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That Crime of the Month

This is part of the PRX STEM Story Project series.

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Image credit: Criminal podcast

What does it mean when a woman commits a crime and attributes her actions to PMS? We revisit the first use of the “PMS defense,” in this country, back in 1981. What have we learned about the science of PMS since then? Last year, the American Psychiatric Association classified a form of PMS (Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD) as a mental disorder in the DSM-V. How can the scientific community study severe premenstrual symptoms without perpetuating the utterly unscientific idea that menstruating women aren’t mentally competent or liable for crimes they commit?

In this PRX STEM Story Project piece, the Criminal podcast tells us about the psychiatry, law, and gender politics surrounding PMDD.

About 30 years ago, lawyers started attributing behavior to PMS as a cause for women feeling so severe they were afraid of hurting themselves or others. As one would imagine, this topic can veer on the controversial, necessitating a more open conversation about the issues surrounding it.
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When asked how she chose this story idea, producer Lauren Spohrer comments, “Obviously there are a lot of crime stories out there, and a lot of media dedicated to telling those stories in various way…and this was the one that made us say, ‘Wait, what?'”

Possibly more surprising than the story content might be the way that people react to the idea. Spohrer describes her friends’ reactions upon hearing about it pre-production: “There was an awful lot of eye rolling at the suggestion of a PMS defense…it struck me that gut reactions haven’t changed much in 30 years.”

Spohrer maintains that the piece doesn’t claim to promote any singular view but rather intends to stimulate even more discussion. She says, “We hope we’ve distilled the relevant issues such that the listener feels as conflicted as we do.”

You can find this piece and more on the Criminal Podcast.

Hey, this is exciting: The world needs more successful female-hosted shows. We hope to add Criminal to Radiotopia, our network of amazing story-driven podcasts. We need to meet $400,000 for our Radiotopia Kickstarter Project to support Criminal and more. Any amount helps!

Stretch Goal #1 and Hover 20k Backer Challenge

Helen Zaltzman of "Answer Me This" with PRX COO Kerri Hoffman
Helen Zaltzman of “Answer Me This” with PRX COO Kerri Hoffman at Radiotopia Live.

Three days ago Radiotopia hit our Kickstarter funding goal. We are thrilled! Thank you for your support and for getting the project to this point.

We are very excited to announce 2 major updates:

1. Our first stretch goal! This is huge and we’re really thrilled to share this.

As of February 2013, only 20% of the top 100 podcasts are hosted by women. We want to change that. If we reach $400,000 we will be able to green-light three new shows, all hosted by women.

The shows:

  • Soon-to-be-titled Helen Zaltzman words and language program(me)– Created by Helen Zaltzman, host of the popular UK show “Answer Me This,” this brand new program peels back the surface of language to find out why we say the things we say.
  • “The Heart” – A show about the triumphs and the terrors of human intimacy, the bliss and banality of being in love and the wild diversity of the human heart. Hosted by Kaitlin Prest.
  • “Criminal” – Riveting true crime stories about being wronged, doing wrong, and being caught in the middle. Hosted by Phoebe Judge and produced by Eric Mennel and Lauren Spohrer.

2. The Hover 20,000 Backer Challenge.

Hover is offering $25,000 if Radiotopia is able to reach 20,000 backers. Every pledge gets us that much closer to $25K and this is going to be a tough one, so please consider backing the project and sharing with your friends.



Radiotopia Goal Reached! Thank You!

We did it! YOU did it!

A huge group hug for the more than 6000 of you who got Radiotopia to our Kickstarter goal in just six days! Amazing, just amazing. We are feeling the love and the very real financial support, and we are energized by it. Thank you for helping us take storytelling and podcasting to new levels of craft and audience. PRX is so proud to be charting the future of radio with these talented producers and you.

