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Feb. 4, 2014, 9:52 a.m.
Business Models

Welcome to Radiotopia, a podcast network with the aesthetics of story-driven public radio

With funding from Knight Foundation and Kickstarter donors, PRX is trying to create an environment where “high-quality, story-driven” shows like Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible, can thrive.

The idea behind Radiotopia is a simple one: strength in numbers.

Radiotopia is a new podcast network launched this morning by PRX. Or it’s a “collective of the best story-driven shows on the planet…a new model for audience engagement and revenue growth in public radio,” to use its language. It brings together existing shows like Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible, Radio Diaries, Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything, and more.

With $200,000 in funding from the Knight Foundation, PRX will attempt to create a new model for what they call “digital-first audio programming.” The seven shows will make up a collective, helping to market one another, providing guidance on technical issues, and sharing lessons on growing audiences. Radiotopia will provide the framework for raising money through grants or Kickstarter campaigns, selling sponsorships across the network, and sharing revenue between the shows.

It’s the latest iteration of PRX’s long-term efforts to inject digital savvy (and a little unpredictability) into public radio — or whatever the digital equivalent of radio might be called. The broader mission of Radiotopia, says PRX CEO Jake Shapiro, is to create strategies to reach new audiences as well as a business model to support and grow independent audio programs. “We’re convinced there is a much bigger audience for each of them out there than they’ve been able to reach so far,” said Shapiro. (The shows collectively are downloaded more than 1.3 million times per month, according to PRX, although podcast listens are notoriously difficult to measure.)

The money from Knight will help in the startup phase of Radiotopia, with some of the funding going directly to the producers of shows. The rest will be used by PRX to help in the marketing and distribution of the shows, Shapiro said. They’ll also be helped by Mailchimp, which signed up as a launch sponsor for the network and is working on email and distribution strategy with PRX.

In its role as a technology maker and distributor for public media shows, PRX has worked with shows like Radiolab, This American Life, and The Moth. PRX has helped build apps, as well as been an advocate for getting shows and segments from independent producers on the air at public radio stations around the country.

Podcasts come in all shapes and sizes — and a variety of business models. Some are passion projects whose only expenses are a nice microphone and a Mac with GarageBand installed; some run sponsorship messages from businesses before, during, or after the show; some rely heavily on donations from listeners. Some remain happily digital-only, while others — like 99% Invisible and Jesse Thorn’s Bullseye — also air (sometimes in sharply edited form) on public radio stations.

The shows in the Radiotopia network all have a similar sensibility when it comes to audio, with programs that mix journalism, storytelling, radio drama, and found sounds. (This won’t be the place for two-hour shaggy-dog conversations about Apple’s latest iPhone.) The aesthetic might not be traditional public radio, but in many cases they’re NPR-ready. Shapiro said they’re aiming for digital audiences, growing listeners through apps, websites, and audio aggregators like Stitcher. But the programs in Radiotopia could also wind up on terrestrial radio if they can find the right fit, Shapiro said.

“We see trends converging, and we’re not alone in that,” he said, “Mobile listening audience is growing, the advancing of the connected car, and the new ways smartphone listening is becoming seamless in comparison to the cumbersome days of podcast listening in the past.”

The overall goals are to help these shows become sustainable and to keep adding shows to the Radiotopia family, Shapiro told me. That means helping producers create revenue through the network as well as individually, he said. For Radiotopia to work, Shapiro said, they’ll need to find the right balance between leveraging the network and enabling the shows’ identities to flourish.

Think of Radiotopia as a public-radio-esque analog to what Earwolf is to comedy podcasts or 5by5 is to technology podcasts — which is to say, a mothership network to offer support, resources, and a launching pad. “We have confidence, both because of the programs, but we’re also bringing this into a growing market for story-hungry listeners,” Shapiro said.

It’s a market PRX has been taking aim at for some time. Last summer PRX launched the PRX Remix app. The app is an endless stream of stories, segments, podcasts, and more, all curated from PRX shows by Mars.

While podcasts and public radio shows can occupy the same space in listeners minds, the economics for each are very different, Mars told me. “The path to success for an independent public radio producer is pretty murky and can be quite dire,” he said.

The barrier to entry for starting a podcast remains low and there are lots of opportunity to build an audience. While it might take a budget in the millions – not to mention an open slot in the schedule – to launch a public radio show, you can launch podcast off small, direct, donations from fans, he said. Podcasts can take any shape or format, and can have a direct relationship with fans, two elements that can be difficult for public radio shows, he said.

Radiotopia can act as a platform for producers to become more entrepreneurial, focusing on improving their shows as well as ways to pay the bills, Mars said. “We want to create a place where really high-quality, story-driven stuff can live and people can make a go of it,” he said.

99invisibleThis is something Mars obviously has experience with 99% Invisible, which now employs four people, including himself. (For those unfamiliar, 99% Invisible is a wonderful show, usually about 15 minutes long, about design, architecture, and the built environment.) Last fall, Mars raised a remarkable $375,000 on Kickstarter to increase its production schedule to weekly; he only asked for $150,000. Mars says a portion of that money will go to a seed fund for Radiotopia.

Mars said in his experience that kind of support and passion is only possible through the unique relationship a podcast can create with its audience. “People really want to champion you, they want to be a part of the show,” he said. As Mars wrote during the Kickstarter:

For a couple years, I’ve been scheming with PRX to create a collective of exceptional radio shows that will push the boundaries of public radio. Modeled after 99% Invisible, we want to provide support for a select group of creator-driven, high-quality, entrepreneurial programs that will establish a path to success for the most talented audio producers. We call it Radiotopia.

The most common question I’m asked, by far, is “What other podcasts do you listen to?” There are great ones out there and I want more. The hardest part of creating a new show is getting started and then getting enough audience and support to move into regular production. We want to provide a platform where the best producers can find an audience and flourish. That has always been my ultimate goal, and it’s time to get it done.

Mars said he thinks podcasts will continue to see a gradual growth, both in shows and in audience. It’s not an industry without its problems — Mars says the mechanisms for getting podcasts to listeners remain too complicated, even if it’s improved from the old iPod-docking days — but the potential for creativity and sustainability are there.

“I’m excited for it to work, and for people to fall in love with these shows and to create an ecosystem for this stuff,” Mars said.

POSTED     Feb. 4, 2014, 9:52 a.m.
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