RadioPublic joins world of apps aiming to make podcasts navigable

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The new app RadioPublic promises to not only be a thing on which you listen to podcasts, but a service that actively helps you find more shows that you might like. A for-profit spinoff of the Public Radio Exchange, RadioPublic is a “public benefit corporation,” and co-founder and former PRX CEO Jake Shapiro absolutely still considers what he’s doing to be public media. Shapiro and Matt MacDonald, RadioPublic’s chief product officer, joined Adam Ragusea on our podcast The Pub to talk about the app’s goals and its origins. This is an edited transcript.

Adam Ragusea, Current: So, Jake, why don’t we start at the beginning? Why did RadioPublic need to be its own company?

Jake Shapiro, RadioPublic: We realized at this moment that the requirement of the strategic focus on a new side of the podcasting opportunity facing the consumers, the listeners, was going to be such a level of effort and focus and resource that it really made sense to have it as a separate center of activity, and that there would be a number of positive benefits of that, too. Not just in the focus, which is really hard. As we learned the hard way, building mobile apps is not a side gig, and it’s not something you can do as just one of many projects. It’s all-consuming if you want to do it well. But it also takes a different kind of financing if you’re going to continue doing it, and one thing we also didn’t want to do is compete with ourselves to invest in the future.

MacDonald and Shapiro in PRX’s Podcast Garage

Current: So why incorporate, as a for-profit public benefit corporation, granted, but still a for-profit?

Shapiro: We had for a long time been very successful at raising philanthropic dollars towards building a public media company, both in content development and, at certain moments along the way, in technology. It became clear over time that the philanthropic interest of foundations and others was more in investing in journalism programs, content development, than it is in code. And at the same time a market had taken shape that hadn’t existed previously, where there was an initial market interest and investment appetite for paying for and investing in technology that relates to audio and podcasting and mobile apps.

Current: So how many people are working at the company now? It’s not just you and Matt, is it?

Shapiro: No. So the founding team is Matt, myself and also Chris Roden. Chris is our chief architect, and the three of us were all at PRX. Now we have an additional seven or eight folks who have joined us. We have two developer teams — one on iOS and one on Android — a design group, our podcast librarian and some curation help, so around 10 of us.

Current: And, generally speaking, thus far where has the money come from?

Shapiro: It’s from the investor group. We raised the what we call a seed round of investment that closed back in the spring. That $1.6 million of investment [was] led by a group here in Boston called Project 11 and then a number of other investors that we’ve listed on the website, including the New York Times, American Public Media, Graham Holdings Group, McClatchy, Knight Enterprise Fund, Matt Ventures, Homebrew, a couple angel investors and UP2398.

Current: UP2398?

Shapiro: Yes, UP2398. It is a relatively new fund that emerged about a year ago under Pierre Omidyar.

Current: So many hip-sounding names — I can’t keep track of them all. I imagine all those people are going to want their money back and then some at some point, so I hope that we can talk about monetization pretty soon. But, Matt, let’s go ahead and turn the corner and just start talking about the app that you guys have just released. I’ve made an effort actually to not use it until right now. I want you guys to guide me through my first experience. I’ve got my phone out. I’m going to open it up. What am I going to see?

Matt MacDonald, RadioPublic: What we’re going to do is start to load up some audio for you. What we did was create a starter pack for people to get started with podcasts. One of the core things that we were trying to identify is how we could create a great experience for people who are not yet familiar with podcasts. A lot of people do listen to podcasts, but what we’re really trying to do in the long run is reach the much larger audience of people who are not yet listening to podcasts and, for them, where do you start? “What do I start listening to?” is a key problem.

What we’re doing with the work with our curators and the podcast librarian and a number of the playlists that we’ve been generating and creating with Tastemakers and other media companies is to really make that a much more simple process for people to just press play and start listening to something. If you have just installed the app for the very first time, if you press “play,” you’re going to hear a welcome message from Jake that sets things up a little bit about how the app works.

Current: So is it going to give me 99% Invisible right now?

MacDonald: Yes. What we did was, we said, “Let’s create a really good playlist of episodes that are of high quality for people to just get started listening to right away.” If you’re coming in to the app for the very first time and you’ve never heard of a podcast before, we wanted to make sure that we’re playing some really high-quality stuff for people, to get them started and then provide a way for people to start to layer in and out in their own podcasts over time if they are a podcast fan.

