The future of radio is…not on the radio.
Instead, many in the radio world are looking to podcasting. One in five Americans say they’ve listened to podcasts in the last year, up from 17% in 2015. Podcast subscriptions on iTunes reached 1 billion in 2013, and the growth continues. Kerri Hoffman, the new CEO of Public Radio Exchange (PRX)—an online marketplace for the distribution, review, and licensing of public radio programming—is a pioneer in this space. I sat down with her to talk about how PRX is expanding into podcasts and learn more about her vision for the future of audio content distribution.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can hear the full interview on Inflection Point.
Lauren Schiller: Let’s start with a simple explanation of what PRX does today.
Kerri Hoffman: We’re a distributor and a creator of public radio shows and podcasts, and so basically we help producers find their best and most supportive audience. We were founded to solve a single problem: that great audio stories were aired once and then lost to the ether. We created this exchange to increase that shelf life of programs and reduce those choke points along the distribution path, so that we could give life to evergreen stories, clear licensing easily and allow digital-broadcast-quality files to be moved around the Internet.
So, instead of having a producer call every station to pitch their content, they can place it in a library where a station can choose what it would like to air?
Exactly. In the early days of public radio, independents would often just mail CDs. It was sort of a wing and a prayer—you’d just hope that someone in the mail-room routes your package to the right person. We really felt strongly that the Internet can handle moving big digital files. And so we created this exchange that allowed radio station program directors to listen to something before they chose to license it.
The other hypothesis was that if we created the option for choice, then we would ultimately change the sound locally because program directors could find relevant content for their local audience and not just have syndicated programming. Local programming was expensive to produce, so it was a win-win for everyone: a win for independent producers, a win for stations looking for something unique and joyous to bring to their local audience.
Is there actually the opportunity to make money as an audio producer?
Absolutely. That was one of the first things we felt like we had to change. There really was not an economy for the exchange of content. Stations didn’t really have budgets put aside to acquire new programming, so that was something that was built into the technology right away. We would sell stations hours of content. Like Monopoly money, we had points you could spend down, and then we would turn those points into royalties for the producer. So we just took the dollar-for-dollar transaction out of the decision-making.
So what’s the next evolution?
In the early days of PRX, we thought of public radio stations as our customers—that we had a thing that they wanted access to. But really our services are geared toward producers, and so our technology is built toward easing that path of distribution all along the way. And today, that’s not just a public radio station. It’s YouTube. It’s Soundcloud. It’s Tumblr. It’s to many other aggregators. What we’re doing now is we ask, “What are the problems that producers face, and how can we solve them in the most elegant and efficient way, and how can we use technology as a force multiplier to help producers?” Our two pillars are to help them grow audience and help them grow revenue so that they can keep doing the thing that they do best.
Now we have podcasts, which create thousands of choices at your fingertips. What role will PRX play in that landscape?
The piece that we are really interested in is, ‘How do we make sure that our services go where the listeners are going?’ Right now that’s mobile, but also there’s a lot of listening that happens on the Web and on other platforms. And so how do we grow new audience? There’s a digital audience, and there’s a broadcast audience, and we don’t actually know how much they overlap. But the podcast audience is growing in leaps and bounds, and so how do we find all those people that you know are not yet interested in our content? The new audience is really where we are where we want to be — the diverse audience and the young audience, and the young people who haven’t been buying radios. How are they finding content and how do we get in front of them?
One of the beauties of radio is that someone’s actually taking the time to curate what we listen to, and podcasting seems like it’s still the Wild West.
You’re bringing up something that’s broken in podcasts: discoverability. People mostly take recommendations from friends. There was a time when the iTunes ranking was something that people looked at, but there are a lot of Android phones out there that are not served in that same way, and so to go from zero to growing an audience is still quite difficult. It’s partly why we formed Radiotopia, which is a curated network. When we started it, we thought that the diversity and the uniqueness of the shows would actually be a problem for us because at the time, the more popular podcast networks were all comedy, or health and fitness groupings and stuff like that, and so we were nervous that Radiotopia with its very eclectic collection would have trouble finding the right crossover. But it’s actually been one of our strengths.
I’ve talked on my show before about how podcasting is an opportunity for women to get their equal share of air. I think more than one of the shows on the Radiotopia network is hosted by a woman. And within that network there’s a show you’ve got called Millennial, which is hosted by a young woman named Megan Tan. Can you speak to the gender question and Millennial as an example?
We’ve been very intentional about our gender balance from the day we started. After one year, we had a successful Kickstarter campaign, and we used those resources to expand the network. We immediately brought on three shows hosted by women so we have a 50/50 balance. We’re really committed to that. Our latest is Millennial, which we’re totally excited about because Megan also gives us the age diversity that is so critical to connecting with younger listeners.
We’ve been really dedicated to balancing the talent, but it’s not just the hosting that we care about. We have women who are sound engineers, they’re journalists. They’re marketing or fundraising professionals. They’re producers. They’re small business owners. And that’s one of the most exciting things about Millennial and Megan is that she’s a young business owner. All the shows in Radiotopia are owned by the producers. They’re not owned by PRX. That’s a really important value for us because we’re really supporting entrepreneurs—that’s one of the things that we’re most proud of.
You have been with PRX since its early days, most recently as chief operating officer. But I understand that in this new role as CEO you’re not actually replacing yourself as COO. Is that a management decision or a budget decision?
It’s really a staff development decision. This happens a lot in small organizations. People that have been there the longest, you just kind of stick more things to them; their learning curve is short and their responsibilities just continue to grow. Not only is that not healthy for the organization, it’s a vulnerability to have one person be the gate to many things. It also doesn’t provide the proper stepping stones in the organization for the other employees. So I’ve made the decision to not hire my job in kind, and instead break my job up into other discrete activities and give the opportunity for some of the women that are already at PRX to grow into different roles, take on parts of that responsibility. And also we’ve created some new roles that are more specific. What I’ve decided to do is really specialize roles so that women can become experts in fields and certain things and become the go-to person in our position that knows deeply about these one or two areas of activity. And it allows them to be good collaborators with each other. So I’m basically creating lily pads with my own job.
Tell us about PRX’s new venture, RadioPublic.
PRX has made a strategic decision to form a new venture called RadioPublic, which will concentrate on mobile listening podcasts. Together we’re creating a full stack of experience for the producer where we have an open platform, we have technology that helps producers find their audience, and then RadioPublic will focus exclusively on the technology related to the mobile listening environment.
Do you ever have podcasting aspirations yourself?
You know it’s funny that you ask that, because I was just thinking the other day that it probably would be a very good for me to experience of what our producers are doing on a day-to-day basis. My background is really on the business side, and so I try hard to make sure that I’m always accessible to answer questions and improve the financial literacy of our producers. But I think they could probably turn the tables on me and teach me a few things.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever been given about being a CEO?
The advice that I have given other women who are new leaders is to be bold and be confident and find your voice. Find women who will help you. Find men who will help you. And always ask a lot of questions.
Lauren Schiller is the host of Inflection Point, a public radio show and podcast produced at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco, featuring conversations with women who are changing the status quo. The above article is an edited and condensed version of the broadcast interview. Click here to listen to the full audio.