With “This American Life,” a Big Bet on Digital Pays Off for PRX

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Shapiro’s organization is much smaller than PRI—since both are nonprofits in the public-media tradition, you can compare their tax returns. For 2012, Minneapolis-based PRI reported about $17 million in revenue, most of that from program and affiliate fees. In the same year, PRX reported about $3 million in revenue, with more than half coming from contributions and grants.

But the PRX coup also wasn’t a total surprise.

The onetime upstart is now an established player in the industry, and has grown considerably from being an experimental online marketplace. PRX now co-produces original programs, including The Moth Radio Hour, a weekly national show carried on more than 300 public radio stations. It’s also the distribution partner for Radiotopia, a new group of story-driven radio shows led by Roman Mars’ flagship design-and-architecture show 99% Invisible. And to cap off their longstanding relationship, Glass’ former boss at Chicago Public Media, Torey Malatia, sits on the PRX board of directors.

One bit of irony is that although This American Life is now PRX’s most recognizable client, it probably won’t require the most work for the company’s small staff. Since Glass and Chicago Public Media are handling the marketing and sponsorship duties themselves, PRX is in charge of distributing the program over its Internet-based system and billing the stations that pay to get This American Life.

In technical terms, that distribution-system work is already done. PRX’s Internet-based system is capable of streaming audio files directly into the broadcast content management systems that radios use, essentially mimicking the way satellite-distributed shows appear on the station’s end of the transaction. PRX had waited to build that “last mile” connection, and finally pulled the trigger when The Moth Radio Hour became a weekly show that needed to be fed to hundreds of stations.

“We’ve reached a point where we built so much of what they needed, that yeah, it’s not actually a scary, huge stretch that’s going to overwhelm or transform us. It actually sort of fits right in,” Shapiro said. “They have so many stations carrying the show that it gives us more reach into those stations, which will be good. And no doubt, we’re going to make sure everything goes seamlessly—it’s such a hugely important show that we’re going to be very focused on making it work.”

PRX’s bid was probably also helped because it already offered the traditional set of distributor services in an à la carte fashion, rather than an all-in-one package that is the general rule for traditional distributors.

“There are producers—and The Moth is an example—where they actually do want all of the above,” Shapiro said. “But even with all of the above, we still offer a lot more visibility, flexibility, control, transparency—there’s just a lot more, because they’re architected to be available à la carte. It’s different than just sort of saying, `Don’t worry your pretty head, we’ll take care of it.’”

These are immensely complicated times for the media business. As The New York Times’ recently leaked internal innovation report showed, even the biggest names in journalism are often wedded to the systems and routines of the past, despite the obvious fact that digital platforms are the places where growth will happen.

As established organizations struggle with that change, we have seen a flurry of big media names leave their old-school affiliations behind and strike out with new ventures focused on digital: Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, David Pogue, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, and now, Ira Glass.

Yes, even the tote-bag-carrying, jazz-loving world of public radio is not immune to a little capitalism now and then.

“It’s a funny dynamic, because it definitely feels itself to be a bit of a family—we’re all in ‘the system,’ which is how people inside the industry refer to themselves. And it’s also an industry that competes, and actually that competition can be extremely healthy for innovation,” Shapiro says. “We do feel like we’ve got this important role to play of bieng a disruptive innovator, within the family.”

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