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Nov. 21, 2016, 1:25 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

With its new app, RadioPublic wants to tackle podcasting’s lingering challenges

Its ambitions are three-pronged: improving show discovery, improving how (and how deeply) listeners engage with their favorite shows, and improving channels through which show creators can make money.

“Free podcasts!” RadioPublic‘s tagline declares. The company’s flagship product, which became available last Friday, is a listening app with features built to try to appeal to that principle: Podcast discovery is still too limited, and there is a long tail of audio shows deserving of a loyal audience and a large pool of interested listeners who’ve not yet stumbled across them or have ventured into the world of podcasts at all.

RadioPublic is a new for-profit company helmed by familiar names — former PRX CEO Jake Shapiro is now RadioPublic’s CEO. It spun out of the nonprofit PRX, which is responsible for podcast network Radiotopia and also for an assortment of podcast-related tech.

radiopublic-app-1Though PRX and RadioPublic are closely intertwined, RadioPublic is entirely listener-focused (it’s collaborating with PRX, on an embedded player, of use to both the listener and publisher). The first iteration of the listening app, which is available for both iPhone and Android and will be updated weekly with tweaks and new features based on feedback, offers the standard podcast listening features (following shows, creating playlists) as well as the beginnings of a finely personalized home screen and explore section. Open the app during lunch, and it’ll welcome you with a good afternoon message and show you the episodes of your favorite shows you may have missed. It’ll recommend older episodes of shows it thinks you may like. It may push to the top for you a news segment. The app also offers curated playlists around topics like food or sex but also themes like “Creative Influence” (podcasts that made Hrishikesh Hirway of the Song Exploder podcast, want to create Song Exploder). These recommendation channels, surfaced both algorithmically and handpicked by curators, will become more granular. (There’s also an ask-a-librarian recommendations feature, which RadioPublic will need to figure out how to scale as more users come on board.)

“Existing listeners and new listeners coming into podcasting are struggling to find something beyond the handful of shows they already know,” Shapiro said. “We have this idea of distributed discovery, where we spread out episode-level playlists both of our own curation and ones where we reach out to different tastemakers, and have them start to identify different slices of the long tail of podcasting.”

radiopublic-app-2Millions of people who consume entertainment and information on their phones yet are still uninitiated in the cult of podcasting, Shapiro told me, and for the RadioPublic team, that potential is driving how they’re building products. While the app’s intended user base is, broadly, everyone, there’s an obvious group RadioPublic can cater to — non-public radio listeners, who share many attributes with the public radio listenership, yet for various reasons (not enough stories by diverse voices, for instance) don’t listen to public radio

“One obstruction in podcasting has been user navigation and discovery. Much of the experience of finding and using podcasts has been stuck in the age of utility apps for feedreading, managing lists. That’s for us our inspiration. There’s an enormous amount of creativity left to pioneer and surface these amazing stories,” Shapiro said. “In our case our first audiences are going to be people who consume entertainment and information on their phones but for a variety of reasons have maybe not yet understood that podcasting is available to them, or do not feel there are any shows that speak to them.”

Next on the roadmap are challenges around increasing listener engagement with the shows they listen to, and then improving ways for show creators to make money from both eager fans and advertisers (reminder: RadioPublic is a public benefit corporation). Shapiro highlighted a number of possibilities, such as surfacing live events from podcasts like the Moth for listeners whose habits within the app have indicated they are fans of the show, or simpler processes within the app for shows that want to reward super fans with bonus material or offer paid subscription options for the most loyal listeners.

Monetization features will likely start appearing in the app early next year. RadioPublic is currently working with the $1.5 million raised in its first round of funding (supporters include the American Public Media, Knight Foundation Enterprise Fund, The New York Times, Graham Holdings, The McClatchy Company, Homebrew, PRoject 11, UP2398, and Matter Ventures — a media accelerator that PRX cofounded with KQED and Knight).

“We’re on a rapid development cycle. We’re watching in real time publishers experimenting with their own business models, and we think we can be nimble enough to connect those publishers with the new waves of listeners that we’re identifying,” Shapiro said. Creating original RadioPublic podcasts is not on the table. “We’re in a good position to be the enabler of connections to new audiences for new content — obviously this doesn’t mean we’d never do so — and it’s not really our best place to be investing in original content for the foreseeable future.”

POSTED     Nov. 21, 2016, 1:25 p.m.
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