SimOnAir Ep. 4 – The Podcasting Revolution (Jake Shapiro)
In this 2018 conversation, Sim delves into the world of podcasting with Jake Shapiro, co-founder of RadioPublic and Podfund, and a pioneer in the podcasting industry. They discuss the evolution of podcasting, the role of creators, and the future of the medium.
Jake Shapiro is a leading figure in the podcasting industry, having co-founded both RadioPublic and Podfund. With a passion for empowering creators and a vision for the future of podcasting, Jake has been instrumental in shaping the landscape of the medium.
- Jake shares his insights into the evolution of podcasting, from its early days to its current status as a mainstream medium.
- He discusses the role of creators in the podcasting industry, and how they can leverage their unique voices to connect with audiences.
- The conversation explores the future of podcasting, with Jake offering his predictions on where the medium is headed.
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Sim (host): Jake, you graduated from Harvard in 1993, you lived for 3 years in Russia right after graduating. What did you focus on during that time, and what are some of the experiences that you accumulated there, fresh out of college. Three years, right?
Jake Shapiro (guest): Yeah, that's correct. So, I mean, I had been interested in Russia and Russian language, partly because of like old family lineage from Russian Jewish émigrés to Boston in the turn of the last century. But also, when I was entering college, it was the end of the Cold War and the Wall was coming down and the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. I was just fascinated by the country in the literature and the art and history and so I wanted to learn the language. And then I had an opportunity to study at a program there before my senior year and then got hired by that program to be a coordinator for it, following graduation. And I moved there just as the whole country was going through this remarkable, kind of scary but interesting transformation. I’d landed in the August of 2000… of 1993, and in October of ‘93 was when the Yeltsin and Duma had this big standoff and martial law was declared and it almost came apart of the seams. But my day job was working for this language and political studies program, but I also had a rock band that was playing in the underground clubs of Moscow, which for the first time in 75 years was emerging to become an independent scene having never really had its moment. And so this was a great place to have a front seat at lots of different change going on.
So when you came back, you actually worked partially as a researcher of the Cold War at Harvard?
Yeah. My first… my first job when I came back was working at the Russian Research Center in Harvard where some of the work was helping translate and document and archive Communist Party Cold War documents and archival research that for the first time had been brought out of the USSR by a Harvard researcher. So we were doing work both in Central Asia and in sort of the Russian archives. And I was also… because of the 1996, I was helping them set up their first website and doing some of the coding on that, even though I'm a terrible coder or at least cut to put some HTML together.
Well, that was also part of your interest in the Internet as a new medium. What did you imagine you would do when you were a kid?
As soon as I got a taste of what it was like to play music from early days, it was cello and then I became guitar and then I became performing. Now, that was… that was my passion, and that was what I was absolutely, totally committed to and continued to pursue even as I knew there were all these other themes and layers around my academic pursuits and then ultimately more entrepreneurial ones, but music was the sort of bedrock for it; and that evolved quickly as the Internet took shape. Even during my college years and the first instances of the World Wide Web, I became fascinated and intrigued and started to have ways that I was incorporating it into my work as an artist and musician and in my days in Moscow because that was when we… you know, when I was in Moscow, the Internet was my only lifeline for communication; so it was both something that became fundamental for communications and also started to be interesting to me about how I think about music and distribution. So it wasn't until I got back from Moscow and started another rock band, Two Ton Shoe, in 1996 and we had a fan and a friend who was at the MIT Media Lab and the Machine listening group and he and I set up our first server and we created a website for Two Ton Shoe, and it was very early days, but we had, you know, an Email Listserv and, you know, our own mp3s that were distributing; we were even included in a white paper about the future of the standard of mp3. So I started to fuse those things together in terms of the Internet and my music ideas, but it wasn't until later that that folded into public radio and news and journalism and the rest of it came when I got a job at a local station in 2000 at WBUR in Boston.
Mm-hmm, yeah, it was… you were an intern for The Connection and then producer.
Yeah, and it turned out to be Chris Lydon ultimately was the first podcaster, you know, a few years later partly because of that origin story, but that, you know, became my next piece of the puzzle.
Okay. Yeah, if I'm not wrong, you also invested in mp3.com with your other members of Two Ton Shoe.
