October 18, 2016
One of the earliest driving forces in the current podcasting boom is the Public Radio Exchange, aka PRX, which launched back in 2003, and first dramatically impacted the national consciousness with This American Life and Serial. But PRX offers a lot more than that - covering a wide variety of topics and podcast styles - and they're aggressively looking to expand the format and its content. Here, CEO Kerri Hoffman explains what makes PRX tick ... and stay ahead of the curve.
What made you leave a nonprofit human rights group to join?
I had worked for nonprofit organizations for most of my adult life at the time. I was still working for a very small human rights organization when I started working for PRX part-time, cobbling together a bunch of nonprofit work while I took care of my children at the same time. The part that interested me about PRX is that while my previous work had me providing operations support and accounting, at PRX I could also work with creative and the creators. I was always a huge public radio fan, and the chance to work with the arts community attracted me to public radio.
One thing about PRX during the early days was that it was really an entrepreneurial project, which allowed me to leverage some of the business model thinking in other areas and apply it to creative arts audio storytelling
How have your duties changed going from COO to CEO?
It has in a couple of really critical ways: I used to do a lot more product management, with oversight of our most successful projects that are operationalized. I don't do project management anymore; that's done by others. It's also a lot more about fundraising. The other piece is that I think a lot more than I used to about leadership -- both inside PRX and externally, in our sector.
Today, a lot of our industry comes down to our differentiators. PRX is inside of public radio, actually a bit inside and a bit outside.
Do you recall PRX's first foray into podcasting?
We opened PRX as an organization in 2003. We always made it an open platform, where indie producers would put content in public radio. There was no paywall. In many ways, beginning with the earliest of our work in audio, we kind of normalized listening to public radio content on the Net. We also made a strategic choice to invest in our own technology. The first foray we developed was the public radio station podcatcher, a little player widget we put on station websites. We used to call it -' and I know it sounds funny now -- the Tivio of radio. We were beginning to understand the advantage of time-shifting convenience and the power of streaming that somehow could be adjusted by our listeners. We were thinking about all these things in our earliest days.
When did you realize the potential of podcasting?
From 2002-2005, we started to help content creators find ways to get their content on our stations. Some people would come to the site to just listen to the content; podcasters had the freedom to conduct the accidental experiments you need to do to advance content. Because we had an open platform, we were able to build a large catalog of experimental podcasts.
In the 2005-7 time frame, we started see some shows gain an audience. When the iPhone came out, we were the first company to build an iPhone public radio app. It's still quite popular; we've aggregated 500 streams from different stations. One of the shows that really piqued our interest was developed by a 24-hour stream of podcasts from the PRX catalog, called Remix. We also got a channel on XM.
We went with the idea of making shows not intended for broadcast; they're an entirely digital property that's only looking for a digital audience. Our first success was 99% Invisible. Roman Mars, the show's producer, was also a curator for Remix, so we got a front-row seat to see how he struggled through choke points. Working with him and a couple other producers was the genesis to form Radiotopia in 2014, which has been amazingly successful. It has gone from 900,000 downloads to 13 million every month; that growth has raised money for our shows. All Radiotopia shows are built for the digital audience, which is exciting for us. We do quite well compared to the popular podcasts with broadcast reach. Now with Gimlet entering the podcasting world, they're also making podcasts not intended for broadcasts. We feel we are in early in this wave.
Did you have an inkling that This American Life and Serial would blow up like they did?
This American Life is a 20-year radio program that has been excellent since the beginning. The lovely thing about it is that it has changed the sound of what was possible -- long-form storytelling that brought you a slice of life in way that has been a delight. And those who have been doing it are getting better at it. The great thing for public radio is that This American Life has been a real door opener for young people in that -- pardon the cliché -- it's not your parents' public radio. It's more modern and accessible digital storytelling, done in a quirky way. Ira Glass has broken the mold and attracted a generation of listeners; he has really been a role model for a generation of podcast makers.
How about Serial?
That's one of those shows that was always conceived as a podcast -- not under the confines of a broadcast, which I find interesting. They started that right away during the first season, with one episode being 18 minutes long, and another being 35 minutes long. That's hard to do in a broadcast environment. It was an editorial choice to let the content guide the format. I found it fascinating to tell such a complicated forensic story though audio. I am so excited to see how Serial will evolve. I like the idea of it carrying a listener though a body of work and letting the story evolve. Serial isn't always a crime story; last season they did the Berghdahl story. The key is to stay creative and push boundaries.
How do you find new podcasts?
We did a contest in the spring to find next Radiotopia show, called Podquest. We're looking to stretch our network. There are a lot of new ideas out there. We received 1,500 entries from people in over 60 countries. It's easy to underestimate our reach. It's very exciting. We've narrowed it down to the final four and will announce the winner in November.
It's very inspiring see what people think would make a good Radiotopia show. They can push the boundaries because it's a different world for a lot of applicants who have never done radio production. Of course, our Radiotopia producers are very experienced; they attract a new generation of folks who need support and skills training, so now it comes down to how we provide a base of support.
