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April 21 2011

14:30

Schiller to public radio: Don’t just sit there, take risks

Vivian Schiller

Vivian Schiller has a warning to her former colleagues at NPR: “Your continued existence is not guaranteed.”

But that warning — delivered yesterday in a talk at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center — wasn’t just about the congressional fight over public funding. It was about what she sees as the imminent threat of Internet radio in cars. “The monopoly advantage of the radio tower will begin to fade,” she said, delivering her remarks in the form of an open letter to public broadcasters.

“New digital-only startups will enter the marketplace in audio, and you will find yourselves longing for the days when the competition was that public radio station that overlapped with your broadcast signal,” she said.

The Shorenstein Center has posted audio of Schiller’s hour-long talk and Q&A; you can download the MP3 or listen to it below:

[See post to listen to audio]

Schiller suggested member stations adjust to the threat by starting to offer additional, online-only streams. If the local NPR station is serving news when a listener wants music, Pandora is just a click away. And, as Schiller warned in our predictions-for-2011 package in December, that kind of audio flexibility is coming to cars, terrestrial radio’s strongest bastion.

She said public radio could learn a few things about competition and innovation from its commercial counterparts, having worked in for-profit media herself (CNN, Discovery, The New York Times). She urged public radio to take more risks.

“You are now competing in the big leagues and are no longer the scrappy underdog,” she said. ”You must become your own disruptors. If you don’t aggressively reach out to new audiences on new platforms, someone else will. There is no such thing as lasting media loyalty, especially in this age of media promiscuity.” She said public radio needs to “let go of the nostalgia” of the craft.

In questions afterward, Schiller said little about what’s next for her post-NPR (other than “a week on the beach”) and had little to add about the controversies that led to her departure. Schiller brushed off suggestions that NPR cut ties to member stations, which receive a vast majority of the famously fraught federal funding, saying the national-local partnership model is the network’s “special sauce.” She said the surest way for stations to survive is to deliver locally focused content, alongside NPR’s national and international reporting, on every platform possible.

March 11 2011

19:00

Funding public media: How the US compares to the rest of the world

With this week’s NPR news has renewing the debate about de-funding public broadcasting, it’s worth highlighting a recent report (pdf) that puts our public broadcasting system into perspective when compared with 14 countries around the world.

Though cutting public broadcasting appropriations to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would essentially limit the “public” nature of our system by cutting out the government, it’s important to remember that most public radio stations receive only about 10 percent of their money from CPB. For many public radio stations, though, if it comes to it, the loss of this federal money may make it all the harder to sustain local programming — and local newsgathering — if it cannot be found elsewhere.

Taking a look at the report, compiled by Rodney Benson and Matthew Powers of NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication, which includes a close breakdown of the public service models of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the UK.

Some key findings:

• US per capita spending on public broadcasting is $4.
• Research fairly consistently shows that public television, simply put, makes for better quality news.
• As a corollary, public service television, at least in Denmark, Finland, the UK, and the US, makes people better informed and encourages higher levels of news consumption.
• The most trusted public broadcasters are those that are perceived as closest to the public, and most distant from the government and advertisers.
• While some countries play around with appropriations, many of these are for multi-year periods, creating some insulation from political pressure. And other countries, like the UK, Japan, and the Netherlands, rely primarily on license fees.
• Independent buffers between governments and the broadcasters help keep the government out of the content.
• Public broadcasters are all over the board when it comes to Internet transitions. Some are trying to figure out how to raise the money to make things more innovative, while others, like the BBC, are pioneers.
• Government newspaper subsidies are alive and well, and have been for a long time — many since the 1970s. They help keep afloat struggling newspapers and create a diversity of opinion. In some cases, they are even sponsoring innovation online. They exist in Belgium, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.
• Public broadcasters, even in Europe, are facing pressure from commercial broadcasting — and hedge between trying to fulfill public service missions and compete by appealing to large audiences.
• It could be a lot worse.