Well, that was sort of… yeah, I mean, that was a… I love that story because it was a weird moment in time as a sign of the .com IPO craziness. But also a moment that I think was really formative because the founder of that company offered to mp3.com, offered to let the artists, you know, buy in at the offering price, essentially, you know, participate in the quote-unquote ‘value creation’ of this Internet company which we had been in early, you know, you know, user of, but it also wondered whether it was going to ever turn into anything. And so that was a moment in time, but also an interesting lesson because I think that artists should participate in the value of the platforms that they're contributing to; and so we had one instance of that in 1999.
I noticed a vague parallel with the current state of RadioPublic because RadioPublic was originally founded by companies and publishers that wanted to have a better platform to distribute their material and… and content and also to create a podcast marketplace as a spin-off of PRX.
But at the same time, you guys are offering with republic.co this crowdfunding equity campaign, so you're also offering to listeners the ability to privately buy a portion or participate in the… in the project that you have with RadioPublic.
So, you know, the way that we got in touch is… I just want to mention it because it's really nice. I was checking out part of the RadioPublic services and I wasn't fully convinced of the clarity of the business model and tweeted about it and you read that. And you found my email address and reached out privately, via email with an offer to clarify some of my doubts as a user, as a potential user, as a podcaster, which is incredibly nice and valuable and I'm sure you're aware of it. But I just want to give you the right importance because you see frequent altercation and public arguments on social media, and you reached out constructively, so thank you for that.
Yes, I'm glad.
Is this approach and, you know, being… being quietly even-tempered and prone to the dialog as you at least did with me, is it something that you developed through your experience as a CEO or is it part of you as a person, growing up?
Thank you first off, for calling that out and recognizing it and I appreciate that you also similarly picked up the invitation and then, you know, were open to a dialogue about it because that's also something I think it's testimony to your own thinking and approach about this; so I definitely welcome that and appreciate it. And I think that, you know, that… that aspect is sort of woven into both how I am as a CEO and who I am as a person and certainly part of the culture and values that I have tried to, you know, shepherd at every institution that I've been part of or helped create. It's a challenge when you're in a digital medium or operating in these like consumer areas where there's very often very, you know, very little surface area or like opportunities for human engagement at a distance outside of your own team or your own direct partners. And so there's… as those distances get bigger, the relationship gets even more attenuated and the likelihood of like misperception or at a minimum, just sort of like inherent mistrust or a chance to not read signals, there's so many versions of that; and I'm guilty of that myself all the time. And so I try to make a practice of, when there's ever an invitation or opening to have a human dialogue, even if it's, you know, at some cost because it's… you know, might be perceived as inefficient or you obviously can't do that with every one of our hundreds of
thousands of users, but I learned from those and, for me, it's both a learning opportunity so I feel like there's something to be gained. I think it's an opportunity to help at least somebody, even if it was just that one person, understand better our thinking and even it's as it… as it evolves, so it's not like a fixed position. And then hopefully that has its own reverberation as it… as it is here with you and I getting a chance to like continue the talk and spread it to other people who might listen. But it's also signal internally for, you know, my co-workers and co-founders and team that, whenever we are afforded the opportunity, we need to think of that as a… as a human engagement. You know, that extends to my, you know, the head of product, Matt McDonald, you know, he writes the updates on the app reviews and he tends to write these funny little stories. He tries to respond now, finally that Apple lets us respond to reviews on the App Store, which they didn't even used to let developers respond to reviews. You know, now he goes and tries to engage and invite and dialogue when there's somebody who has trouble with our product. So it is something we try to hold as a value.
And I have to tell you that the… the reason why I was particularly troubled with the idea of RadioPublic is not maybe for RadioPublic itself because I was immediately fascinated by the way that you guys share information about what you're doing. Because since from the beginning, you shared the way why we need RSS, if I'm not wrong, that's also an article of yours and you were explaining why RSS is a frozen technology.
But it also allows for a distributed syndication of material in an open source environment so… keeping it decentralized in a sense, even if it is limited in functions. And so, as a company, you were explaining how you developed this… this technology (let's call it like that), Draper, which allows you to insert extra information for a podcast episode, while still retaining the original RSS feed.