You can import your subscriptions from other apps and get them into RadioPublic, but really the core approach that we’re trying to take with it is that there’s a nearly infinite supply of things to listen to — there’s 250,000-odd podcasts, several millions of episodes that you could be listening to — and a big part of what we’re trying to do with the app is to really narrow that down to help you focus in on the things that you might want to be listening to at that moment. And so that’s taking a combination of both the things that you are already listening to and that you already like, and introducing you to some new things along the way, but really acting as a focusing and winnowing device to help you.

Current: My initial reaction just looking at it right now is that it seems like kind of a halfway point between using the native iOS Apple podcast app, which is entirely self-directed — I can’t get anything there that I don’t seek out actively and download or subscribe to. It’s a middle point between that, on one extreme, and on the other extreme something like NPR One, which is literally just a big “play” button. It’s responsive to your listening habits, the things that you skip, et cetera, but fundamentally it’s a curated playlist. What you guys have done is something that’s kind of in the middle.

MacDonald: I think that’s a fair characterization. For me the thing that I really wanted to try to create is something that could work for both the power podcast listener who knows exactly what they want to listen to and when they want to listen to it — they manage a feed of subscriptions — but also balance that with something that would work really well for someone who is coming into it cold and really doesn’t understand, or want to understand, the concept of subscribing to a feed and managing a series of episodes that come into an inbox.

What we really try to do is toe that line between those two worlds of saying, “Could we create something where — all of us at RadioPublic are podcast listeners — could we use it?” We wanted to build something that we would like to use as our main way of listening to podcasts, but that would also provide an opportunity for people who are brand-new and don’t really know where to get started. The app is really set up to support both those kinds of people — people who know exactly what they want to listen to, and [it makes] it super-easy for people to do that, but then also if you just feel like hitting “play” and sitting back and listening to it sort of like radio, you can do that, too.

Current: You mentioned the librarian before, at the bottom [of the app] here saying, “Not sure what shows to add? Our podcast librarians are always listening and happy to share recommendations.” And there’s a button that says “Ask a Librarian.” Surely that’s not going to connect me to an actual living human, is it?

MacDonald: It totally will. We basically have a group of people behind the scenes. Ma’ayan is one of our podcast librarians. She’s sitting there waiting and ready to take on a personal recommendation for you. So you answer a couple of questions, and she’s going to make a personal recommendation back to you based on the TV shows and movies that you listen to and watch, the music that you like as well if you’re already listening to podcasts. And then we use that information and write you a personal handcrafted email back that says, “Hey, Adam, here are the three or four episodes that we think that we would like.”

Current: Wow! Hey, Jake, how are you going to make money with this thing?

Shapiro: First of all, go ahead and send in the librarian requests and see what you get back.

Current: I’m doing it right now.

Shapiro: Part of that, just to build on that for a second, is that she’s already answered hundreds of these, and we’re learning a lot. Both about the matchmaking of what people’s curiosity leads to, and it’s helping us think about how we’d scale that effort, because obviously we cannot do that for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of requests. But we have some interesting ideas about how we can still involve humans and their interesting expertise across different domains to answer the myriad questions that are coming in from listeners.

So ultimately RadioPublic does need to make money; we’re trying to make it a sustainable company and one that grows. And the way we have thought about it is we look back at our mission — as we’ve described it in the public benefit corporation — “to help listeners discover, engage with and ultimately reward the creators of podcasts and other audio.” And those three words — discover, engage and reward — are core to our strategy. They’re also our road map. This is how we’re thinking about the next several phases of development of RadioPublic. We’re right now in the discovery phase, so a lot of our efforts on the user experience and the app design is around encouraging discovery along the lines [of what] Matt was just saying. Coming up next after that is, we layer in engagement on top of discovery.

Engagement is lot more around things like sharing, being able to take some actions and transactions around podcasts. Some of what we’ve prototyped is annotations, where you might surface the photo that Malcolm Gladwell references in his podcast episode. Instead of having to pause the episode and switch over to Safari and find it, you’d actually have it surface in a timed way as an annotation along with the podcast. So there’s lots around engagement ultimately leading to what we believe is the rewarding monetization piece of this.

And there are a number of different ways that the evolving ecosystem of podcasting is monetizing. Some of that, as you know, is in sponsorship, and we’ve been testing things like enhanced sponsorship, where instead of that coupon code you have to remember and write down on a piece of paper to get a discount on your MailChimp account, if you’re listening to an episode that has promoted that, it could surface within the experience of the app. We would know that you listen to it; if you are interested in that, it could surface back in an email at the end of the week or something that you could actually take action on, and that becomes a more valuable ad. And then RadioPublic — for proving that that’s more valuable to the publisher and producer — would ask for a percentage of those kinds of advertising opportunities.

