When I first started researching web audio, I was surprised to find again and again that an organization I’d never heard of was leading the charge, pushing hard on the current state of sound on the internet, and helping the medium into the 21st century: Public Radio Exchange, more commonly referred to as PRX.
PRX supports some of the biggest names in radio and podcasting. The nonprofit distributes a roster of popular shows, from well-known public radio staples like The Moth and Sound Opinions to hit podcasts like 99% Invisible and WTF with Marc Maron. Radiotopia, PRX's collection of story-focused podcasts, raised more than $600,000 in its third successful Kickstarter campaign, which included several stretch goals to grow the collective's cast of characters.
The organization is led by CEO Jake Shapiro, who in 2010 was selected as an Ashoka Fellow for his work democratizing public media with the help of PRX’s open architecture and marketplace. He's also completed Harvard Business School's OPM45 and is a founding partner in Matter Ventures, a startup accelerator for media companies.
Read on for his thoughts on what’s next for Radiotopia, browser-based audio, the future of PRX, and much more.
(Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Podcasts aren't exactly designed to encourage community behavior on the Web, but Radiotopia recently completed successful crowd-funding campaigns. Can you talk about your plans for this growing community?
Right, so the collective of Radiotopians is a diverse one, at least in how they think about their own shows and audience. I expect that each of them has thought-up new ways of interacting with their fans. Although so far the shows haven't been setup in a way that is about participatory experiments — they're much more about the expression of a particular producer, an impassioned audience, and a social media discussion around the show.
Now, I do think there's a lot of room for experimentation in how to think about more interactive audio, but that hasn't been the central organizing principle so far of this wave of podcasting.
The "podcast" is one model for distribution. Where is there potential for new approaches to distributing shows?
That's what's really still nascent. Because podcasting, although it was invented over a decade ago, hasn't actually had that much growth until recently. We're still in the infancy of how we can explore distribution, function, and discovery.
Recently we saw another startup that's playing around with short-form excerpts of podcasts as a way to discover audio. I think there's a lot of room for thinking of both the "pure" form of audio and more multimedia versions of audio using platforms where visual treatments and metadata might accompany or interact with audio segments. Most of that still hasn't settled into forms that we can count on in terms of distribution types. And I still believe that the most powerful form of audio is still the pure form where it's experienced just as audio. But given the myriad ways that social and media are distributed, I expect we'll see more audio interwoven into that in the future.
What about web-streaming of audio? How important will browser-based web experience be for audio going forward?
It's critical. What we're seeing finally is that audio's becoming more of an integral element of web-based mobile and desktop environments. Given how much we want to ensure people can easily browse, share a Twitter link, send an email, and quickly listen and discover something we want that to be top of mind. There's still a role for native apps in particular, strategic interests, but we really want to make sure audio is widely available and is as easy to access as possible.
You're redesigning PRX.org. Do you see that effecting the Radiotopia site experience?
Yeah, the Radiotopia page was really designed just as a marketing page, back when we were launching this just as an experiment and weren't really sure how far we'd be able to take it. The audience for the Radiotopia.fm page was largely intended to be sponsors and marketers and the expectation was that the listeners would be discovering it through other podcast directories, iTunes, and so forth. But during the course of Radiotopia we've been gearing up for a major rebuild of the core PRX platform. PRX.org has been this distribution marketplace for audio for over a decade and our redesign of PRX has two fundamental priorities forward.
The first one is to vastly improve the listener experience. PRX.org has never focused on listeners as the user; we've focused on program decision makers at stations and producers uploading audio. But we've also had hundreds of thousands of users per month coming to PRX. We recognize now that we have a very interesting opportunity to bring those listeners into a direct relationship with producers on our own site. So that's the first major priority, the listener experience.
The second one is the publishing path for producers. Previously PRX was designed for producers who would offer their audio for broadcast with a broadcast compatible file and all the licensing information for stations to acquire it to broadcast on terrestrial signals.
The new version of PRX is designed for producers to publish audio to a variety of platforms — as web audio on PRX, as podcast audio for iTunes and other directories, or to sync up with their Soundcloud accounts, or publish over the public media platform and apps like NPR One. We're looking even at experimenting with publishing over to YouTube, which is of course a huge listening destination. So we'll of course continue to have the broadcast marketplace as an important destination for publishing, but it's going to radically expand how producers are able to interact with PRX.
Radiotopia isn't the only group going at a kind of HBO-for-podcasts-type network model. What have you learned from competitors? How is Radiotopia going to be different?
We see this as huge validation. We finally feel like this ecosystem is growing; it's not only us kind of crazy people in the corner here thinking this is awesome. There's actually quite a lot of energy, excitement, investment, and competition in this resurgence of podcasting. We feel like we're still at the beginning of a huge opportunity where the audience is growing, the distribution means are growing, the sponsorship and revenue interests are growing. So for now at least this feels like we're nowhere close to a zero-sum game.
The benefit of this kind of competition are that we're all educating those who need to know that this is important. It's also exciting because we see incremental innovation in each one of these things, we're learning from each other, and we're pretty friendly, too, so we're actually in touch with each other, which has been another sort of hallmark of the public media origins of much of this.
I think Radiotopia remains really distinctive in a few different ways. For one, it's designed really as this collective, it's not a single purpose entity. We don't own the shows. Part of PRX's values is to trade flexibility for control. So we don't control things and we think it's a much better model to grow to have a more open network.
We also see that it's not just a pure sponsorship play, so it's not just about building download numbers and going to advertisers. We think there's a very interesting way in which the traditional three-legged model of public radio's revenue source can map to this new terrain. So in addition to sponsorship you also have donations and crowd-funding and you also have philanthropy. We've been successful of course in getting the Knight Foundation to fund us; but also Sloan Foundation, which cares about science and STEM stories and has been able to fund in part some of the stories on Radiotopia. We think PRX is playing this independent role where we can really be a point of leverage for these producers to grow and build sustainable revenue across these different sources.
PRX has some close ties with (audio to text transcription service) Popup Archive; could we start to see Radiotopia shows do anything innovative with that technology soon?
Yes, in fact we did a sample of that this past month. Popup Archive used their technology to take a few episodes from Radiotopia, created transcripts and then lightly edited them with human editors to publish them on Medium as a way to show that you could actually take audio and turn it into a really attractive reading experience. That was intended to be a showcase both of our partnership with Popup, but also an example of where we think that transcripting and different modes of content consumption really make a lot of sense.
More podcasts and audio on the Web stories:
• From Carl Malamud to Dr. Dre to Ev Williams: The history of web audio
• The 4 Stages to Internet medium maturity: Why web audio can’t grow up
• Leaps and sounds: 6 product categories creating the future of web audio
• How to get rich in the podcasting gold rush: steal these 6 ideas from Odeo
• Alex Blumberg on StartUp podcast, Gimlet Media and the future of podcasting
• Jake Shapiro on PRX, developing Radiotopia and the future of web audio