And I thought that's… that's really nice. That's… together with the legal status of the company that you created which is a PBC (Public Benefit Company) you know, there is an intention there. It's… it sounds like it's the good capitalism that you're also embodying that in a more humane way as… as a CEO. But… but it's not just to give you compliments, it's actually for the opposite because reading all of that, I… I was like, “This app has a beautiful interface on iOS at least. It has features, that are really interesting.” Like what is the podcast librarian function that you introduce a while ago?
Yeah, I mean, it's a person and a function, but we have a full-time podcast librarian, but it's both. So she… her name is Ma'ayan and she is our content curator and strategist and librarian. But the librarian concept was partly a… you know, an attempt to show that that role of helping, you know, patrons or listeners or users or visitors find what they're looking for, you know, be able to help suggest things but, you know, be a helpful hand in navigating an infinite choice, you know, that we like the idea of that concept. And we also like the idea that, you know, radio… like call ourselves RadioPublic instead of like another podcast like ‘podcast something’, not because we don't like podcasts, but because we think radio is a sort of a term that that transcends the technology and connotes a sense of quality and purpose and community.
And it's sort of funny because library… like radio and libraries are 2 of these sort of anachronistic institutions that like many would sort of say are ‘seen their day and are no longer relevant’. But I think they're both incredibly relevant and, you know, those institutions, radio and libraries, we're all trying to recreate them on the Internet in different ways; so I like the idea that we draw from that and have a librarian. But, yeah, I mean, back to something you just said because I don't want to let it go, I mean, I think that… and we should dig in deeper. I think you're… you're right to be mistrustful a sort of almost as a default on some of these Internet platforms that are venture backed or have funding and don't have a clear business model yet or a pre-revenue and are offering different services to creators without yet being transparent, partly because they don't know what they're evolving, like they actually don't know what the business models going to be, and so there's a risk (and I've definitely experienced it on both sides), there's a risk that somehow you start to depend on or make use of these platforms and then something happens. They either suddenly need to pivot and change their model or they need to make money when they didn't used to make money or they get sold to some evil company that like takes all the data. And there… it is absolutely true that risk exists and it's… it's a known one that I have had to stomach and take on and think about when I started any one of my ventures.
And, you know, the best that I've been able to do to mitigate that, both is to, you know, try hard to live up to the mission and purpose that we state, to try to be a, you know, trusted partner and hardwire in some of our mission into ways that aren't just something you could change because an investor has a different attitude.
But, nonetheless, like some of those things still remain and… and, you know, I hope we don't come to a moment where we end up having to test the limits of that trust because we do think it's an essential asset and something we take seriously. But we also are absolutely like an early-stage company that is still proving out its business model and is using investors’ money to figure out how to make it all work. So at some point, all of that has to turn into something that's sustainable.
Jake, how is the choice of making a public benefit corporation going to make RadioPublic different from a regular corporation? What is the practical difference? Is there any?
Yeah. I mean, I describe it as the… being a Public Benefit Corporation is both a signal and a safeguard; and it's important for both of those things. The signal is very much more about telegraphing our values and our mission and our trust and who we are and why we do what we do; and so that very much is about publicly embracing that as part of our brand and as part of how we describe ourselves. The… the safeguard is the fact that the Public Benefit Corporation statute in the State of Delaware is actually a legally enforceable and binding set of terms where, by law, the company is empowered to consider its mission in addition to its usual set of legal activities or maximizing shareholder value. And that only really matters at moments of truth where, if we were facing some sort of fork in the road where one fork would be much more about maximizing shareholder value and one would be supporting the mission, we have in our founding documents a stated protection that says we can choose the mission road and not face some sort of legal recourse or shareholder revolt because that's actually embedded from the beginning. Now, those… those only come up at moments of truth, but that's to me the safeguard part that's more than just sort of well-meaning language.
I was reading… there is John O'Nolan is the founder of Ghost CMS that was also born… not also, it was born… that was born off of a Kickstarter campaign and he was explaining why he chose to create a non-profit. And the reason was, you know, “We actually want exclusively to use revenue and growth to perfect a product for the user.”. But you… the reason why you choose eventually to you guys choose the PBC is that it's kind of in between. Like, you want to create a product that generates a growth for everyone, but you also want the guarantee that allows you to create something that is not exclusively for growth, but eventually it becomes closer to a public service.