We’re not stopping there. Keep an eye on this space for some exciting stretch goals. But first, we have a (completely full) Radiotopia Live! party to throw in NYC tonight…

Second Ear Producer Wins Third Coast Award

The annual Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Competition Awards were announced recently, and we were excited to see that one of the winners is Annie McEwen, for her beautiful piece Here I Am and Here Be Danger.

We had the pleasure of workshopping Here Be Danger with Annie for our Second Ear program, which is a chance for producers to meet with PRX staff to edit stories, brainstorm promotion, and get ideas. Annie sent us her perspective on the process. Here’s how to submit your own radio story to Second Ear.

Congrats to Annie and to all of the winners, whose specific awards will be announced on Nov. 9 in Chicago at the Third Coast Conference. And hey, stations: many of the winners are available now to license on PRX — and you can look forward to the annual Best of the Best broadcast coming in November.

Art, Math, Mystery: Stylometry

Image credit: Jenny Chen
Image credit: Jenny Chen

Can style be measured? Is it possible to express with numbers?

Visual stylometry is a new branch of mathematics that uses math to determine the style of a particular artist’s body of work. In this #PRXSTEM piece, co-producers Jenny Chen and Molly Jean Bennett take a look at how this works, how well it works, and what the implications are.

You can think of visual stylometry as the measurement of style with higher math. The method has been used to determine the authenticity of art by identifying, analyzing, and mapping unique stylistic elements.

Chen and Bennett talked to several mathematician friends about different types of stories before landing on this one. After meeting Dr. Yang, who previously used literary stylometry to authenticate an ancient Chinese work called Dreams From the Red Chamber, the co-producers discovered that there was a visual branch of stylometry too.

“We all have this stereotype that mathematicians do work that isn’t relevant to the humanities,” says Chen. “It was delightful to discover how wrong that stereotype is – and to find a branch of math that depends on the collaboration between art connoisseurs and mathematicians.”

The co-producers hope that this piece shows listeners that neither the hard sciences nor humanities have full answers to life’s questions: “Only by embracing as many different disciplines as possible can we get more complete answers.”

“Art and mathematics are so far apart that they actually become neighbors again…both are interested in patterns and life.”

The Case of the Nutty Dish: A Science Radio Detective Story

This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.

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Image credit: Center for Disease Control

It all comes down to one question: chicken or peanut butter?

They’re called disease detectives – the nation’s medical eyes and ears on the lookout for disease outbreaks and bioterror attacks. The Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go all over the world to handle outbreaks of measles, malaria, and even Ebola. Each July, 70 new trainees become EIS Officers.

In producer Philip Graitcer’s PRX STEM Story Project piece, you’re invited to step into the role of an EIS officer and join two rookies as they help solve a science mystery. This is the case of the nutty dish.

Don’t think this is purely a work of fiction, for truth may be far stranger. Philip Graitcer himself was an EIS officer from 1976 to 1978. He remained at the CDC for another 18 years after that: “The first day at CDC, I was sent, from work, to Philadelphia to find the cause of Legionnaires’ Disease. When I became an independent radio producer, one of the things I wanted to do was prepare a radio drama based on an outbreak investigation.”

Almost 40 years after his first introduction to epidemiology, he still says that he’s in awe of the process of solving an epidemic. The piece not only gives us insight on how an agency works to investigate an outbreak, but it also highlights deductive thinking, a core part of the scientific process.

Graitcer reminds us that field epidemiology and solving disease outbreaks is not an exact science in spite of the technology available to us today. Still: “There is still a lot of hypothesis testing and plain old detective work needed to solve an outbreak.”

Younger Ears and Different Dollars: Funding Public Radio in a Mobile Era

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Is public radio on the cusp of expansion or disruption? PRX CEO Jake Shapiro and Current.org‘s Mark Fuerst talked about listenership and public radio funding models on the PRX couch.

From crowdfunding trends to historical comparisons between public television and public radio—some of their observations might surprise you. Listen here, or read the transcript below.

