Here's good news for radio listeners: Every minute of every hour, great gobs of fantastic, imaginative and compelling programs are being produced. Unfortunately, listeners rarely hear or learn of them.
Producing radio programming is easier than ever before, thanks to digital technology. Still, independent producers face the perennial problem of how to distribute their creations, catch the attention of network and station programmers and, most important, get paid for their work.
Enter PRX -- the Public Radio Exchange, a fledgling nonprofit Web site based in Cambridge, Mass.
PRX is a sort of bottomless grab bag full of radio pieces. It is part radio distribution service and part peer-review resource. For a minimum $50 annual fee, a producer can post audio material on PRX for audition and licensing. Other members then listen -- free -- or acquire the feature or news piece for broadcast.
Executive Director Jake Shapiro says the intent is not only to help producers but also to give public radio a good "kick."
"A kick of adrenaline," he says, "to open the windows and let in fresh air -- er, I guess we can't say 'Fresh Air' since that's a registered public radio program, so, let in new air!"
In an interview posted online, Shapiro states, "Public radio needs to figure out what public service media means in a commercial and consumer culture." PRX, he claims, will make broadcasters aware of new talent, voices, ideas, models and "new ways to connect [their] listeners to the world."
Recent PRX offerings include a poignant news series on Uganda; a Bob Dylan radio symposium; and a feature about one of Mexico's oldest music traditions, "The Song of the Corridistas." Among the other 1,150 or so selections are a half-hour documentary about the Russian artist Ilya Repin's iconic painting "The Volga Boatmen" and a curious science report called "The Singing Yeast Cell."
Web site exchanges exist for independent musicians, writers and filmmakers, but PRX (www.prx.org) is the first for public radio.
Since its launch in September, it has gained more than 2,700 members. Most choose PRX's basic -- free -- "Vox Pop" membership. Other members pay a fee (for radio stations, it is based on station revenue) and get the benefit of auditioning pieces at higher computer audio quality (MP3) and the option of downloading them for broadcast.
"Of course, we'd prefer more paying members," says Shapiro. "We aim to become self-sustainable in three to five years."
PRX is supported by grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Commerce Department and other organizations, as well as by membership fees. These trickle down as royalties to producers whose pieces are selected for broadcast. PRX reports that it paid $10,000 in license royalties during its first two quarters, ranging from $5.60 (for a commentary licensed by only one or a few stations) to $720 (for a frequently requested series on election primaries).
In theory, one could become a PRX addict and spend days and nights glued to the computer, listening to pieces conveniently sorted by length (1 minute to 90 minutes), category (commentaries, news analyses, soft feature, hard feature, documentary, "interstitial" or filler and more), author, date and timeliness -- and listen to them all without interruption. (Just imagine public radio purged of traffic reports, station and product identifications, pledge solicitations and commercials disguised as "enhanced funding announcements.")
PRX listeners also can submit reviews, either by writing one or by clicking on the Web site's drop-down lists of 40 options, to indicate, for example: "This radio piece was 'contemplative/encouraging/inspirational' " or "dark/edgy/opinionated" or even "informational/NPRNewsMagazine-y/Fresh Air-ish." More than 1,100 reviews are now available.
PRX discourages "slamming" of pieces listed and offers would-be reviewers the old bromide, "If you don't have anything nice to say . . ." But this may change, Shapiro says.
"It's been the subject of a lot of debate. Open peer review has never existed in public radio before, so at first we [and producers] were worried about attracting a lot of tough comments. Perhaps the first reviews were overly complimentary -- but now we're seeing a shift to a wider range of perspectives. And that's useful because for stations to find good pieces, they really need to have honest reviews."
Only a handful of PRX listings have been acquired by major radio network shows. No matter, says Shapiro, for PRX sees its primary role less as a network feeder than as a matchmaker between producers, listeners and public radio stations. In this capacity PRX seems to be working: In the first three months of this year, about 40 stations licensed 155 pieces -- about 55 hours of broadcasting -- from the Web site. And its membership continues to grow.
The advent of the Public Radio Exchange raises a larger question: Will Internet audio supplant the talking box -- or will it help radio survive in the cyber age?
But can old-fashioned radio ever really be replaced by the experience of curling up in bed and listening to . . . a computer?