Radiotopia, a public radio podcast network, nets $1m to expand

Jake Shapiro, CEO of PRX. Photo by Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe
Jake Shapiro, CEO of PRX. Photo by Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe

Podcasting, as you may have heard, is hip again.

Give credit to a growing crop of smartphone apps, faster wireless networks, and a broader array of programs for listeners of every stripe. But however you slice it, listening to audio programs on digital devices is emerging as fertile ground for innovative media.

Cambridge-based audio distribution company PRX is capitalizing on that growth. The nonprofit media group has landed a $1 million grant from the Knight Foundation to help bankroll its podcast network, Radiotopia.

Radiotopia takes a very public-radio approach to podcasting, which is not a mistake. PRX built its signature digital distribution network as an alternative to the satellite-based systems traditionally used to beam programming to public-radio stations around the country. Last year, PRX landed perhaps the biggest name in the public-radio universe when it won the right to distribute “This American Life,” headed by radio icon Ira Glass.

Since launching in February 2014, Radiotopia says its 11 podcasts are now seeing more than 7 million downloads per month.

In a blog post, PRX chief executive Jake Shapiro said the $1 million grant would be used to help Radiotopia offer more technical and business services to podcast creators and bankroll a “pilot fund” that will help pay for new program ideas and support new podcast producers. “We have no shortage of ideas,” Shapiro said in an interview. “We’re getting pitched a lot already.”

Perhaps most importantly, the money will let Radiotopia hire an executive producer “to provide editorial vision and leadership.” You might think the list of people qualified for that job is pretty small, and probably already known to the PRX leadership. But Shapiro said the company intentionally opened up the hiring process in hopes of expanding its horizons for an important hire.

“We thought that in this heightened moment of excitement and interest and growth in podcasting that this job could be a magnet for really accomplished, creative editorial types from other adjacent creative fields that might make sense,” he said.

The concept of a media distribution network is not new, and it’s already in place in the podcasting world. Prominent podcasters like Adam Carolla and Chris Hardwick have their own versions, as do smaller producers in comedy and other categories. By combining a number of podcasts under one banner, a network can centralize sponsorships, distribution, and other back-office work, and distribute the financial haul to their individual shows after taking a percentage of the revenue to pay for its services.

Radiotopia’s take on the model stands out in part because it combines advertiser support, grant funding, and audience contributions — the same model that has supported local public-radio stations for decades. In November, Radiotopia raised more than $600,000 in a crowdfunding campaign, and hopes to find new ways of using digital platforms to encourage listeners to give money.

If Radiotopia can crack that nut, it will have executives at public radio stations around the country sitting up and taking notice. While digital distribution offers new ways to expand the traditional radio audience, it also threatens the pledge-drive model that drives listener donations because programs are broken out of an ongoing stream of programming and consumed as individual parts.

But there are plenty of other publishers who would be thrilled to start with an audience that’s accustomed to dipping into its wallets. As Roman Mars, the producer of Radiotopia’s flagship podcast “99% Invisible,” told Nieman Journalism Lab, “the key component that can’t be ignored is that we have an audience that is primed to give through decades of public radio asks.”