But that also works for other business models, like lead generation for membership or for crowdfunding or for events. If you’re listening to The Moth, and we know you listened three times in a row and you’re in Detroit and there’s a Moth slam on Friday night, it might be a good idea to give you an opportunity to buy a ticket to go to The Moth. That’s very valuable to The Moth. That’s very interesting and valuable to the listener, and it’s a service that RadioPublic connects the dots around and would also charge some sort of a transaction fee for doing it successfully.

Current: Just to give you guys an update on my attempt to contact the librarian: I walked through steps where it asked me who I am and what my email address is, and there was a box where it asked me to list some of my interests — what kinds of TV shows I like, what types of things I like to listen to. And for some reason I was only able to put in about a dozen characters, and it wouldn’t let me type any more, so I just typed in “news about news.” Then I said “OK,” and right now it says, “Thank you for contacting the podcasts librarian. We’ll be back with you shortly with a personal recommendation.” That’s terribly exciting.

On the subject of money, before we leave it, one thing that I think will be of particular interest to the audience you’re speaking to right now — the public media community — is something that just no one has seemed to crack yet is a method for in-app donations. So that when my favorite public radio program, I’m listening to a podcast of it, and they give me a pitch, I could simply hit a button on my phone and give them the money straight from my credit card that would be linked to the app. Is that something that you see coming down the line?

Shapiro: Definitely. Because of our past in helping with crowdfunded campaigns with Radiotopia and the current ones that are going on across Patreon and other kinds of direct support from fans, we think we will be a critical link in that chain and really end up enhancing it tremendously when you can tie it into the experience of listening — when you can actually surface it at the moment of intent and someone’s actually heard a story that moves them or a pitch from a host that invites them. Having that as a seamless transaction and something that you can do within the context of a native experience on mobile really should grow the percentage of who’s completing that and who feels like it’s something that actually is related to them, as opposed to sort of a broadcast pitch to people who might not be in the frame of mind or the moment in their day to be able to do that.

And so, yes, there’s a whole bunch of ways that we see our ability to streamline that experience. And we also know after many years of lobbying — and I did a bunch of opinion writing on this myself — that Apple is starting to open up the gateway for direct nonprofit donations where they bypass their own cut of that in the usual Apple Pay mode. That’s really exciting for the public media companies that are nonprofits.

Current: Yeah, for sure. On that subject, do you still identify as public media?

Shapiro: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I really do think RadioPublic is a public media company. It’s a different kind, it’s a part of a new breed of media companies, but we are a mission-driven media company who cares about public media values and has them enshrined in our mission. We’re a hybrid enterprise with PRX, which was very much created in that mode from its outset. But even PRX, when we first started, that question was posed to us because we were not a station, we were not created by an act of Congress, and we were intentionally an open door for lots of independent creators who also are not necessarily quote unquote “public broadcasters.” So I think it’s an interesting expansion of the definition, but we very much feel like we are in public media.

Current: How does that affect how you approach RadioPublic the app from a content standpoint? I noticed that as I just sort of scroll down the picks that you guys have loaded for me without knowing anything about me yet, it’s a whole lot of public media stuff. I don’t know if that’s intentional on your part or if it’s just that it remains the case that about half of what’s good in podcasting is coming out of public media in some form or another.

Shapiro: We definitely have an intentional curation-editorial strategy to try to surface high-quality, relevant content to a diverse populace. One of our tactics on that is that we’re going to be distributing that curation, so we are working with other publishers, editors and people who know either their content domain or their audience better than we do and that can use our tools and the connecting points of the app to audiences to do their own curation.

But somewhere in the middle there, we’re going to continue to be advocating for a public media vantage point and trying to say, “You know, we care about really good stuff,” and we’re going to try to make sure it reaches a lot of people. But we also want to do it in this intentionally open, serendipitous way that podcasting has evolved and don’t want to be a choke point or a gatekeeper through the mechanism of curation, especially at a moment where it’s evolving so fast and there’s new entrants of all kinds coming in. So we think that, in a similar way that PRX had always been this open platform with curation on top of it, we will continue to have that openness as our core value.

Current: Something that podcasters have been talking about for a long time and has been discussed on my show, among many other places, is the absence of a YouTube for podcasting, and that means a couple of things. One is just a category-killer single entry point for the industry, and I suppose you could call the iOS podcast app that for the time being. But the fact that it’s not on Android is just enormous.

The other thing that we’re talking about when we say we want a YouTube for podcasting is YouTube’s automatic, very easy-to-use monetization functions, where they place the ads for you, you don’t do anything, all you do is get the views and they share the revenue with you. Now I’m not sure how much we really want to emulate YouTube in that sense, because the revenue-sharing with YouTube is really kind of pathetic, and the few professional YouTubers I know are people who are just pulling their hair out trying to produce a new video every single day. It’s just really not a sustainable business model at this point. I don’t know how far I want to take this analogy, but is automatic monetization something that you guys are thinking about with your product?

