Feature article from the February 2010 AIRblast 

Distro Dancing Part 1

By Barrett Golding

The Internet has made it unnecessary for radio programs ever to hit physical media. Sound files we mix in our computers can now be accessed by stations via a variety of online services. We sent AIR member Barrett Golding on a fact-finding mission to investigate how Content Depot and PRX have affected radio distribution, aka "distro."

Distro Dancing Part 1 and Part 2 are available together in this PDF.

Listen to the corresponding AIRmuse audio:

Breakout: AIRster Roman Mars does the REmix. (9:08)

Once upon a pre-Net time, we'd mail CDs to stations — put plastic right in their hands. It was laborious and expensive, but effective. Now, not so much: Arvid Hokanson, KUOW assistant program director, says he "tells people not to send CDs. They waste producers' time and money; and we don't listen to them anymore." Send an MP3 link, he advises, or post it on ContentDepot or PRX.

There are other online ways to get programs to PDs: Pacifica's, the Internet Archive, or your own Web/FTP site. But PRSS (Public Radio Satellite System) ContentDepot and PRX (Public Radio Exchange) are where most pubradio programs are stored. For insights into what is/ain't working with each, I interviewed a dozen distro-savvy AIR member/producers and indie-friendly PDs.

Public Radio Exchange

PRX's description of themselves is spot on: "an online marketplace for distribution, review, and licensing of public radio programming." And with 100,000 members, they are surely a "growing social network and community of listeners, producers, and stations." Their goal, though, of "collaborating to reshape public radio" has perhaps not yet come to pass.

Of the 1,500-plus non-commercial, non-religious stations (700 CPB funded), 150 use PRX programming; and of those, most acquire less than an hour per week. While most stations do not use PRX, many of the big ones do: "We have almost all the top 50 market stations representing the vast majority of the public radio audience," reports PRX head Jake Shapiro. "We also have LP [Low-Power] FMs and stations not on PRSS/NPR."

This makes PRX a good conduit for producers to large stations, and the only online distro connection to some smaller ones. Jake ran some numbers: "Forty-three percent of pieces on PRX have been licensed at least once." Since 2003, stations have collectively played PRX pieces 40,000 times.

Producer Nancy Solomon recently posted her first piece on PRX: "The interface works great; I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was. Their help desk was super helpful and easy to get a hold of. I like the way the page looks; I like the way it's laid out and the flexibility the format gives you to put both segments and whole pieces up. I was also amazed and pleased at how accessible John Barth was to talk about how best to promote the show."

So, if a radio piece falls in the PRX forest, will a PD hear the sound? Not always. "Producers putting stuff on PRX is like thousands of crack addicts selling their junk on street corners," says Charles Lane, producer, WHSU News reporter, and former PRX election curator. "We're just curious street exhibits with sad eyes hoping programmers might spot our wares, as they race to wherever they're going."

But what producers really want to know is: How's it work? And: How rich will I get?

The answer to the first question is: Great. To the second: Not very.

To quote producer Jonathan Miller: "Homelands has felt well-served by PRX, although we'd all starve in a hurry if we depended on it for income.

PRX Point$

The PRX economy is based on "points." Producers charge points for their pieces, and stations pay for points to "license" the broadcast rights. At minimum, points translate to $0.50 per minute for each station license. Larger stations pay more per point, so producers get more per point. The current average point-per-payment is $0.88. So A 10-minute piece licensed by 100 stations would net at least $500, and an average of $880.

In real world, though, even the most-licensed pieces rarely get more than 30 licenses. One producer I talked to had a sky-high annual income of $15,000 from PRX. Few others — even those who sold the most — ever made more than $2,000/year. (Full disclosure: Hearing Voices cashed $4,000 in PRX checks last year, thank you very much.)

PRX has recently negotiated outside purchaser agreements with BBC, CBC, and PRI series, and with iTunes. This may mean more piasters in producer pockets.

PRX Past

PRX started with $2 million in seed money from CPB. Since then, they have run on station fees, member fees, and foundation grants. (MacArthur Foundation singled them out in 2008 for a $500,000 Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.)

Year one PRX expenses were $500,000. Now they run on $2 million per year (mainly personnel and contracted services; includes outside projects like their iPhone Player, the Economy Collaboration, FluPortal, and American Archive).

In their 5.5 years of operation, producers have been paid $1 million — the total royalty payments since 2003. The 2009 royalty payments totaled $179,000. Caveat: Producers often offer pieces for no charge, in hopes of increasing station carriage. About 40 percent of licensed pieces are free, so aren't reflected in above royalty tally.


PRX Process

In areas other than money, PRX is a colossal success. Station use is going up: In PRX's first two years, there were fewer than 4,000 station-licenses of pieces; in 2008 alone, there were 9,000. They have innovated the way producers and programmers connect.

