How PRX is Revolutionizing Public Radio by Making it (Really) Public
April Burbank, Contributor Jake Shapiro
The revolution might not be televised — but, according to Jake Shapiro, it is coming to a radio station near you.
Since 2003, his website Public Radio Exchange has been opening public radio to everyone: “making public radio more public,” as the tagline says.
One of the site’s darlings, a little radio show about design called 99% Invisible, raised over $167,000 this week to become the most-funded journalism project in the history of Kickstarter, shattering the original funding goal four times over. Not bad for a show that began as a producer’s side project and covers everything from cul-de-sac design to the music of escalators.
Ashoka Fellow Jake Shapiro is leading innovation in public media.
Host and producer Roman Mars says 99% Invisible models the kind of show he’d like to hear on public radio. “I’d like to see public radio be… a little more able to allow new voices to come on the air and play with form a little bit,” Mars said.
PRX serves as an open marketplace for unique programs like 99% Invisible, connecting independent radio producers with local stations and offering a taste of the future of public radio.
Before PRX came along, local radio stations had basically two options for programming: produce their own content or purchase a relatively narrow range of programs from networks like National Public Radio or Public Radio International.
“It’s very expensive and costly and hard to produce enough local shows to make your work locally distinct,” Shapiro says. But, he says, stations want and need to be more than “a pass-through for existing national shows.”
And when PRX launched in 2003, independent radio producers had to pitch their work by sending CDs to individual program directors. If they found one sympathetic station among hundreds, they had to negotiate their own contract, billing and fees on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, they wouldn’t get compensated at all.
Shapiro saw that stations needed fresh content, and producers wanted exposure: “If we created the right place for those things to be exchanged, that could actually result in a self-propelling engine.”
Shapiro, a former indie rock musician who had distributed his music online, knew that an Internet platform would connect producers, stations and listeners. Along the way, he could craft an entirely new revenue model.
The self-propelling engine
PRX allows anyone to listen to the thousands of radio stories in its database for free. Producers and radio stations join PRX as paid members, and producers earn royalties every time a radio station downloads their show. PRX handles all the back-end transactions and rights management and provides an easy-to-use interface.
And it’s working: PRX has over 100,000 registered users, a growing catalog of 50,000 programs, and it’s leading public radio into the dynamism of the Internet age. “It also makes content available at a wide range of lengths, and a very wide range of types of content — so it’s really very forward-thinking,” says Jeff Hansen, program director at KUOW in Seattle, where his team downloads pieces from PRX almost every day.
Michael Marsolek, program director for Montana Public Radio, says he’s been downloading clips from PRX for the past five years. He plugs the independent producers’ clips into openings in his schedule and sometimes strings them together into special themed programs. He says he expects PRX to become more valuable for local stations.
“We’re not a repeater station — we don’t sound like anybody else in the country,” Marsolek says. “And I think that’s going to be more and more important.”
Public Radio Exchange is just the beginning of Shapiro’s vision. “For us, success looks like a complete transformation of public media,” he says. PRX now helps develop exclusive signature shows, like The Moth Radio Hour (which won a coveted Peabody Award last year). PRX produces its own shows, makes mobile apps for programs like This American Life and Radiolab, and will launch its own startup accelerator this fall.
Mars, the host of 99% Invisible, also curates Public Radio Remix, a mix of Public Radio Exchange pieces that streams 24/7 online and on XM/Sirius satellite radio and on a growing number of local radio stations. Shapiro says it “sounds like what radio should sound like in the future.”
Shapiro calls PRX a “hybrid” between traditional and new media: “We have one foot in the existing industry and one foot out in one that’s evolving very rapidly.” He’s leading some of that evolution with an experimental attitude that’s often missing from public broadcasting because of funding constraints.
“When there’s existential threat to the enterprise of public broadcasting, the reaction is to circle the wagons, and just protect and defend at all costs,” Shapiro says. “So any of the impulse for reinvention is met with, ‘Let’s save that for a day when we’re not in risk of being dropped off a cliff.’ And we can’t afford to wait.”
Jake Shapiro Thanks for highlighting the work we’re doing here at PRX!April Burbank , ContributorHi Daniel, thanks for your response. You’re right — 99% Invisible is an outlier. I did not mean to imply that Roman Mars earned $167K off of PRX. I tried t [...]5 comments, 2 called-out + Comment now + Comment now 309 55 3
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Jake Shapiro 1 week ago
Thanks for highlighting the work we’re doing here at PRX!