Shapiro: Yes, we definitely think that there’s a way in which we can — by learning which channels of discovery, engagement and monetization work best — help producers gain not just audience but turn on revenue sources. Again, those revenue sources might not only be advertising. We hope they aren’t; we think that they will be rounded out by direct fan support and other kinds of ancillary or affiliate revenue. But the idea that RadioPublic becomes that flywheel for audience growth and for revenue generation for creators, I don’t think it means that we are looking — as an industry or certainly as a company — to re-create the dynamics that have occurred in video or certainly in music.

Podcasting has a really interesting opportunity to still be an enormously successful, thriving, pervasive, mainstream media category without re-creating the walled gardens and complicated licensing regimes and steep drop-off cliffs of the winners and losers of the digital revenue game. That’s part of our mission and purpose, and we think that one of the exciting parts of the alignment with RadioPublic’s role in the world is to maintain open access but still have a thriving source of revenue for creators who create amazing work.

Current: So, Matt, you probably saw that Brendan Kinney, who’s a marketing guy at Vermont Public Radio, wrote a review of RadioPublic and a couple of its other more immediate competitors for Current recently. He reviewed RadioPublic, Steve Henn’s 60dB and NPR One, and sort of put them all through the same basic test to do a little bit of comparison shopping. I wonder what would you think of his review.

One particular thing that he complained about was no social-sharing options yet. If I found a great podcast in RadioPublic, there’s no easy way for me to tweet about it or Facebook about it.

MacDonald: I definitely read through the review. I think it’s a great characterization of all three of the products. With both 60dB and what we’re doing, we’re both in the really early nascent stages of the products that we’re building. NPR One has had quite a bit more of a lead in that space. But I think everything that was referenced in there is fair. From our perspective, we are really focused on the discovery angle at the moment. The kinds of things like layering in those social layers is definitely on the road map for us to do.

Current: What else is on that road map?

MacDonald: We’re definitely anticipating having additional listening sources, things like Amazon Echo, CarPlay and Android Auto. We really want RadioPublic to be available everywhere. It was a big part of our strategy of releasing the app on both Android and iOS at the same time, making sure that we’re addressing a market that’s growing on the Android side and providing them with a high-quality podcast experience, because there are a number of good players in the space. But from a cross-platform perspective, we wanted to be sure that we were on both places at the same time.

Shapiro: I agree that [Kinney’s] review is actually a good one, given that we’re only two weeks into the product.

Current: He loved it! He loved it!

Shapiro: … We’ve been hearing a wish list, as you might expect, from users who are wondering “How can we get better import of my subscriptions?” or “When is offline listening [coming]?” Download for offline listening is a huge need which we are very aware of, and which we consciously didn’t put in release one because we wanted to really make it as good as could be before introducing it to the growing numbers of people who have been downloading the app.

There’s a number of things on the near-term road map that are just almost expected building blocks of a more sophisticated podcatcher. And then there’s a number of things that we were referencing before that we prototyped over the summer — and in many ways have been prototyping for a decade — around engagement. These ideas around annotations, these ideas around bundling of shows through the playlisting: Those things are new and ones that we’re really excited about when we get into the next phase early next year.

Current: How do you size up your competition, and how do you think of your competition? You’re entering a market where there are lots of people trying to do exactly what you are trying to do. Are you trying to beat them, or are you trying to coexist with them, and how many do you think can coexist?

Shapiro: Right now, because we’re in this world that’s growing, and the audience for it is growing, and the forms and formats are changing, and the experimentation around revenue generation is still underway, we don’t yet feel like this is some kind of zero-sum game, or there’s one single incumbent, or three competitors doing the exact same thing. There’s certainly overlap, and there absolutely is competition, and at a certain level we’re all going to be trying to get the greatest number of listeners to be enjoying and using what we’re each doing. But it’s also been fascinating to us even at this early stage the differentiation that happens, each of us trying a unique approach, the kind of thing that we’ll test and learn and see which ones really stick.

I think for us, because part of our focus has been on the new listener, on the folks who are falling into the podcast habit, that gives us a particular direction. But, yes, ultimately we want to make RadioPublic as fundamental a platform for discovery and enjoyment of spoken word as there can be, and there is really an entire up-for-grabs moment here because, as you said, there is no YouTube in the space. That makes for an interesting opportunity for any of us who are trying to redefine what it means to find and listen to podcasts.