Last week NPR’s All Tech Considered featured The Public Radio, a small single-station radio that lives in a Mason jar. At the time the project’s Kickstarter campaign had yet to reach its goal of $25,000. To-date the project raised more than $65,000, and the developers have 20 days to go before their campaign expires.
“It’s crazy. We’re a little bit shocked, really excited, and a little bit overwhelmed,” said Zack Dunham, one of the two innovators behind the project.
The Public Radio was developed by Dunham and Spencer Wright. Although the project has no formal connection with NPR, the name came to a developer’s friend, Daniel Fishkin, when he was presented with Dunham’s desire to build a radio tuned to just one station.
“I wanted to build this circuit that is basically just a tuned capacitor and you just flip it on and it’s NPR. And he was like 'Oh, that’s really cool. It’s THE public Radio,' said Dunham, recounting their conversation.
Although many of the early circuitry was worked out by Dunham, they built the last round of devices primarily in Wright’s kitchen in Brooklyn. The product featured in their Kickstarter video was finalized on a whim.
“I was like, 'Let’s just drop this in this Mason jar to listen to these handful of speakers that we’re testing' and we both just sort of looked at each other and were like, 'This really funny. What if we were actually to put this in this jar?'” said Dunham. He says The Public Radio is a labor of love but is aware some critics think it's ridiculous. The project has been criticized as being too hipster or having an unnecessarily high price point. Dunham says to fulfill the orders made through Kickstarter they expect to only break even despite additional funds. He also stresses that the idea was meant to be fun from the beginning.
“It should be totally noted that we can’t really take ourselves that seriously with this being in a Mason jar and us being from Brooklyn,” he said. “But it was silly and funny enough of a thing that even if people were making fun of it they just thought it was fun. “
Dunham is a musician by trade and had investigated electronics over the past two years, but turned to interactive audio design more seriously eight months ago after taking a free online MIT EdX course.
“It’s a conscious decision to be moving on from music but it’s also very much rooted in my curiosity and creativity of working with audio,“ he said about his motivation.
The project was developed with significant help from online electronics forums and open source coding resources. “Open source” refers to computer and electronic design methods that promote universal access by making schematics, designs, and methods of construction available to anyone. Dunham and Wright have taken this ethos to heart, sharing their own The Public Radio designs freely. They’re even posted on the project’s Kickstarter page.
This means listeners can donate to The Public Radio’s Kickstarter campaign, or use their designs to build their own single station radio. Dunham says the decision to share their designs have always been part of the project.
“There’s a moral obligation to be upholding that sort of open source mentality of the whole thing,” he said. “It would be completely wrong to be learning about circuit design and looking at other people’s schematics and not acknowledging that all of this stuff is freely available on the internet.”
Currently Dunham and Wright are examining their production model. They’re trying to find a way to move it from Wright’s kitchen to a larger stage. It’s a transition for the developers.
“That’s part of what’s so nerve wracking right now. To produce something when you’re not Radioshack or Yamaha, it’s really hard to produce something that’s cheap. And there are some expensive custom parts on this thing,” said Dunham. “Right now we’re trying to think of ways we can change this to deliver larger quantities.”
It looks like Dunham and Wright will have to develop a new manufacturing model soon as demand continues to grow. They're currently looking to work with a manufacturing shop in Brooklyn or here in the Midwest. They’ve raised over $40,000 more than their initial goal. Kickstarter contributors are expected to receive their radio in Spring 2015.