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

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their economic strategies for content. If you’re suddenly seeing your stream included in a player where people are venue shopping and your programming is identical to what’s playing on 10 other streams—the hope is that the project will shine a spotlight on some things that have been off the table, including forcing some better alignment of standards and interoperability. We forced the creation of a new database of station schedules that had never existed. There are a number of things that, without a significant property like this, the community would never have focused on.

X: The iTunes Store provides a way to pay for apps and to buy things from within apps, but it doesn’t provide a way to make a donation, which is obviously a traditional form of support for public radio. Do you think you’ll ever be able to build something like that into the Public Radio Player?

JS: [During the CPB visit to Apple] I pointed out that iTunes is a really important platform for media distribution, but that it was not then, nor is it now, helping public media with one of its key areas of revenue, which is donations and listener/viewer support. I’m sure that Apple is grateful for all of that high-quality public radio and TV content that they can offer for free to fill up all those iPods, but there is no vehicle for [soliciting donations], and I asked if they would be willing to rethink that, and they said yes. But it was just a notional yes, and there has been very little followup…Without some pressure [on Apple] I don’t have a lot of hope that we will solve it. But we do want to create the pressure for that conversation.

X: Once you’ve assembled this unified database of public radio station schedules, you begin to see how much duplication there is across stations. That doesn’t seem sustainable in the Internet era. Do you think we might be heading for a Clear Channel type of future, where there are far fewer public radio stations—maybe just one per genre, like a folk music channel and a national news channel and a jazz channel and a business channel—and the role of the local station is just to provide a little bit of local news for the five-minute news hole at the top of each hour? Or even beyond that, are we heading toward the ultimate disintermediation—a world where every listener can put together their own personal 24/7 radio station from the material that’s out there for on-demand consumption?

JS: We’re not far from that. We already have on-demand access to many programs, and you can imagine a version of the Player that would allow you to assemble a continuous playlist of the programs you want to hear and salt it with local news. It becomes the radio streaming version of the Daily Me.

But both sides become apparent here. There are certainly times of the day when you can look across the schedule, now that it’s all exposed, and see a huge swath of duplicated programming. When you are an Internet or iPhone user and you just want one show, having 400 stations playing that show at once is not a very good value for you. But at other times of the day, there is a lot of diversity across public radio. On weekends and during the late night hours there are hundreds of unique offerings that local radio stations have, that you wouldn’t necessarily know about unless you have this local discovery tool that is the Player. There’s no way that you would know that the Kent State radio station has this really cool folks show, but now people are starting to have a little more serendipity. We think that for some users, there is going to be new joy in discovering offerings that were previously hidden.

This “Clear Channel-ization” that you describe doesn’t necessarily mean the elimination of local presence. But it may mean that many of the overlapping, duplicative services no longer need to have a role. It’s a historical accident that we define “local” by signal strength; the service area of a station is largely dependent on what kind of tower they have and what its reach is. Sometimes it’s statewide, sometimes it’s just a couple of neighborhoods. One of the rationale behind the low-power FM movement is that there are microcommunities who could be served through radio. WBUR, for example, thinks regionally. If you want to talk to just Dorchester on a daily basis, WBUR is not a good vehicle for that. So there is still very much a need for local content—but the mainstay programs and content streams could be provisioned in a very different way.

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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