I think it's very dependent on the particular business model and industry and stage of these companies. I don't think there's a universal rule, I would not recommend that every nonprofit think about being a PBC or that every PBC shouldn't be a C Corp, I think it very much depends.
You know, in our case, we realized that in order to have the opportunity to take on the risk of starting a new, you know, consumer facing technology company and to have the potential to get the growth capital (so, first, we need the risk capital, and then, second, we need the growth capital). My experience running a non-profit technology company is that, you can often get the startup capital, and then if you happen to be a business that could generate sustainable profits or, you know, become self-sustaining through bootstrapping and pave your own way, that's great. But if you are… if your business model or the service you're offering actually requires growth capital, whether you're… something is working, but in order for it to grow, you actually need outside capital to hire more people or deepen your service, it's very difficult as a nonprofit to access that kind of capital.
And I didn't want to end up in the same place where I've experienced that before where you actually see something working and then you… you can't grow it. It's a problem for philanthropic capital generally for nonprofits and there's a problem that is not yet solved, but many people have tried to work on it, which is how to make available the sort of growth like equity like capital, but for nonprofit organizations that are succeeding. But we realized that that was going to be a potential gating factor and we wanted to solve it by being a for-profit, but make sure we still have that mission embedded.
**You have funding members that are quite known publishers, established publishers also from traditional broadcasts, of course PRX and now there is BOSE as a new investor that just walked in.
But what is the current model? Because what surprised me, I looked into RadioPublic and the introduction of paid listings, I was looking and I was like, “Alright, $20 for CPM, the Cost Per Mille, basically 1000 people listened through a show on… on RadioPublic and RadioPublic play… pays the Creator $20.” And what surprised me was, at the time, I read, “And we take no cut.” And I thought, “Well, you know if you're acting like a broker between an advertiser and content creation, I understand that you're kind of filling a gap because people that are not have like 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 downloads or listens per month can hardly get in touch with any advertiser independently and distributing autonomously on different platforms.” So that's where RadioPublic, to my understanding, comes in. But if you're a broker, you got to take a cut, and of those $20, right now from what I understood, RadioPublic didn’t, is that right? At the time when was April, March?
The way that ultimately, we describe our opportunity to create what we describe as the missing marketplace. We see that there's actually a number of different business models that podcasters need our kind of support to really maximize, whether that is direct support Patreon-style from your true fans, or if it's, you know, lead generation because you're really taking your audience and bringing them over to buy a ticket to your show or buy your book or your white paper or sign up for a seminar, or if it's affiliate revenue and e-commerce because you are, you know, supporting a show by recommending products and want to make it easy for listeners to click on them. There's… there's 3 or 4 or 5 sort of viable business models that different podcasters have different goals around.
And we think that RadioPublic can support all of them by providing the critical integration at the last mile of where listeners are interacting, and that we can help identify who the most engaged listeners are and then turn on ways for them to support a podcaster. One of those ways is by listening to ads, in which case, the podcaster gets paid, another way that might be supporting a podcast directly. But in almost every one of those cases, there's been a missing link on the platform side that, you know, Apple doesn't give me as a podcaster any way to either identify a really true fan listener or to interact with them. And we wanted to make sure there was a place that did that. So Paid Listens is really just the first step of it and the concept there is that, yes, we are guaranteeing that $20 CPM without… with actually up front. Basically saying, “We will figure out… by reserving the right to sell our own ads in front of the shows that have opted in to participate, we will figure out how to make sure that we don't lose money on it. And ideally, at least break even, if not, sell them for a higher value. So you could imagine on a standalone basis, Paid Listens might be viable for RadioPublic because that slot that we sell, we could sell for $21.
Now, we're not even close to doing that because the scale is too small, so right now, all of those spots are just essentially house inventory, eventually when there's enough impressions, we will figure out how to work with our ad sales team and our partners to sell that inventory. But we wanted to disconnect the idea that a podcaster has to broker the relationship between an advertiser and a listener.
