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November 12 2010


Remix Radio Re-Imagines Public Radio as Interactive Collage

While we continue to delve into code-level collaboration with Spot.Us to get our Story Exchange crowdfunding project launched later this year, I'll take the opportunity in my next couple posts to give updates on other emerging PRX services that are helping reshape public radio, and that ultimately will amplify the results of Story Exchange.

First up is Remix Radio, an entirely new sound for public radio.

Remix Radio

remix_flyer_front_hi.gif The basic idea of Remix is to create a story-driven radio format that aggregates and curates remarkable audio -- short-form documentaries, features, podcasts, interviews, archives, "found sound" -- and rotates it through a 24/7 channel in surprising and serendipitous ways. The goal is to make it sound awesome, interesting, fresh, diverse, unusual and compelling. We want to reach a new audience -- one that is younger and more diverse than the current public radio average, and that is curious about the world but not satisfied with the steady diet of talk/news on the radio or elsewhere.

You can check out Remix Radio now using the player below, visit the Remix Radio website, find Remix in the iTunes radio directory, favorite it on our Public Radio Player iPhone app, or tune into XM 136. And soon you'll be able to find Remix on local public radio stations around the country.

On Remix you might hear a classic short documentary from the Kitchen Sisters followed by audio from a recent PopTech! presentation, mixed in with a voicemail music mashup from the new website OneHelloWorld.

Some things you won't find on Remix Radio:

There is no set schedule, no top-of-the-hour news, no standard public radio clock (the breaks at the top of the hour and at 20 and 40 minutes, public radio's circadian rhythm). There are no daily or weekly national programs like "Fresh Air" and "This American Life," although you might encounter short segments that have appeared on other shows, brought into a new context. There are no announcers, news-readers, or reporters. But we do have a host -- our head curator, documentary DJ and producer extraordinaire Roman Mars.

Experimenting With a New Format

There are several insights driving the development of Remix Radio.

First is the realization that there are tons of powerful stories and audio pieces that often languish in the margins of existing formats and programs, or don't get on the radar screen to begin with. NPR calls these "driveway moments" -- the stories that trap you in the car lest you miss a second of a gripping tale.

PRX has a growing catalog of tens of thousands of these stories, and mostly we help get them out to local stations for broadcast. Last year we distributed over 9,000 pieces, but, with the exception of some superb showcase programs like KUT's O'Dark 30, the best stories aren't tied together to create a collective impression.

Another is the sore need to experiment with a new public radio format. The main flavors of news/information, classical, jazz, and Triple A have largely stayed the same for decades in public radio. The focus on consistency has been a necessary and successful strategy to build audience, but it's also led to uniformity and lack of innovation around new local/national channels and new program development. (See Bill McKibben's article in the New York Review of Books that underscores this and highlights some promising programs.)

While public radio has been making serious investments in new digital capacity and experiments on the web and now in mobile, there's little systemic strategizing or experimentation (with the notable exception of Vocalo) for the industry's biggest platform by far: Audio broadcast and streaming.

Then there's the fact that many of the best stories that air on public radio aren't heard by the majority of listeners because they air only once or twice, when only a fraction of a station's "cume" (weekly total listeners) is tuned in. This is especially true for short pieces.

Remix Radio has turned a necessity into a virtue: Since we have 24 hours a day to fill, we inevitably have to repeat a lot of content. Rather than hide that fact or resort to big blocks of looping programs we hand pick hundreds of stories that bear repeated listening and much like a music station we put them in heavy, medium and light rotation (with help from our friends and partners at Backbone whose Internet radio automation software is a linchpin of the service). We set patterns and ways of tagging and categorizing the pieces, but it's an algorithm that chooses what to play when and we ourselves aren't sure what might play next.

And lastly is the somewhat paradoxical and intriguing notion that at a time when the world is going on-demand and we all have the tools to stitch together our own media menu, there's an interesting opportunity to rethink the lean back experience of a curated channel. Where's the sweet spot between the rapidly fading value of "appointment listening" ("tune in this afternoon at 3 o'clock to hear...") and the unsustainable expectation that we will meticulously assemble podcast playlists, sync our devices, and devote time to discover new stuff?

Remix Radio is plunging into that question and using it as an excuse to reimagine radio from the ground up.

