Jul 30 2013

The SGU and Skeptical Activism

This week we are in the final stages of pre-production and then will complete production of our new web-series, Occ The Skeptical Caveman (you can see the pilot here). We are producing four episodes, and expect the first to be available by late September.

This is just one of many projects we either have in the works or in the planning stages, all with the goal of making the world a more skeptical place. We have many colleagues who are doing the same.

The problem is that skeptical activism takes resources – time, money, technical support, and energy. Everyone I know who is active in promoting critical thinking, science literacy, reason, and skepticism does so with limited resources. Meanwhile the promoters of pseudoscience, mysticism, snake oil, and all varieties of woo seem to be generally well funded.

The Discovery Institute has millions of dollars and several wealthy backers. The Bravewell Collaborate is spending millions of dollars inserting nonsense into our health care system.The anti-vaccine movement is far better funded than the skeptical movement, and that is just one issue we face.

My own company, SGU Productions, is dedicated entirely to producing skeptical educational content, and is essentially at the limit of what we can do with the resources we have.  We have therefore made the decision to more aggressively seek the financial support we need to expand our activities.

One move was to accept sponsors for the SGU podcast. We delayed this decision for 8 years, and produced over 400 podcasts ad free, but now it is clear that if we are going to move forward we have to accept such support. We do vet our sponsors very carefully, and are only accepting those we use and genuinely support.

Our early feedback has been mixed. Most of our listeners understand and support the decision, while a few are very unhappy. Some have asked us what it will take to remove sponsors from the show, which is a reasonable question. We have two option:

First, I must point out that we have recently updated our website, including a new SGU membership section. SGU members get two main benefits – discounts on admission to NECSS, and access to SGU premium content. We will post 10-20 minutes of extra material each week that only SGU members at the Damned Dirty Ape level or higher have access to. We are also planning on a regular e-mail newsletter to members who opt in for that.

Becoming an SGU member is a great way to support the SGU and skeptical activism, and we are happy to provide the premium content as a thank you to our members.

Also – since some listeners have asked for this option – we will provide an ad free version of the SGU to members at the Damned Dirty Ape level or above. The ad-free version will be available through our new SGU app, which will be available in a few weeks for the iOS and a few weeks after that for the android platform. More details on the app to follow.

Further, if 4% of our listeners support the SGU through membership at an average of the $8 per month level, we will completely remove ads from the show. This way it is entirely in the hands of our listeners.

With these new resource streams we will be able to maintain and expand our activism and production of skeptical content. But we can’t do it without the support of the skeptical community.

In recent decades, and especially in the last 8 years, the skeptical community has had a disproportionate effect on society. We have taken on huge well-funded opponents and largely have been successful in stemming the tide of pseudoscience and irrationality in our culture. But this is an endless struggle. Imagine what we could do with even a little more resources. I hope we get to find out.

39 responses so far

39 thoughts on “The SGU and Skeptical Activism”

  1. Kawarthajon says:

    I, for one, fully support sponsorship of the podcast/SGU. The fact that you have sponsorship is a testiment to your popularity. You guys do a tremendous amount of work to get the podcast out every week without fail (especially you, Steve) and it is always much appreciated. In the best of both worlds, you would both have sponsorship and paying members and then you could really get the sceptical movement off the ground!

  2. Bruce Woodward says:

    I second that. Keep the advertising and keep the membership, you guys need as much support as you can get.

  3. Guys, thanks. We do intend to keep both, but since some of our listeners asked, we decided to set a threshold of membership support at which we will stop the ads – essentially what would be necessary to replace the projected income from the sponsors.

  4. lippard says:

    While historically most skeptical organizations have operated as non-profits and been relatively transparent about their finances, today the model for skeptical podcasts, blogs, and online forums seems to be to operate as for-profits with little financial transparency or accountability, yet still obtain funding via donations or crowdsourcing to promote an educational mission rather than as more traditional for-profit businesses. While it’s understandable that small operations being run as a hobby would blur the lines, if revenue gets into the thousands of dollars per year, such blurring can become a bit worrisome. Have you given any thought to conversion to a non-profit model? Shouldn’t a donation model be accompanied by financial transparency and accountability to donors, at least? The two “competitors” you mention as being highly funded both publish their finances.

