As a Matter Effect

Naming things is hard. Back in 2011, PRX, the award winning distributor of radio shows and podcasts, co-launched the Public Media Accelerator — descriptive, yet boring. Fortunately, the name and the idea took a pivot. Matter Ventures, led by Corey Ford, rightly evolved our central hypothesis of fixing parts of public media into the more the meaningful question — how do we build the future of all media that matters?

Today, the Matter curriculum has been applied to over 49 media companies. The community has grown to over 150 mentors and nearly a dozen partners. After years of watching from afar, Matter expanded to New York City and PRX enrolled four staff members in the partner parallel track. We jumped in fully, and learned many lessons along the way.

Matter Lesson #1: Make meaningful connections that last.

At bootcamp, we broke into teams and worked on building imaginary meaningful things. In every way, the Matter curriculum forced us to manage goals, objectives, style, and team dynamics with purpose. We had to stretch, with strangers. Fixable team dynamics are at the root of many failed startups. Team matters — we became skilled at problem-solving through process. Running alongside the cohort of entrepreneurs was a bonus, we were basically freshman together. We cheered them on and they cheered us on.

Matter Lesson #2: Feedback is a gift, not a demand for change.

This was said so often it is almost a Matter meme. Beyond the slogan, we have never been part of a group that provides feedback so regularly, so widely, and so constructively. When feedback is combined with the central pursuit of empathy, it is the sweet sauce that makes Matter and design thinking work so well. The feedback for us was less reflective and more aspirational. Getting this right is extremely tricky — and done expertly by Matter. This will forever change how we think about feedback at PRX.

Matter Lesson #3: Draw, and Make

Adults think visually. Having even a rudimentary image inspires iterative thinking. We actually had to build physical prototypes, it was a little uncomfortable. When do we ever play with pipe cleaners and string at work? This was hard. But it worked.

Matter Lesson #4: Brainstorm differently

Over the years, we have held hundreds of brainstorms at PRX. Beyond establishing norms, at Matter we learned that the most successful brainstorms had a lot of structure to them. We prepared our brainstorm space. We learned to focus on quantity over quality of ideas. We rotated the scribe role for maximum participation. We also learned that it’s frustrating to end any brainstorm on a “flare”. It’s best to allow for grouping and focus before parting. After Matter bootcamp, our team hosted a new and improved brainstorm on an issue that we had previously brainstormed three times at PRX. Despite this, the Matter-inspired brainstorm was by far the most productive and energizing. Also, see Lesson #3.

Matter Lesson #5: The nexus of desirability, viability and feasibility.

The temptation to evaluate an idea or even a process its viability or feasibility is backwards. Desirability — finding meaningful solutions to problems — trumps. Analysis, solid business, marketing plans, and many other factors will come into play. Getting the desirability quotient right requires all the other lessons to be solidly in place.

What’s Next?

Inspired by our Matter experience, PRX has launched Project Catapult. We will apply the design-thinking lessons we learned during bootcamp to podcast show development.

Podcasting offers a powerful way to share voices, creativity, thoughts, music and a wide range of information, narrative, and experiences in an intimate way that parallels radio. But unlike radio, podcasts can be an ‘easier lift’. The barrier to entry is relatively low, with many free editing tools, affordable software, and equipment. With literally hundreds of thousands of existing podcasts, and new ones launching every day, audio producers are trying to figure out how to leverage and advance this incredible opportunity.

Design thinking a tool that helps to advance this effort. In podcasting, we need innovation, creativity and a change of perspective. As Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “… design thinking principles have the potential to be even more powerful when applied to managing the intangible challenges involved in getting people to engage with and adopt innovative new ideas and experiences.” Catapult will allow us to take our lessons from Matter and through empathy, rapid prototyping, and feedback, continually improve our understanding of our target audience and make the hit shows of tomorrow.

About PRX

PRX is shaping the future of public media content, talent and technology. PRX is a leading creator and distributor, connecting audio producers with their most engaged, supportive audiences across broadcast, web and mobile. A fierce champion of new voices, new formats, and new business models, PRX advocates for the entrepreneurial producer. PRX is an award-winning media company, reaching millions of listeners worldwide. For over a dozen years, PRX has operated public radio’s largest distribution marketplace, offering thousands of shows including This American Life, The Moth Radio Hour, and Reveal.

In 2014, PRX launched Radiotopia, a podcast collective of 13 diverse, independent, story-driven shows, anchored by 99% Invisible from Roman Mars. The network has quickly grown to over 11 million downloads per month.

PRX is a founding partner in Matter Ventures, a San Francisco-based accelerator program helping mission-driven entrepreneurs start media companies that inform, connect, and empower society. PRX’s latest venture is RadioPublic, a company focused on building a mobile audio platform that drives listener discovery, engagement and revenue for creators.