What’s your story?
For anyone who can access a microphone and the Internet, there’s never been a better time to be a storyteller. That’s because the ancient practice of passing along information orally has evolved once again with the popularity of podcasts.
According to the latest statistics, podcasts – digital audio files from a themed series that can be downloaded into a computer or portable device – are strongly on the rise. Through 2016, 21% of Americans aged 12 and up have listened to a podcast in the past month, up from 17% in 2015, all part of a 75% increase since 2013. Driven by the immense popularity of series like Sarah Koenig’s “Serial,” that’s an overall audience of 51 million Americans, a listenership roughly equivalent to Twitter’s active user base.
While the Boston-based public media company Public Radio Exchange a.k.a. PRX can’t take all the credit for these positive trends, they certainly have had a hand in it. The company has operated public radio’s largest distribution marketplace for over a decade, with thousands of shows available on their Website including This American Life, The Moth Radio Hour, and Reveal. A visit to PRX.org unlocks a treasure trove of podcast discovery, with scores of fascinating titles just a click or touch away. PRX is also the creator of Radiotopia, a podcast collective of 15 story-driven shows which spawns over 12 million downloads per month.
Now PRX has elevated their commitment to podcasts even further, enabling not just distribution but also creation with their newly opened Podcast Garage in Boston. An uncommonly welcoming environment, it hosts low-cost recording studios, free co-working space, and educational and networking events, all serving as an affordable resource and community hub for the area’s audio storytellers. Equipment from the likes of Shure and Sennheiser are onsite, with audio editors including Pro Tools and the broadcast/podcast-oriented Hindenburg.
The Garage is off to a strong start, as evidenced by their guestbook. Armed with a big roster of partners, the facility has an ambitious agenda to help Boston’s independent podcaster community learn new skills, get feedback on their work in a safe space, and use pro-level technology to create their own audio content.
PRX may be going way out of its way to groom the next level of podcasters, but there are some very good reasons for that. A conversation with Kerri Hoffman, CEO of PRX, goes deeper into their methods and motivations for creating a successful community center based around audio.
Kerri, what does the podcast represent in the current culture? Is it a medium? An artform? Why is it an expression worthy of such intensive nurturing?
We’ve been working in public radio and podcasting since we started in 2003. In the early days of PRX, the intent behind forming our organization was to solve a problem: The problem was that really great audio stories were being produced, aired once, and then lost forever. In public radio, no one had created an evergreen database where you could access and license that content.
So we gave a longer shelf life to content, and we also gave the creators an additional revenue stream to monetize that content. The third piece of that puzzle was by having an accessible database, we normalized listening to NPR content that was not on the radio – we were really early in that movement, and over the years we’ve been able to diversify the public radio airwaves by building a vast catalog.
Remember that at that time, around 2003, public radio was airing nationally syndicated programming or local programming, with nothing in between. By having a bigger catalog, they had more variety and could make more choices available that were relevant to their local audience.
Early on PRX made essential decisions about our own technology. We built our own tools so we could reduce chokepoints in the distribution path, and over time we built the first mobile app for public radio, and streamed on XM. And we’ve been working with producers all along — long before “Serial” was launched in 2014, we were working with producers that were accessible but not visible.
One of podcasters’ primary pain points at the time was, “How do I grow my audience without that broadcast lift? How do I monetize and introduce people to my content?” So we set out to solve those problems and created Radiotopia, where PRX took care of all the money-raising and ad serving, and grew that from a collection of seven shows to what is now 14.
By doing that we thought, “OK, now we know a lot about these indie producers. We know how to get onto stations and reach an audience, but many of them are working in makeshift studios in their closets. They’re isolated from each other, working in coffee shops and libraries, and they frequently don’t have good Internet.”
How did that go on to shape the concept for the Podcast Garage?
The Garage allowed us to build on all the things we been learning over a dozen years: How do we take a new generation of content producers, give them a studio to create in, and a curriculum for them to hone their skills? And how do we do that in a way that’s not derivative of broadcast?
A big reason that we’re doing this now is because we believe that podcasting is not a bubble. Access has improved, and podcasting is perfect for the smart phone environment: You can download the files and consume them off-broadband. And the content is amazing! The reducing of the technical barriers has made it even more compelling. It’s almost like old-time radio is back, but in an on-demand way.
We think about this a lot, because we really believe in the mission of public radio – but what does it look like in an online environment? Public radio is strong, and it will be for some time. We need to take the interest of on-demand and the simplicity of radio, and mash those two things together.
A lot of people in our industry are wringing their hands because they think podcasting is cannibalizing radio, but I don’t see it that way. We’re growing an audience for audio that people will hear it while they’re jogging, in their car, etc… We just need to keep making great content that people are consuming, and we need to find a new way to connect with those fans.
A Place for Podcasting
How did the Podcast Garage get constructed – was it built new from the ground up?
Picture an old Jiffy Lube, which is what this place used to be. It has two main rooms inside, one is a community space where we do events, and the other is the studio where the recording can happen. We originally were going to have four small one-person vocal booths, but instead we opted for a larger four-person booth.
Since were not paying an engineer, we have almost no overhead. That can attract a one-person show, or seasoned producers with a larger show. So we created a larger studio, and also a vocal tracking booth as well as a smaller room that can fit two people, for spillover. Those rooms are Wenger SoundLok sound isolation rooms, which is a kit that you buy. A lot of universities use them for rehearsal space for musicians.