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When I close my eyes and imagine the word ‘Radiotopia,’ I envision a lush, green valley with a young couple canoodling on a picnic blanket, sharing an iPod with a splitter and two pairs of headphones. When you walk around my vision of Radiotopia, everything you touch will make a sound (in stereo), and your life’s pivotal moments of discovery are scored to beautiful music, and Ira Glass is the Mayor.

‘Radiotopia’ is actually a word that came from Julie Shapiro, the former Artistic Director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Third Coast, which takes place every two years in Chicago, is pretty much the closest you can get to the fantasy I’ve described above… until now.

Roman Mars, creator of the podcast 99% Invisible, and Jake Shapiro, CEO of the Public Radio Exchange (or PRX), were part of a community of DIY producers who kind of came of age at Third Coast. And now, they’re taking the idea of Radiotopia one step further by making it a real thing. It’s the name of their brand new podcast network, which launches today.

The notion of a podcast network has been around for a while, but has only recently gained momentum as a way of aggregating, cross-promoting and distributing like-minded content. Many of the most successful podcasts offer high-quality storytelling to a niche audience. Operating on an ‘if you like this, you’ll probably like this’ paradigm, podcast networks strive to up the ante of listenership (and thus, donations and sponsorship) through referrals. 

Radiotopia strives to do all this, plus to provide support to independent radio producers who are already adept at producing compelling radio, but might need support with other non-creative but vital pursuits – marketing strategy, fundraising, branding and the like. “That’s what was missing from my whole career,” says Mars.

Mars knows firsthand that if you have solid content and a good business model, there is money to be made in public media. 99% Invisible, a short radio show about design and architecture, gets over 1 million downloads per month. (And that number is bound to go up. The biweekly podcast is going weekly in season four, which also premieres today.) Within the past two years, Mars has raised over a half a million dollars on Kickstarter. He told me the most important thing he learned from those campaigns was “that there was a path to success that wasn’t a traditional public radio path to success.” That unexpected success is what propelled him to take it to the next level.

Mars in his backyard studio. Photo by Raymond Ahner.

Mars in his backyard studio. Photo by Raymond Ahner.

So what is Radiotopia? The singular vision shared by all the Radiotopia podcasts is that radio is an art form. Like 99% Invisible, these shows are story-driven with an aesthetic component. “I love the news but public radio doesn’t mean news to me. I want public media to be about the best media.” Every aspect of your podcast has to be quality, and that includes the ads and underwriting spots: “To me everything is your show, your Twitter feed, your ads… when you put it into the context of your show you own it. And it has to be good.”

With a $200,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, some additional funds from MailChimp (a longtime sponsor of 99% Invisible), and the roughly $25,000 Mars raised for Radiotopia through his most recent Kickstarter campaign, Mars and PRX were ready to create their public radio Dream Team.

sg5What’s really exciting for KCRW and the Independent Producer Project is the inclusion of Lea Thau’s storytelling podcast Strangers. Strangers was developed in collaboration with KCRW in 2011. In the past two years, it’s created a huge online following, but building an audience is really hard work. One of the goals of Radiotopia is to relieve independent podcast producers of some of that pressure, so they can stay focused on telling great stories.

Mars says his goal with Radiotopia is not to eclipse terrestrial radio. In fact, he hopes that it will be embraced not only by listeners, but also by community radio stations. “I love radio, and I love the terrestrial value of radio, building a community in one place.” He says Radiotopia is perfectly positioned to partner with radio stations who want to produce more story-driven radio.

It’s also a game-changer for independent producers. In the longterm, Mars hopes to add to Radiotopia’s offerings with more experimental, story-driven, genre-bending stuff. His advice to producers who are tinkering with new podcasts is actually pretty surprising: “I largely think that new radio people should be copying people, they should try everything on, because that’s how you find your voice.” Mars’ own radio voice, he admits, started as a mashup of The Memory Palace host Nate DiMeo, Jad Abumrad from Radiolab and Benjamen Walker.

At this point, Mars isn’t really concerned about competition among podcasts or networks. He says because this is still such a new thing, there is a ton of work that can be done before it becomes a real issue. Right now, he’s more focused on sharing the  wealth, literally and figuratively, for the greater good. “Radio production is not rocket science. The whole point of it is that I don’t think my success is unique or special, I think anyone can do it.”

To see the full roster, including new shows from super-producers The Kitchen Sisters and Benjamen Walker, visit the Radiotopia website.

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