    Your proposal of 4% of listeners each contributing $8/mo would be $16,000/mo on a base of 50,000 monthly listeners (an underestimate, I believe), or $192,000/year… considerably smaller than the largest skeptical organization’s donation revenue, but quite a respectable chunk of change.

  5. Neurologica, SBM, and NECSS are all run by non-profits. It was difficult to maintain the SGU as non-profit because of the significant documentation requirements – we would need to register with all 50 states, for example, in order to take donations from residents in those states. In other words, it’s viable if you are local, or if you are big, but not small and international. Also we are afforded a bit more editorial and revenue freedom as an independent, rather than non-profit.

    Otherwise, it really is not much different. Our business model is – we provide a product for free, and support it with merchandise, live events, and voluntary subscriptions/memberships. Now we are adding what we think is a better model (actually 2 models), which is being used by many content providers: free content supported by ads, with ad free version for members. And premium content available to members.

    While we certainly hope we meet and even exceed projections similar to what you lay out, it’s not as much as you might think given our operating costs, the fact that we have 5 hosts, and a large group of people providing technical support. And the primary point is – we will expand our content production as our resources grow.

  6. lippard says:

    Thanks for the info, Steve. Perhaps a B-corp (available in a few states) would be a more viable future option, or some kind of pro forma financial report for supporting members.

  7. davew says:

    Does the SGU post a rough breakdown of expenses? How much for podcast distribution, how much for travel, and so forth?

  8. I thought you guys got all your money from Big Pharma. Shouldn’t they be able to fund you properly?

  9. Rob says:

    Here in Britain there is generally still a fairly clear division between the program and the adverts or sponsorship. So when you and your colleagues personally drop into chatting about Hula it seems strange and could perhaps give the impression that if you’d do that for the money then why wouldn’t you take the ‘big pharma’ shilling?*

    In the US and other parts of the world it may not be a problem at all and I’m all for you taking sponsorship to help produce the show but would some demarcation between podcast content and advertising be a sensible compromise?

    *Pun entirely reliant on a knowledge of pre-decimal UK currency.

  10. Bruce Woodward says:

    Ori, they do, but they need to keep up the illusion of being poor. How do you think the public would react if they knew the truth that Steven is the Lizard Overlord who goes to his underground lair every night to sup on our flouride, mercury and aspartame infused tears with the Vampire Alien Illuminati?

    Don’t try deny it Steve, Novella is an acronym for L’n’A (Lizards and Aliens) Love… coincidence? I think not.

  11. Rob – We clearly identify the ad as for our sponsor. I really don’t see how there can be any confusion. And, as I said, we carefully vet our sponsors and only take those we genuinely endorse, that are not controversial, and are likely to be of interest to our listeners.

  12. tmac57 says:

    Steve, I am completely behind the idea of SGU using ad revenue to grow and support your valuable and entertaining show.
    One stylistic observation,if you are interested:
    I was finding the ads a bit grating,and I was trying to figure out why,and it struck me that despite the fact that you are clearly delineating the show from the ad,the conversational approach to it sounds a bit forced. I have no doubt that the crew really does use and genuinely like Hulu, but for my taste, a more straightforward ad would be better. I am thinking about how Marc Maron presents his ads,where you still believe he uses the product and likes it,yet while being informal it seems to come across as “Now it’s time to pay the bills folks,back to the content shortly” which seems necessary and straightforward.
    The conversational tact seems a bit subversive,if I may be frank. This may only be me,so take it with a grain of salt. I only wish you guys the best,and hope you can make it work and expand for years to come.

  13. tmac – I hear you. We are just getting started and have to work out the kinks. I will say the sponsors want the conversational style, which I think is fine as long as we clearly identify them as a sponsor.

  14. Kawarthajon says:

    It is a lot easier to register for charitable status in Canada – the registration is federal, so covers the whole country!

