From the get-go, Kerri Hoffman has known the power of podcasting. Now the CEO of Public Radio Exchange (PRX), Hoffman been in nonprofit leadership for 20 years and with PRX for more than a decade. She was instrumental in guiding the evolution of PRX and in creating its podcast network, Radiotopia, one of Adweek’s Podcast Networks of the Year.
Adweek named Hoffman Podcast Executive of the Year Monday. She spoke with us about PRX’s continuous growth and its approach to expanding its Radiotopia network.
You’ve been with PRX for over a decade. How would you describe the company’s journey?
PRX was founded to solve a specific problem. Back in 2003, top-quality radio shows and documentaries were often aired once and forgotten. PRX worked to create an exchange for audio and built an economy on top of it. Our aim was to reduce friction in distribution and monetization. This made PRX the first digital distributor in public radio. At the time, public radio stations either syndicated national shows or had to make local programming; there was no way to exchange or share evergreen content. PRX created the middle layer, and we built technology to support that layer’s growth. In doing so, the marketplace thrived, and we’ve had a front-row seat to the talent—and the potential—of digital audio.
What makes podcasting valuable to advertisers, unique to other mediums?
Podcasts are subscribe-able media. Listeners choose the shows they consume. Nothing about podcast listening is passive. This creates a bond and trust between listener and show.
Second, a big percentage of the podcast listening audience is under 35 years old, an age group that’s learned how to ignore visual (and intrusive) ads. They’re savvy consumers and care about which companies support the content they enjoy. The intimacy of listening through headphones also adds to the appeal and the success of advertising. Most importantly, skilled audio producers know that the ads have to be as good as the show. Quality ads are more creative and memorable.
Walk us through Radiotopia’s establishment and subsequent growth.
We founded Radiotopia in 2014 in partnership with Roman Mars, the host and creator of 99% Invisible. The next year, we brought in the co-founder of the Third Coast International Audio Festival, Julie Shapiro, as executive producer of the network. From then until now, Radiotopia has supported extraordinary new shows, voices and ideas.
We’ve undertaken initiatives to open the industry to new voices while pushing the field forward. For example, in 2016, we held an open call for story-driven podcasts. We received more than 1,500 submissions from around the world. The winner was Ear Hustle, a show written and produced inside San Quentin State Prison. Ear Hustle is now entering its fifth season.
In this spirit, not only does Radiotopia serve as a home to unparalleled creativity and innovation, but we empower independent producers behind remarkable podcasts including Criminal, Song Exploder, The Allusionist, The Memory Palace, Everything Is Alive, Adult ISH, Mortified, Passenger List and more. We provide support in areas such as technology and distribution, marketing and promotion, and sponsorship. Producers own their IP and content. Radiotopia is really about community—the producers themselves and the audience we engage. Since launching five years ago, Radiotopia has continued to grow audience and revenue each year. We’re excited for what’s next.
About a month ago, PRX launched its Podcasting 101 video series with Google, which you said was a step forward in fueling “the growth of podcasting around the world.” What other initiatives is PRX taking to fuel that growth?
Since the beginning of PRX, we’ve remained committed to innovation, opening otherwise closed systems and building pathways for independent creators to experiment, grow and connect with new audiences. This mindset informs all we do, from building innovative technology to developing shows to supporting a new generation of audio makers.
While the U.S. podcast market is maturing, strong pockets of amazing storytellers and journalists are turning to audio production from around the world. The Podcasting 101 videos are available in six languages. We’ve been encouraged by the international interest in our training program and wanted to make sure we provided free tools to a wide group of aspiring audio makers. In addition to the video series, our training team has worked directly and extensively with early-stage podcast producers across the United States and around the world, including in Brazil, Kenya, Chile, India, Spain, Colombia and Lebanon, to help get their podcasts off the ground. We’ve trained teams in Egypt, Austria and Puerto Rico, and this year, we’re expanding this work.
We also have two Podcast Garages, which are community spaces that double as training facilities and recording studios. One is in Boston and the other is in Washington D.C. They’re open to creators of all experience levels to use and enjoy.
What do you predict will change in the podcasting industry over the next five years? 10?
Podcasting will continue to grow. The business is maturing, technical solutions are making discoverability and access easier, and quality content is being made every day. The IAB is predicting that podcast revenue will hit 1 billion by 2021. On one hand, big media companies are expanding their audio portfolio, and on the other, organizations like ours are investing in training and helping the next generation develop the skills they need to succeed. The indicators are all very strong.
As with any newish medium, there are cautionary tales we should mind. The values that spurred the early days of the internet, as well as podcasting—participatory, networked, decentralized, open—will be challenged. Commercial pressures can also drive consolidation and advances in technology can also bring surveillance, intrusive ad tech and monopolies. This is the time to set the ambition and the standards that will allow podcasting to grow and reshape media.