In New Zealand, in 1989, the public broadcaster TVNZ lost all its funding and was actually required to produce dividends to pay back to the national treasury. Though some public funding has been restored, pretty much all New Zealand has is New Zealand on Air, a public media agency that gives out public funding to commercial and non-commercial channels. New Zealand has managed to keep Radio New Zealand publicly funded.

Some recommendations the report includes:

• Just because we aren’t Europe doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to have strong public broadcasting.
• Make appropriations for multi-year arrangements, or better yet, establish a trust for public broadcasting.
• As the authors note: “The question is not if government should be involved, but how, and that is a question that demands an in-depth conversation, not a shouting match.”

The report makes a claim worth interrogating, though: the idea that few outlets providing public interest programming, commercial or non-commercial, reach a broad public audience. Just to take issue with that, the evening news figures — in total viewership — for February 21, 2011 look something like this:

NBC: 9,830,000
ABC: 8,400,000
CBS: 6,450,000

But NPR’s weekly reach on Morning Edition is 14 million and 13 million for All Things Considered. So it may be that more public interest news, and public service news, is reaching more people than we think. And the audience has continued to grow.

Benson and Powers are not alone in suggesting a public trust for news; they were joined by a chorus of reports last year looking for sustainability for news. But the question is: Could such a trust be established at a time of political discord when the very viability of the concept of publicly funded media is on the table?

September 09 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of public radio’s Argonauts

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Overnight, it seems, journalism has been transformed from a daily grind to an heroic quest. Rupert Murdoch has dubbed his adventure to get readers to pay for tablet (and other) content Alesia (after a Roman/Gauls battle) and now public radio formally launches Project Argo. Ah, journalists pursuing the golden fleece. Forget Woodstein — the pursuit of journalism itself is now an against-all-odds mythic trip against budget monsters and business model slayers.

If last year was the year of massive cutting, this is the year of new news creation popping up from unusual quarters. AOL’s Patch is probably the biggest hiring agent, with more than 400 new full-time jobs covering local communities. Sites like TBD.com and Bay Citizen are crafting new products and strategies and hiring dozens of journalists. Now Argo pushes forward, in a quest to stick a new flag of public media in terra incognita, and is hiring journalists in the process.

Argo is intended to bring a high level of attention to hot button topics, covered from a regional perspective. “We want to be the best means of authoritative coverage,” NPR Digital Media G.M. Kinsey Wilson told me recently. [We want] to be the top-of-mind choice for issues like immigration [now covered out of L.A. by KPCC with the Argo site Multi-American].”

Coverage is handled by the increasingly familiar reporter/blogger/curator, finding the most relevant coverage for readers. Largely providing a single new full-time position for each new site, “hosts” come from some impressive reporting backgrounds, like WBUR’s Carey Goldberg, former Boston bureau chief of The New York Times, and Rachel Zimmerman, former health and medicine reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Much of the content — and there’s an impressive amount at launch — is text, not audio.

At first, Argo seems hard to put in context. It’s public radio becoming public media becoming locally topical, but in ways that can inform more than local audiences — which we used to think of as public radio listeners, but who are now public media listeners and readers. Got that?

I’ve talked to a number of people in the emerging public media landscape — a fairly merry lot of Argonauts and other dragon slayers who see lots of upside — so let’s take a look at the emerging newsonomics of projects like Argo.

By the raw numbers, Argo is a $3 million investment. That’s not much by traditional journalism standards, but in this day and age, it wins headlines, like the minor economic development miracle of a new big-box store being covered on the Metro front. The money comes both from a foundation — the omnipresent Knight Foundation at $1 million — and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at $2 million.

That Knight funding reminds us of the good that’s still being done by the once dependable profits of newspaper companies, as Knight Ridder funding built one of the 25 foundations in the country, one that has been instrumental in seeding sprouts of the new new journalism.

