Pubradio's stations, nets team up on podcast push
Public radio makes a big play this week for the podcast audience with its major program distributors collaborating to give listeners expanded on-demand audio.
Many pubradio producers offer podcasts, but the system has failed to promote them as a feature of public radio at large. The initiative launching this week is the most organized effort yet to change that.
The project will include new podcasts from several producers, including segments from NPR News programs for the first time, some organized by category.
Next month, NPR will unveil another service for a new audio platform — five streams that stations can air when they add multicast channels to their digital radio broadcasts.
The podcast collaboration will be available earlier. Participants in the unnamed project were planning to test an alpha version Aug. 27 and announce a public beta version by Aug. 31, they said last week.
If all goes well, stations can begin airing promos for the podcast service this week — guiding audiences to newly expanded podcast directories on their websites. [Update: The directory was on NPR's site as of Aug. 31.] Previously only podcast aggregators, Apple's iTunes Music Store and some websites outside the system have compiled directories of public radio's podcasts.
In addition to NPR, this new initiative includes American Public Media, Public Radio International and its web subsidiary Public Interactive, and the Public Radio Exchange. Also participating are the stations that birthed the project: New York's WNYC; San Francisco's KQED; Boston's WGBH; Philadelphia's WXPN; Michigan Public Radio in Ann Arbor; Northwest Public Radio in Pullman, Wash.; and KUT in Austin, Texas.
For now, only these stations will have their segments dispensed from NPR servers at no cost to them. But all stations are encouraged to podcast their own shows and add them to a national podcast directory on their websites. Eventually, they may also be able to dispense their podcasts from NPR's servers.
The aim is to create "a very big tent and online podcasting space," says Jo Anne Wallace, g.m. of KQED-FM.
Backers of the initiative admit that big questions remain unanswered even as they charge forward. Journalists and web enthusiasts have piled mountains of buzz on podcasting, but little is known about the listening habits of podcast subscribers. And though offering podcasts can run up bandwidth costs for stations, few have experimented with finding business models to sustain it.
System leaders fear the penalties of not acting could be far greater. Tim Olson, director of KQED Interactive, invokes PBS's failure to embrace the rise of cable TV. The podcast strategy is imperfect, Olson says, "but we don't want to just let the inevitable happen to us."
New podcasts from NPR, others
Barely a year old, podcasting already has had an eventful life. The technological innovation has made talk-show hosts of enthusiastic amateurs and brought curious professional broadcasters into the fray as well.
To pubcasters, the technology creates a simple way to let listeners time-shift their favorite shows by downloading digital audio files onto their media players. With Apple's iTunes or software called aggregators, they can set up downloads and leave them to run on autopilot.
Dozens of stations have started offering podcasts over the past year, but not NPR, despite requests from listeners. Station execs behind the podcast initiative say the promise of offering NPR's feeds through their websites was a prime reason they approached the network earlier this summer.
The idea was born at KQED, where Wallace says she and her technical staff foresaw "a really successful public radio space" for podcasting. KQED and other stations first met with NPR management June 1, a month after the network's annual membership meeting, where podcasting and other technologies were hot discussion topics. The station emissaries returned to meet with the NPR Board in July.
The broad collaboration and brisk rollout are unusual for a system that often bickers over turf and strategizes at a crawl. But when it comes to podcasting, "my philosophy on it is 'Ready, fire, aim,'" says Dennis Haarsager, g.m. of Northwest Public Radio.
The podcasts include:
- weekly digests of segments about books, health, science, movies and music; Weekend Edition Sunday's puzzle segment; and snippets of Day to Day and News and Notes with Ed Gordon, all from NPR;
- segments from The World, American Routes, Whad'Ya Know, Studio 360 and To the Best of Our Knowledge, from PRI;
- KQED's Forum and Pacific Time;
- Please Explain with WNYC's Leonard Lopate;
- KUT's Latino USA;
- Now Playing with David Dye, a podcast-only program from WXPN; and
- reports from Michigan Radio's Great Lakes Radio Consortium.
This content, much of it new in podcast form, will be hosted on NPR servers. A network spokeswoman would say only that costs are "significant."
Due to the high costs of setting up and running the servers, NPR will host podcasts only from the seven founding stations for the first three months of the project. After that point, a review will let participants back out and may allow other content providers to join.
NPR has negotiated a license that allows the podcasts to include interstitial music snippets. Producers are offering segments rather than whole shows to appeal to typical podcast listeners, who they expect to be youngish males who like their content in doses of a half-hour or less.
A directory available to be published on station websites will list these podcasts and many more from other stations and producers. Stations can decide which podcasts appear in the listings and add podcasts from outside public radio.
Podcasts eventually could be categorized and searchable, and the directory may feature Amazon-like recommendations guiding listeners to podcasts similar to each other.
Pubradio stations and networks are showing a more cooperative spirit than they did in an earlier web epoch. In the late '90s, PRI's Public Interactive competed in web innovations with eXplore Radio, a joint project of NPR and Minnesota Public Radio. At the time, some station execs criticized the networks for competing instead of working together.
But there are redundancies in the podcast initiative, with Public Interactive and PRX working on their own podcast directory in recent months.
Public Interactive President Debra May Hughes says the parallel projects could confuse listeners. For example, a podcast may appear in both directories, but in different categories.
Hughes wishes the podcast initiative's developers would take more care to develop standards, though she expects they will come eventually. "But the nice thing about this project is it has everyone talking — and talking a lot," she says.
Revenues from podcasts?
As the project evolves, its founders will refine their strategy by studying which podcasts are the most popular and how listeners find them. They hope to learn whether podcasting will complement or compete with their old-media activities and how they may profit from it.
Because NPR is paying the bandwidth bills, participants agreed to let it sell podcast sponsorships. The network, which will follow its on-air and online underwriting guidelines, may share profits with partners under formulas yet to be defined. (Stations shouldn't expect a check in the mail. Bonuses from NPR's satellite radio efforts have yet to fund anyone's studio upgrades.)
Producers and distributors face another quandary: how to elevate their brand above the chaotic free-for-all of the Internet. Listeners find podcasts via a range of gateways, such as iTunes, PRX's Pubcatcher application and other aggregators, and station and nonstation websites. Will iPod junkies know where the shows originate, much less where to phone in a pledge?
One option is to brand the podcasts with brief station identifiers. And for two weeks, only stations — not networks — will promote the podcast initiative. But NPR and other producers can then guide listeners to their own sites, raising questions about how the stations will compete.
Phil Redo, WNYC's v.p. of station operations, wants to ensure "that we are in fact the point of entry for our communities and that that be protected. That's what makes this dicey."
The struggle could prove to be futile. Podcasting is "the ultimate bypass technology," says Public Interactive's Hughes. "It doesn't matter if you're a local station or NPR — there's no reason to go back to the website once you've subscribed to the podcast."
NPR stocks five musical streams
NPR has revealed the five multicast streams it will offer stations starting Sept. 19. The channels are:
- Classical music from Classical Public Radio Network, the joint venture of Colorado Public Radio and KUSC in Los Angeles;
- Jazz from JazzWorks, a collaboration of Boise State Radio in Idaho and WDUQ in Pittsburgh;
- Folk music from FolkAlley.com, a webcast produced by WKSU in Kent, Ohio;
- Triple A tunes from Philadelphia's WXPN, branded as XPoNential Radio; and
- Groove Salad, electronic music from longtime webcaster SomaFM.
The CPRN, JazzWorks and FolkAlley streams are hosted, while Groove Salad and XPoNential Radio are not.
Stations can also stock their streams with NPR's major programs, though the newsmagazines are available only to stations already paying for them.
The music streams are designed to be turnkey fillers for the additional audio channels that can be carried on a digital radio signal. Few consumers own digital radios so far, but dozens of stations have asked the FCC for clearance to multicast.
For $2,000, a station can acquire rights to put a stream on a digital channel and on the Internet as well. NPR will review the success of the streams and the business model supporting them after two years and may expand them into fuller-blown services with more live hosting if they catch on.
Stations will have to buy custom demodulators to use the classical and jazz feeds, which will be stripped-down versions of the unbranded CPRN and JazzWorks programming already airing on stations, according to Eric Nuzum, NPR's program and acquisitions manager. The services will provide local IDs and other customer support on an a la carte basis.
Stations are so far showing the most interest in WXPN's stream, says Nuzum, and some are curious about the spacey, electronica-tinged Groove Salad, which represents a format rarely heard on public radio.
Web page posted Sept. 1, 2005
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