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 there was something missing. We weren’t using the Internet as a way to connect stations to each other and to independent producers, whose wonderful work is used once and then left by the wayside. I heard this idea and said, ‘Let’s bring it to the Berkman Center as a project.’ They said that as a matter of fact, they were actually looking for somebody to do this as an executive director and turn it into a reality, so I left the Berkman Center in the summer of 2002 to do just that.

We fortunately had gotten a small grant from the Ford Foundation to write a business plan. I brought on a consultant and we dived into and wrote a very thorough blueprint, not just for the basic functionality and business rules of PRX but also the technical requirements for the first version of the Web application. We were fortunate that it was at the low ebb of the dot-com bust, so when we put out a [request for proposals] to build the first version of the app and we only had $80,000 to spend, we got about 30 responses, from some very impressive outfits that were hungry for work. It was a rocky road to the first version but we got a lot of bang for our buck and we launched version 1.0 of the platform in September 2003.

X: What did the platform do at that time?

JS: The basic core functionality is what it does today, which is to act as an open distribution platform that enables anyone with audio or radio work that they want to offer to public radio to upload it directly to the site, and encode it in the broadcast file format, MP2, and list all their metadata and rights and licensing information. That’s the producer side of it. The flip side is the stations, who are the main customers, who were also given accounts, and a way to search, find, listen to, and ultimately buy and download these broadcast files. And on top of that, we created an economy, so that there is pricing built in. That was new terrain, as there had not really been an existing market in the public radio world.

X: A lot of people probably don’t realize that public radio actually runs on money—that stations have to buy most of their programming.

JS: Some people think it’s all done by volunteers, but people pay bills for things. It is a semi-subsidized economy, so there are a lot of strange dynamics. A producer might have a grant to pay for a work, in which case they want to give it away for free. But the hard sector to deal with was this independent work, which hadn’t been easily available before. There are a lot of hurdles to acquiring, licensing, and paying for that work. If you want to run a great documentary on the health insurance industry, finding out about it, tracking it down, getting the audio, working out an agreement, securing the rights, and paying for them were steps that inhibited a huge amount of potential distribution. One of the whole premises of PRX was to get rid of those barriers and reduce those points of friction.

We’ve stayed true to that as the core vision of PRX. We were able to solve the chicken-and-egg problem of creating a new marketplace, which meant jumping in right out of the gate and bringing in enough valuable content and enough stations wanting to use it. We started out with probably 500 works available on the site and maybe 40 stations signed up to use it, and now we’re talking about 20,000 works at any given time and approximately 400 stations, which is most of the public radio stations in the U.S.

X: How do you fund the operation?

JS: The funding is heavily reliant on some key foundation investments, the big ones being the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Ford Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation [see story]. We were selected last year for their “Creative and Effective Institutions” award, their version of the genius award for institutions, which was really significant for us. The National Endowment for the Arts and the Surdna Foundation in New York are also real catalysts.

But throughout all of this, our strategy has been to continuously grow the direct revenue and become self-sustaining. We made it very clear we would be taking a percentage of the transactions on PRX, and as a result that’s a quarter of our revenue. We charge at the front end—the way stations buy content is they pay for a package of hours of content, and they pay a fee on a sliding scale based on their station’s budget, and we take a straight percentage, which at this point is 10 percent. We take a fee from producers too—anybody can create a free account and upload up to two hours of audio, but if they want more space and if they want to earn royalties from their work, they have to become a paid user, which is modestly priced at $50 per year. The site does all the transaction tracking, of which stations are using the work. Each quarter we tally up the totals and calculate the royalties due and send out the checks.

X: Can independent radio producers make a living that way?

JS: It isn’t really designed for that. There are very few ways for independent producers to make a living in public radio. It’s a small economy to begin with, and one of the hardest roles to play is to be a freelance creator. PRX is an important tool in the toolkit, but we’re definitely not the lifeline.

There is a great need to figure out how to foster that work, especially with the recent cancellation of several shows that were major showcases for independent work—Weekend America, Day to Day, and WNYC’s The Next Big Thing. It’s one of the most dynamic parts of the landscape, creatively, and it’s where a lot of the hope is pegged for the future of 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 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.

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

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