    In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with sceptics earning a living, even if it is a for-profit living. Many prominent sceptics publish books for profit, or give talks and have become very wealthy from doing so (i.e. Dr. Ben Goldacre). Good for them. We don’t demand to see their financial books and determine where they are getting their money from. That’s the taxman’s (or taxwoman) job. Furthermore, other prominent sceptical podcasts also have sponsors and have done so without much controversy (i.e. Astronomycast). Steve’s dream is to achieve 4% of listeners paying $8/month, but this is not actually occurring, so asking him for financial transparency at this point is putting the horse before the cart.

    As for the ads themselves, they are new and different, but I don’t think that they take away from the show as a whole. Change is difficult sometimes, but I’m all for it.

  15. TheFlyingPig says:

    We all knew that one day, Steven Novella would turn the SGU into a “venal love nest”.

    For all the media I consume, I get very little advertising – either I pay for content, use adblock, or as a last resort I’ll hit mute and come back later. Maybe this makes me oversensitive to ads, but I really hate ads on podcasts, especially since I can’t easily mute them.

    But I understand the need for revenue and hope it helps to create more excellent content. And I really appreciate the option to pay to get rid of the ads… though I’m curious why the download will be via an app rather than just as a download or through a separate feed on iTunes.

  16. delphi_ote says:

    I don’t mind the ads, but I can see where they might be used by our ideological opponents. You’ve literally become corporate shills, after all.

    As an option to consider in the future, The Penny Arcade guys used a generic Kickstarter to fund all kinds of activities. One of those was taking ads off the sight. Maybe you guys could do the same. Stretch goals could fund things like Ock, etc. Imagine if you had turned the 24 hour SGU into a skeptical telethon! Donations would’ve flooded in!

    You guys work really hard. Our community should be supporting you. Even if the ads stay, don’t be afraid to ask in a big way in the future.

  17. locutusbrg says:

    I will do my part to be a damn dirty ape or worse.

  18. Scepticon says:

    I’m ok with ads, glad the sponsors will be vetted. The ever great Neil DeGrasse Tyson did spots on his show for Alpha Brain which I really didn’t appreciate.

  19. hippiehunter says:

    SGU is the Sunday morning breakfast show for my whole family and to me the ads are not too intrusive. Steve, thank you for our weekly ‘escape to reality’ we will look at becoming damn dirty apes.
    One suggestion if I may, have you considered a regular atheist segment?

  20. Scepticon says:

    @hippiehunter, I’m not sure an explicitly atheist segment would fit in with the generally inclusive tone of the show. Unless it was handled really well.
    What sort of content would you be thinking of?
    I like the Religion News on Skepticality – something like that?

  21. hippiehunter says:

    @ Scepticon sorry its been ages since I listened to Skepticality. I,m thinking of atheism as a subset of skepticism. Perhaps a news segment or maybe a discussion of logical fallacies common to most religions, maybe interviews with Victor Stenger, Bart Ehrman or any of the remaining horsemen etc

  22. Scepticon says:

    Could be good, I’d certainly like listening to it, just wondering if it would be better as it’s own podcast.

    Yeah I almost stopped listening to Skepticality a while ago but they’ve gone back to a more “magazine” type format with regular distinct segments that I quite like (and missed when it was simply an interview show).

  23. hippiehunter says:

    @Scepticon Try “the scathing atheist” …..hilarious

  24. MissyRB says:

    Hi Steve! I think you’re information about applying for non-profit status in all 50 states is incorrect. Non-profit status for an organization is conferred by the federal government under IRS tax code 501(c)(3). http://www.irs.gov/Charities-&-Non-Profits/Charitable-Organizations/Exemption-Requirements-Section-501(c)(3)-Organizations As long as the organization meets the exemption purposes, of which education is one, and is not involved in lobbying activity or promoting a particular party or candidate, then it is eligible under 501(c)(3) to be able to accept donations as tax-exempt. This then allows the organization to provide donors with a receipt stating that their donation was for charitable purposes. This receipt allows the donor to use the donation as an itemized deduction on their income tax statement.

    The only state-related items regarding non-profit status would be: 1) Incorporating the organization as a non-profit corporation. This would be done following whatever process the organization’s legal “home” state has in place. 2) Applying for exemption from state and/or local sales tax on purchases needed to operate the organization. This is usually in the form of a letter from the state notifying retailers that they should not charge sales tax on the transaction. Even though the letter may be from one state, you can purchase goods at retailers who are incorporated in other states and still not have to pay sales tax.

    For example, I am the Finance Manager at The Women’s Safe House, a non-profit incorporated in the State of Missouri. We applied for, and received, federal 501(c)(3) tax exempt status from the IRS as evidenced by a letter received from the IRS. We accept donations from all over the country, and, even though we are incorporated as non-profit in the State of Missouri, we can issue a receipt letter thanking the donor for their contribution. This letter is their proof that they made a charitable contribution which they can then deduct from their federal income tax. We also have a letter from the State of Missouri stating that we are eligible to purchase goods and services tax-free from vendors. So, even though Sam’s Club, a part of the Walmart Corporation, is incorporated outside of the State of Missouri, I can still purchase office supplies needed to run our business sales tax-exempt.

    I would think that SGU could be incorporated as a non-profit and receive federal tax-exempt status (which also means that any excess revenues are not taxable…but you still have to file a tax for 990 every year). Overseas donors are a different story and they would be responsible for following their country’s tax code regarding charitable donations. The onus is always on the donor to follow the tax code regarding their tax returns, maintaining records, etc.

    As far as revenue sources are concerned, I don’t think there are many, if any, restrictions (I need to do more research on this). My organization accepts donations from individual donors (large and small), foundations, corporations, government entities, religious organizations and federated entities (like the United Way). To my knowledge, there are no restrictions on the AMOUNT that can be donated but there can be restrictions on what the donation is used for. There are some unique aspects to non-profit accounting that differ significantly from for-profit accounting, particularly in the accounting of revenue recognition and restricted vs unrestricted revenue. A bookkeeper with non-profit experience, a copy of Quickbooks, and a good CPA with non-profit experience available as a consultant should be sufficient for maintaining the financial records of an organization the size of SGU.

    Given all of that (whew!) I must say that I’m still on the fence about the ad revenue for SGU. I totally support your desire to obtain more revenue for the organization and I believe enough in what you all are doing that I signed my husband and I at the Cylon level of membership. However, I would be more inclined to give at a HIGHER level if I received more benefit. If you remain for-profit, at some point there may have to be a discussion about issuing shares in the corporation. If SGU goes non-profit, then the deduction from our taxes becomes a MAJOR incentive for us to give more.

    So, I’m also happy to share my knowledge in more detail and would love to help the SGU. I have non-profit finance and membership/development experience. 🙂 If you’re interested, let’s figure out how to get in touch!

  25. Scepticon says:

    I’m sure I can find time to fit that in sounds good. Thanks.

  26. TheFlyingPig says:

    Recently, I’ve seen a few content providers trying new ways to generate revenue to continue and/or expand their content. The Vlog Brothers (John & Hank Green) have created a new website (Subbable) to house their content and encourage people to donate/subscribe. The intent is to get multiple similar content creators on the site. Could something like this work for a network of science/skepticism podcasts?

    The major advantages I see for viewers are:

    1) We could donate to multiple podcasts at once, so instead of having to manage a multitude of damned dirty apes, we could have just one starship science officer.

    2) Fewer websites to manage. I get all my podcasts from iTunes, and I’d hate to instead try to remember to go to multiple sites and/or apps each week to find them.

    3) It would be easier to find new content, especially if podcasts I’m subscribed to occasionally put another podcast’s premium content episodes into their feed.

    4) Package deals!

    5) Crossover episodes!

    The advantages I see for content providers are:

    1) Likely more subscribers… a smaller piece of a much bigger pie.

    2) Help more people find their content

    3) A stronger community to help with things like technical issues

    I understand that management of such a place could be a hassle and acceptance criteria for the club could cause some arguments. But the advantages… they seem so advantageous! Any chance of something like this happening?

  27. petrucio says:

    I for one would gladly support a kickstarter for Occ. Having an existing fanbase makes Kickstarting stuff a hell of a lot easier.