That CPB funding reminds us that our tax dollars have been supporting news for more than four decades now, even as the debate rages abstractly on whether it’s a good idea to have “government” in the news business. NPR’s news effort — supported by members, philanthropists like Joan Kroc and yes, our tax dollars — makes a pretty good case that some government funding is a good idea, especially if we compare NPR radio news to what is elsewhere generally available in the growing desert of commercial radio news coverage.

Argo itself is 12 sites, produced by 14 public radio stations (two sites are jointly produced), each specializing in major topics like education, health, immigration, and ocean health, and exploring that topic regionally. Journalists are hired by individual public radio stations, each of which applied for the funding. The initial funding is intended to sustain the sites through the end of next year — and to provide “prototype products,” according to Wilson.

So that funding is one of the first things that tells us about the business of this effort. Like Silicon Valley startups, the effort is about building a product that seems to meet a clear audience need, building that audience — and then finding a sustainable business model. That’s what has built companies for decades in the valley, and it’s in contrast to how much of the journalism business has long gotten funded.

Looking under the covers, though, here are three more things to watch about the emerging economic model underneath Argo:

  • It’s local and vertical. In the conundrum that the web has been for newsies, publishers often felt compelled to choose “local” or “vertical,” the fancy term for topical. Of course, readers’ concerns encompass both, and an education site that focuses on local education (such as Minnesota Public Radio’s Argo site On Campus) creates double value and may multiply audience. Even though, it’s “local,” just as WBUR’s CommonHealth, it will find national audiences as well.
  • It’s built for networking. Public radio used to a fairly one-way street, with national NPR and then Public Radio International and American Public Radio essentially licensing or syndicating shows to local stations, of which there are more than 250. Now built on increasingly flexible technologies like NPR’s emerging API and PRX’s exchange, local stations can increasingly both syndicate their own work, Argo-funded and other, to each other — and pick up other stations’ work more easily. In a sense, we see an alternative wire in creation, especially as the Public Media Platform goes forward.
  • It builds on public radio stations’ local news push. A number of stations represented in Argo have also begun building out their local/regional/statewide news presences. KQED, in the Bay Area, which is launching MindShift through Argo, just hired eight new news staffers as it launched KQEDNews.org (Good piece by MediaShift’s Katie Donnelly on the initiative and its context.) So in KQED’s case, as in WBUR’s, KPCC in L.A.’s, and Oregon Public Broadcasting’s, the topical initiative receives more play due to the expanded news reach — and the expanded news reach gets more public notice because of the new topical coverage.

Each of those factors are multipliers, multipliers of public radio’s emerging digital news business. They multiply audience. They multiple the ability to get members and membership income. They multiply sponsorship opportunities, the “advertising” of public radio. That’s on the business level. On the journalism level, public radio’s news values — the closest to newspaper’s traditional ones — get to flex their muscles, another early test of just how far public media wants to go in filling the yawning local news vacuum.

August 02 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of membership, part 2

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

New news organizations have embraced the membership model (see part 1 of The Newsonomics of membership), but they don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do it. They can hone that wheel, for the digital-only and digital-first age. One of the best places to gain insight is in public radio, which has been plying the membership trade for more than 40 years now — learning the dos and don’ts and sharing some best practices internally.

As city sites begin to build on what MinnPost, Texas Tribune, and GlobalPost have started, they can certainly apply some of those lessons. I made an initial, unscientific foray into NPR membership, to feel the ground and see what’s shaking. I think at this point, pending much deeper study, we can see both some metrics and some lessons that have useful applications.

The Metrics

As I noted in my first membership post, there are at least three key metrics for new websites to master as they move forward:

  • What percentage of which part of the readership can news sites expect to contribute?
  • What’s the median gift?
  • How much of their going-forward budgets — and if and when foundation money dries up — can be made up by readers?

NPR station experience helps inform those metrics.

