The quiet explosion gets a little louder with a bold move by This American Life2014-05-29
For 17 years, public radio’s “This American Life” was distributed by Public Radio International, one of several rival organizations that make content available for the hundreds of local public radio stations across the U.S. Several competitors vied to become the new distributor of Ira Glass’s iconic program, but Glass and Chicago Public Media—the show’s producer—spurned all those advances and decided to self-distribute via Public Radio Exchange.
To be honest, I had never heard of PRX before the “This American Life” story broke, so I visited the site to see what it was all about. The 14-year-old nonprofit serves as an online platform for producers of audio content to distribute their shows to public radio stations. An explainer video on the site points out that public radio stations can select everything from recurring programs to add to their lineups to a three-minute clip to include in coverage of a story.
PRX handles everything from rights agreements to payments by stations to producers. It even offers its most interesting program through PRX Remix, an app that delivers PRX content that includes traditional public radio programming from the site as well as podcasts.
What got my juices flowing, though, was the fact that anybody can upload content to PRX in hopes of being picked up by one or more of the 1,000-plus public radio stations in the country. Anybody using audio to tell compelling stories has a shot, and that shot got even bigger now that every public radio station in the country is paying more attention than ever to PRX, thanks to the bold move by “This American Life.”
Whirlpool: Ahead of its time
Among those who can test the public radio waters are brands. I’m thinking back to the earliest days of podcassting when Whirlpool produced a show called “American Family.” The show didn’t talk about washing machines or other appliances; instead, it focused on “a range of issues affecting today’s families including but not limited to parenting, education, career, health and relationships.” Whirlpool Home Appliance was behind the show, which was hosted by the company’s consumer insight director, Audrey Reed-Granger.
Beginning with an episode posted on July 25, 2005 about what it’s like to be an empty-nester, Whirlpool uploaded new episodes every week until the show abruptly vanished after its final show of December 2007. During its run, “American Family” was hailed as a shining example of the potential for business podcasting. While I don’t know why Whirlpool gave up on the show, I can guess. Podcasting still was not mainstream in 2007. It was complicated to subscribe and listening required either sitting at your desk or transferring a file to a mobile media player via a physical cable connection between the player and the computer. It was just too much work for most people.
Audio for content marketing
Today, online audio is the Web’s quiet explosion. It doesn’t get the attention of sexier media, but the uses to which it’s being put and the channels through which it’s distributed are both expanding. Consider the success of Soundcloud (briefly a target for takeover by Twitter), NPR’s experiments in online audio, Google’s use of audio (by Ira Glass, no less) as part of its Google Doodles, and Wikipedia’s Voice Introduction Project (all covered in detail here).
PRX is another such channel. The reason “American Family” popped into my head is that it sounds remarkably like public radio content. There’s hardly a company anywhere that isn’t investing in content marketing. A brand-produced program along the lines of “American Family” would be a perfect fit with PRX. Audio production can be easier and cheaper than a lot of other kinds of content, and PRX offers a foot in the door to over 1,000 stations with a massive audience. (“This American Life” is heard by 2.2 million radio listeners every week, not to mention more who—like me—listen to the podcast version.)
In the content wars, quality wins. “American Family” was quality content ahead of its time. Today, it would stand a chance of becoming weekly radio fare for millions of public radio listeners, achieving the same goals sought by any brand sponsoring content.
Think about the stories your brand has to tell and how they can be adapted as great audio, then think about uploading those stories to PRX. And let me know what happens. Somewhere, there’s a brand that will produce the first popular public radio show.