What are podcasts?
There isn’t one exact definition to describe them. They can be fiction or reality. They can be rigorous investigative journalism, or they can tell horror stories. The types are endless. What they all do have in common is that they’re strictly audio, and usually involve a narrator.
These days, you can find your favorite podcast on apps like podcast or spotify, but before 2014, they had remained a relatively niche medium, catering to radio lovers and those who loved audio content. From the beginning, The Public Radio Exchange, PRX, was one of the original distributors of audio content that helped popularize them.
PRX was co-founded by Jake Shapiro. After graduating from Harvard, he had started an internet record label and struck it big with his band, Two Ton Shoe, after selling off his MP3.com stocks. Afterwards, he had gotten an internship at The Connection on WBUR, and later went on to be a producer on NPR. With all his experience in the audio entertainment industry, he went off to lead PRX.
The story there is for another day. What’s important is 2014 when everything began to change. PRX had launched Radiotopia, a network of curated podcasts, and it was gaining popularity. All of a sudden, Jake started noticing trends around him. The audience for podcasts had been steadily growing since their introduction, leaving their unique audience and disseminating to a broader listener base. Furthermore, the growth of on demand media with apps like Spotify and Soundcloud had led to a boom in the consumption of audio entertainment, whether it was music, audiobook, podcast, etc. In October 2014, Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, appeared on The Tonight Show to introduce the podcast Serial. Jake said the launch “was like a water cooler moment for most audiences who haven’t heard of podcasting before.” With that, the pieces started falling together. Major podcast producers like Gimlet launched, and iTunes came out with the podcast app.
That year Jake decided to branch off from his old company and start RadioPublic, a service that would bring podcasts to new listeners with an easy to use interface and features designed for newcomers.
Design in a Growing Industry
Jake had built his whole life around audio, starting his own company and building it into a large corporation. Thus, when he left PRX, it was almost like a step backwards. Jake found himself in the position of an entrepreneur again, but many of the skills like “managing people, financing, and overseeing product development” that he had in his previous position came with him to his new job. Coupled with the fact that RadioPublic was spun off from some prototypes that had existed in PRX, and the transition became much easier.
RadioPublic at its core is a public benefit corporation dedicated to introducing new listeners to the diverse world of podcasts, which for Jake means that they have “a stated public good and mission” to help the “tens of millions of new users who are just now learning about podcasting.”
Since the beginning, RadioPublic has put its energy in achieving their goal all on a purely podcast focused platform. Some of the design features and nuances that he points out are so sneaky that the average person might not even notice them. For starters, he’s focused on reducing the confusing terminology that can exist in podcasts. Jake explains that “we don’t talk about subscribing because we found that’s a misleading word. Some people think that means we have to pay for it as opposed to just following it.”
Introducing people to new podcast series has also become an area of improvement. The company allows creators to flag gateway episodes to help get people hooked immediately. These episodes can be the most popular, the most explanatory, or the most intriguing in the series, and they exist to make it easier to get started.
The Podcast Playlist
The most notable attribute of RadioPublic is the podcast playlist, something they pioneered and have used to their advantage. Basically, podcast playlists are like song playlists. They’re made up of episodes from multiple different shows all woven together into a single feed, revolving around a theme or idea. The concept started out as something that only the podcast librarian (He curates and assembles playlists) could make, but they evolved to become a much more popular curator and publisher feature. Jake says that “a podcast playlist has been one of the effective vehicles that really checks a lot of boxes at once: discovery, marketing, and influence.”
Team, Resilience, and Recruiting
Jake lucked out. He had good experience, created an intuitive platform, and he had also started his company at the perfect time. As he described, “We’re building into a growing industry, so there’s a sense in the community at large that podcasting is seeing this tremendous explosion of interest from all corners and so there’s a lot of room for growth for all the players in the game…So podcasting is still very nascent.” 10-11 months in, and they had already begun to see widespread adoption and validation of their beliefs.
All the carryover from PRX was not enough to make running RadioPublic an easy job. There were still all of the trials and tribulations of running a startup. For example, there was “raising investor financing, recruiting a team of top engineers, establishing an initial product roadmap, and getting something out into the market.”
At one time, Jake and his team had tried to create a discovery scan mode on the app. They had spent lots of design and engineering time developing the component, only to find out later that it wouldn’t work because of network connectivity. Moments like these test Jake’s resilience, but in the end his persistence always wins out. “Failing back, failing forward. Those are the opportunities that you learn from and you wouldn’t want to hold back on,” he said.
All these hardships tied back to one major thing: creating a minimum viable product.
Having a group of dedicated people working together simplified the job. He attributed a lot of the work to his CPO and CTO who had come from PRX with him. Working together with a team that he trusted and had already built prototypes of RadioPublic made it easier to release the product as soon as possible. That along with the fact that the group was already “familiar with the twists and turns of product development” allowed for them all to be less worried about experimenting, throwing things away, and tweaking the product.
Jake has learned a lot of lessons. He has learned to develop a keen eye for recruiting talented people who bring passion to the company, and holds conviction that one of the reasons RadioPublic has been able to succeed has been because it has “a vision deeply embedded in it.” Most importantly, he’s just glad he’s made it this far. Leaving PRX, a company that he had nurtured and grew was painful, but ultimately, standing back, he sees two thriving companies and is proud of the new management at PRX and the hope on the horizon for RadioPublic.
From the beginning, RadioPublic has always been about helping listeners discover, engage with, and reward the creators of podcasts, all while toting easy to use features to attract new audiences. The path to that goal may have changed. Tactics have shifted. Ways to tackle problems have changed. But ultimately, their public mission serves as their roadmap, and that’s a roadmap that Jake intends to follow to bring podcasts to more people.
“I feel like taking the leap early and often either when it feels like its wobbly or unstable is the right choice and trying to continuously figure out what your venture’s mission is, not just a product or market but the actual reason for it to be in the universe or the world…I think it’s really important for every company at every stage to understand what are its relations to the rest of what we do in society. And that exercise I think is a really good thing for any entrepreneur. Often it seems like you’re just staring at the five inches in front of you when your working on these ventures, but reminding yourself of the bigger picture all the time I think is a healthy exercise.”
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