Jake Shapiro: I’m really excited to be sitting down on our couch with Mark Fuerst, who is the director of the Public Media Futures Forum and former executive director of the Integrated Media Association, and a longstanding public media maven, researcher, occasional provocateur.

We’re talking about taking a fresh look at the public media/public radio audience opportunity for this moment we’re in, which still feels like a shift, in a way. We’ve been thinking a lot about that at PRX, around how to help producers navigate their way towards new audiences and their habits of consuming and supporting the media that they love.

I think you were saying that you see some historical comparisons in public television two decades ago.

Mark Fuerst: One of my jobs is to call people and ask them what they’re thinking about in terms of making investments at their stations or working with networks. I think it’s widely shared in the industry that we’ve lost a bit of track of what people are actually using. And some of that is podcasts, because asynchronous use of audio is very hard to track.

Mark Fuerst (left) and Jake Shapiro at PRX.
Mark Fuerst (left) and Jake Shapiro at PRX.

There’s also the problem of when people move across platforms, there’s no continuous way right now to look at a person who might in the morning listen to Morning Edition, during the day listen to downloaded audio, come back and listen for a few minutes in a car on the way home, but maybe listen to something totally different in the evening.

The reason why that’s so important is that the more people use public radio the more they are likely to support it, and individual contributions are the largest factor in the business model.

JS: And how big is that business model? Can you talk a little bit about just the sort of sizing of the public radio economy?

MF: I don’t remember what the total number, Jake, for the whole economy is; it’s more than a billion dollars right now. The individual giving sector is 350 million, 360 million dollars and has been growing fairly steadily.

JS: And I think you said there are about 3 million givers?

MF: Just slightly under 3 million I think. So there are about 3 million people contributing, it’s the highest it’s ever been.

What’s happened now is that across the system, there is a topping off, there’s another leveling we’re hitting where the number of people who are contributing, it’s not going down but it’s not growing very much, but the amount of people are contributing is going up because of sustainer programs—most people listening to this going to know what that means—and huge growth in major giving.

So the question really becomes, of the younger people entering the public radio, audio world—can we bring those people into the same relationship of appreciation support that so many people have developed over the last 30 years? And we don’t really know because we don’t actually even know what they’re doing.

We know when they listen to radio station, because Nielsen or Arbitron is going to measure that in some way. But when they move to other use forms—going to website, or listening to downloaded audio—we don’t know what they, we don’t know what they really value. That’s a hugely important piece of information.

I found information in the spring that showed that the peak of donations to public television occurs in 1993 at 5 million members. It had been growing in the previous decades. And then it begins to decline, so that from 1993 until now its been reduced from from 5 million members to 3 million members, almost the same now in public television and radio. And what I was asking myself when I saw that was, what happened in 1993? Why does that occur?

And my hypothesis is that this is related to the explosion of delivery capacity. Because that year literally is the beginning of digital cable. We go from analog cable systems that would deliver 70 radio channels to digital cable systems that delivered 500 channels.

We seem to be in the same moment. The advent of the phone as an audio device as opposed to something that you use to talk to people, that seems to me to be somewhat similar to the expansion of analog to digital cable.

And what I’ve been asking my colleagues is are we seeing something like that happen now with membership? Because what happens is you don’t originally begin to see your membership money go down, your individual giving, because you’ll figure ways to get people to give more and more. But the group of donors begins to contract.

Well, I don’t think we’ve seen contraction yet. There’s a flattening. So the question really now becomes how to take the people who appreciate public media and serve them in new ways and keep them appreciative enough to donate as they make their own transition to new usage patterns.

JS: It’s a fascinating hypothesis which I hope is born out by further research.

It illuminates all kinds of other ways to think about that lost opportunity in 1993—how public television managed that transition—and then what that might say for the opportunity have now.

In the last 10 years, which is the arc of PRX’s own evolution, there were a  bunch of false starts sensing that that moment had come. Whether it was XM satellite radio being this kind of “is that the cable television of radio that’ll change the game?” No it didn’t really, partly because adoption didn’t happen fast enough.

