Matter Ventures Aims To Launch “The Next Great Media Institutions”

Once upon a time, public radio and TV stations were the new kids on the media block, disrupting the commercial media world by offering educational, cultural, and community-based content of a type that just wasn’t available from the privately owned networks. But that was 60 years ago: the nation’s flagship public stations, WGBH and KQED, went on the air in 1951 and 1954, respectively.

So, when it comes to keeping the public informed and connected, it’s a reasonable guess that the next big disruptions won’t come from inside today’s mature public-media bureaucracies, but from outsiders. Still, those same bureaucracies hope to have a hand in the way media culture evolves.

That’s the basic story behind Matter Ventures, a San Francisco-based investment fund and startup accelerator that uncloaked today. With $2.5 million in backing from KQED and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Matter plans to use the now familiar vertical or “impact” accelerator model (think Rock Health, Greenstart, Imagine K12, or Code for America) to help roughly 10 media startups per year get off the ground. The hope, says Matter CEO Corey Ford, is to find participatory platforms “that will have the impact that Twitter has had.”

Startups that win a berth at Matter will receive a $50,000 investment. Applications for the first class opened today.

Ford (pictured above) says he hopes to attract entrepreneurs who believe in the spirit and mission of traditional public media, but who are experimenting with different technologies, business models, and audiences. “This is not about reinventing public media,” Ford tells Xconomy. “It’s about people who are building early-stage ventures that have the potential to make society more informed, empowered, and connected.”

The idea of an accelerator for participatory media companies has been in the works for some time. Matter Ventures is actually the rebranded version of the Public Media Accelerator, an organization first announced in late 2011 by the Cambridge, MA-based Public Radio Exchange (PRX).

Jake Shapiro, executive director of the Public Radio Exchange

Jake Shapiro, executive director of the Public Radio Exchange

The original concept, hatched by PRX executive director Jake Shapiro and Knight Foundation director of journalism and media innovation John Bracken, was to have entrepreneurs move to Cambridge for a three-month course of intensive product development and mentorship. “We wanted to build a disruptive playground,” Shapiro says. “A place where entrepreneurs can ask themselves ‘What if you tried to build the next great, meaninginful media institutions from scratch today, leveraging the technologies we have, making it relevant to people in today’s society, and seeking out new business models?'”

Last spring, however, the idea morphed in two important ways, according to Shapiro.

First, Shapiro recruited Ford, a former producer for the PBS/WGBH series Frontline who was based in the Bay Area, to lead the accelerator. Ford has a Stanford business degree, has taught courses in design-centered entrepreneurship at the Stanford, and worked most recently as the creator of the Runway incubator program at Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors fund.

“That was a major turning point,” says Shapiro. “We originally pulled Corey in for an advisory group seat, but we realized pretty quickly he was an incredibly good fit to lead this thing, given his background in public media and in entrepreneurship and in actually running an accelerator.”

Second, executives at KQED said they wanted in on the venture—and they agreed to split the cost of the program’s first two years with the Knight Foundation, which had originally pledged the full $2.5 million on its own.

Given those two developments, it made more sense to set up the venture in San Francisco, which is already home to numerous general and specialized accelerators (including at least one, Turner Media Camp, that’s focused on the media business). But Shapiro hopes that the program will succeed so well in its first two years that it will then be possible to get the program’s backers to “double down” on their initial grants and open a parallel program in the Boston area or elsewhere. “Given where PRX is, we see ways this could … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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