A dozen joined in launch     

More stations covet roles in new NPR Music site

NPR launched its long-awaited online music hub Nov. 5, combining articles, videos, live recordings and the offerings of 12 public radio stations in an attempt to build a one-stop venue where listeners can discover music in several genres aired on pubradio.

The free service, located at NPR.org/music, sports a slick look, a little “beta” subtitle on its logo, and a snazzy new media player that lets users build playlists of concerts, reviews and music-centric NPR News stories. A list of links leads to 19 music services streamed online by participating stations. The stations also contribute repackaged blogs, podcasts, in-studio performances and top-10 lists chosen by musicians and deejays, among other features.

Last Tuesday, for instance, the site offered a WNYC feature and several related interviews about the Berlin Philharmonic, which played that night at Carnegie Hall. Scott Simon interviewed the African band Tinariwen, and the Afro-cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock performed in a video from NPR’s big Studio 4A. In a sidebar, a list written by Kevin Cole, p.d. and afternoon host at Seattle’s KEXP, ran down the top five hip-hop titles in the Pacific Northwest.

Stations will share underwriting revenue generated by NPR Music in amounts based on the volume and kinds of content they contribute. For example, creating or editing a local top-10 list or in-studio performance for NPR Music wins the station a bigger share than merely handing off its local music stream.

“It’s unlikely that there’s a lot of money in this for us,” says Rich Dean, director of channels for Austin’s KUT, a participating station. “But if we can get content in more places, there’s no real downside.”

NPR execs are touting the service as the first to tap into the power of aggregating the network’s and stations’ offerings on the same platform. This strategy, outlined during NPR’s extensive New Realities consultation with stations last year (Current, July 17, 2006), is designed to preserve pubradio’s relevance in a wildly fragmented media age. The idea was to create a “trusted space,” in mediaspeak, for listeners to “find, audition, explore, share, store and purchase music in all its forms.”

“This is the first genuine, robust expression of what could be,” says Maria Thomas, senior v.p. for digital media. “We have this amazing volume of quality content across the system. . . . This is a very exciting realization of what we can do for the audience together.”

“Hey, what about us?”

Participating pubcasters share her enthusiasm and welcome the exposure. But some music broadcasters not invited to join the project at its start bristle at the omission and object that they help support NPR while its new web service threatens to lure away their own online audiences.

“It’s as if the condemned is paying the executioner’s fee,” says Steve Yasko, v.p. for radio at WTMD in Towson, Md.

The network limited its initial station partnerships to make the launch more manageable but plans to add more stations “as soon as possible,” Thomas says. She observes that NPR’s podcasting directory started with seven participating stations but now has exceeded 60, with more joining.

NPR hasn’t set a timeline or criteria for selecting additional stations to join the site. “We’ve asked folks to raise their hand if they want to be included,” says Joyce McDonald, NPR station relations director. “We’re evaluating things on a case-by-case basis.”

Before the network can bring on content from more stations, it can add a directory of member stations’ music streams, McDonald says.

“We couldn’t get everything done before launch,” Thomas says. NPR hopes to develop a way for stations to add their own stream links and descriptors to NPR.org, she says.

When deciding which stations to include in the launch, NPR didn’t issue an open call for potential partners, opting instead to ask a handful of pubcasters to help kick off the site. Reps from the founding stations first convened just before last year’s Public Radio Program Directors Conference, says Jon Solins, radio p.d. and director of music projects at Boston’s WGBH.

The partner stations include KEXP and KPLU in Seattle; KUT; WBGO in Newark; WDUQ in Pittsburgh; WFUV and WNYC in New York; WGBH in Boston; WGUC in Cincinnati; WKSU/Folk Alley in Kent, Ohio; WXPN in Philadelphia; and Minnesota Public Radio.

Another renowned music pubcaster, KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., opted out. “We have a brand and we have a reputation in music, and we just don’t see how combining it in this way works,” Ruth Seymour, g.m., told Current in July. (She declined to comment last week.)

NPR sought stations that produce lots of original in-studio sets, concerts and interviews with artists and related programs “in order to build the most robust site we could from the get-go,” McDonald says.