Percentage of listeners who become members: There is no single number to cite, but most reports come in at somewhere between 6 and 12 percent, though it’s clear that counting methodology is not consistent across the nation. KUT, Austin’s public radio station, is part of a group of eight like-sized stations which collectively pool their membership data. Those eight sign up 5.8 percent of listeners, Holly Gaete, KUT’s director of membership, told me. “Listeners” are those who listen for at least five minutes per week. KUT currently counts 17,338 contributors.

Oregon Public Broadcasting says it gets about 10 percent of its public TV viewers to become members, but has no similar data for the radio; that’s one of the nuances of counting, as a number of dual-license stations (public TV and public radio under one umbrella) complicate any apples-to-apples comparisons.

A few people make the point that it’s long-time listeners — those who’ve listened for two years or more — that make up the best universe of potential public radio members. That notion (akin to MinnPost’s Joel Kramer’s notion that frequent visitors offer greater potential than infrequent ones) makes sense, but is apparently not something widely measured in public radio.

What brings them in?: KUT’s Gaete makes the point that membership directors use diverse tools to gain members. Here’s her breakdown:

Radio pitches (those twice-yearly pledge drives): 37 percent
Mail: 36 percent
Web: 18 percent
Telesales: 5 percent
Other: 4 percent

Stewart Vanderwilt, KUT’s general manager, differentiates between those who make “intellectual” decisions to give — responding to mail, for instance — from those who make an “emotional” decision, often responding to an on-air appeal. The intellectual decision-makers’ average gift is higher, and they renew at a higher rate. KUT’s overall renewal rate is 58 percent.

The sweet spot of giving: Again, counting standards differ, but it’s the $50-$150 range that draws a majority of gifts. The buck-a-week or 10-bucks-a-month pitch seems to have resonance with donors, with some making the point that “that’s cheaper than the daily newspaper.”

What’s the trend line?: Interestingly, the recession’s not done a great deal of damage to membership, at least not as much as we’ve seen circulation fall at dailies. Some stations report membership mildly down, but giving flat or up a tad. Others report membership even up a little, but giving down. Stations’ recent membership performance may indicate a couple of things: Long-term relationships may help weather bad economic periods, and listeners understand the increasing role of public radio in filling the news vacuum.

How important is membership giving?: KQED’s Scott Walton, executive director of communications, reports that membership tops 200,000 — and accounts for 60 percent of the stations’ $55 million budget. Oregon Public Broadcasting — its number of contributors up two percent over the last year — counts 120,000 members, which account for 64 percent of its budget.

The Lessons

Beware the power of the barker. Bill Buzenberg, now director of the Center for Public Integrity, used to serve as vice president of news for National Public Radio. He’s in a unique position to observe membership, given that background. As he compares online news startups with public radio, he notes one big distinction that will affect membership sign-ups.

“The difference is that public radio has a ‘barker channel,’ meaning they have the radio megaphone to get people to come into the tent or become members in the first place during membership drives in which they can withhold the programming,” he says. “That barker channel is great for public radio and drives up the membership numbers, even if listeners hate the membership drives. MinnPost, or other non-profit centers, have no barker channel.”

If barking helps, just talking to potential donors — and current ones — about the deep journalism crisis, especially the local one, helps too. Donors feel an obvious kinship with the stations — maybe akin to a loyalty newspaper subscribers have traditionally felt. Or perhaps, the notion of voluntary donation itself creates a reinforced relationship, more so than a fee-for-service “subscription.” That’s a key question as we see membership pushes for online media ramp up just as paywalls are increasingly erected by legacy news companies.

“People have the tangible sense that journalism is troubled,” reports Oregon Public Broadcasting CEO Steve Bass, who says he hears that from donors, as newspapers from The Oregonian to smaller dailies cut back on coverage.

Borrowing lessons from public radio isn’t easy. Metrics within public radio vary and are not freely available. In addition, we’re in the early stages of thinking about what’s different and what’s similar between public radio and online news sites. Further collaboration here — maybe abetted by such groups as the Knight Foundation — could be a win/win, though potential competition as we see developing in the Twin Cities (MPR, MinnPost) could be an issue.