New Ideas

Some ideas we're cooking up:

  • Mobile participation -- How might Remix enlist listeners to help shape the channel, submit content, vote on playlists, and connect with each other? We've been keeping an eye on Jelli, a commercial music radio attempt to do some of this. And we're in love with Twilio as a way to integrate our web applications with voice interactivity.
  • Networked DJing -- One great advantage of our Remix Radio setup is that anyone working on the channel can manage it remotely from their laptop. All of the audio is stored in the cloud, streamed directly for the web and mobile, and delivered over the Internet as broadcast-ready files for XM and terrestrial delivery. There's no physical station, control room, master control engineering, satellite dishes etc. This means we can have a distributed network of program directors, show producers, on-air hosts, etc. -- all collaborating on Remix from different locations.
  • The continuum of sound -- We're thinking hard about how audio pieces traverse the various platforms that audiences use, what form factors apply, and where smart systems can help make that migration smooth for producers and listeners. What kind of technology, design and editorial input is needed for a podcast to become a segment of a radio program, for it to live as an embedded widget on a page, or a swipable screen on an iPhone app? It doesn't make sense to focus exclusively on one end of the continuum or the other; listening happens everywhere.

    How does all of this tie back in to Story Exchange? At PRX we're rethinking the whole life cycle of content creation, distribution, and engagement. Story Exchange will create opportunities to find and fund new stories, and Remix will help connect them with audiences in new ways.

Stay tuned!

September 15 2010


PRX Story Exchange, Spot.us Bring Crowdfunding to Public Radio

Story Exchange (formerly Story Market) is a way for local public radio stations, producers, and listeners to pitch, find and fund documentaries and stories on important local issues. We're also one of this year's winners of a Knight News Challenge grant.

Here's how we envision it working: Let's say that in Kentucky the issue of mountaintop mining needs a deeper investigative look. On Story Exchange, the Louisville public radio WFPL station can invite producers to bid on reporting the story, ask listeners to contribute funds as well as ideas, and see the story through to completion for broadcast and digital distribution.

You can also watch this video to learn more:

Story Exchange has deep roots as an idea at Public Radio Exchange. Since we first launched in 2003 the core service of PRX has been an open online marketplace for public radio stories -- audio documentaries, interviews, features, and other pieces that might have already aired somewhere locally or nationally but have continued value in distribution. Over time we have built a robust market where today over 2,500 local stations, independent producers and others regularly buy, sell and distribute tens of thousands of stories (over 8,300 purchased so far just this year), reaching millions of listeners through broadcast and digital channels.

PRX Today

PRX's approach has been to create efficient tools for distribution and discovery that reduce barriers and friction, establish incentives for participation, and increase the overall pool of talent, content, access, and reach. (PRX has expanded its services and recently announced a significant round of funding.)

But even as this has succeeded on PRX.org, we see ongoing gaps in supply and demand, and new ways to use PRX's growing community and platform to connect stations and producers -- and the public -- around issues that need coverage.

Today a typical transaction on PRX might consist of a local public radio station looking for an hour-long documentary on, say, urban agriculture. They search the site, find a handful of results, audition them and then license one for broadcast. PRX charges a license fee and pays producers royalties when their work is used.

If the results turn up empty, or stations wants something customized for local use, the most PRX can typically do is help connect them with producers as a kind of talent broker. (Producers maintain LinkedIn-style resumes and portfolios on PRX.)

But what if stations, producers, and listeners themselves could use PRX as a way to seed, surface, and fund original content matched to a direct distribution opportunity? What if donations from "listeners like you" weren't just for the news you already use, but for what's missing?

This is the idea behind Story Exchange.

Story Exchange

When we were gearing up to pitch Story Exchange as a News Challenge project, we came to an interesting conclusion. While we had been kicking around the idea for several years, by now there were similar projects taking shape. Some were in adjacent fields like indie music (i.e. Sellaband), and one in particular in journalism (Spot.us, a previous and prominent News Challenge winner).

The News Challenge states up front that criteria for selection include innovation and originality. Rather than try to claim Story Exchange as a unique insight, we stated what our idea had in common with Spot.us and proposed a code-level collaboration as a signature approach of the project.

By joining the open source development of the Spot.us codebase we're going to help develop and extend the platform, integrate it with PRX's own services, and add functionality specific to the public radio system. We see this as a unique opportunity to build on a promising new model with an open source approach.

Knight's commitment to open source software sets an important threshold, but while there's important value in ensuring that investments in software stay accessible, most open source projects fail to attract a community of developers beyond the project's original team. A benefit of PRX joining forces with Spot.us is the greater likelihood that the codebase will evolve and stay relevant as ours and other projects incorporate it.

Story Exchange is just getting under way, we're planning our first pilot later this year with our partners at Louisville Public Media. Right now we're working out the details of various APIs and user authentication integration with our friends at Spot.us (If you're a coder you'll be interested to know that Spot.us and PRX are both using Ruby on Rails -- one more incentive for our collaboration -- and you'll be able to track our progress on GitHub).

We anticipate (and will blog about) some of the challenges to come, including the ways that Story Exchange runs counter to some of the ingrained public radio culture, the obstacles we encounter integrating a new model into the existing PRX system, the tech partnership, and the overall merits and successes of the emerging crowdfunding model for journalism. Stay tuned!

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