Jake Shapiro runs the Public Radio Exchange, or PRX, a Cambridge firm that syndicates podcasts for public radio. He’s also a founding partner at Matter, which funds media startups. He spoke with Globe correspondent Jack Newsham about public radio, technological change, and his band’s smashing success in South Korea.
1. Shapiro followed a strange path into public media. After graduating from Harvard in 1993, he moved to Russia before returning to Boston in 1996, starting an Internet record label, and getting a day job conducting Cold War research at Harvard. In 1999, his band, Two Ton Shoe, struck it big when the four members invested in MP3.com, an early music-sharing site, paying $28 a share before it went public. That share price more than doubled on MP3.com’s first trading day on the Nasdaq stock market.
“We cobbled together a few thousand dollars and bought as much as we could,” Shapiro said. “We sold it at like $70, or $65 or something, and we had enough money to buy, like, a band van, and we bought new gear, and we paid for our next recording.”
2. Shapiro got his start in public radio as an intern at The Connection, a show hosted by Christopher Lydon on WBUR. Shapiro moved to Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society in 2002, where his interest in public radio, the Internet, and entrepreneurialism grew.
“It was sort of a nascent moment. I feel like it was the end of the dot-com first wave — this huge, churning commerce machine sort of collapsed and none of the new architecture had taken shape. There was no new investment going into startups.”
3. In 2003, Shapiro left the Berkman Center to lead PRX, which was formed by a coalition of public radio stations. Initially funded wholly by charitable foundations, it now earns about half of its revenue from the shows it distributes. In November, PRX raised more than $600,000 on Kickstarter to fund Radiotopia, a network of podcasts covering diverse topics, like crime, personal stories, and architecture and design.
“Consumer behavior and listener and audience behavior have changed dramatically. There’s all kinds of new ways of distributing and monetizing and reaching and marketing people. Some of that can happen within the current system of local stations and national networks, but a lot of that is going to happen elsewhere.”
4. More recently, Shapiro co-founded Matter, a venture capital fund that invests $50,000 at a time in young companies and aims to make a profit. The 20 companies it has sponsored so far make technologies designed for use by both public and private media companies.
“There’s huge disruption and rapid change happening, and a lot of it is fueled by tech and innovation and startups that are able to test this stuff much more rapidly. [That] is forcing the Matter companies to figure out their business model early on, figure out their pitch for further funding, and tap into a pool of capital that’s completely cut off to the nonprofit world.”
5. Two Ton Shoe’s funk-rock sound is still very popular in South Korea. The band most recently toured there in 2008, and one of their full concerts was broadcast on national TV.
“We’re still huge in South Korea. Two months ago, I did a Skype call to a class of Korean musicians, coaching them on how to play one of the Two Ton Shoe songs. They were thrilled. I couldn’t believe how excited they were.”