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Non-Profit PRX Spins Off New Startup to Reinvent Radio

May 19, 2016

There are plenty of companies trying to build on the somewhat surprising resurgence of interest in podcasting and radio-style programming, including startups like Gimlet Media and Slate's Panoply network. But one of the more interesting attempts to create the future of digital audio content is a new venture that was just announced by the Public Radio Exchange, the non-profit entity that distributes shows like This American Life.

The Exchange, which was set up in 2003 as a digital marketing and distribution platform for public-radio programming, said Wednesday that it is launching a separate company called RadioPublic. It will be headed by former PRX chief executive Jake Shapiro, and its mandate is to create an app that will help people find and listen to audio content of all kinds. Shapiro calls it "radio rethought."

One interesting twist that creates a kind of conceptual bridge between the legacy of the non-profit Radio Exchange and the new entity is that while RadioPublic is for-profit, it is registered as a "public benefit corporation." This is the same designation that startups such as Kickstarter have, and it means that RadioPublic's corporate goals are oriented towards offering a social benefit as well as making money.

The new company is being funded with a seed round of more than $1.5 million invested by a number of entities, including the New York Times, the Knight Foundation's Enterprise Fund, Graham Holdings —the holding company for the family that used to control the Washington Post—and newspaper chain McClatchy as well as Matter Ventures (which PRX helped create) and early-stage venture capital firm Project 11.

"Podcasting is poised to be the foundation for a major shift in listener attention as the radio ecosystem becomes increasingly digital and on-demand," Bob Mason, managing partner at Project 11 and former head of technology at Brightcove, said in a statement. "We're excited by RadioPublic's ability to be a transformative force."

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PRX has been working on the digital distribution of public radio programming for some time. In addition to creating apps for a number of shows (including This American Life), PRX formed a partnership in 2014 with Roman Mars, host of the 99% Invisible podcast, to launch a podcast network called Radiotopia, which was backed by a Kickstarter campaign.

Shapiro says the idea behind RadioPublic is to go beyond existing radio content and provide a one-stop shop for audio of all kinds, whether it's news, entertainment, or storytelling. "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 told Poynter.

It's an interesting gamble. For the most part, the current radio and podcasting marketplace relies on iTunes to do most of the distributing and curation of content along with apps developed by individual content creators, including National Public Radio with its NPR One app, with which RadioPublic will be competing to some extent.

There are a number of podcasting apps such as Overcast, which allow users to create and share their own lists of podcasts. But there aren't really many examples of what RadioPublic is trying to create, which is a kind of digital re-creation of the way people used to listen to terrestrial radio. The only one that seems to have gotten much traction is the Stitcher Radio app, which combines podcasts with more than 40,000 radio station feeds.

Shapiro says the idea behind RadioPublic isn't just to create an app, but also to learn about what users want from an audio app and then share that data with other public radio entities so they can adapt more quickly. "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," Shapiro said.

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