It can be hard for listeners to get hooked on new podcasts because there are so many things to listen to, and they can choose from some incredible content. Currently, we see a gravitation toward 40-50 shows, but as the technology gets better and podcasts become even more accessible, it'll be interesting to see if the new content becomes more of what radio is. What's the next generation of on-demand listening?
How much of a podcast's success is due to adhering common fundamentals of the format and how much is due to the uniqueness of the content?
When we started out, we thought the weakness of our Radiotopia shows was that they're so different. That turned out not to be true. At the time, podcasts offered mostly vertical content - comedy, self-help and Net marketing, but we offered different sensibilities across the network. We chose different things and being more varied became a strength. It allowed us to stretch ourselves. I think the next wave will set off an explosion in the industry... we're looking to grow the audio storytelling population, and maybe offer more live shows.
One of the most powerful things about podcasting is that listeners can multi-task while listening. They don't have to look at a screen. They can listen and be entertained while working out at the gym, walking their dogs, or shopping at the grocery store. That has powered our growth, because there's no limit to what you can do while listening. That's going to continue to be the trend.
While podcasting is geared to that and time-shifting, wouldn't it be a net positive if podcasts with really popular figures -- such as Marc Maron's interview with President Obama -- were exploited to generate appointment listening?
We don't have too many interview shows ourselves, but I can see that being a smart strategy. If a podcaster has a really big guest on, you can create an echo effect around that person. But having a famous person on is not necessarily a slam dunk in podcasting. It still takes a great host, some really good audio production and a great editor. Having someone famous as a guest can still be a dud. I was interested in a Hillary Clinton podcast, but it turned out sort of meh ... campaign propaganda for the news cycle.
How do you decide which podcasts are successful enough to become part of your network?
We actually see content decisions as a three-legged stool. We still look at grant support for development; we also do annual fundraising campaigns. One of the best metrics we have is how engaged our fans are with the podcasts. The third way is corporate support in the form of long-lasting relationships, sponsors for live events and our newsletter. They're all important. Unlike Midroll, which is an ad-supported network, we have diverse revenue streams and will continue to pursue all three legs of that stool.
What makes for a good podcast host? Must he or she possess the same characteristics of a quality radio host?
The quality of the personality certainly matters, unless it's a vehicle that primarily exposes unique and compelling content. The best example of that is a mom-and-pop podcast with no consistent host, where their stories are the main event and not the narrator. On the other hand, many podcasts have grown in popularity because they came out of a very successful radio show. Our radio show podcasts are host-driven, where the hosts are the center of the shows, but the industry is also growing into other directions. It will be interesting to see what happens as we grow the technology with improvements and easier access. With more discoverable tools, the next range of shows may not be so personality dependent.
Do you foresee the integration of video into podcasts?
Video has the potential to be absorbed into a podcast. There's so much stuff ... rumors like Facebook becoming a video platform; you can't ignore it. We already have a listening audience on YouTube; even though we don't do much with YouTube, our fans put some of our episodes on there, so we'll definitely consider video. It may not be a staple for every episode, but definitely can be complementary for certain podcasts. Animations, live shows ... there's a whole range of stuff to consider, but technologically we still have to get better broadband -- and cheaper. And we don't need to sidestep our strategy of developing exciting audio just to consider video.
Has the dramatic growth in the number of podcasts overall impact PRX's content or way you do business?
It definitely is an issue for us; it's something we pay attention to all the time. You can't have flat surfaces across a lot of shows. You have to make sure your services match what is needed. We try to make sure our network shows are supporting each other. In fact, I just wrote notes for a meeting I'm going to share out, so everyone is always together in achieving our goals. That's something I pay a lot of attention to.
Are any of your podcasts retired because they don't age well or lose their popularity?
PRX specializes in more than one style of content. We have content licensed from a public radio stations that are a couple years old. We've found ways to increase their shelf life in Radiotopia so that they can be evergreen. Not all of them, but most of them. We recently built dynamic ads to make that shelf life even longer. We take certain messaging out of old episodes, like fundraising drive promotion, which makes them less dated.
How do you see the future of podcasting and specifically, PRX?
We really have to plan on three levels. We have to be thinking about what comes either after or as a complement to transactional-based sponsorship revenue. We also need to have a very solid mobile strategy to increase our audience. We've formed a company to build a mobile app and address that very thing, called RadioPublic. RadioPublic fixes some of things that were broken when it comes to discoverability.
The third thing to think about is content. I want us to be presenting even more stories. There was a very intentional effort to build diversity in the early days of PRX, with a tagline: 'making public radio more public.' Even though we dropped that tagline, in some ways podcasting today makes it more relevant than ever before. With more and better content in the stories, we create platforms for talent and that helps us find more of those stories.
So in all, we have to think about a post-transactional sponsorship model and better program delivery and distribution strategy, considering the video and the mobile environment.