Five “public radio” genres

The site features five musical genres — pop/rock/folk, classical, jazz and blues, world and urban — and currently includes more than 3,000 concerts, interviews, stories and reviews from NPR programs and station archives. More than 200 new features will be added each month, according to NPR. An index of artists includes more than 2,000 acts, and another 1,200 independent or unsigned bands are featured in a Second Stage section.

Blogs include one devoted to NPR’s All Songs Considered, as well as offerings from KUT, Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current and others. In a blog for “music fans, curmudgeons and recovering hipsters,” Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Olympia, Wash.-based indie-rockers Sleater-Kinney, riffs about bands, the music industry and pop culture in general.

Yet to be added are features such as user ratings, recommendations and other social-media apps, as well as an improved video component. NPR also aims to develop content for mobile devices, Thomas says.

NPR has no plans to charge for access to the site or subscription-only features, Thomas says. It won’t sell any music, though it will earn affiliation fees from links that lead to sales on Amazon.com, as it did with the old music section of NPR.org. 

Though most material on the site was produced for stations’ own broadcasts, some work is required to put it on NPR Music. The stations must adapt or re-edit the material and transmit it via File Transfer Protocol to NPR, where staffers format the web pages by hand. “It’s a very manual process right now,” KUT’s Dean says.

Few station observers doubt the value of aggregating pubradio content. But until their own material is aggregated, they fear the new site might hurt their own bottom lines.

Fundraising research has consistently found that the more time people spend listening to a station, the more likely they are to become members, Yasko notes. Thus, the more time pubradio fans spend with NPR Music, “the less likely they are to contribute to other stations,” he says.

That his station is forced to air spots promoting the new music site is adding insult to injury, he says.

“I understand they can’t launch with everyone, but here I am paying for (NPR) programs, and there are announcements that say, ‘Go to this other music site,’” says Lee Ferraro, g.m. at WYEP in Pittsburgh. “It feels a little icky.”

Ferraro says the real power of aggregation will be realized when a Triple A station such as his can direct listeners to a diverse yet “thoroughly co-branded site” presented to WYEP listeners as a service of the station.

“Maybe down the road,” echoes Chris Wienk, v.p. for radio at WMHT in Albany, N.Y., “instead of ‘NPR Music’ it could be ‘MHT/NPR Music’ or something that could be me, where I can be proud of ownership of it.”

That said, Wienk says he’s not decrying the project “in a Chicken Little way.” Instead, he acknowledges that NPR, by promoting exposure of pubradio music in general, is headed down the right road.

“Aggregation is smart business, so should we be mad at them for doing the right thing?” wonders David Bender, p.d. for WBFO in Buffalo, N.Y.

“I’d like to be a part of it, though,” he adds. “I’m here with my nose against the glass saying, ‘Hey, what about us?’”           

Web page posted Nov. 21, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee

Bloggers agree: "awesome, compelling, impressive ..."

"So far, I'm loving it," writes USA Today's pop music blogger Whitney Matheson. It's super-handy to bring together all those music interviews, she says, and it has awesome features like studio sessions. Her readers largely agree.

It's not only awesome, it's compelling. Marshall Kirkpatrick at Read/Write Web loves NPR's "slick Flash pop-up player," which "lets you click a single link anywhere on the site to add an audio file you're reading about to your playlist. ... I was able to quickly assemble a playlist of both single songs and hour-long concert performances." Or you can mooch a playlist from lists of musicians' favorite songs.

Radio consultant Fred Jacobs finds the site "damn impressive," while acknowledging that his company did some of the underlying research.

EARLIER ARTICLES

After the round of New Realities planning meetings, an NPR report in July 2006 envisioned (among many other things) a multigenre digital music service that “will make it easy for the audience to find, audition, explore, share, store and purchase music in all its forms."

NPR music site will test the allure of aggregation, July 2007.

LINKS

Type what you want into your browswer — music.npr.org, or
nprmusic.org you usually end up at www.npr.org/music ... or maybe www.npr.org/ nprmusic.

Faces on the site

Photos from NPR Music site

Above: Singer in an Argentine opera about mothers of the disappeared; Cyrus Chestnut, who sings Elvis; Suzanne Vega, who has a new album; and Art Pepper, as seen by his widow.

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