Audience Engine's creation and adoption Congera, a public benefit corporation, was created. Congera charge for hosting as well as implementation of the free Audience Engine software.

Freedman wasn't lying: This is an ambitious project. The philosophy underlying Audience Engine's development is the same that's kept WFMU going; experimentation and independence. The tech tumult of the past two decades has resulted in long-established business models, whether classified ads or subscriptions, being destroyed without any replacements for those models waiting in the wings. "Many legacy media institutions, they've chosen to take a passive approach. You can't do it passively." But apparently, you can make it free.