Current Thinking

The Key raises WXPN’s profile as valued music curator

Commentary by Bruce Warren

For many years, WXPN, like many other local music stations, has had a strong commitment to local music. “Philly Local,” as WXPN has been referred to over the years, serves as an important connection and support structure for local musicians and others in the creative economy.

With the growth of the Internet and digital media, we recognized the opportunity to create Philly Local 2.0, the next place to reflect our obligation to local music.

While many stations demonstrate their “commitment” to local music through a late-night local music show, we recognized that conversations among Philadelphia’s music fans take place 24/7. We saw the Web as a place to serve this audience.

Warren

Warren

The problem was — as is usually the case when trying to get any new initiative off the ground — that we needed funding. Through some combination of luck and thoughtfulness, my proposal to create a local-music website, later dubbed The Key, was accepted among the other station-produced blogs that launched three years ago as part of the NPR Argo Network.

We saw The Key as a platform to increase our audience while also providing a new way to engage them and deepen our service to Philadelphia’s music community. With The Key, we’re able to better reflect the diversity of the Philadelphia music scene, give local bands a platform to showcase their music in multimedia formats and position XPN even more centrally in the market conversation around local music.

Since its launch in 2010, The Key’s web traffic has grown by leaps and bounds. From the roughly 20,000 visits a month during its first year, The Key currently attracts 87,000 visits each month and an average 125,896 page views.

The Key has helped us reach new audiences while also solidifying XPN’s role as a go-to source for local music. Musicians and other media outlets covering the local scene look to what we’re doing.

What have the keys (no pun intended) to success been for The Key?

When The Key launched, we were aiming for the broadest possible audience that we could reach. NPR’s Matt Thompson, then the editorial overlord for Argo, provided invaluable advice, pushing us to develop content that would appeal not just to the super-fans of the local scene. He helped us think about how to create content for casual music fans.

Since its launch three years ago as one of NPR's Argo Network blogs, The Key aimed for a broad online readership by covering music that "happens to be coming out of Philadelphia."

Since its launch three years ago as one of NPR’s Argo Network blogs, The Key aimed for a broad online readership by covering music that “happens to be coming out of Philadelphia.”

I remember one early, important conversation with Matt in which he said: “This is really about music. Not local. It just happens to be coming out of Philly.”

The Key’s signature has been its dedication to the “river of news” concept. Many different types of content — concert previews and reviews, interviews with and profiles of bands, and our weekly Key Studio Sessions — flow through the site on a daily basis.

The studio sessions feature a local band recording a six-song session in the World Cafe studios. They have become one of The Key’s most popular features, providing an incredible platform for local bands to reach more people. Over the past three years, we have recorded more than 300 bands, and we make all the music available for free.

Since becoming The Key’s editor last fall, John Vettese has appreciably sharpened The Key’s editorial output (while also doubling as WXPN’s social media coordinator), differentiating our content from that of local competitors by honing The Key’s editorial voice and story choices.

He’s also significantly improved our social-media engagement on Facebook and Twitter. In the last year the blog has doubled its online audience and built active social-media engagement, primarily by using WXPN’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram platforms to share content from The Key.

We’ve also committed to improving the digital literacy of WXPN’s entire staff.

We’re not afraid of experimenting with content. If something works, we talk about why it works, replicate it and improve on it. If something fails, we learn equally as much from that.

I asked John to summarize some of the editorial changes that have contributed to The Key’s growth. They include:

  • Emphasizing thoughtful, in-depth coverage of local music through Key Studio Sessions and our Unlocked series, which spotlights one musician a week. We also feature long-form interviews with musicians and other folks in the local music scene.
  • Increasing our use of photo features and improving our photography and visual storytelling.
  • Differentiating ourselves from the “copy and paste a press release” mentality so prominent in other music blogs. We’ve worked to add more editorial context to posts that accompany photos or videos.
  • Picking up on great stories not covered by other media outlets, including stories about jazz, world music, hip-hop and emerging artists who have not been written about. We occasionally reach beyond our core subject, using music as a steppingstone into broader coverage of the arts.
  • Enriching conversations around national news when there’s a local tie-in but recognizing which national “trending” stories to avoid.
  • Tying into the rich music tradition of Philadelphia whenever possible.
  • Focusing on those social-media platforms where we can best engage our audiences.

Rather than attempting to manage every shiny new social object to come along, XPN has focused on building engagement on Facebook, Twitter and, more recently, Instagram. Being ubiquitous only works when and if you have the resources to do “everything” effectively.

One overriding value guides every editorial decision we make: Public media’s role as a trusted source and thoughtful curator is among our most prized values. It’s top-of-mind, regardless of the platform we’re publishing on — broadcast, Web, or social.

Bruce Warren joined Philadelphia’s WXPN in the 1980s as a volunteer deejay hosting the overnight shift. He’s now associate g.m. of programming and executive producer of The World Café and has won numerous accolades as one of the top p.d.’s in public radio. A former chair of the PRPD board, he continues to serve on the boards of Public Radio Exchange and the Weathervane Music Group, an incubator for new musical artists.
This commentary was first published in the Sept. 9, 2013 edition of Current.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT