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July 9, 2013, 10:40 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Can’t stop, won’t stop: PRX introduces an app for unending audio storytelling

The new PRX Remix app offers a window into an alternate universe of public media, where podcasts and independent productions enjoy pride of place and serendipity is the organizing principle.

prxremixPRX is proposing a new model for what a radio station (or a “radio” “station”) can be with a new app that offers up pieces from shows you like, some from a few you may not recognize, and then puts the whole thing on shuffle.

PRX Remix is a curated, unending stream of radio stories, podcasts, interviews, and more material collected from programs like The Moth, WTF with Marc Maron, and Slate’s Gabfests among others. Remix has existed online and as an actual format for terrestrial and satellite radio for some time, but as of today, it’s also all jammed into an app for your iPhone or Android, following the broad shift toward mobile devices as where audio gets consumed.

What PRX Remix does is try to take advantage of the wealth of audio storytelling options the Internet has afforded, said PRX CEO Jake Shapiro. “For the story hungry, there’s pretty much a bottomless appetite for really good stuff,” said Shapiro. But many of those stories don’t always fit perfectly into half-hour or hour-long slots on your local public radio station — and on many stations, many of those those timeslots have been spoken for by the same set of shows for years or decades.

As a technology producer for public media, PRX has helped develop apps for programs like Radiolab and This American Life. As a distributor, they’ve put programs like The Moth and Snap Judgment in front of larger audiences. One reason it’s great time to be a fan of audio storytelling now is the variety, Shapiro said: Traditional players in public media continue to produce new stories and shows, while the Internet has opened up a universe of new independent players.

For a growing number of people, their audio diet is representative of that, with a mix of radio programs and podcasts, news and features. In that scenario, the biggest question becomes what to listen to next. PRX Remix is one answer to that. “It’s a way to bring together what we’ve been learning in building mobile apps for media companies the last couple of years and apply it to something really close to our heart,” Shapiro said.

While the app is rich in stories, it’s short on features — it’s mostly one big play button. Shapiro said that was a conscious choice in building the app. The main goal is to introduce people to new stories, give them ways to remember them, and share them with others. The app’s functionality allows users the ability to skip stories and also keep track of what they’ve listened to. One big benefit for the subway-riding crowd: The app will load up to an hour’s worth of audio for when you find yourself offline.

People on their phones represent a pretty desirable demographic to people in the audio business. As our phones continue to become our replacement for everything, audio works well on mobile is because the devices feel like a companion, Shapiro said. As our devices become more personalized and attuned to our habits, users want an experience that knows what they like but can also expose them to something new.

“The reality is there’s less and less patience for the mediocre or boring or pointless,” said Shapiro. “Part of the value of the Remix app is we’ve done a lot of distilling ahead of time, but included in that are a lot of surprises.”

Serendipity can be a hard quality to replicate. PRX producer Roman Mars oversees remix and selects which stories are fed into the remix app. (You may know him better as the host of the wonderful 99% Invisible, a podcast/radio show about design.) While the pieces are selected by a human, the order and sorting is done at random. Each week, PRX adds more to the mix. Shapiro said future versions of the app could incorporate an algorithm that learns from users’ listening habits.

This is not the first attempt to make a Pandora for public media. In 2011, as an experiment, NPR showed off the first iteration of its Infinite Player, a customizable web app that lets listeners create an endless stream of radio content — although, unlike Remix, its audio is mostly drawn from flagship NPR shows. This spring, NPR began beta testing a mobile-friendly version of the app for iPhone users.

The most significant difference between Remix and the Infinite Player is the audio sources they draw on. Infinite Player, as an NPR project, draws primarily on NPR’s flagship shows; in a runthrough this morning, its first 10 pieces came from Morning Edition (6), Weekend Edition Saturday (1), and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts (3).

The first 10 pieces to show up in a similar runthrough of Remix came from a very different mix of sources: The Memory Palace (a short reflection on the Ben Franklin Death Ray!), The Kitchen Sisters (on the birth of the Frito), Sound Portraits’ The Ground We Lived On (about the journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc), a 99% Invisible piece on San Francisco concrete, a piece called Talk to Me About Love on a sibling relationship, a piece from Radio Diaries, one from Snap Judgment, a short documentary piece from the Third Coast International Audio Festival, something called Beep Beep, and a discussion of Fiona Apple’s last album from Sound Opinions. A very different mix.

While PRX Remix is a clear bet on mobile devices, Shapiro said its important to not lose sight of the fact that terrestrial radio still commands a large audience. Even as PRX debuts the app, Remix continues to expand into new public radio stations.

As technology reshapes how radio and audio content is delivered, it’s also changing formats for storytelling, Shaprio said. Something like PRX Remix embraces the value of narrative, feature pieces, and other stories that can wind up “on the margins of the news format,” Shapiro said. “What Remix is establishing is a new format: It’s the story-driven audio journalism format,” he said.

POSTED     July 9, 2013, 10:40 a.m.
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