Terry Gross knows radio. Her 45-minute interviews with newsmakers and cultural icons are great radio. WHYY’s Fresh Air, which turns 25 this year, reaches about 5 million listeners per week on NPR.
But Terry Gross does not know social media. She readily admits it. And until she hired Melody Joy Kramer, Fresh Air’s web presence was, well, stale. The Twitter account auto-tweeted headlines from an RSS feed. Audio was posted online with dreadfully unshareable one-paragraph summaries.
“We’re so obsessed with producing our radio show, that until we hired Melody, we did our best to ignore our website and had no social media presence,” Gross told me. “She quickly made us aware of what we’d been missing.”
Kramer had given up a coveted writing gig at NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! — where she also managed Carl Kassel’s Facebook page and shared in a Peabody Award (not sure which one is cooler) — to take the job as Fresh Air’s first (and, still, only) web producer in January 2010.
Fresh Air’s unique visitors in January 2012 grew by 40 percent over the year before, 60 percent over 2010.
Today it’s one of the fastest-growing public-radio shows on the web. Kramer, 27, slowly and single-handedly built a huge following by approaching the job as a digital native, a citizen of the community she wanted to reach. She figured out how to turn radio stories into conversations.
The @nprfreshair account, managed solely by @mkramer, has 70,000 followers (up from 3,800 before she started), neck-and-neck with the venerable This American Life. Fresh Air’s much-celebrated Tumblr has attracted more than 60,000 followers since she created it a year-and-a-half ago.
What is Kramer’s secret? How can we be so popular? Apparently, there is no secret, or at least she pretends there isn’t one. Kramer is anti-strategy. She does what feels right, not what “social-media optimization” tells her to do.
“I think I just know how to talk to people,” Kramer told me. “I enjoy working here. I enjoy reading the books on the show, I watch the movies, I am a fan as much as I am an employee. I’m passing things along because I enjoy them,” Kramer said.
This tweet has been tweaked extensively for ‘user engagement.’
— mkramer (@mkramer) February 14, 2012
She dislikes the Olympian detachment of so many “institutional” Twitter accounts. @nprfreshair tweets are usually written in the first person. She is irreverent. She makes fun of social media while being really good at it. Sometimes she tweets 20 times in an hour; sometimes she’ll get busy and ignore Twitter for half the day.
“No one’s looking over my shoulder and saying, ‘Oh, make sure you talk about this, make sure you use these buzzwords, make sure you get in this keyword’,” she said. “I had initial meetings with them at first, where we kind of had to say, you know, this is a different medium. This isn’t the radio. It can be a little looser.”
“I can’t say that I give her much direction,” Gross said. “I actually rely on her to tell me what direction she thinks we should head in.”
In April 2010, Gross told The Atlantic’s John Hudson:
I’m not on Facebook and I’m not on Twitter. I feel like I really should be but I don’t think I have time for it. Also with Twitter, the way it scrolls and keeps scrolling, it kind of drives me crazy. I feel like I have so many inputs in my brain and my brain is so overloaded with information to see that scrolling by I’m just like “stop.”
Actually, I learned Gross does have a secret Twitter account. You would never know it’s hers if you stumbled on it. (Kramer won’t give it up. Sorry.)
Kramer said her boss occasionally needs Twitter as a research tool like any other. “Like we had David Carr on the show, and he’s a prolific tweeter, and part of the research on David Carr is looking at David Carr’s Twitter feed. If you miss that angle on David Carr, you miss part of the way that you’re going to interview David Carr.”
Most of Kramer’s job is not social media — she views that as kind of a side project — but writing. She writes everything for the website. Every headline, link, teaser, and caption is hers. She prepares magazine-style writethrus and highlights of every interview, not transcripts.
The effort is driving big traffic to the Fresh Air website. Unique visitors in January 2012 grew by 40 percent over the year before — twice as fast as NPR’s flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered — according to Sondra Russell, a senior digital analyst at NPR. Uniques grew by 60 percent over January 2010, the month Kramer started. Today the Fresh Air website attracts roughly 1 million people per month.
There’s plenty of material. She’s writing about yoga one day, India another day, Louis C.K. another. In one week alone Gross interviewed Matthew Weiner, Rachel Maddow, and Paul McCartney. (The job does amazing things for her pub trivia career, she says.)
“Rather than simply broadcasting NPR Fresh Air’s sensibility to a Tumblr audience, she is an active participant in that culture.”
Every guest and topic drives the day’s conversation on social media. As Kramer transcribes interviews, every nugget that catches her ear is a chance for a new piece of content, a tiny treasure on the Tumblr. There was an animated GIF of a younger McCartney doing magic, a fan video of “Let It Be” on ukulele, a great pull quote from the interview.
“She really gets Tumblr culture, and rather than simply broadcasting NPR Fresh Air’s sensibility to a Tumblr audience, she is an active participant in that culture,” said Mark Coatney, a Tumblr employee whose job is to work with journalists.
“When a big media company comes to your space, and shows that they love it and understand it as much as you do, that’s incredibly powerful,” Coatney said.
Case in point: Kramer’s Tumblr post promoting an interview with Aziz Ansari. One animated GIF of Tom Haverford doing that funny face he makes, one line: “Will he get Terry Gross to say tatties again?” (
317 453 notes on that post.)
Kramer makes a point to engage with listeners directly. “People write in and say, ‘We’re so glad this is a person,’” Kramer said. Tumblr users can “ask her anything” — Can I come watch your Paul McCartney interview? Why am I having trouble with the podcast on iTunes? — and she’ll post the answer. She monitors four screens at her desk to keep up.
“When I worked at Wait Wait, every week we taped in front of a live studio audience, and I had the audience directly in front of me, and if the joke that I wrote failed, I knew it immediately. It’s really nice to have the kind of instantaneous feedback that the social-media networks provide,” Kramer said.
“People who grew up with computers and iPods never made radio-listening a habit, and podcasts are the only way they’re ever likely to hear our show.”
“Because 14 of us in an office — we’re in a way removed from the people who listen to the show. … So it’s a way to connect with people who want to engage with the show, and it’s also a way for the show to feel engaged with the audience.”
Gross said the show is getting a return on that investment. “I’m confident that as a result of the social media presence she’s established, we’ve expanded the number of people in their twenties who podcast our program. So many people who grew up with computers and iPods never made radio-listening a habit, and podcasts are the only way they’re ever likely to hear our show,” she said.
Apple’s iTunes named Fresh Air the best audio podcast of 2011. “Mel refuses to take any credit for this, but I think so many people who podcast us found us through the work she does,” Gross said.
Fresh Air developed a loyal following by producing great content for years. It could be that Kramer found a latent community of listeners, waiting to be engaged. Kramer is just the only one doing it.
“The thing that I worry about is that I think the social-media accounts for Fresh Air are very tied to me,” Kramer said. “I would like to see more voices on here, so, you know, if I were to ever leave the show the social media wouldn’t falter.”
Sounds suspiciously strategic.
Photo of Melody Joy Kramer by Sam Briger.