By now, media types can recite by name companies that have been spawned by the so-called "great podcast renaissance." Panoply. Gimlet. Pineapple Street Media. The mainstream success of "Serial," combined with increased listener demand and innovations in advertising technology, has ushered in an all-out landgrab for audiophiles looking to stake their claim in the early days of a boom.
But all of those companies were predated — by more than a decade — by PRX, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit that has distributed radio programs including "This American Life," "The Moth Radio Hour" and "Reveal." As podcasting gradually became more popular throughout the aughts, PRX built mobile listening apps for a growing userbase. And as the demand for digital audio built to a fever pitch during the last year and a half, PRX has been preparing to apply its early lessons to an ambitious project of its own.
Today, PRX announced that project: RadioPublic, a new, for-profit company that aims to reimagine the way people listen to audio on their mobile devices. Jake Shapiro, the founding CEO of PRX, has become CEO of RadioPublic and is now leading a small team out of a co-working space in downtown Boston. Their first order of business: Create a listening app that will enable users to discover and engage with a variety of audio, including "spoken-word stories, news, information, journalism, entertainment."
"We believe RadioPublic can be radio rethought," Shapiro said. "We think that there's something extraordinarily powerful and simple and beautiful and coherent about radio that needs to be transformed for how people are using and accessing information."
RadioPublic is a public-benefit corporation bankrolled by a variety of investors who have contributed undisclosed sums, including The New York Times, Knight Foundation Enterprise Fund, Graham Holdings and The McClatchy Company. PRX elected to make RadioPublic a public-benefit corporation (think Kickstarter and "This American Life") because the structure allows stakeholders to enshrine the mission of the company in its founding documents.
RadioPublic's for-profit structure allows Shapiro and company access to investment capital necessary for the time- and money-intensive process of guiding an app through many stages of development and testing.
PRX, meanwhile, will continue on as a nonprofit focused on helping producers create and distribute radio. Kerri Hoffman, the chief operating officer of PRX, replaces Shapiro as its CEO.
"PRX will remain, as it has for years, focused on solving problems in the producer space," Hoffman said. "...If you think about these two entities together — PRX will continue to focus on the needs of the producers, and RadioPublic will help all of us, on all of our shows, gain new audience."
Why build an app when audience data shows that news is increasingly being consumed on social media? Shapiro says that audio storytelling defies that trend; listeners want to consume audio in a native app that allows them to listen to podcasts and other radio when they're in the car, out of sync with their data connection or otherwise on the go. He and his team see vast and largely untapped potential in the current base of audio consumers.
"Having billions of radios, essentially, in people's pockets, is an enormous channel for distribution that is still, in many ways, up for grabs," Shapiro said.
RadioPublic faces competition from existing audio apps, perhaps most notably NPR One. But RadioPublic's app will differ from its competitors in a few ways, Shapiro said. It will include content from more than just one news network, for starters, and it will go beyond podcast feeds to surface a wide array of audio stories.
"We absolutely see that there's a much broader definition of high-quality, interesting, relevant audio that has yet to be served well by the podcast world," Shapiro said. "And that has been a part of PRX's success in the past — helping producers and their stories reach audiences."
It will also bring PRX's open-platform ethos to the realm of listening apps, giving creators data they can use to determine how their audiences are listening so they can adjust their productions accordingly.
"We see RadioPublic becoming a kind of a flywheel lab full of information and transparency and data that really helps the next generation of producers think about what to create for an audience that they now have some more insight into," Shapiro said.
RadioPublic's app is currently being developed and will be released in a private beta on iOS and Android. Given the ever-shifting media landscape, Shapiro says he and the fledgling company aren't looking too far beyond the app's initial launch.
"We definitely have our work cut out for us at this phase — so we aren't necessarily imagining ourselves five or 10 years beyond that."