Radiotopia aims to make radio storytelling sustainable on the web

byJessica Weiss
Feb 11, 2014 in Multimedia Journalism

A new public radio project called Radiotopia is giving storytellers full access to the microphone and helping them connect to listeners via a web- and mobile-focused experience.

“By and large, public radio has mostly developed shows for broadcast and then tried to create an on-demand and podcast [presence],” Jake Shapiro, the CEO of online public marketplace Public Radio Exchange (PRX), told Current.org. “This flips it.”

Radiotopia, created by PRX, is a podcast network that’s pushing the boundaries of both audio storytelling and the business of radio. It features seven new and established story-driven news programs on a diversity of themes, such as philosophy, connecting in the modern world, design and architecture.

“High-quality story-driven audio is an essential and irresistible form of journalism and entertainment,” Shapiro recently told the Knight Foundation blog. “We hope to look back and see that [Radiotopia] was the beginning of a new kind of public radio.”

Radiotopia has ambitious goals for creating a model for sustaining this type of storytelling across mobile, web and broadcast mediums. The network will experiment with collaborative crowdfunding and new methods of sponsorship and cross-promotion, helping a new generation of independent producers make their programs sustainable.

The experiment was largely inspired by 99% Invisible, a popular design and architecture podcast hosted and produced by Roman Mars. Mars, who doesn’t have a design background, began the program as a regular minute-long architecture feature for public radio station KALW in San Francisco, distributed by PRX, he told the Awl. When fans began to demand longer episodes, Mars started to produce two separate versions of each episode – one for radio, and a longer one for a podcast. The podcast’s popularity exploded.

In 2012, Mars successfully tapped into his digital audience to raise money via crowdfunding site Kickstarter. With more than 5,600 backers, he raised more than $170,000, nearly four times his goal. It was Kickstarter’s most successful journalism project so far.

Building on this success, Mars and PRX linked up to solidify their commitment to create a “platform where the best producers can find an audience and flourish” -- an ecosystem of similar story-driven programs.

PRX will develop new audience engagement and revenue strategies that focus on digital-first audio programming, such as through grants or Kickstarter campaigns, sponsorships and revenue sharing. Within that ecosystem, Radiotopia hopes its producers can connect with an audience, expand their own brands and flourish financially.

"PRX is responding to a demand for flexibility from listeners who are increasingly turning away from traditional news sources and platforms," said Michael Maness, Knight Foundation VP/Journalism and Media Innovation in a release. "With this as a basis, the network will create a model to reach and inform wide public audiences.”

The network sells sponsorship on the shows, the website, social media and podcast downloads. Radiotopia has already enlisted MailChimp, Facebook, Warby Parker and Squarespace as sponsors.

“Radio and audio seep into your soul in a different way,” than other mediums, Shapiro told Knight. “What’s fascinating is how it’s converged with the way people experience storytelling in a fragmented media world. Rather than being displaced by other forms of media, audio is distributed in a way that is accessible to how people are using technology today.”

The Radiotopia network roster will expand as PRX enlists new producers and programs.

Jessica Weiss is a Buenos Aires-based freelancer.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Rusty Sheriff under a Creative Commons license.

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