Podcasts for the People: Behind the Knight Foundation's Latest Give to Radiotopia

It's a slightly unpleasant fact, but the Founding Fathers were suspicious of the "common man" and what we consider democracy in the modern sense. At the time of the Constitution, the president, senators, and Supreme Court judges were all appointed. The Founders distrusted the man on the street (and given the unpleasant French Revolution, they were somewhat prescient).

You're probably now asking, "What's with the unwanted civics lesson? What did I do to deserve this?" Those are fair questions. I'd simply like to juxtapose, say, James Madison's measured conservatism with the foundation-for-the-people that is the John S. and James Knight Foundation.

Students of the foundation know that Knight operates a big tent. Their People's Choice Award in South Florida, for instance, lets citizens decide who gets grant money. It cuts checks to support citizen hackers, enabling any intrepid soul with a smart phone to contribute to the increasingly diffused world of digital journalism. And now it's pouring resources into the ever-growing world of podcasts, a platform that also empowers average people to create compelling programs with minimal up-front costs.

Knight recently awarded $1 million to Radiotopia, a place for independent producers to learn from one another and try to make lasting shows that connect with listeners. Knight backed the launch of Radiotopia in February 2014 with a $200,000 grant, and since its launch, the platform has grown to 11 shows from seven, with monthly downloads growing to 7.5 million from 900,000. And it's making money. Radiotopia expects a 45 percent increase in sponsorships over last year.

The Knight grant will be used to support the operations of existing shows by improving production quality and funding new stories and ongoing projects. Radiotopia will also hire an executive producer who will oversee the expansion and collaborate with individual producers to share lessons and develop stories. Lastly, the grant will seed a pilot fund that will be used to discover new shows and audio talent who could become part of the collective.

As noted, Knight's been involved with Radiotopia from the ground level, and it's easy to see why it remains committed to this increasingly popular platform. Knight believes that the proliferation of smart phones, podcasts and audio storytelling are the wave of the future. And the data backs this up. Pew's State of the News Media found that listenership has been steadily growing for a number of years. One factor is how easy it is to access podcasts via smart phones, including through the Bluetooth technology that's now standard in many newer cars—in a nation, we might add, where commuters spend over 5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic. 

Yet the rise of podcasts also begets the following question: Is Knight shooting itself in the foot? After all, the foundation also remains committed to traditional news outlets. Funding these exciting podcast upstarts is akin to funding the competition.

It's a valid question, but an anachronistic one. Knight understands that the era of siloed journalism—traditional news media on one side, intrepid upstarts on the other—is long gone. The two worlds bleed together and feed off each other, and the process is shaped by both experienced newspeople and average citizens. This idea, dubbed "community platform collaboration," is at the heart of Knight's digital journalism strategy.

So, stay tuned. And in the meantime, do check out my next post, which will likely draw comparisons between the Gates Foundation's work in Africa with The Federalist Papers.