Prize for PRX, a middleman appreciated by both sides
The MacArthur Foundation declines to accept nominations for its Awards for Creative and Effective Institutions. But it could have found more than a few cheerleaders in public radio to vouch for the Public Radio Exchange, one of eight awardees this year.
Since its debut almost five years ago, the web-based marketplace for audio content has found hundreds of frequent users among station programmers and independent producers. The producers rely on PRX to distribute work, extend their reach, track carriage, breathe new life into old pieces and, for the first time, reliably earn some cash in the process.
The programmers, meanwhile, find PRX’s website a powerful tool for discovering little-heard voices, scheduling holiday-themed programming and creating showcases for docs and offbeat indie material.
Yet PRX appealed to the MacArthur Foundation in part because it has transcended the role of a distributor. It has launched or helped with initiatives that mark public radio’s most ambitious efforts to reach new audiences and adapt to developments in new media, including the CPB-backed Public Radio Talent Quest, NPR’s podcasting directory, the Digital Distribution Consortium and its own Generation Next, a umbrella website for youth-radio programs.
PRX “is taking its place within the institutions that make up public media as one that is interested in trying out new ideas and seeing them through,” says Elspeth Revere, v.p. of MacArthur’s general program.
Now in their third year, MacArthur’s Awards for Creative and Effective Institutions recognize organizations that “demonstrate exceptional creativity and effectiveness” and an impact “altogether disproportionate to their size,” according to the foundation. Only previous recipients of MacArthur support with budgets of less than $2.5 million are eligible, limiting the potential grantee pool to about 1,000.
Organizations with budgets of under $1 million received grants of $350,000. PRX, whose budget is about $1.5 million, received $500,000. It will use the award to enhance its website, commission content and explore moving out from under the auspices of its parent nonprofit, the Station Resource Group.
PRX was the only media nonprofit that got a grant this year. Other grantees included Philadelphia’s Juvenile Justice Center, a Russian human-rights group and Madagascar’s first environmental foundation. Last year’s winners included Kartemquin Films, whose documentaries include Hoop Dreams and The New Americans.
Opening floodgates, pre-YouTube
PRX launched in September 2003, the fruit of a brainstorm between SRG and independent producer Jay Allison. The idea was to use the Web to give station and independent producers a more convenient way to share work, while developing a deep catalog of pieces old and new.
The concept was “long tail” before Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson coined the term, says Jake Shapiro, PRX’s executive director since its inception. PRX recognized that “there was tremendous value in aggregating and making accessible some of the programs that have garnered so much energy, investment and work, rather than having them be ephemeral productions that air once or twice.”
Every week PRX offers proof of the long tail in action. Last week, for example, KFAI in Minneapolis licensed Sound Portraits Productions’ “My Lobotomy,” a moving story of a man’s inquiry into why he was lobotomized as a child. The piece previously aired on NPR’s All Things Considered and was uploaded into the PRX inventory in December 2005.
Stations pay to join PRX at rates scaled to their budgets, while producers earn income based on a flat per-minute rate. PRX handles the payments. Producers can also offer their work without charge or at a premium rate, which doubles their payments.
As of April 15, PRX offered 20,000 pieces, and roughly 200 stations use it regularly, resulting in cumulative payouts of more than $650,000 to the contributing producers. The figures:
PRX cumulative stats
April 15, 2005 | April 15, 2008
Producers have posted
more than 3,800 | 20,000 pieces on PRX.
More than 150 | 200 stations use PRX regularly.
More than 325 | 1,000 producers
have had pieces licensed,
totalling more than 2,900 | 24,000 licenses,
earning$100,000 | $650,000 for producers.
PRX’s most popular pieces tend to be hourlong shows, which prove easiest for stations to schedule. Some stations also drop segments of irregular lengths into their lineups, and at times into one- or two-hour showcases created specifically for indie work acquired from PRX and elsewhere. Shows pegged to holidays or other observances, such as Earth Day or National Poetry Month, also prove enduringly popular, as do those which focus on music or the environment, Shapiro says.
Yet PRX remains a wide-open clearinghouse of huge variety, in part because it presents no barriers to entry. When the site launched, “it was a bit of a risk because we didn’t know what would start bubbling up,” Shapiro says. “This was before YouTube or podcasting.”
That openness stemmed in part from necessity—PRX, which employs just five full-time staffers and as many part-time and contract employees, lacked the staff to screen every contribution. But the website set up a peer-reviewing system, à la Amazon.com, to act as a filter.
PRX’s staffers feared that the site would be inundated with amateurish or even malicious work. But the filter has worked, says Shapiro: “It’s an extremely self-correcting system.” The site launched with “a critical mass of very good work,” he says, which along with the peer reviews heightened pressure on producers to contribute polished stories. Joining PRX also takes a bit of effort, which makes it harder than simply posting a comment on a blog, for example.