Podcasting, when it first emerged, seemed like that was going to be this huge democratization of distribution, of expression, and that actually really flattened out and never took off for a good six, seven, eight years—until the mobile platform has transformed because of its huge penetration, because of its ability to a consumption, distribution and production device.

That has some interesting parallels, but also huge differences in that it’s not sort of top-down controlled, major players who only are the ones through cable channels that you have to lobby to get programming approval or massive investment in order to even mount the kind of content creation that you’d think for that.

So where PRX is sitting, we see this as part of our challenge with public radio. Within that universe, where do you see PRX’s opportunity to help navigate this?

MF: First of all I think you’ve already established yourself as a center of independence, meaning independent thinking but also independent producers. Attracting a lot of talent. We were discussing this over lunch. PRX has a character that is different than the built-in system of public broadcasting.

The built system of public broadcasting is a geographically based system. PRX is not. The digital world is not a geographically based system. So that there’s universal reach to almost every single producer.

So for PRX, I think you’re positioned to begin to look at how do you take talent and give them the support—some of it’s going to be coaching around making great programs, but some of it’s also going to be technical support, marketing, delivery capacity—to reach people.

And 99% Invisible is a great example you’re using. The audience for people who are really interested in how design affects life is large enough to be an audience for a podcast but might not be large enough to be an audience for a radio station.

If you look back now to the digital cable thing, no commercial network ever had a cooking show. After 1994, there were cooking channels. Because the audience size needed to support a cooking channel was a fraction of the audience size needed to support a million-dollar-per-episode sitcom.

So there’s a shift in the fundamental production dynamics. There’s a release of a certain amount of creative energy. You need structures through which people can accomplish things. You know not everybody’s a genius to do everything. So I think PRX represents this structure that can attract capital.

And the reason why we’ve been talking is there is is also a level of understanding of what the market looks like. Who are the audience members? What do they think? How do they use this stuff? What would they prefer? You need people to collect that information. Most producers are not going to do that. They are just going to produce programs. So PRX has to play some kind of role there, some galvanizing role to pull these pieces together.

JS: You did last year talk about the effect or non-effect of the sort of Kickstarter economy on the larger public radio giving economy, and that there’s a potential misperception of how influential that is. So you took a look at that and said, despite what seems like a potentially very disruptive piece of how giving is happening as it migrates to some direct-to-producer support, this is actually not, when you talk to stations or talk to listeners, threatening the edifice of that cornerstone of the economy.

MF: Well, I never talk to any listeners except for my wife and a few other friends. I talk mostly to PDs, program directors.

The people who make decisions as to what to put on the air view the relationship between distributors and the audience as basically a wholesale retail thing. “We buy programs, we put them on air, and we retail them—we give them to people in exchange, and people give us the money that we pay you in fees.” And the direct relationship between some of the best producers and their audiences—and there are a few, not a lot—that do bring back some substantial dollars—that seems a violation of that model.

But when I would ask people, “Do you see any deterioration in your membership revenues or your membership relationships based upon that violation?” The answer was universally “no.”

But remember, Jake, you just were referring to something: There’s almost always a very big lag between the emergence of a disruption and when it really starts to happen. So, while Kickstarter or other forms of financial relationships that could support new production models may be small now, you have to draw the trend line up. And then where does the trend line become strong enough that it begins to undermine the other business model? I don’t know that we would see that for years, but it’s certainly nothing to ignore, and every subsequent discussion I have with people, I’ve included questions about whether you, for example at a station, would want to start doing Kickstarters. And I’d say half the people say we’ve at least thought about it.

Most producers, even station people, don’t realize the size of the public radio economy. The program economy’s $500 million. So if there are producers taking $5 million in Kickstarter and direct contributions, it’s just not really rockin’ the boat. Is there within ten years a possibility of that changing? It’s not inconceivable.

