Smartphone apps for web listening grow in variety

‘One year into the App Store, the concept is proven, and now it’s a full-out drag race to deliver new apps for the iPhone,” says radio research consultant Fred Jacobs.

His company has entered highly branded single-station web audio players in the race. Public Radio Exchange, meanwhile, has just updated the system’s ecumenical Public Radio Player, which plays every online stream in the system.

Collage of iPhone apps

NPR is working on three or four web audio players for different brands of smartphones. And the company behind the Public Radio Bookmark gadget is positioning its new iPhone player as the one that puts stations first.

“The mobile devices . . . allow stations to get their portability mojo back,” says Jacobs. “This is a terrestrial radio station — old media, if you will — being showcased in the coolest of forums.”

Another player is conceived to do far more than dispense radio streams or even revive mojos. This future version of the Public Radio Player would try out a new business model for voluntary support of music and news under the theoretical flag of Vendor Relationship Management (separate story).

Among the new players:

Public Radio Player 2.0: While many iPhone player apps can pick up pubradio webcasts, the system’s major entrant has been the Public Radio Player, downloaded more than 1.5 million times from the App Store. Version 2.0 of the player became available over the weekend for download from Apple’s App Store.

The new player now hooks into a database of stations’ local schedules and adds the capability of playing on-demand audio as well as webcast streams. It also recommends the best bit-rates to choose for streams, depending on the kind of wireless connection you have.

The app, originally called the Public Radio Tuner, is jointly created by several pubradio organizations. It was funded by CPB, originally developed by American Public Media and remains a group effort. PRX manages the ongoing development while NPR’s Public Interactive unit now handles station relations.

Listener Interactive: The Indiana software company that designed the Radio Bookmark gadget announced its iPhone player at the Public Radio Marketing and Development Conference in San Diego. It claims to give users precise access to stations’ schedules as well as pause, fast-forward, reverse and other player functions.

“Stations want an offering that puts them first,” says Chris Baker, v.p. of Listener Interactive. Though the player is custom branded for a station, it gives users access to any pubradio webcast.

Jacobs Media: JacAPPS, a unit of the Jacobs marketing and research firm, has customized its iPhone app for about 80 stations, including seven or more in public radio. The station gets a tightly controlled player, vividly branded. These apps play only one to five web streams designated by the station. A station’s icon, sitting in the grid of icons on an iPhone screen, is the successor to the buttons of a car radio.

NPR iPhone player(s): The network will release an NPR-branded news-oriented player for the iPhone in the next four weeks and may also release one for music, says Robert Spier, director of content development and mobile operations at the network. [Spier gave more but earlier details in May during the NonCommvention of Triple A music specialists.]

The player will give users an earful of audio streams from NPR, stations and other sources, as well as podcasts and on-demand audio, and it will let users build a playlist of things they want to hear.

NPR players for other smartphones: NPR also is expanding the range of phones with pubradio players. It’s likely to build a player for BlackBerrys for release later this year, Spier says.

Last week, the network announced it will expand the range of phones with pubradio players, adding an app usable on Nokia and other phone brands that use the Symbian operating system. Symbian is used by almost half of smartphones sold worldwide, including Nokia models, according to a Gartner Research study this year.

Emphasis on branding

Apps are a whole new business for Jacobs Media — hatched from a mere inkling last fall. The Detroit-area company’s longtime digital director, Tim Davis, proposed the JacAPPS venture to the Jacobs brothers, Fred and Paul, in October.

Some radio outlets, including Philadelphia’s WXPN and Oregon Public Broadcasting, are hoping their brands will find a place on the iPhone screen. For a fee in the low thousands of dollars, Jacobs says, his company will create a branded player, and the station typically offers it free in the App Store.

In one exception, Washington’s WAMU-FM decided to charge users $1.99 for the player dedicated to its Bluegrass Country channel. Since its launch in March, the bluegrass player has been downloaded 713 times, says WAMU spokesperson Kay Summer.

Branding is Jacobs’ selling point — not surprising for a firm that develops station and format identities. “We obviously believe in the power of the individual station brand,” says Fred Jacobs. “Stations work hard to develop their brands.”

Son of a bookmark

Listener Interactive’s app is also customized for stations but not limited to a few web streams.

Its app is an offspring of the Radio Bookmark, a tiny device that resembles a USB memory drive — whose job is remembering what listeners like. More than 60 pubradio stations distributed them as premiums to almost 20,000 donors, according to Chris Baker of Listener Interactive.

The Bookmark is a simple gadget dominated by a button and a USB plug that can be inserted in most personal computers. When a radio listener hears something she wants to hear again, or get more information about, she squeezes the button and the device notes the time. Later—typically within two weeks, Baker says—the user plugs the Bookmark into a computer and connects with Listener Interactive’s database, finding exactly what was playing on the user’s station at that moment.

That database was the biggest part of developing the Radio Bookmark service, and now its level of detail for nearly 200 stations will be a competitive advantage for the company’s iPhone app, Baker says. A similar database used by the NPR and PRX apps is much less detailed, he says.

“Our business plan is to sell players to stations in a station-branded way, with the best feature set anywhere,” says Baker.

Users will pay a nominal fee, possible $3.99, with some of that going to the the company, Baker says. Apple will take its usual share, widely reported to be 30 percent.

What would NPR do?

While NPR has one foot in the brand-neutral Public Radio Player, it’s bold enough to put its famous name on one or more other player apps.

“We believe NPR should have a strongly branded experience in the [mobile device] space,” Spier says. But, contrary to some predictions, he says the player will feature stations’ streams and podcasts “very prominently” and will give users access to programs from other radio networks.

NPR’s forthcoming iPhone app for news, like the network’s forthcoming website redesign, is open to all the program sources indexed for NPR’s API (application programming interface), Spier says.

Still, the coming of an NPR-brand app is deeply unsettling to some station execs.

Jennifer Ferro, assistant g.m. of KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., sees an NPR-branded app as a tool for capturing web listeners, bypassing station websites and driving fans to NPR’s. Worse, NPR would have stations airing promos for the NPR apps.

KCRW is fighting back with three phone apps carrying its own brand and programs, including two with video.

When Ferro saw Listener Interactive’s app, with detailed access to station schedules, she said, “I thought, oh my god, this is it.” She urged NPR to use this player and abandon its app development.

Scott Hanley, g.m. of Pittsburgh’s WDUQ-FM, likes the Listener Interactive app, too. By maintaining detailed links to content in the schedule, he says, it gives fans the convenience of on-demand audio without requiring public radio to build on-demand pages.

But he’s not disturbed at the oncoming NPR apps. “I don’t think NPR is planning to sidestep the stations,” he said. “We need to relax a bit.”

Off the Applecart

Use of smartphones would grow even faster if developers could make an app just once for all smartphones, but apps and audio codecs for most brands are incompatible.

“Apple created a proprietary and controlled environment which makes it super-friendly” for users and puts them way ahead of competitors, says Baker.

App developers think hard before putting time into writing for less popular smartphones.

NPR will probably make a player for BlackBerry phones, a strong-selling brand whose users tend to be NPR listeners, says Spier. Jacobs Media also plans to release an online radio player for the BlackBerry, according to Fred Jacobs.

And NPR is developing an app for another brand that Spier can’t discuss yet. (He also can’t discuss plans regarding Google’s open-source Android operating system.)

As for the new line of Palm Pre smartphones, NPR has no plans but Spier is watching sales of the positively reviewed gadgets.

Without outside assistance, “we would never have been able to prioritize developing an app for Symbian,” says Spier. Though the Symbian operating system is widely used in phones overseas, including Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson models, it isn’t used much in the States.

But the Symbian Foundation, which promotes the open-source operating system, volunteered to develop apps for NPR and nine other “premium partners,” Spier told Current. After three weeks’ work, Symbian demoed a limited-function preview of a new NPR player app July 15 at the MobileBeat Conference in San Francisco.

Spier expects NPR and Symbian will complete a more advanced version of the player in time to have it available in phones by mid- to late September.

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