Radiotopia looks to make business of creative online audio

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A new network of independent producers hopes to prove that creating sound-rich podcasts can be a labor of love and a sustainable business as well.

Launched Feb. 4 by Public Radio Exchange and producer Roman Mars, Radiotopia aims to create a bigger digital audience for its network of seven producers. Together, their shows will also form a larger package that can be promoted to potential sponsors. Producers will retain ownership of their programs and share in any earnings.

The network will earn additional revenue through donations from listeners and fundraising efforts of individual producers. Its launch is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, a sponsorship with MailChimp and funds from a 2013 Kickstarter campaign for Mars’s podcast, 99% Invisible.

Mars devised the concept for Radiotopia more than two years ago and serves as its lead architect. Julia Barton, a correspondent for public radio programs including PRI’s The World and Studio 360, has joined as a coordinator.

The seven podcasts included in Radiotopia’s launch share “an affinity around sound and an aesthetic approach, what we call story-driven audio,” said Jake Shapiro, PRX c.e.o. In addition to 99% Invisible, the programs are:

  • Radio Diaries, a personal narrative series launched in 1996 by Joe Richman that has aired frequently as NPR newsmagazine segments;
  • Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything, a storytelling hybrid of fact and fiction supported by PRX and created by Walker, who previously produced Too Much Information on New Jersey freeform station WFMU;
  • Strangers, a storytelling series created by Lea Thau and supported by Los Angeles’s KCRW;
  • Love + Radio, a surreal series combining reported pieces and fiction, created by Nick van der Kolk and supported by Chicago’s WBEZ;
  • Fugitive Waves, a new archival-based program from the Kitchen Sisters; and
  • The Truth, a semi-improvised radio drama series created by producer Jonathan Mitchell.

Though the network focuses on digital distribution, some of Radiotopia’s producers see their shows less as podcasts and more as public radio programs. “Everyone’s calling Radiotopia a podcast network, which I guess it is,” van der Kolk said. “But internally, no one calls it a podcast network.”

The use of “radio” in the network’s title, which Mars borrowed with permission from former Third Coast International Audio Festival Artistic Director Julie Shapiro, carries a message. “I particularly want to reclaim the name ‘radio’ because I hate the name ‘podcast,’” Mars said.

Going indie

Shapiro and Mars liken Radiotopia to “an indie label” for podcasters. “I’ve always wanted to run a punk rock record label, and this is my version,” Mars said. Shapiro also points to affinities with Maximum Fun, a seven-year-old donor-supported podcast network headed by Jesse Thorn, host of NPR’s Bullseye. Before landing a public radio show, Thorn got his start with the podcast The Sound of Young America.

“I’m happy to see some institutional support in public radio for new work that isn’t sourced from a station or a network,” Thorn wrote in an email. “I know for a fact that there are many people excluded from creating now because they don’t have support, or even the possibility of support.”

van der Kolk

Van der Kolk produces the podcast Love + Radio.

Radiotopia’s Walker and van der Kolk both distributed early iterations of their podcasts through alt.NPR, an online podcast network that NPR experimented with in the mid-2000s, and they pocketed small sums for their work. But that and other efforts provided too little support for podcasters to build sustaining audiences for their work.

“The stereotype of podcasting is entirely true, which is that it takes all your time and makes you no money,” said Thau. Before starting her podcast, Thau raised funds for nonprofit storytelling organization The Moth while serving for 10 years as its executive and creative director. But she still struggles with raising the necessary funds to keep her own show afloat.

“There’s been this real kind of chicken-and-egg issue” with producing Love + Radio, said van der Kolk. “In order to build up a more substantial audience, we need to produce more regularly; and how do we produce more regularly if we don’t have any support for the show?”

Radiotopia’s producers will get a head start, as each receives a share of the Knight Foundation grant. They must contribute at least one podcast each month, and several will produce more, with 99% Invisible becoming a weekly show this year.

The success of Radiotopia’s business model hinges on a well-stocked stream of new episodes to attract sponsors, Thau said.

Participating producers have also agreed to contribute to the network a share of any funds they raise individually. “There’s a slightly socialist principle to it, which is you get something and you give something back,” Thau said.

Some of Radiotopia’s participants have fundraising experience. Thau raised $21,000 for her show in a 2012 Kickstarter campaign, and Mitchell generated $30,000 for The Truth in a 2013 drive on his own site. In 2012, Mars’s 99% Invisible became Kickstarter’s most successful journalism project when it raised more than $170,000.

Mars hopes to ultimately use Radiotopia revenue to greenlight pilots for new series and to start a pipeline process for expanding offerings.

Some Radiotopia programs will also air on broadcast stations through various outlets, including the PRX Remix radio program, which Mars curates. PRX might provide stations with programs compiling Radiotopia’s offerings, which don’t always fit broadcast schedules as standalone pieces due to their irregular lengths.

 This article has been updated with additional information published in the Feb. 10 print edition of Current.

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