Shapiro counts among PRX’s contributions to public radio its elevation of indie content. “There are hundreds and hundreds of producers who found a home through PRX or found a way into public radio who really might not have otherwise,” he says.
The site has inaugurated a new business model for novice as well as established producers. Some earn tens of dollars a year through PRX, others upwards of $15,000, but for many, it’s a novel idea that they might earn any money at all from broadcasters of their work.
“It’s a small revolution, but it’s a revolution nonetheless,” says Richard Paul, an independent producer whose works include After Oil and Shakespeare in American Life. “It’s the first time that a producer can have an expectation of making money from stations for work that they’ve produced.”
Prior to joining PRX, Paul says, he supported his work with grants from funders and commissions from shows. When distributing a show on his own, he would call stations with his pitch, mail sample CDs at his own expense and sometimes never learn which stations ended up airing the piece. Since joining PRX, he has earned about $10,000 from distributing through the site, and he can also keep tabs on which stations license his work.
“It’s wonderful to have a PRX check show up out of the blue. That’s the greatest thing in the world,” he says. “And frankly, it’s often money earned from work that would be sitting in a drawer gathering dust if it wasn’t for PRX.”
About half of PRX’s 1,600 or so contributors have licensed work through the site, Shapiro says. Some producers prove more popular than others, particularly those with deeper back catalogs, but the top sellers do vary from quarter to quarter, according to Shapiro. He says PRX would like to draw more attention to the unsold work by promoting it to web visitors, who are free to stream any piece in full from the site after creating an account.
The site also broadens the audience for some producers by packaging their pieces into its four weekly or biweekly podcasts, for which contributors receive a flat payout. The podcasts are syndicated through the iTunes Music Store and the NPR podcast directory and are available from PRX’s site.
In addition, PRX repackages some segments into MP3 albums sold via Amazon, iTunes and other online retailers. PRX takes a cut and gives the rest to the contributing producers.
Who needs middlemen?
Stations that use PRX run the gamut from major-market NPR affiliates to smaller community, college and even low-power FM stations. PRX has encouraged pubcasters to air its content by doling out grants to support the staffing and programming of local showcase hours.
One station that received such support was KFAI, whose Monday-night Listening Lounge pulls almost all of its content from PRX. The half-hour show airs both long-form documentaries and short segments, says Dan Richmond, p.d. KFAI also plucks seasonal shows from PRX, and its news department uses it as well.
“It’s just made the process of finding third-party programs that much easier,” Richmond says.
The website’s biggest client last year was Seattle’s KUOW/KXOT, a distinction recognized with a 2007 PRX Zeitfunk Award — a kitschy trophy topped with a shiny martial-arts practitioner frozen in mid-roundhouse kick. The station airs KXOT Presents, a two-hour showcase Saturdays and Sundays on that station, and uses PRX to acquire L.A. Theatre Works and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s Vinyl Café.
Jeff Hansen, p.d. of KUOW/KXOT, praises PRX for its ease of use and for its promotion of independent producers, whom he believes public radio must support as “the next generation” of talent.
By empowering producers to handle their own distribution, he says, PRX may even be “the future of program distribution.” “What sense does it make to distribute someone else’s content, when that someone else can distribute themselves?” he says. “Why incur the cost of the middleman anymore, now that you have PRX?”
Hansen even tried to dissuade the CBC from finding an American network to distribute its Vinyl Café, a variety show which it now distributes solely through PRX. But the CBC has had difficulty persuading stations that are not PRX members to pick up the show, says producer Jess Milton — a downside to PRX-only distribution.
KUOW uses PRX to distribute its own documentaries, including The Migration Project, which packaged stories about immigration from youth-radio groups around the country into a standalone one-hour show. PRX will use $100,000 of its MacArthur grant to support production of new programming under similar arrangements, Shapiro says. For example, it could help stations pool resources to commission reporting on particular topics, he says.
Bigger chunks of the grant will support internal projects. PRX will devote $150,000 to the next major overhaul of its website, which will involve a shift from Java programming to Ruby on Rails, an open-source technical platform used in online media and social-networking applications. “PRX 3.0” will also include a directory of producers, and users will be able to donate directly to them and design custom playlists of favorite pieces.
With the remaining $250,000, PRX will establish a capital reserve to help support a move to new governance. It will create a board of six to eight leaders drawn from “public broadcasting, technology, business and nonprofit sectors,” it says, and consider either setting up shop as an independent entity or merging into another nonprofit.
Shapiro says PRX has discussed collaborations with many organizations within public media as an outgrowth of its work with the Digital Distribution Consortium. When PRX launched, its founders expected it would break away from SRG sooner rather than later, but the relationship proved to work out well, Shapiro says.
This year, however, the service will seek to break free. “We’ve set a high bar for what would be the best possible home for PRX,” Shapiro says.
Web page posted May 5, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC