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Interview: Jake Shapiro & Kerri Hoffman, PRX

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Jake Shapiro and Kerri Hoffman are the CEO and COO, respectively, of the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), a not-for-profit online marketplace for public radio programming. PRX is also the home to Radiotopia, the podcast network anchored by 99% Invisible. In this interview, we talk about the potential “game changer” in podcasting, the ways audiences can support content in the digital age, and fulfilling the promise of public radio.

According to Kerri Hoffman, radio is in uncertain — but exciting — times: “You realize that something is shifting, but it’s hard to quantify. The data isn’t yet clear, but you can sense that the pace is accelerating, We’re in this transitional phase right now where old rules don’t really apply, but the new rules haven’t yet been created.

To keep up with all this transformation, PRX, both a content and a tech company, has cultivated a nimble, start-up mentality. When PRX originated in 2003, it hoped to solve a major problem for local stations: finding great, underutilized content from talented producers. In the process PRX solved a major problem for producers too — getting their hard-earned stuff on the air, the only way it would ever be heard. Today of course, Hoffman explains, “Stations are no longer that sole gatekeeper.”

As radio digitalized and democratized, so too did PRX. Even before iTunes existed, PRX became  involved in podcasting. It created a tool so public radio stations could play their streams online. It created a 24/7 online stream of public radio programming (called PRX Remix). And, in 2009, it partnered with the storytelling organization The Moth to launch its podcast (The Moth consistently sits in the tops of the iTunes podcast charts). Today PRX is a digital platform that producers can use to directly find an audience and earn revenue.

As PRX CEO, Jake Shapiro puts it: “We’ve taken opportunities to be a laboratory for the industry.”

Jake Shapiro, CEO of PRX

Jake Shapiro, CEO of PRX

The most high-profile of its most recent experiments has been the creation of Radiotopia, a podcasting network (perhaps more accurately described as a collective) anchored by Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible. All Radiotopia shows remain owned by their producers; however, they have access to PRX’s infrastructure, from marketing and promotion, to channels of distribution, to sponsorship and fundraising, to tech support. According to Shapiro, so far the prototype has worked — Radiotopia has come to signify an aesthetic sensibility, and the shows have grown their audience and revenue via advertisers who want to be associated with the brand.

Another interesting experiment is the podcast “How to Be Amazing with Ian Black,” co-produced by Audible. In exchange for offsetting production costs, which PRX typically can’t cover, Audible gets to air the show exclusively to Audible subscribers for a set period of time. The show is later distributed freely by PRX. The deal allows the creators to save on production and access Audible’s audience while still earning significant ad revenue through widespread distribution.

The unusual arrangement is just one of the ways PRX has gotten creative with its business model. Although sponsorship is the company’s fastest growing revenue source, PRX aims to adhere to the “three legged stool” model of public radio, hoping to maintaining a balance between direct support from listeners, corporate sponsorships, and philanthropic grants.

However, unlike public radio, PRX has no membership model, which means that the concept of “direct support” is a far more malleable one. Shapiro says they’re constantly looking for new ways to tap into their loyal listener base. For example, PRX has become particularly interested in replicating their successful crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter. Shapiro admits he also looks to indie record labels for inspiration for how podcasters can  engage with audiences: “We’re already seeing the growth of live events and other types of commerce or merchandise opportunities for true fans of these shows. […] In the future we hope to tie that passionate fan support into a more sustained way of long-term contributing to produce new shows.”

Part and parcel of that strategy will be gaining a better understanding of who the PRX audience is. According to Shapiro, interesting listener data is beginning to come in from Spotify; however, the streaming audio company has yet to roll out podcasting to its entire subscriber base. Shapiro emphasizes that the improved analytics will not just be of interest to advertisers, but also content creators:

“I’m most interested in creating a feedback loop for producers so they know who their audience is, how they should craft their stories, what time of the day or the week they can release them. There’s a lot of open questions about that and very little feedback coming back to the content creators.”

The data would also be useful for PRX, as the company is in the process of developing distribution and consumer-listening products that will hopefully improve searchability and discoverability —  and create additional sources of revenue. Shapiro notes: “We’re really thinking about how we strategize around the mobile app space, because that’s where a lot of the listening is going on.”

Kerri Hoffman, COO of PRX

Kerri Hoffman, COO of PRX

Hoffmann notes that the real game changer, in terms of podcasting technology, would be a significant conversion of android users into podcast listeners. And since quality content creation is a huge part of their company, both Hoffmann and Shapiro welcome the potential burst in audience that would accompany such a tech play. In Shapiro’s words, “the content is really where the value is…. a foundation is as strong as the content participants in it; the technology is the enabler that pushes the whole thing forward.”

What most excites Shapiro about the future of the industry is this potential growth — both in terms of audience and talent. He’s fascinated to see what will compel non-listeners to convert into podcast consumers and where the next set of content creators will come from. Hoffmann is similarly optimistic:

“In the early days of PRX our tag line was ‘making public radio more public.’ I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, and it actually feels like we’re at this moment where we can actually do that, because things are so disaggregated, like it really is part of the public. We really hear from new voices, new communities. The costs have gone down for production, the distribution models are pretty inexpensive. I think that these are really exciting times.”