Forthcoming NPR mobile app could advance public radio’s quest for digital audience

Commentary by Mark Fuerst

Public radio executives who have long bemoaned the field’s collective inability to pursue innovation have a new opportunity to alter that dynamic as they evaluate a new digital-service strategy crafted and advanced by NPR.

The plan, centered on mobile digital service, was described in detail by NPR content chief Kinsey Wilson during last month’s Public Media Summit in Washington, D.C. In an hourlong session, he described the overarching strategy and briefly discussed an audio application developed to advance it. The mobile app, introduced by Wilson as the “Infinite Player,” expands on a desktop-based app that NPR released under the same name in 2011. The mobile version is slated for full release this spring.

This strategy and the app that supports it will be major topics of discussion during regional station consultations that NPR began convening this week. I’m writing to encourage station decision makers — managers, program directors and digital officers — to carefully consider the implications of NPR’s plan, both for their stations and the system as a whole.

As I see it, the NPR strategy has enormous potential to position public radio for the next evolution of Internet-based media distribution. It is grounded in public radio’s expanding investment in digital infrastructure, including the Public Media Platform. It has the potential to reconnect local and national content — a feature lacking in the large array of station- and program-based websites built in the first phase of online service development. It takes full advantage of public radio’s single greatest competitive strength — high-quality audio journalism. And, by taking control of the distribution platform, it may help public radio preserve end-user relationships — and the revenues that flow from personal connections with listeners.

‘Pandora for news’

The NPR app is the first iteration of a much anticipated “Pandora for news” platform that former NPR President Gary Knell mentioned in some of his speeches.

The beta version has a simple design with minimal graphical treatment. (You can join the beta testing group and download the player by pointing an iPhone to n.pr/mobilebeta.) A user personalizes the player by selecting “my station” from a list generated by ZIP code; this choice affects the player’s output, integrating content from the selected station with stories fed from a national audio stream.

This player is not a standard news app. It’s an audio device. Except for a scroll displaying the title and source of a selection, there is no text on screen.

Each listening session starts with the most recent NPR newscast, then the player offers a continuous mix of features in a kind of shuffled playlist of news coverage, some from today, some from yesterday and a few from “the archive” (I got a feature from 2011). Some pieces are short cuts from a news magazine; others are long. My player served up hourlong episodes of On the Media and On Point.

Screenshot of NPR's mobile appClicking on a menu box in the upper left of the home screen generates a suggestions page that offers a list of recommended features and a search box.

When I first searched for WAMC, my local station in Albany, N.Y., my query pulled up half a dozen selections, all from 2012. Several days later, the player offered two week-old segments from local talk shows. A search for WNYC in New York generated a much longer list of timely features that had aired that same day.

The interface includes a “thumbs up” button titled “mark as interesting,” but no “thumbs down,” as found on Pandora. Instead, users signal disinterest by hitting a skip button.

Finally, the app allowed me to quickly connect to Twitter, messaging and email.

I’m not going to critique the interface. The app is still under development, and others with expertise in app design are better qualified to do that. As a user, I can confirm that access to both local and national content is extraordinarily convenient.

Having viewed Wilson’s presentation at the Summit and played with the beta-test prototype, I was most impressed by the strategy that NPR is proposing: I think it’s exciting and forward-thinking. And I want to encourage public radio leaders to look beyond the prototype to consider how the full plan — the platform, content and revenue features — could transform public radio’s digital service.

If the approach developed by NPR can be embraced and implemented effectively, it would be a vast improvement over early-stage online strategies that served public radio poorly.

‘Curve in the hockey stick’

NPR’s new strategy attempts to position public radio to reap benefits from growing usage of web-based audio, and I see this as one of the most important service-expansion opportunities facing the field.

After a decade of relatively slow growth, online streaming appears to be at an inflection point, driven by convenient access to audio on smartphones and other mobile devices. A study earlier this year by Edison Research and Triton Digital found that 36 percent of people surveyed had listened to online radio within the last week, up from just 8 percent in a 2004 study.

Chart of online listening

A fact that Wilson shared during his Summit presentation powerfully reinforced this accelerating use of mobile content. “In 2009, just 2 percent of our web traffic was on mobile devices,” he said. “Today, it’s 50 percent.”

“We have reached the curve in the hockey stick,” he said, using a common analogy that describes patterns of technology adoption. The initial uptake by consumers looks flat, like the blade of the hockey stick, before the rate of adoption increases quickly, turning up as the blade meets the shaft.

This growth curve presents a new opportunity for public radio as it girds for the next challenge that Internet-based distribution poses to our legacy services: accessibility of mobile audio in the dashboards of cars, via players that could potentially supplant FM radio.

Instead of pursuing web audiences through text-based news sites, NPR is attempting to position public radio to compete for listeners’ ears via mobile audio.

From my view, this is a smart move.

The text-based website strategy that NPR and stations implemented over the last fifteen years has not succeeded. Of the 300 separate sites created by networks, producers and stations, very few are competitive with other online news offerings.

There were many reasons for this — local and national content were separated; most stations lacked the capacity to produce a sufficient volume of original daily content; and inconsistent on-air promotions encouraged listeners to visit the websites of each network, program and station.

NPR itself has suffered from these shortcomings. In the latest “State of the Media Report” from the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism, NPR.org didn’t appear in the ranking of the top 25 news sites in the United States. (The rankings were based largely on traffic volume or share of news attention.) The BBC was the only noncommercial news source to make the list for 2013, and just barely. It crept in at 25th.

Despite the poor return from the system’s investment in text-based web publishing, it’s important to acknowledge that it didn’t hurt public radio.

