Featured Drone: Jake Shapiro '93
In retrospect I suppose I was destined to find myself in public radio, the son of a psychoanalyst and an ethnomusicologist, starting out as a captive listener in the back seat of the station wagon tuned to WGBH and All Things Considered in the 1970s.
Today I run an nonprofit technology startup based here in Harvard Square called Public Radio Exchange (prx.org) - an online marketplace connecting independent producers and public radio stations, helping significant stories reach millions of listeners.
But I certainly took the kind of circuitous route I imagine many Signet alumni find themselves on; fashioning careers that translate art and inspiration into real-world choices, always seeking and sometimes finding the kind of open, intimate and talented community the Signet affords.
At Harvard I pursued a mix of mostly musical ambitions, playing guitar in a variety of rock bands, cello in chamber music, and singing in the University Choir where the weekly sermons of Reverend Peter Gomes made getting up early on Sunday mornings a much easier task. Prior to Harvard I attended Roxbury Latin where Peter was a Trustee, and once I joined the Signet I had completed some kind of trifecta which cemented a lifelong bond. I miss him dearly.
My History and Literature concentration got me hooked on Russia and I moved to Moscow after graduating in 1993, arriving just in time for Boris Yeltsin to call out the tanks and lay siege to the Parliament. Now I was really hooked. In Moscow I helped run a language and political studies program, started a rock band in the nascent nightclub scene, and spent several years riding the incredible waves of change before realizing I didn’t know which way was up. Time to come home (but not before meeting my amazing future wife, Elena Gorodensky, and convincing her to move to the U.S. a year later).
Back in Boston in the mid 90s I started a band called Two Ton Shoe - a soul/funk/pop quartet that in our heyday was packing clubs and playing 150 shows a year. I also worked (and still occasionally do) as a session cellist, including tracks for Duran Duran and Collective Soul. I was an early Internet adopter, always pushing the band to distribute open MP3s, connect directly with our fans, and try to build an independent career to avoid the many pitfalls of industry.
Years later this strategy paid off quite unexpectedly when one of our songs became a viral hit in South Korea, leading to a record deal and several tours to Seoul. There are now Korean bands covering our tunes and putting the videos on YouTube. These days when I give talks about the nature of Internet distribution I like to say that for every talented artist there’s a South Korea out there somewhere.
Lo and behold, rock bands don’t always pay the bills and around 2000 I was looking for a job and landed one as a producer for The Connection with Christopher Lydon on WBUR. This was a dream gig: scrambling to research, interview, and write for live radio, two hours per day on every conceivable topic, with a relentlessly interesting public intellectual as a host. Unfortunately it all crashed to a halt a year later when the station and the show got in a big fight, Lydon and his executive producer Mary McGrath were fired, and I quit out of principle and loyalty along with the Connection staff.
After a year of experimental independent production with our show-in-exile (podcasting hadn’t been invented yet), I landed another promising gig, this time as the Associate Director at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. Berkman is a remarkable hub of inquiry and innovation, and linked me into an entrepreneurial community thinking about the structure, purpose and impact of the Internet in ways that continue to shape my views.
When I heard of a project brewing to start an Internet company focused on opening up public radio for digital distribution and new voices, I jumped at the opportunity to lead it, and became founding Executive Director of Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in 2002.
Since its launch PRX has become the leading platform for independent distribution in public radio. We are kind of like the Etsy.com for documentary stories, where the buyers are principally NPR affiliates nationwide. We have tens of thousands of shows available on prx.org, and partner to create signature programs like The Moth Radio Hour and a new one you should check out called 99% Invisible. We also build mobile apps for stations like WNYC, KCRW, WGBH, KQED and WBUR, as well as shows like This American Life and RadioLab.
Our newest venture is called the Public Media Accelerator, launching this summer. Knight Foundation gave us $2.5m to start a seed stage investment program for mission-driven entrepreneurs seeking to “change media for good”. If you are one of these folks or know any, send them our way.
Even though hour-long lunches are a rarity for me with my my hectic schedule (now also bursting with three kids under 4 years old), the moments I do spend at 46 Dunster reconnect me with an essential Signet spirit of curiosity, creativity, and community that I now see has been a through line in my life and work.
Jake Shapiro is founding CEO of Public Radio Exchange (PRX Inc.) an award-winning nonprofit whose mission is to harness technology to bring compelling content to millions of people. Since its launch in 2003 PRX has been an innovator in public media, pioneering new distribution models, developing mobile applications, and investing in significant stories and programs from new voices.
PRX is the recipient of the 2011 Peabody Award for Excellence in Electronic Media for The Moth Radio Hour; the 2011 Webby Award for the This American Life iPad app; the 2010 Knight News Challenge, and the 2008 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
In 2010 Jake was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship, supporting his social entrepreneurship work in new media. Prior to PRX, Jake was Associate Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, where he remains on the Fellows Advisory Board.
Jake is a frequent speaker at media and technology events and is an advisor and consultant to a variety of public media organizations, media funders, and Internet startups. He is also an independent musician and has recorded and performed on guitar and cello with numerous groups, most frequently with original rock band Two Ton Shoe. Jake lives near Boston with his wife and their three children.