Most advertisers aren't actually that interested in, you know, a particular podcast, they're just trying to reach listeners, and we actually can make that more efficient on the platform. But rather than pay producers after the fact (so we go out and try to sell ads and then see how much we make and then give you a cut), we thought we would just make it a guarantee. And one way to think about it about why RadioPublic would do that, partly is that it's early stage and still it's still small numbers. But the other is that, you know, we… apps at our stage often will pay for marketing. We might pay for installs on the App Store, you know, put a band around at the top of the Google… of the Android Store or the iOS store and then try to get new… new listeners to install our app. But we'd much rather pay podcasters for their listeners to install the RadioPublic app, both because it puts money in podcasters’ pockets and because the listeners that they bring tend to be much more interested and loyal and engaged. And so while we do want to ultimately recoup that money we're spending on Paid Listens and find a way to make it so that we're generating a profit for ourselves and continue to pay podcasters, we also think of Paid Listens as marketing expense that is a double win where it's benefiting podcasters and helping bring listeners to RadioPublic.
Jake, a marketplace like that, in a time when people are becoming aware of centralized Internet companies, like the companies that centralize the Internet, like Google and Facebook, and Google specifically owns YouTube, and YouTube is specifically… it’s kind of a centralized place for videos, and at the same time, if you have that, you… you have a centralization of the advertising for video which is on YouTube.
RadioPublic is not doing that because RadioPublic… that does not host podcasts.
That would be the goal of a company like Anchor. Anchor is clearly trying to have people easily record a podcast they would not have the technical knowledge and then host it and then become like a YouTube version for podcasts. But advertising can be a centralization in itself because Google does not host websites although it is one of the very powerful forces of advertising for websites and on websites and tracking between those. So why would creating a centralized market… you mentioned the benefits for the users, but is centralization… is that the way that you see we need to go to at first at least like to create one system, or many satellite systems? How can we retain the liberty of open source, and syndication, and RSS while trying to fulfill the very understandable goal of RadioPublic?
It's a great question. I mean, to step back, I mean, part of what I think is the most healthy and interesting aspect of podcasting is that it is… remains open, it's an open protocol, it is decentralized, it is not owned by a single platform. What we see is that there ends up being sort of nodes of centralization all throughout the ecosystem. So you may have centralization on a hosting company that's providing the right kind of metrics, and in order to do that, they aggregate all the data from the servers of the clients and they provide a great dashboard to their clients who are podcasters. You have centralization around dynamic ad serving that might be for top shows that are doing it through a single system. So rather than thinking that there's going to be some single vertically integrated YouTube—which I do believe is, you know, it's usually powerful and sort of inevitable as the role of some of these companies—I think podcasting… my hope for podcasting is that it can remain loosely coupled, that you end up having a whole series of centralized systems because in order to make them effective or even aggregate enough attention or, you know, provide enough connection between users and a producer, there are some places where that has to exist, but it's not a single place.
And part of our design of RadioPublic was consciously to not try to integrate all of those things, and instead to leave hosting and ad sales and other systems outside of what we do and make sure that we could interoperate with multiple other parties and platforms who are doing that so we don't just work with PRX's network, but we also make sure that we can tie into Libsyn and Simplecast and other hosting companies or work with, you know, Panoply in their Megaphone system or ART19 and its data system. But it does mean that, you know, in order to prove out that… if we can prove successfully that there's a new way of making sure that podcast listeners support the business models of podcasters on a consumer facing app where the listening happens, we might have the chance at then propelling forward some new standards that we would be thrilled if they got picked up by Apple and others. You know, a simple example would be, you know, we… a very sort of simple example is we have the concept of a gateway episode in a feed where we encourage a podcaster to flag an episode as the one that a new listener should start listening to first.
And that's just a flag in the feed, as you pointed out earlier, we can do that on Draper, but it's also something that if you stuck in your RSS feed, you could just, you know, designate that and it overrides anything that we're doing on our app, but we could imagine all apps picking up that as a standard. But it's really hard to… as you may know, to develop standards without proving them and proving that they're valuable or having somebody drive them. And so we're taking it upon ourselves to attempt to experiment with a few of those and then see where they might roll forward. And so it's a real question I think your… it's a key one that you're asking like, “Can an industry or an ecosystem succeed without sacrificing its independent or open, you know, distribution?”
And I think it can, but I want… would want to see, you know, not a single winner-take-all success, even if it's us, but I'd want to see something where the… you know, the predominant… that there's sort of like a healthy tension between where different pieces of the value chain around content creation and distribution and sales and listener and engagement are taking place; not all in one place, but you can still have some very successful large-scale companies that are providing some of those services without it being a winner-take-all.
