It’s not surprising that, particularly in the United States, media industry studies should be dominated by a focus on the commercial sector: it is huge and in your face. The world of public, non-profit media fades into invisibility beside it, despite the fact that US public broadcasting has an audience that is larger in sheer numbers than that of most other public broadcasting systems in the world, with the possible exception of the BBC. It is in fact an industry, a large and prosperous one, with its own methods of finance, production, distribution, and marketing. But the industrial practices of public radio and television fly under the radar of academics and the mainstream press alike.
Nowhere is this more true than in the contemporary soundwork industry that I described in the recent Cinema Journal “In Focus” section. Here, an evolving non-profit sector centered around, but not limited to, the increasingly complex business of public and community radio (NPR, APM, PRI and thousands of local stations and independent producers) has combined energetically with the free-form “amateur” economics of podcasting and the material affordances of digital platforms. New modes of distribution and exchange have begun to emerge, including most notably PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, as explained in this video.
PRX combines production support with a distribution center that also opens up access to both amateur and professional work, negotiates royalties, encourages commentary, and directs payment. And anyone can listen in. Though no one is getting rich in independent sound production, we are living in a period of marvelous experimentation and innovation, fueled by the public, non-profit sector. Other significant online soundwork sites include Transom, focused on encouraging independent production, and the Third Coast International Audio Festival, with its workshops, curated listening sessions, and prizes.
Our public media sector has become more truly public than ever, and it is churning out enormous cultural profits every day. How many media studies courses even recognize its existence?