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

8/18/09Follow @wroush

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public radio. We need to attract new talent into the system if we’re to have any hope of broadening the sound and the appeal of public radio to new audiences and new generations and new demographics.

The other area that PRX is equally dedicated to is that stations are potential hubs of real creativity as well. We shouldn’t rest all of our hopes on national programs and networks. Stations can have a more creative template of programming available, and it goes beyond broadcast, onto station websites and side channels and Internet streams.

X: Okay, but we’ve seen in industry after industry, like music and newspapers, how digitization leads to disintermediation and ultimately to some big and painful dislocations. The PRX platform isn’t just a marketplace, it’s also a place where listeners can come and hear these independently produced shows directly, without ever tuning into their local public radio station. And now, with the Public Radio Player app, listeners can even get that content on a mobile device. Somebody in Boston can listen to a station in Los Angeles and vice versa, or they can go around the stations altogether and listen to programs on demand. Doesn’t that threaten to erode local listenership and create a big dilemma for public radio stations?

JS: I definitely think it ramps up the pressure on local broadcast stations to figure out what their unique value proposition is, given the opportunities for bypass. The kinds of usage you’re describing, on Internet-connected devices and iPhones, is definitely going up. But broadcast will account for the lion’s share of consumption for some time to come. So one of the risks is actually that there isn’t the same sense of urgency, because it doesn’t feel like a crisis, even though there is a fairly widespread agreement that the transformation is underway.

Nonetheless, there are those who really feel a sense of mission, of being more than a broadcast transmission service, and I think those stations are thinking deeply about what it means to be a multimedia hub, about engagement and being a point of conversation and a local resource, and understanding where aggregation and curation might play a role, and thinking about original content and the costs and payoffs of really investing in that. Very few stations now think of themselves as only broadcast. They’re on the Public Radio Player, and they’re streaming, and they’re thinking about secondary channels. They have a leg up, because they have a broadcast tower to help promote their websites, if you want to think of it that way.

So, they have a window of time where a direct appeal to a sizeable audience can help them develop a Web presence that’s meaningful. And they have a lot of potential assets at play. But there is still some strategic confusion, I think, over what it means to be a next-generation station. And PRX is at once part of the pressure to do that—by enabling new pathways for producers to reach audiences, through the iPhone app and podcasts and paid downloads—and at the same time we’ve been trying to help stations differentiate their services by creating unique programming that isn’t just a repackaging of national programs.

I have a lot of hope for the subset of stations that are deeply rooted in their communities, that understand the transition happening in the digital age, and have some understanding of what is unique about their content. I think there are a number of those that have a chance of thriving as opposed to being completely subsumed.

X: Explain some of the reasoning and the challenges behind developing PRX’s Public Radio Tuner iPhone app—which was renamed the Public Radio Player, when the 2.0 version came out recently.

JS: The idea started to bubble up when I was at a retreat with the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting last year, focused on digital. CPB is focused on TV and radio, but they know that this is where the growth and the transformation is going to be. So they were having a couple of days out in Silicon Valley, and we visited Apple as a group, a couple of weeks before the launch of the App Store…I got the sense, and others did too, that the iPhone was going to be another important platform that we needed to support, if we had an opportunity to learn about how to develop for that platform.

I came back and made a round of phone calls to the key players and I asked CPB if they would be willing to support that with a grant, which they did. We then made a round of phone calls to NPR, Public Radio International, and American Public Media, and said are you working on an iPhone thing, and they said no, no, yes. It turned out that American Public Media had already begun working on an app, and to their eternal credit they said they would be willing to not only share it but essentially hand over the code. We used that as the starting point for what ultimately became the Public Radio Tuner and now the Player.

Among the various challenges, there were a whole bunch that had to do with what it means to lead a coalition of partners that are sometimes collaborators and sometimes competitors. And CPB has an ongoing stake in these things with their own rights and requirements and deliverables, and they don’t have a lot of history of funding things that are software-based. So funding an app development project with multiple partners on a completely unknown platform was a highly speculative venture for them. Keeping all those ducks in a row, and having the various legal counsels negotiate subagreements and rights clauses, and making sure everybody was feeling okay with this—I spent far more time on that part than I’d ever anticipated.

X: And stations don’t feel threatened by the app, or by the fact that it allows listeners to get public radio content without going through their local stations?

JS: We’ve actually discovered that people tend to favor their local stations—they add and listen to those stations first, the next ones being stations in cities where they’ve lived or that they are otherwise interested in.

Also, we felt that what we were doing was a segue for stations that had already made a choice to have Internet streaming of their content. We are making it easier for people to find streams that stations are already putting out there for a reason—it’s not like we’re scraping content that stations hadn’t thought was available.

One of the reasons we were okay with the trajectory of this was that we felt it would help to ratchet up the focus on what stations need to do to make sense of … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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