NPR drives forward with dashboard delivery

By Ben Mook

The NPR News App will be featured in the forthcoming Chevrolet AppShop in select 2015 models.

The NPR News App will be featured in the forthcoming Chevrolet AppShop in select 2015 models.

Having faced the disruptive threats posed by cassette tapes, CDs, satellite radio and even the iPod, public radio strategists are increasingly looking for a beachhead into the emerging “connected car” and its Internet-powered suite of entertainment options.

Gains in auto technology were a highlight of last week’s 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas: Carmakers, including General Motors, Jaguar, Tesla and Audi, unveiled new or beefed-up versions of dashboards that use broadband Internet to power apps offering news, music, weather and other services to motorists. Both NPR and American Public Media announced new partnerships that will get their content into these “connected cars.”

“This is huge, and it’s essential for radio broadcasters to be players in this space,” said Fred Jacobs, longtime radio researcher and analyst who’s now in the business of developing apps for the digital dashboard. He has followed the development of connected car technologies and documented its growth through his research projects, including the Public Radio Technology Survey.

For decades, radio operators could throw up a tower and launch a broadcast service confident that listeners would be tuning in from their cars. With the rapid adoption of mobile technology, and its introduction into car dashboards, those days are about to end.

“There’s always been that relationship between the car and the radio,” said Jacobs, president of Detroit-based Jacobs Media and JacAPPs. “Now it’s more important for broadcasters to realize things are changing, and to stay on top of it.”

In Jacobs Media’s most recent PRTS, conducted last year in collaboration with the Public Radio Program Directors Association, 10 percent of pubradio listeners indicated that they access programming in their cars through connected dashboards. That figure is poised to climb as more automakers introduce connectivity to their new models, Jacob noted.

‘Going great guns’

Connected car technology generally accesses the Internet in one of two ways: by tethering the dashboard system to a smartphone or by building a modem into the car itself. While a standardized operating system for the technology is in development, each car manufacturer is currently rolling out its own proprietary system, such as Chevrolet’s App Shop, Ford’s Sync and Audi Connect.

Drivers or passengers in connected cars can use dashboard controls to access apps from NPR, Pandora or The Weather Channel, among many others. In cars with built-in modems, the vehicle becomes a mobile hotspot providing a Wi-Fi signal to multiple machines, such as laptops and tablets.

“The car manufacturers are all trying to figure this out,” Jacobs said. “But the bottom line is they’re going great guns on this because they see now how important it is to consumers.”

NPR has been very active in securing a presence for its apps in the various connected car platforms. Its latest deal, announced with General Motors Jan. 6, puts the NPR News app among those to be featured in the inaugural suite of in-car apps slated for select 2015 Chevrolet models. In a headliner from the 2012 CES, NPR’s app was featured during the introduction of the Ford Sync system.

“This is so critical to our member stations that we have to play in every space,” said Don Grage, head of NPR’s connected car initiative. “We’re navigating the waters where no one knows what’s going on, or how it will play out, but we need to be there. That’s why we’re focusing on it.”

In contrast to Ford Sync’s smartphone-tethered system, GM is offering OnStar 4G LTE connections in 2015 models of the Chevy Corvette, Impala, Malibu and Volt. Motorists will be able to access the Wi-Fi hotspot to download apps to their dashboard.

NPR’s app for this new system uses GPS technology to help motorists identify local public radio stations. If a driver chooses a station as a “primary favorite,” the app announces the station, plays the latest hourly newscast and then the station’s live stream. Until a driver designates a favorite station, the app uses GPS to randomly select member stations in the vicinity. Random selections will be weighted by market share.

The app also offers a search function that allows users to find and add stations beyond their local market, but this function doesn’t work unless the vehicle is stopped or running at less than five mph. Upwards of 30 NPR programs will be available on-demand, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and drivers can create playlists focused on specialized topics such as politics and technology.

Drivers will also have the option of tapping into 80 continuous music streams from NPR and stations such as WXPN in Philadelphia, KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., and WBGO in Newark, N.J.

Also at CES, American Public Media announced a new partnership with BT Software to provide content for the company’s Kaliki Audio Newsstand app. The app will be in the Chevrolet App Shop and offers on-demand access to such shows as Marketplace, The Splendid Table and The Dinner Party Download.

“Not only do our audiences expect us to be with them wherever they go, they want to be able to listen to our content, whenever they want, on demand,” said Mike Reszler, APM digital media chief, in a statement.

According to Grage, car connectivity is becoming a key factor in consumers’ decisions in purchasing new vehicles. He anticipates that the variety of offerings and options will continue to grow as carmakers continue to refine and introduce their systems in new models, a development process that typically takes up to two years.

“In my opinion, there is serious momentum happening,” Grage said. “This is definitely a major thing, and it’s not going to go away.”

This article was first published in Current, Jan. 13, 2014.
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