    SMBC also kickstarted a couple of projects, with very good results.

  28. Gotchaye says:

    I don’t think I’m entirely caught up on the podcast yet; I’ve heard two episodes with Hulu ads. I don’t think the conversational ad was signposted as an ad in the first one, and that was fairly disconcerting. It came across as somewhat insulting, as if y’all were trying to pretend that the conversation didn’t occur because of the sponsorship. In the second, the segment was clearly signposted as taking some time to talk about the sponsor before an interview with Randi. That one was a lot easier to listen to, and doesn’t bother me going forward.

  29. MissyRB says:

    I should make a clarification as I have a really bad habit of interchanging the terms “non-profit” and “tax-exempt.” The IRS rules under 501(c)(3) govern tax-exempt status only and has nothing to do with articles of incorporation and whatnot required to obtain non-profit corporation status with the state. So, first step would be to change incorporation from an LLC to a non-profit charitable organization. Then application could be made to the IRS requesting tax-exempt status. Just be sure not to use words like “Tea Party” or “Progressive” in your application to the feds. 😉

  30. pdeboer says:

    I might try this Hulu plus, now that I found out how to circumvent the regional blocks.

  31. madewithcarbon says:

    Don’t make a version without ads for members.
    While I understand where you are coming from, the additional burden of editing two versions, managing them etc., is not worth it.
    Some members may ask for it, but I suspect they are a tiny minority.
    If in doubt, you could setup a (totally unscientific and biased, of course) online poll.

  32. Rob says:

    As I said I’ve nothing against advertising and if someone else came on and said, “Use Hula, it’s grrreeaaattt!!!”, I’d have no concern. But doing them as a personal endorsement does open up the question of how far the rogues are prepared to go in presenting someone else’s position as their own for money?

    Having been listening to the show and reading your columns for some time I’m aware of your integrity but a newcomer may get a different impression in the switching from skeptical enquirer to voice of our sponsors.

    Again this may be a cultural thing and a by product of growing up with the BBC during an era when there was an admittedly slightly pompous view of ‘serious’ writers and presenters making commercials.

    If do genuinely sit around off air discussing how great products are in a slightly stilted manner I take back my complaint unreservedly.

  33. TheFlyingPig says:

    @madewithcarbon, they’re going to have a premium and normal version of the show anyway, so it shouldn’t take much to not include the ads in the premium version (unless the premium content will come as an additional download).

    Either way, if they put that poll up, I’ll do what I can to vote a few hundred times in favor of having an ad-free version.

  34. madewithcarbon says:

    @ TheFlyingPig @Steven Novella
    I support the SGU attempts to create revenue streams.
    I know, though, that it’s *very* tough to sustain a Premium Content model online.

    The vast majority of those who tried this model, failed.

    I hope the SGU succeeds. The reality is, though, the few commercial players who proved successful with an online Premium Model are either:

    1. EXTREMELY NICHE, specialized content providers. If you are writing a newsletter about the geopolitical implications of copper mining in Mongolia, there’s probably a hyper-specialized audience willing to pay a price to read it.
    2. HUGE GLOBAL BRANDS, the likes of the New York Times, who enjoy an enormous critical mass to begin with.

    The SGU is certainly popular; however the game of “if only x% paid y dollars” is usually a recipe for disappointment.

    Meanwhile, the efforts to maintain Premium Content, walls, infrastructure, etc, are almost invariably underestimated.
    That’s why it’s better to start with incremental steps, iterations, small experiments. Grand plans tend to fail.

    Given the presumably limited resources, I would axe everything that is not deemed “absolutely necessary” at the beginning. Hence, I would pospone the “ads free version”.

    Incidentally, maintaining an app for a couple of mobile platforms, is almost a full time job in itself. You start with the idea “it’s just a wrapper for downloading, no big deal”. Then, when you are asking money for it, you realize you need to comply with byzantine and ever-changing TOS. You need to check the stats. You need to be cutting edge and make sure your icons don’t look like three years ago (or three months ago…). Today there’s a nasty bug which popped out of nowhere and your app is down. Tomorrow there’s a guy who mails “I bought your app and it broke my phone” – and even if it is BS you need to check and write back (sometimes, btw, the guy may be right…). And there’s much more.