That would be nice to see. I mean, if you guys have any open standard to propose and, I mean, it truly is open like with PRX did…
There's a group… we were part of a group called Syndicated.Media, which is still out there, and it's an industry association of voluntary… voluntary one of the engineers mostly in podcasting trying to co-create standards around evolving RSS and choosing new things that might be adopted by a variety of players.
Why do you think… well, you know, the fact that it became an independent media giving voice to many different people, makes it a little bit romantic. But what do you think the human voice and spoken word… what is the peculiar element of this spoken word, this format, that makes it so intimate?
I mean, the human voice, as you know, is sort of the most intimate and innate and sort of, you know, at the origins of our beings and that's the first thing you hear as a person born into the world. And it's also, you know, in a completely different layer of our increasingly crowded and overcrowded visual and text experience, and so it occupies just a completely different headspace. And the relationships that we form based on all the cues that come from the voice and come from how stories are told or narratives are told or conversations are had ties to, you know, I think some transcendent parts of who we are and as a social creature.
So that’s not surprising to me that, having been part of this for so long that… that that is starting to become realized in the digital era as a uniquely valuable channel of connection and expression and engagement. And I think that means we're going to see it evolve even faster and become even more pervasive as we kind of go full circle and get away from our machines; I think the voice ends up being one of the most effective ways of communicating everything.
Okay. It's like an archetype of Thoughtful. (Laughs)
Like in a super speedy environment like that. RadioPublic, one of the my favorite things from the app are the stations also… for example, the interview station or… or explainers, you can just sit and you can emulate the programming of a radio and almost a curation, you know, in a fairly accurate way, it's usually a good selection and also, you know, algorithmically end with curation, like you said with the podcast librarian. How do you see the future of RadioPublic in functions for the app? What are innovative things that…
Yah. Well, one… one new feature we're just testing now, and if you want to be a beta tester for it…
… we're happy to have you join it, it’s something we're calling… we're calling it Hearmarks, and it's essentially bookmarking while you're listening.
And this is an old idea that many have tried in different ways, but we think we have a unique approach to it, and ideas mostly designed for your own use, although you can share it. And there's interesting ways that sharing becomes more critical around the moments for sharing.
But essentially, you're listening to a podcast and, you know, you can either tap on the screen, or if the phone is in your pocket, you can triple tap on your headphones and it leaves a mark at that moment. So it might be 7 minutes and 30 seconds in where somebody made a comment about a book or a link or something you wanted to remember and you just hearmark it and it stores that it makes a little mark in the file that you can see, and it also stores it in a section that you can then go back to and see all of your previous hearmarks and then you can go visit those hear marks back and scroll back and hit those moments in the podcast. But they're also shareable so you could share out with somebody a direct link to that moment, you know, “7 minutes and 30 seconds in, you should really check out this quote,” or, “You got to hear this.” And as we start to have more of those hearmarks, we'll start to see patterns of shareable moments and we can start to support those with more metadata or perhaps we can extract the text to speech or speech to text at that moment that was hearmarked or go and find out the link that somebody wanted to share. So some really cool ways that we think that will evolve, but the first version of it is like a audio bookmarking service, and Hearmarks will be released in the beta in the next couple weeks.
That's nice. And it can also help with positioning advertising dynamically inside of a stream or…
…synchronizing between, like you said, like text… extracting text from that, it would be also great to synchronize it between text and audio and have a transcript live. Whenever you guys are able to correct that with my accent, usually AI digital transcription services are terrible (Laughs); so whenever that comes to RadioPublic…. And if anybody wants to participate in the crowdfunding equity campaign, the website is republic.co (which is also a new platform) /radiopublic, right?
That's right, jump on in and there's actually quite a lot of information about some of the things we've been talking about, both in terms of the product, but also the strategy and the business model and the risks associated with that. So we had to go through a lot of disclosures and presenting what we're all about in order to qualify to offer this, and I think it's a good way to understand the company and think about whether it makes sense to invest.
Thank you so much for taking the time to be here with me today.
Yeah I appreciated it, I enjoyed it, thank you.