Stations join PRX for a sliding scale of $500–$6,000 yearly fee, which includes 26 hours of programming (i.e., about $20–$200/hour). Some stations purchase discounted additional hours (reducing costs to about $12–$130/hour).

A $50 annual fee buys producers the privilege of publishing unlimited audio pieces, with associated text, graphics, and promo material. Each piece gets a custom URL, a convenient link to send stations and post on Web sites. Stations can audition hi-fi MP3s, then license/download satellite-quality MP2.

The PRX review system created a dialogue where none existed. Their weekly newsletter, front-page features, flexible search engine, links to "related" pieces, ratings, playlists, tags, and topic lists give stations a fighting chance of finding what they want, and of discovering things they never knew existed. Several of PRX's most active station-users told me they make it part of their job every week to "cruise" through the new published pieces. "I surf, follow recommendations, check producers I'm familiar with. One things leads to another," says Hawk Mendenhall of KUT-Austin. He needs PRX to fill his weekly slot (The Best of Public Radio) with an hour-long program, and a three-hour weekly show (O'Dark 30) with shorter pieces. (Hawk publishes his playlists at PRX.)

PRX is the first and still only one-stop way for producers to distribute pieces, track station carriage, and receive royalties. Producer Richard Paul sums it up: "Would I like to make ten times more from PRX than I do, sure. But PRX gives me money I otherwise wouldn't have. It's an important part of the system, a wonderful innovation technologically, plus a way for producers to get paid. It serves me well."


PRSS ContentDepot is NPR's distro mechanism. Even some experienced indies don't realize they too can use it. For a single $25 lifetime fee, producers can make their audio available to the 400-plus PRSS-interconnected stations.

To post a piece at ContentDepot, PRSS charges producers $182/stereo-hour (billed in 0.25-hour increments; $95/mono-hour; add $16/hr if you need insurance). Stations buy-in on a sliding scale, from $500-$3550 for Internet access to all programs on ContentDepot (or up to $7100 for satellite delivery of files and live program streams).

PRSS more than breaks even every year from those station-connect and producer-hour fees. PRSS ContentDepot is where stations get the bulk of their programming, 400,000 hours per year, including NPR's daily news mags and work by the 200-plus registered producers. Stations can get programs via the ContentDepot Web site or the closed pubradio satellite system — kind of a fast, private Internet.

For series distribution, ContentDepot is especially station friendly. Once they've "subscribed" to a show, new episodes and promos automatically upload onto their station hard drives.

Stations can subscribe to audition or broadcast either an entire series, a single episode in a series, or a stand-alone special. Producers can generate reports of which stations subscribed to which of their programs. (We at Hearing Voices use PRSS regularly to distribute our weekly episodes and promos. Works great.)

One big difference for producers: At PRX you can charge for your program, and your check just shows up in the mail. At ContentDepot, you can specify a program cost. And stations do pay per program fees, which can total hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly. But those fees are not paid to PRSS, but rather directly to the networks and producers — the PRSS system offers no way to collect.

You'll need to bill the station yourself, and divine who/where to send an invoice from the subscription reports — which lists the station name, but not the programmer who took your piece. So unless you've got a billing system in place and good contact info for stations, good luck gettin' paid.

Station staff also tell me ContentDepot is ill-suited for discovering new programs. One PD called their search engine "slow" and "laborious." Viki Merrick, who fills four-hours weekly with indie hours for WCAI's Arts & Ideas, gets limited series, such as America Abroad, American Radio Works, and Radio Lab from ContentDepot, but says, "PRX is where I go to look for stuff, to wander around."

Distro Dollars

That's the basics of PRX and PRSS. Stations spend far more time on PRSS than PRX. Producers post far more pieces on PRX. Many producers distribute a program on both (PDs like options). To sum up the costs:

 Producer Costs


Stations Costs
 Member Fee:     
To Publish Programs:      
Member Fee:          Includes Programming:  
$50 yearly  
Yes, 26 hours
$25 lifetime $200/hour$500-7,100/year No, 0 hours


So, the good news: Getting your pieces to PDs is way easier and cheaper than a decade ago.

The okay news: Online distro systems are now in place that imply the possibility of a business model someday for some pubradio producers.

The same news: Making a living as an indie producer is still rough.

In part two of our distro discussion, we'll delve into just how stations and producers are using these new online opportunities. We'll examine what's selling and who's buying. We'll ask what stations want and how long they want it. We'll share some suggestions for PRX and PRSS improvements. And we'll consider the "free" in "freelance."

>> Continue on to Distro Dancing Part II

Barrett Golding is Fearless Leader of the independently produced Hearing Voices radio rodeo, and a regular user of PRSS and PRX.

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