I want to make sure credit is given where it’s due: I’m founding CEO of PRX, which was created as a collaboration of the Station Resource Group (SRG) lead by Tom Thomas and Terry Clifford, and Jay Allison’s Atlantic Public Media. PRX was incubated at SRG for many years before spinning out as an independent company in 2009. We’ve also had critical early and ongoing support from early adopting stations and independent producers, and funders at CPB, Ford, MacArthur, Knight, NEA, Surdna, OSI and more. And of course, the true secret sauce the whole enterprise is a remarkable team of talented folks here at PRX making magic happen every day.
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daniel mcguire 1 week ago
You make no note of the fact that the independent producers of PRX content get paid pennies per minute of aired programming. The extreme example of Bruno Mars making $167k doesn’t note that the money came from Kickstarter, not PRX. PRX is hardly empowering for independent radio producers. I’d like to know if there are any radio people out there, aside from Shapiro, who make even minimum wage from PRX’s distribution system.
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Stephen Hill 4 days ago
Ironically, PRX’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness as far as its producer community is concerned.
By having one foot in the existing public radio system and one foot in Internet media, it has been able to hold producers to broadcast standards of journalism and production quality and to stimulate creativity. Considering the extreme range of quality found in the podcasting universe, that was a real accomplishment.
But because it was “inside the system” from the start under the Station Resource Group umbrella, and funded by all the establishment sources Jake mentions above, PRX has always been obliged to be somewhat less than the disruptive force it could have been within public media.
In the early days of PRX, producers were just grateful to have an alternative to PRI and NPR and to see their stuff used. As the service evolved, stations effectively decided what they would pay for supplemental PRX content: not much. Stations have their own financial problems and paying for content is always a stretch.
Speaking as an independent producer of a national show for the last 30 years I can say that — with a handful of conspicuous exceptions — independent producers could *never* earn a living in the public radio system. They were forced to cobble together income from grants, station fees, technical work and a variety of other sources. We started a related small business which helped to support the public radio program.
As far as I know, PRX has never represented to its producers that they could provide them with a sustainable living. What they have done is to build a platform to connect producers and stations around public media content and subject matter, which has broadened the breadth and depth of available public media content — an admirable accomplishment.
What was conspicuously missing from the PRX distribution model until recently was a public-facing service. Finally, after years of politely mediating between producers and stations and building that inventory of 50,000 programs mentioned in the article, they have opened the service to the public.
If the PRX mission is indeed “a complete transformation of public media” then at minimum they will have to de-emphasize their historical focus on the needs of public radio stations and concentrate on Internet and mobile dissemination of the archive of public media content they have aggregated *while creating new revenue streams for PRX and its producers.*
For musicians, the burgeoning SoundCloud service has exactly the same challenge if it aspires to be more than a cheap streaming and downloading platform. This can be done by charging users for access, by syndicating content to other web services and legacy media, by creating advertising platforms and sharing revenue with their contributors, by voluntary social funding models like Kickstarter, or by new models not yet invented.
PRX has all the talent, technical expertise and funding connections necessary to do this. Whether it *actually* does it and when depends on how much pressure its producer community exerts, and on environmental wildcards like the evolution of Internet media and the future funding of Public Media.
I am fortunate that as an established music program producer I don’t need PRX; if I did, I’d be holding their feet to the fire to take the next step in their evolution and build a sustainable economy between producers and fans of public media.
Hearts of Spacewww.hos.com
Permalink Flag Reply Author April Burbank , Contributor 4 days ago
Hi Daniel, thanks for your response. You’re right — 99% Invisible is an outlier. I did not mean to imply that Roman Mars earned $167K off of PRX. I tried to be clear that it was a Kickstarter campaign, and I think the numbers illustrate the show’s huge fan base more than anything.
When I spoke with Roman Mars, he emphasized that PRX has given his show logistical support (contracts, promotion, server space, etc.). The royalties help, but they’re not much — the same way a band only receives pennies per song sold on iTunes.
I could be wrong (Jake Shapiro would be able to explain more), but I don’t think PRX was ever envisioned as a place where independent producers could make a living off of royalties. It’s a online platform to connect producers, stations and listeners in a way that wasn’t possible before, and it’s part of Jake Shapiro’s vision for changing public media. That’s why Ashoka elected him as a Fellow in 2010.