Kerri Hoffman took over this spring as chief executive of the Public Radio Exchange, better known as PRX. But she’s no newbie. Hoffman has been with the nonprofit media company since its inception, handling finances and operations as it grew into a sprawling collection of digital-audio projects run out of Harvard Square. After years of mostly behind-the-scenes innovation, PRX had a headline-grabbing moment in 2014 when public-radio royalty Ira Glass picked PRX to distribute his show, the iconic “This American Life,” to stations around the country. PRX also runs a podcast network, Radiotopia; co-founded a media-startup accelerator, Matter; and earlier this year, formed a new company called Radio Public — headed by founding PRX chief executive Jake Shapiro — to build a podcast-listening app for mobile devices. Earlier this month, Hoffman oversaw the opening of PRX’s latest experiment: the Podcast Garage, a co-working studio for independent podcast producers tucked inside a converted oil-change place in Allston. It’s all part of PRX’s mission to push the boundaries for public radio in the digital age, Hoffman says.
1. Hoffman, 51, started her career in environmental activism, where she got to travel, learn nonprofit finance, and stir up some trouble.
“I’ve worked for nonprofit organizations my whole career. So mission matters to me. And in the early days, I did financial and fund-raising work for Greenpeace — also a very innovative and experimental organization at the time.
“And I did crazy stuff when I worked for Greenpeace. I mean, I hung banners on buildings and was arrested. . . . It taught me a couple of things. One was don’t be afraid — that was one of the earliest lessons. Change is good, don’t be afraid, and work really hard.
“I literally came into my work at PRX because they needed a bookkeeper and I knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody because I was in the nonprofit world. It’s funny to actually think back on that because I was pregnant with my son, who’s now going to college.”
2. She grew up in New Jersey, but Hoffman’s working life has been pretty nomadic. Even today, she strings together a serious commute to PRX’s Cambridge headquarters.
“I’ve lived a lot of places. Especially in my work with Greenpeace, I got moved around a lot there. And I actually live in Vermont now, and I come here to do my job five days a week. And then I go home to Vermont, where my life and family is.
“But I love what I do, and I’m really happy to have the opportunity to really lead PRX into the next phase.”
3. Hoffman is living one of the trickiest management problems around: replacing a founding CEO at a company that is expanding and trying new things.
“These kind of transitions, when you have a founder executive, are notoriously rocky. But we have had a strong partnership for so many years. And it’s the same with the other senior team [members] at PRX. We’re not the only two. We actually have a team of five or six people who have worked together for nearly 10 years, and so we’ve learned our lessons the same way.
“We joke sometimes that PRX was almost made for this moment, where the technology and the content kind of come together. That’s been our sandbox for a while . . . and it feels like we can catch some purchase now.”
4. After nearly 15 years, Hoffman and PRX still see ample room for innovation in the way digital audio is created, distributed, and paid for.
“When PRX was founded back in 2002, it was a time of low innovation and high barriers to entry in our field. And so, 14 years later, it’s almost the exact opposite. The barriers to entry are significantly lower — look, we just opened a public podcast garage — and the innovation is much, much higher.
“We don’t feel like we have to solve the problems of every single public radio station. That’s not where we’re most valuable. Where we are the most valuable is planting flags, experimenting, being that R&D arm of the industry.
“We’ve also totally rebuilt the infrastructure around the technology we’ve been using to publish, distribute, and monetize podcasts. . . . This is actually rather broken and has to be fixed. We need to move these shows to a more industrial scale. And we need to have software help us make money on these podcasts, too.”
5. Public radio and podcasting are based on openness — asking the audience to pay for free programming after the fact, and using open protocols like RSS feeds to distribute digital audio. That carries through to how PRX runs its various projects, including the new Podcast Garage.
“When you create a platform for talent and give them resources and you kind of open it up . . . good things happen. Creativity happens. And since we are in service to the producers, that is well within our values.
“The important thing about the garage for us is it’s built for podcasting. It’s not built for broadcast. There’s not an engineer sitting here, and we have a commitment to low-cost and free studio time.
“And when you do that, when you reduce the ticking of the meter, all kinds of things can happen. People take more risks. They’re more creative. We can satisfy an aspiring podcaster, and we can also provide services for someone who is doing a four-way interview in this room.”Curt Woodward can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.