Finally, as member-based sites ramp up — or, in the case of public radio, morph into digital-first news producers — one curious question will be the the advertising value of these members. Membership and ads need not be two separate universes. In fact, member data — how they read, what they read, what they buy, where they are — can greatly help the targeting of ads. That could make members even more lucrative than readers, and listeners, overall.

July 07 2010

14:00

WBUR app inches public radio toward mobile fundraising

Apple just approved a local public radio iPhone app, now in the iTunes store, that promises to deliver “localism, journalism, participation and monetation” — goals set out by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in backing its development.

The app, from Boston station WBUR, is a test of sorts. It was built by PRX, creator of (among others) the popular This American Life app, with a grant from the CPB. The hope is that the app leverages the strengths of a local station and entices other stations to pick it up.

“PRX plans to offer the resulting code under an open source license to enable other local stations to develop additional apps, and encourage a developer community to help improve and extend the app for subsequent versions,” Jake Shapiro said in a blog post when the plan was announced. Shapiro told me in an email that at the moment the code belongs to WBUR and PRX, but they’re working with the Berkman Center on hashing out licensing issues.

Content and engagement aside, mobile offers another potential benefit for public radio: fundraising. Imagine being able to click “Pledge $60 Now” on your phone and then being able to sit out the rest of the pledge drive. But unfortunately for nonprofit journalism, Apple bars apps from letting users donate directly within the app. PRX worked around that issue by using pledge buttons that call WBUR (it is a phone, remember) or send you an email reminding you to donate online through your web browser.

Shapiro wrote about the issue here for Ars Technica, after the This American Life app ran into a similar problem. Apple claims it’s a liability issue for them: They don’t want to be held responsible for scammers pretending to be legit nonprofits, even if it’s an organization like NPR developing the app. (Shapiro calls that a cop-out.) The workaround Shapiro came up with isn’t ideal — who wants to read a credit card number over the phone instead of just pressing one button? — but it’s still a step toward mobile contributions. John Davidow, WBUR.org’s executive editor, shrugged off the issue: “We didn’t think of it as a problem.”

There’s also an alarm clock function that will play WBUR to wake you up, an idea submitted by a listener. And if you’re a WBUR member, the member discount card is taken to a new level with a location-based feature that shows you businesses nearby that will give you a discount. (Nice.) On the content side, the app lets you listen to show archives alongside the usual live streaming. Davidow said he wanted the app to also increase engagement with the audience: The app makes it easy for users to send in a photo or a news tip, for instance. “Mobile is a fantastic platform for radio,” Davidow told me. “It’s built for it.”

March 26 2010

14:54

Media Decoder: US Corporation for Public Broadcasting to fund local journalism

America’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has pledged funding for seven new regional reporting projects in an effort to counter the decline in local journalism and original reporting nationwide.

The projects will reportedly be collaborative efforts between public radio and TV stations.

The Local Journalism Centers, as they are being called, will each hire teams of reporters and editors, as well as community outreach managers, to report on an issue of regional relevance, including the reinvention of the industrial upper Midwest economy, efforts in upstate New York to attract innovative businesses, and agribusiness in the Plains.

Full story at this link…

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January 06 2010

15:00

Eric Newton: Shame on us if we don’t take the steps needed to feed knowledge to our democracy

[In October, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued its report on how our media need to evolve to serve the public interest in the digital age. The effort included some big names: Google's Marissa Mayer, former solicitor general Ted Olson, ex-L.A. Times editor John Carroll, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, and new media researcher danah boyd among them. Here our friend Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation explains how the report fits in a tradition of media self-examination and issues a call to action. —Josh]

Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn’t just sneak up on us. It’s been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.

We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news “in a context that gives it meaning.” In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn’t diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.

After that, a stream of reports — from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others — agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:

— Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,

— Kerner: They don’t engage everyone,

— Carnegie: We need alternatives.

