PluggedIn-Public radio goes hi-tech to raise cash

BOSTON, Jan 28 (Reuters) - U.S. public radio stations are looking to thumb-sized, high-tech gadgets to help raise money and make it easier for on-the-go listeners to access their programming.

A small device known as the Radio Bookmark allows listeners to electronically jot down specific news stories, talk-shows, music and other broadcasts for later review over the Internet. They can email links to those broadcasts to their friends.

The radio bookmark, which looks like a car-door remote control, logs the time of the show a user wants to pull up. At home, a search engine accessed through a website checks to see what the station was broadcasting at that time and delivers the audio recording over the Internet.

“It’s kinda neat. You just press a button. Then you take it and plug it into your computer and up comes the story,” said Mike Steffon, director of marketing for Boston-based public radio station WBUR.

It is useful for somebody tuning in from their car who arrives at their destination in the middle of an interesting broadcast and wants to finish listening to it later. Others use it when they are interrupted while listening at home or at work.

“It’s for busy folks who don’t have time to listen to a full story. They listen to a little bit of it and bookmark it for later,” said Chris Ranck, a producer at Pubic Radio Delmarva in Salisbury, Maryland, who uses it himself.

While each of the 33 public radio stations across the United States that currently offers a radio bookmark sets its own price for the device that fits on a key chain, the stations generally offer it to listeners who make a $120 donation.

That includes a one-year subscription to the Web-based service that links users to the programs they have bookmarked.

Radio Delmarva offers two radio bookmarks for $150.


It is important for public radio stations to offer enticing premiums because they would not have enough money to keep broadcasting without support from their listeners.

In particular, the product speaks to a station’s most loyal listeners.

“If you’re a WBUR or National Public Radio news junkie, it’s a great little gadget,” Steffon said.

The device, which Lafayette, Indiana-based Sky Blue Technologies started selling last year, stands out from other items that public radio stations have traditionally offered in exchange for donations -- an assortment usually comprised of T-shirts, coffee mugs, books, CDs, DVDs, gift certificates and concert tickets.

Sky Blue was founded by Chris Baker, an entrepreneur and electrical engineer who founded a software company that he sold to Pitney Bowes Inc PBI.N. After six years with Pitney Bowes, he decided it was time to start up a new company.

He got the idea for the bookmark one day when he was interrupted listening to a news story on his local NPR station.

“It was just one of those moments in the car where I had to take a phone call, then rush off to a meeting. But I wanted to finish listening,” he said.

“You want to finish listening but you can’t, because more often than not there is something preventing you,” he added.

Baker -- an avid public radio listener -- says he has no plan to offer the bookmark to commercial radio stations.

The 33 pubic broadcasters that offered it last year have moved about 10,000 bookmarks. Baker expects that he will sell another 50,000 this year as 40 more public radio stations sign on.

One obstacle to getting stations to carry the gadget is concern about challenges responding to technical questions.

Public Radio Delmarva, which runs a news station and a classical music station, was originally skeptical, Ranck said.

“We were a little nervous going into it,” he said. “We were thinking ‘This is not going to work. We’re not sure if people will understand what it is.’”

Sky Blue helped train volunteers at Delmarva’s fund-raising call center to explain how to use of the device.

“There were only a few technical problems. Some older listeners took awhile to get used to it, but it was easy to set up,” Ranck said. “So far there have been no complaints.” (Reporting by Jim Finkle, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)