(Radio image via Shutterstock)

James Donaldson closer

When Quotation Marks Just Don’t Cut It

“It’s Not About The Fish” juxtaposes trauma, rage, and violence with the surreal order of a gurgling river.

It’s been years since I’ve gone fishing. But hear a line plop in water, the rapid click of a reel, and I feel like I’m there. That’s what sound does.

Yes, other things—the smell of the river, the view of dark trees lining open sky—make fishing tranquil. But to me, it’s the sound—what you hear while you silently wait for a bite—that centers and calms.

Jessica Murri sent us this story about military vets, and in our Second Ear edit session, we tried to make that sound sing. We trimmed narration and music, re-structured to clarify the narrative, added ambient sound and slimmed the character list down from four to three.

It’s Not About The Fish” juxtaposes trauma, rage, and violence with the surreal order of a gurgling river. I hope you take the time to listen.

BEFORE:

AFTER:

_________________________________

Producer Jessica Murri
“I have a bit of a love affair with radio,” says Boise Weekly reporter Jessica Murri.

Here’s Jessica:

I have a bit of a love affair with radio going. Even though my day job is staff writer at the Boise Weekly (in little known about but really amazing Boise, Idaho), I still miss radio.

It’s my favorite medium for telling stories because it’s one of the truest ways to put a person in a place. For this story about a few military vets going fly fishing, I couldn’t resist bringing along my recorder.

I wrote this story for print as well, but I couldn’t make the reader really hear how George Nickel told me about being in an armed standoff with the Boise Police Department. I couldn’t capture the way James Donaldson’s voice dropped when he said, “It’s still hard to accept the fact that I don’t have my legs.” Sometimes quotation marks just don’t cut it.

In print, I couldn’t capture the way James Donaldson’s voice dropped when he said, “It’s still hard to accept the fact that I don’t have my legs.” Sometimes quotation marks just don’t cut it.

Jake Thacker
Jake Thacker (photo by Jessica Murri)

Turning on my recorder for four hours really takes the listener to the Boise River, I hope. You can say “the birds chirping” all you want, but sometimes it’s just better to be there.

I don’t get to do much radio working in print, so I end up doing these little side projects for myself, just for fun, and then they sit on my desktop and no one ever hears them. Well, Erika and Genevieve wanted to! And after, like, 50,000 emails back and forth, they made my little radio project something more than a, well, little radio project.

I’m really glad I got such professional help on this story. I hope it makes it to a wider audience so I can share a piece of Idaho life.

Explore Jessica Murri’s other work here. You can submit a story to Second Ear during the first five days of every month. Follow #SecondEar on Twitter to hear the latest and share your thoughts.

Hello, I am Eve

Hi everyone, I’m Eve, the new software engineer at PRX. I started learning to program about a year ago after finishing up my English degree at Kenyon College. I was obsessed with public radio, and I thought to myself, “Maybe if I learn to program, I can work somewhere cool, like PRX.” So, I decided to go to Launch Academy here in Boston, and now, here I am. I’m excited to learn from the awesome tech team here at PRX!

Now’s the part where I list my radio nerd credentials. As a child I looked forward to Car Talk and Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! all week. In junior high I streamed BBC Radio 4 while writing HTML for my various websites. (I was very popular.) Then I discovered podcasts, and loaded up my iPod with The Sound of Young America and This American Life to make it through gym class. When I got to Kenyon, I tried to replicate shows like You Look Nice Today and Jordan, Jesse GO! with my own silly show on WKCO. I was lucky enough to intern at Studio 360 after my junior year. For my final project at Launch Academy, I made a social network for podcast listeners called Pod People. (Good name, right?)

But there’s more to my life than just listening to podcasts. I also make podcasts! I have a show about Disney Channel Original Movies where my friend and I use our liberal arts degrees to overanalyze them. It’s called The DCOM Podcast. (Good name, right?) The next episode will be about Johnny Tsunami. Check us out on iTunes.