Here comes digital media, and — boom! — an explosion of alternatives. And we’re all — shocked? Apparently. So let’s try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.

A new examination of a familiar problem

Why a new commission? We are now deep into the second decade of the World Wide Web. It was our hope that when our leaders were finally ready to change things, they would consider a new perspective. Hutchins, Kerner and Carnegie and the others focused on what should be done to improve, diversify, add to — and nowadays the talk is to save — traditional media.

The Knight Commission started with communities, by visiting them and hearing from their residents. News and information, the commission says, are as important to communities as good schools, safe streets or clean air. Journalism, it says, does not need saving so much as it needs creating.

As a former newspaper editor, that last point seems pretty important to me. Of the nation’s 30,000 burgs, towns, suburbs and cities, how many are thoroughly covered by the current news system? Ten percent? Five? Less? We’re talking about knowing how to get, sometimes for the first time, the news and information we need to run our communities and live our lives.

Is the Knight Commission making a difference? We hope so. The Federal Communications Commission has hired Internet expert Steve Waldman to study the agency, top to bottom, thinking of reforms with Knight’s 15 recommendations in mind. Free Press, the nation’s largest grassroots media policy group, embraced the report, especially its call for universal affordable broadband. Ernie Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School and chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, announced he is boosting innovation in public media. CPB backed NPR’s Project Argo in a partnership with Knight Foundation.

Community lawmakers are agreeing with commissioner and former FCC chair Michael Powell’s points about “information healthy communities,” about the role of open government and public web sites in local information flow. Commissioner Reed Hundt, also a former FCC chair, presented the Knight findings to the Federal Trade Commission.

Librarians across the country are pushing the role they can play as digital training and access centers. In addition to its dozens of media innovation grants, Knight Foundation itself took the commission’s advice: it has made more than $5 million in grants to libraries.

Taking the next steps

Now what? The policy work needs to come down to the detail level. Steve Coll and New America Foundation are among those thinking about that. How can we really spur more marketplace innovation? How can government rules and laws make it easier for newspapers to be nonprofits, treat student and nonprofit journalists equally, require the teaching of news literacy?

The hard part is ahead of us: that is, involving every aspect of our communities in this issue, governments, nonprofits, traditional media, schools, universities, libraries, churches, social groups — and, especially, citizens themselves. How do you do that? How do you make “news and information” everyone’s issue? It’s a tall order, perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Universities could help here. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates at least start out in a college or university of some kind. These institutions could make news literacy courses mandatory for incoming students. Understanding and being able to navigate the exploding world of news and information is as fundamental to the college students of our nation as knowing English. Stony Brook has already been paving that path. There, nearly 5,000 students have taken news literacy under the first university-wide course of its kind.

Colleges could set an example for the rest of our institutions. We are, after all, at the dawn of a new age. Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium works, and how to manage the new interactive relationship with the people formerly known as the audience — all of these are changing as we speak. The complete metamorphosis of how a society connects the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas that can better its life — would seem to be something colleges should want all of its students to think about.

This is hardly a short-term project. It took more than 200 years for America to change from a country where most people work growing food to one where most people work growing information. It will take time for the wholesale rewriting of America’s media policies, not to mention getting up the guts to spend the trillion dollars or more needed to remake our access to high speed digital systems and ability to use them.

Yet all of this is needed for America to become an information-healthy nation. A nation without universal, affordable broadband is like a nation without highways and railroads. We would be stuck on the surface streets of the new economy, tracing our fall from a global force to a secondary society.

More than 70 years after Hutchins, the basic story is still the same. The country’s news and information systems still aren’t good enough, still don’t engage everyone and still invite alternatives. It’s time to start doing something about this issue. Our rules, the laws, the policies — even the high school and college classes we teach — these things matter to how the news ecosystem in any given community is shaped. They can speed innovation or stunt it. So pick a recommendation — the Knight Commission lists 15 — and have at it.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a supporter of the Lab.]

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