    I don’t want to discourage you, but if you REALLY REALLY think that you need an app – at least I pray you:
    1. Outsource the whole thing. Meaning the *whole* thing, not just the code.
    2. Don’t bet your brand on a random guy who claims to know “how to make an app”. Go for someone who preferably did *exactly the same thing” for other podcasts, and is willing to do it for a tiny cut of generated revenues (no upfront money if possible).
    3. Stick a big BETA label on the app. Users will be more forgiving of the inevitable initial issue.
    4. Put it online rather quietly. You don’t want to have 20.000 people checking it out the first day and thinking “it sucks”. Asking those people to take a second look when it’s fixed, will be tough.

    I am a big fan and I wish all the best!

  35. tmac57 says:

    I don’t know if this is easily doable or not,but have you looked in to the ‘donation by mobile phone text’ model that This American Life and Science Friday have used from time to time? I find it very persuasive to easily text in a code to donate $10 during a fund drive. I have no idea how hard it is to set up,but if it isn’t too onerous,it may be an additional option to add to your menu.

  36. ivorybones says:

    This is a great idea! I really appreciate the open conversation about future developments! I really don’t like the ads, Steve and our time can be better spent on other things. I didn’t realize how much respect I had for the show until I heard those promos. I understand the logistics of course and would like to help. I think the reason I contributed to Occ was because it was a clearly defined project that I had no qualms with. I think The Ness should setup something similar to this, like operational costs levels of contribution, especially if you are going to have levels of contribution, why not just for the podcast or whatever. A good example is the SGU app you mentioned. I am glad I have not contributed to this and would strongly recommend a web app. The “Coast to Coast Radio Show” has a great example of a paid subscription podcast that’s downloadable through iTunes, Podcast app or even Downcast. You just enter a user and password name when prompted. Apps are not the path of least resistance when it comes to supporting your content. They are obtuse. Tapatalk is a great example of a failure of this. I see a SGU Forum thread in my RSS reader in safari on my iPhone and then copy paste it in tapatalk? phpbb has a great mobile web app and I would contribute to getting THAT off the ground. So basically I think in the Skeptical movement everybody holds their involvement close to their chest and want more limited or better framed involvement!

  37. 1RickD says:

    @madewithcarbon – that’s a terrific app analysis. Although some of those things are really not very time consuming. Outdated icons/styling? If you’re using a guy that’s ‘done it before’ with his own code, you can run into all kind of expenses with him updating it – most of these guys are cowboys that love writing new code, but can’t stand making it work or even tweaking it. If the app is fairly straight forward and built on a boilerplate template, restyling it isn’t usually that hard. You still want a programmer that has working examples!

    @, uh, everything else – stop this scaredy cat attitude about money, it’s a joke. We live in a token economy, deal with it. Being timid around money and begging for scraps is a cultural sign of lack of confidence in your beliefs. Last time I checked, the pope don’t live in no shanty. Be successful, build an organization that HIRES people and DOES STUFF and shows that a skeptical outlook is a path to success. A ‘skeptical outlook’ does the average person no good when their jobs and friendships are based almost exclusively on networking skills. Go for the money and USE the money – it’s okay and it’s more effective.

  38. Nitpicking says:

    One thing you might look at as another revenue idea: Subbable (https://subbable.com/). Both the current shows available (Crash Course and CGP Grey) are educational in nature–and I’m subscribed to both.

    Also I think you’d really enjoy CGP Grey’s videos–you should interview him and/or the Green brothers for the SGU. (Hank Green in particular does a huge amount of science educational material and has spoken out strongly in favor of critical thinking and reality.)

    I find the ads jarring and unpleasant, and I completely support your decision to use them to get revenue, but I would strongly suggest making an alternative like Subbable available for people like me, who are prosperous and hate ads.

  39. Mobbane says:

    I’m surprised you haven’t started advertising sooner. Every single other podcast I listen to, that I consider good, has advertising. I say use that added revenue stream and make the show better.

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