During the early years of Internet competition, 2001 through 2007, systemwide cume and average–quarter-hour audience grew by more than 20 percent, and station-based revenues increased by $219 million, or 29 percent, adjusted to 2012 dollars, according to the Station Resource Group’s Grow the Audience study and my own analysis of CPB financial data. Yet Audience 2010, a forward-looking study by Walrus Research, signaled a “historic loss of momentum” during this extended period of growth.

In the next evolution of Internet-based media delivery, the stakes for public radio are much, much higher. Now the system is engaged in competition for audio attention, through smartphones and mobile-equipped car dashboards. Listeners will gain ever more convenient access to both live streams and on-demand listening options.

Even small changes in audience usage of public radio’s broadcast service could have profound consequences. Last fall, consultant and analyst John Sutton projected that a loss of 10 percent of public radio’s national average–quarter-hour shares could cost the system $85 million in lost audience-based revenue.

‘Pivoting to own audio’

In his presentation at APTS, Wilson was emphatic about the importance of redirecting NPR’s digital strategy toward mobile audio delivery. When questioned about NPR’s online priorities as it faces a tight budget, Wilson said, “If forced to choose, I would abandon all of our websites and focus entirely on mobile, in a heartbeat.”

Why would he do that? Wilson and other NPR leaders have long espoused the belief that NPR and its member stations need to “own audio.” Vivian Schiller talked about this early in her tenure as NPR president, and I have long felt that this ambition was correct and powerful.

NPR has developed its new app with that ambition in mind. The app focuses on spoken-word content, including audio journalism and the type of personal storytelling that creates those famous driveway moments. It provides easy access to craft-based feature news, building on public radio’s core strength and providing a long tail for content produced by networks and stations.

And, in contrast to the earlier, text-centered strategy, it reduces the burden on digital producers to repurpose and adapt audio content for online readers. Audio can be uploaded and offered for on-demand replays and sharing much more easily and efficiently.

There’s another important strategic consideration to the app: Wilson is proposing that public radio create, release and own the platform that will be delivering its content to mobile listeners.

While this will no doubt be a point of concern for some station leaders, it addresses one of the biggest vulnerabilities that all publishers and producers face in the digital sphere: disintegration of the relationship between the producer and the end user as content gets swept into third-party aggregation systems.

Focus on the big picture

The challenges NPR faces in implementing this plan are formidable.

As always, the route to selling Wilson’s vision is a long one, winding through a couple of hundred corner offices in public radio stations from Florida to Alaska.

NPR has developed the app with a small group of pilot stations, each of which is likely to support it. (WNYC is among them, as its content is already being fed into the beta player.) But the majority of managers, from mid-level and smaller stations, must be convinced that the player delivers value to their stations and listeners. And NPR needs to show that revenues generated by the player could eventually compensate stations for the potential decline in their own ratings.

From my perspective, I sense that many managers recognize that this new round of deliberations over digital-service strategies differs from those that have come before. We have to only look at the enormous shadow that Pandora casts over music listening to recognize the importance of proactively positioning public radio against a “Pandora for news” application. If public radio leaders can’t agree on a strategy that addresses this competitive threat, they expose the system to greater risk of a third-party aggregator sweeping up their content and paying them almost nothing.

As the discussion between NPR and its member stations unfolds, I urge station decision-makers to recognize that:

1. NPR is proposing a bold and strategic move, which is what the public radio system needs.

NPR is calling the question: Do you, public radio stations, really want to adapt for the next evolution of Internet-based media consumption? Do you want to compete in — even dominate — the emerging mobile audio market? Do you want to reach the next-generation listeners on their terms, in digital spaces where programs and personalities, not local stations, generate loyalty and engagement?

2. It’s more important to consider NPR’s overarching strategy than the features of the player, which is still under development. 

It would be a travesty if discussions at regional meetings focused on critiques of specific features of the player. Few of us are qualified to evaluate the long-term value of a single online device, but every manager is equipped to evaluate the benefits of a system strategy for his or her local station. Spend the meeting time asking: Does it makes sense for NPR and its members to pivot toward an audio-based strategy built on public radio’s core strength of producing high-quality radio journalism? If not this, what are your alternatives?

3. The onus is on stations to step up and produce great original content.

When station content is loaded into the Public Media Platform and integrated into geolocated streams such as those provided through NPR’s app, the content will have to be as compelling as the nationally produced coverage that surrounds it — or listeners will hit skip and ditch it.

4. To own audio, public radio must also own mobile giving.

A few years ago, NPR put a donate button on its homepage and studied the result: 85 percent of visitors who clicked on it abandoned the process before completing their transactions. Why? Because the donate process was poorly designed. Listeners who simply wanted to contribute were funneled into a process that felt like applying for a loan.

The donate feature on NPR’s new player is not functional. Located on the app’s settings menu, it simply generates a screen that notifies users to watch their email for information on how to donate to their local station.

If this app is going to succeed, the donate function must be designed to generate a new and fairly large stream of individual support. This will require more than a simple fix to the prototype that’s under discussion.

NPR developers must produce a better user-contributor interface; stations must move from clumsy, complicated pledge pages to a design that “puts users first,” creating a convenient, quick way to express appreciation for the great service provided by public radio.

What do you think? Share a comment below or email us at news@current.org.
  • John Sutton

    Thanks for the overview Mark. Thoughtful, as always. Branding in the digital space is still the big challenge, especially when it comes to giving. The current giving model is based on station-branded listening and loyalty. If listeners perceive that their listening is no longer tied to a station brand, then they will be less likely to give to that, or any, station.

  • Michael V. Marcotte

    Brilliant. The best innovation play in years. Exactly how NPR should lead the system in strategy, technology, business and service. It’s unsettling — albeit based on historical politics — that Mark Fuerst must adopt a rather pleading tone while encouraging stations to adapt. Perhaps more can be said about sharing membership revenues… but the mutual benefits already appear obvious.

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