Jake Shapiro on PRX and the iPhone App That Could Change Public Radio’s Future

8/18/09Follow @wroush

At first, the mission of the Public Radio Exchange was simple enough: Create an online clearinghouse for news-and-culture radio programming where public radio stations would have an easier time shopping for shows and independent producers would have a better shot at getting their stuff on the air. PRX launched that system in 2003, and it’s now used by 400 stations across the country. But one thing leads to another—and under the entrepreneurial leadership of its founding executive director, Jake Shapiro, the Cambridge, MA, non-profit has developed from a mere marketplace into an increasingly disruptive force in the public radio ecosystem.

Through projects like the Public Radio Player, an iPhone application that lets users listen to virtually any public radio program instantly, PRX is showing the way toward a future in which individual stations, such as Boston’s own WBUR and WGBH, may have drastically different, probably smaller, roles. But at the same time, the opportunities for public radio to serve specific communities and to distribute more types of programming from a broader range of sources may be growing.

I wanted to sit down with Shapiro to pick his brain about the Public Radio Player and PRX’s other game-changing projects because public radio is such an important cultural and intellectual resource in innovative regions like Boston, San Diego, and Seattle—and because the public radio ecosystem still tends to attract the people doing the most thought-provoking audio storytelling out there, whether those stories travel via Internet packets or frequency-modulated radio waves. In my two-hour interview with him at the organization’s Harvard Square office last week, I asked him to outline how PRX was born and how the organization is guiding public radio through an era when old-fashioned broadcasting is gradually giving way to personalized, Internet-based multicasting. The interview is drastically condensed below.

Jake ShapiroXconomy: So, how did you get into the world of digital radio distribution?

Jake Shapiro: Right prior to PRX, I’d been associate director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society [at Harvard Law School] for about a year, after having been producer for The Connection on WBUR for Chris Lydon. When that show and the [WBUR] management ended up getting into a tussle over the ownership and future direction of the show, Chris started a production company that ended up creating Open Source Media. [Lydon also became a fellow at the Berkman Center, where he and Dave Winer, another fellow, created the first-ever RSS-based podcasts.] That was my introduction to the business of public media and a segue into my work at the Berkman Center. This was the summer of 2002 and there was a lot of work going on there at that time around intellectual property and copyrights. The Creative Commons was just getting its start. Digital distribution of music, in particular, was becoming a focus of transformative change.

That tied to my other hat, which has been as an independent rock musician, guitarist, cellist, and cofounder of a number of bands. I don’t look like it, but I’m a Korean rock star. It’s the ultimate success story in long-tail music distribution. My band Two Ton Shoe, which we started in the ’90s in Boston, was one of the first 100 bands to sign up on MP3.com, so we were pretty involved in digital media from the beginning. One of our songs, called Medicine, took off of its own accord in the Korean blogosphere, and started to get passed around by aspiring Korean musicians. We got a call out of the blue from a guy who said he represented a Korean record label, and he wanted to know if he could represent us in South Korea…They licensed our back catalog and put out a double album, and a few years ago, this was in 2005, they called and said they’d like to fly us over to Seoul to perform. It was a true Spinal Tap moment—the fulfillment of your teenage rock star fantasies. The true indicator of the phenomenon is that there are now more hits on YouTube of Korean bands covering our songs than on our songs themselves.

So music and the Internet as a change agent for the arts and fans; public radio producing; the Berkman Center; all of those things only in retrospect ended up being the perfect training ground for what PRX would be as an opportunity and an idea.

X: Where did the original idea for PRX come from?

JS: Two partners—the Station Research Group in Maryland, which is a group that does strategy research and policy work for public radio stations, and Jay Allison, who runs [the NPR productions] This I Believe and Lost and Found Sound and Transom.org and is a true pied piper of public radio—had taken a look at the industry back in 2001, 2002 and said … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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