Showcasing the next generation of audio storytellers

Journalism / Article

Above: 99% Invisible: Season 3 via Kickstarter

The goal for Radiotopia from PRX – a new podcast network of the best emerging and established talent – is to create a model for sustaining story-driven public radio, says Jake Shapiro. As CEO of PRX, an online marketplace for public radio programming, Shapiro has the expertise to guide it to fruition.

Launched today with support from Knight Foundation, Radiotopia will cultivate a new generation of storytelling talent, shape a replicable framework for digital first audio programming and develop new audience engagement and revenue growth techniques.

The network will experiment with collaborative crowdfunding and new methods of sponsorship and cross-promotion, helping independent producers develop their programs over the long run. Content will be varied: one podcast will focus on design and architecture, another on how people connect in the modern world.

We recently talked with Shapiro to find out how he expects Radiotopia’s inaugural lineup will better serve and help build the growing audience for original spoken word content.

What’s most exciting for you about the launch of Radiotopia?

J.S.: It’s a lot of things at once. First and foremost we’re really excited about the programs and the producers we’ve chosen to launch with. They are the kinds of stories in audio we love, and that lots more people would love if they knew about them. We can’t wait to take them to bigger audiences. It’s also a critical moment for PRX as we realign around helping producers reach new audiences, both on public radio and beyond. We hope it will increase our understanding of how audiences are finding and experiencing this type of content.

Is there something unique about audio that makes it ripe for storytelling?

J.S.: Radio and audio seep into your soul in a different way. As a media experience it’s something that can be compatible with other things you’re doing, like driving a car, working out or cooking dinner. You’re taking content into your ears and brain differently than you would a visual or text-based experience. The personas and the human voice resonate in almost an ancient way, it taps into a human desire for connectedness. What’s fascinating is how it’s converged with the way people experience storytelling in a fragmented media world. Rather than being displaced by other forms of media, audio is distributed in a way that is accessible to how people are using technology today.

Your lineup of seven producers is pretty diverse. What unites them?

J.S.: They’re all at the top of their game professionally in terms of being creative entrepreneurial producers in their own right. They share a quality of craft and are edgier in their content. They’ll have mass appeal even though they cover different topics. It’s a great mix of folks, all of whom we’ve worked with in various ways before, but are embarking on this new venture together. I’m excited that we’ve got such a range, including the Kitchen Sisters, who have been producing some of the best work in public radio for a long time but are working with PRX to refocus their identity and build a relationship with new audiences.

One of the producers, Roman Mars, had a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign for his show “99% Invisible.” Did that influence how you set up this project?

J.S.: There’s a longstanding question on how to create and sustain journalism projects like his. In the radio and audio field, it’s a puzzle to find ways to sustain these projects without major grant funding or facing the challenge of building significant broadcast carriage. What Roman did by breaking records for building a journalism audience [he’s at one million downloads per month] on Kickstarter was essentially follow a lean startup mode of content creation, focusing on a digital audience first. It is definitely an inspiration. He left us with a testable hypothesis, and we’re hoping to extend those learnings to another group of talented and ambitious producers following a similar path.

It’s also important to note that leading local stations have often played a key role in the incubation process. For Roman it has been KALW, for Love & Radio WBEZ has helped out, and KCRW has been a great partner for Lea Thau with Strangers. Even has we focus on the non-broadcast distribution for Radiotopia we’re looking at ways to collaborate with leading creative stations along the way.

What are some of your larger strategic goals with Radiotopia?

J.S.: Radiotopia is key to PRX’s goal to be the leading platform for bringing story-driven audio to millions of listeners across mobile, web and broadcast. It supports our strategy to be the best partner to producers seeking not just distribution, but audience insights and revenue from multiple sources.  We also see Radiotopia helping make the case to sponsors, funders, brands, and fans that high-quality story-driven audio is an essential and irresistible form of journalism and entertainment. We will learn a lot about how audiences discover, experience, love and share these programs, and we hope Radiotopia will be the place where these insights are gained and shared.

How will you share what you’re learning?

J.S.: We’re still just getting underway but are already thinking about the opportunities. That could be through conferences, webinars or interview sessions with producers. We’ve also thought of hosting a “PodCamp” type of thing that would offer training and coaching for our partners or others that are interested in doing similar projects. We have some likely collaborators who share the goals of helping producers gain skills and build careers, especially The Association of Independents in Radio (AIR),  Transom and the Third Coast International Audio Festival.

What determines success of this project? What do you hope to see if you’re looking back on this five years from now?

J.S. We hope to look back and see that this was the beginning of a new kind of public radio. In a tangible way, we’ve set a shorter-term goal of tripling the audience for each of our selected producers. We hope that will trigger an ability to raise funds from donations, sponsorships and crowdfunding to the point where it can become a sustaining business model. We want this to be a springboard for an entire new cohort of interesting storytellers.

Do you listen to podcasts? What’s at the top of your playlist?

J.S.: On my iPhone. I often use our PRX Remix app. I listen to a lot of Snap Judgment and The Moth. Right now, I’m catching up on the recent episodes from our inaugural roster!

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation