Verizon smartphone connects via phone call

This Verizon phone can't handle streaming audio from websites as some models can, but users can go to npr.org/mobile and get audio of the latest NPR or WAMU newscast by clicking on the "call" button. (Photo: Current.)

NPR Mobile: If you missed the newscast, please press 1

Originally published in Current, April 21, 2008
By Jeremy Egner

NPR and some partner stations are working to make sure listeners can carry pubradio in their pockets — or on belt clips, for the less fashion-conscious — no matter whether they have web-capable cell phones.

NPR Mobile Web and Voice, launched last summer with 10 participating stations, will welcome its third batch of partner stations May 1, bringing to 30 the total number of pubradio stations with mobile sites.

The sites, optimized for handheld devices, combine national offerings — including NPR newscasts, longer stories and special features such as a Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! news quiz — with local newscasts and commentaries. For the beta tests, NPR chose stations that could regularly contribute news content.

“Our sports commentator this morning gave an overview of the situation with the sale of the Seattle SuperSonics,” Joey Cohn, p.d. of KPLU in Takoma, Wash., said last week. “That’s the sort of thing we promote on-air as, ‘If you missed it, you can listen to it on the bus with your phone.’”

Cell phone users with data plans and miniature browsers in their phones can connect to pubradio’s reformatted mobile websites directly, and many can listen to streamed audio.

However, “not all phones are capable of streaming audio, including sophisticated phones like (Apple’s) iPhone,” says Maria Thomas, senior v.p. of NPR Digital Media. Though such phones connect with NPR Mobile through the Internet, they can use a “click to call” feature, clicking their cursors on links that make the actual audio connection by dialing phone numbers.

This alternative route to NPR Mobile works like automated customer-service phone systems. Users press their keypads to choose programming and put pledge donations on their credit cards.

The mobile project was recently nominated for two Webby awards. A list of the individual station sites and phone numbers is at npr.org/mobile.

NPR partnered with Crisp Wireless, a mobile content management and commerce company, and Commercetel, a telecommunications marketing firm, to build out the automated service.

The software periodically checks participating stations’ designated web addresses and updates the sites and voice databases whenever there’s new content, says Michael Yoch, NPR senior business development manager. An RSS reader grabs stations’ text stories. Crisp Wireless software then updates the stations’ mobile sites and optimizes them for users’ individual devices.

Project developers are still working on a site designed for the iPhone’s more complex navigation scheme, Thomas says. The site should be ready in mid-May.

Thomas launched the beta tests last summer but won’t be at NPR when it goes national in August or later. She leaves NPR May 5 to become c.o.o. for online craft marketplace Etsy.com (Current, April 7).

She recommends that NPR continue to experiment and tweak the service before making it available to the entire system. “It’s very, very early days,” she says.
           
“I’ve been encouraging people here to think of this as a continuous cycle of product development,” she says. “I really think we’ll have multiple product offerings in this area.”
           
By any definition, wireless is already a huge platform and getting bigger.

As of December, more than 84 percent of the U.S. population had wireless service, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. Users logged more than 2 trillion wireless minutes last year, 40 percent more than in 2005. 

The wireless industry last year brought in nearly $139 billion in revenues — more than $23 billion exclusively from wireless data services, a nearly 175 percent increase from two years earlier.

System observers such as Jim Paluzzi, v.p. for new media and technology at Colorado Public Radio, have warned of a time when the ubiquitous handhelds, equipped with access to near-unlimited Internet radio streams, will become serious competitors to pubradio (commentary in Current, Sept. 11, 2006).

While wireless multimedia consumption is still mostly in the early-adopter phase, the sector could surprise traditional broadcasters by “how quickly it starts to steal listeners,” says Skip Pizzi, a Microsoft technologist and contributing editor for Radio World. People are already accustomed to toting the devices, and pent-up demand based on dissatisfaction with radio offerings could make for “not just an early-adopter fringe movement, but more of a large-scale movement,” he says.

“Broadcasters ignore this new market at their own peril,” Pizzi says. “They need to really rethink their offerings toward that sector.”

The NPR project allows stations to let someone else do the rethinking for them, say participants. “It was going to be a while before we could do something like this on our own,” says Rob Gordon, president of Nashville Public Radio. His station is one of those coming aboard in May.

Those that have been involved from the beginning have discovered modest user interest. WAMU’s mobile site has received roughly 104,000 unique visitors since it launched in August, compared to the station’s average weekly broadcast audience of 650,000, according to Kay Summers, public information director.

Overall, all the NPR Mobile sites put together are averaging around 300,000 page views a month.

The number of views increased by more than 50 percent between February and March of this year, according to NPR.

Colorado Public Radio joined the market test in February but will locally test usability and reception for a few more weeks before promoting the service on air, Paluzzi says. The NPR project is a step in the right direction, he says, but he looks forward to a mobile service that includes breaking-news text-message alerts “that really close the loop.”

“It’s great to have user-friendly tools,” he says. “But if someone doesn’t have the thing on or isn’t looking at it at the time, then it’s a tree falling in an empty forest.”

NPR plans to experiment with text alerts for breaking news and other local information such as school closings and weather warnings, Thomas says.                          

Web page posted May 1, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC

EARLIER ARTICLES

New media continue to disrupt the old ones. First cable did it to TV. Now portable digital devices such as cell phones are doing it to radio, writes Jim Paluzzi of Colorado Public Radio.

LINKS

NPR describes its mobile services, including its web and voices services.

Users of Washington's WAMU-FM see a small-screen version of this menu.

In May, the Associated Press launched its own site for mobile users, www.apnews. com.

Crisp Wireless news release on NPR pact. The web company describes its capabilities.

Departing NPR web chief Maria Thomas introduced to her new staff as c.o.o. of a crafts website, Etsy.com.

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