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July 28, 2014, 10 a.m.
Mobile & Apps
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The newsonomics of NPR One and the dream of personalized public radio

The new app from NPR promises to learn from what you like and serve up a never-ending buffet of news and content. What’ll be the impact on local stations?

Wouldn’t it be cool if public radio fans could get to all their stuff in one simple app? Stuff from Morning Edition, Fresh Air, Here & Now, All Things Considered — and their local station. It would know what we want to hear even before we know it’s out there, bringing it all to us in real time and no cost. It’s a vision that might complete the transition of turning the phone into a virtual digital radio — and it would work on a tablet, a laptop, and even in certain connected cars.

That’s the dream of NPR’s new NPR One app. It’s out of beta in soft launch today, and you can test drive it for yourself in the iOS and Android stores. NPR One begins to achieve that vision, even as a work in progress. Of course, its dream is a common one online, the fevered hope of masterful, personalized curation aggregating the best of the best. We’ve seen that in news (Google News, Yahoo News, AP Mobile), in magazines (Flipboard), in music (iTunes, Spotify, Pandora), movies and TV (Netflix, Hulu). Now NPR wants to lead the pack in public radio news listening.

NPR One is a listening hub. You won’t find the text stories there that were foregrounded in NPR’s 2010 iPad app. That carousel of news and audio seemed to redefine public radio as a news provider when it launched; now we see that it expanded boundaries but didn’t transform the landscape.

NPR One is also all about news, drawing much of its content from NPR’s tentpoles, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. The new app offers these programs’ segments — about 40 of them are produced each day — over the top, meaning not directly through local stations’ broadcasts or streams. Morning Edition and ATC spur much of the economy of public radio, and that direct-to-consumer distribution is a bit unsettling to some of America’s 897 NPR member stations. To accommodate those concerns, stations’ own identities and participation in the project are part of its fabric. (The name evokes both global references — think BBC Radio One or CBC Radio One — and unity in a sometimes fractured public radio world.)

“It’s a one-touch, fire-and-forget news listening experience,” sums up Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s chief content officer and a former top editor at USA Today. Adds Zach Brand, vice president of digital media, “We have put together the best newsmagazine for you at the moment you want to listen.” (The DNA of NPR’s earlier experimental Infinite Player is clearly in the new app; the old Infinite Player URL now redirects to NPR One.)

Can NPR One breakthrough the noise of web and become a go-to first screen app for millions of public radio lovers, beating the fast-growing commercial competition to the punch and becoming the go-to place for spoken news? And will it push the well-worn politics and uneasy local/national/local relationships within public radio to boil anew — or can they be kept on simmer?

These aren’t abstract questions. Just as Americans are quickly trading in newsprint for pixels, they are trading broadcast listening time for streaming. Check out the chart below, and we can see that movement (click to enlarge).

npr-chart-doctor

The number of monthly unique visitors to NPR.org is equal to its weekly listenership of 27 million, though the listeners spend far more time than the readers. Note that the usage of the news apps, phone and tablet, adds another million monthly unique visitors. That’s still a relative small percentage of the total; changes in media habits are both dramatic and still happening more slowly than many might think. It’s a significantly younger audience on smartphone — 13 years younger than the radio audience and six years younger than the NPR.org audience.

At Boston’s WBUR, one of the six public radio stations (the others: WNYC, WHYY, KQED, KPCC, and Minnesota Public Radio) that directly collaborated with NPR on the new app, streaming now amounts to 10 to 15 percent of the overall audience. Midday is where streaming is strongest, when most folks are at work, says WBUR director of news and programming Sam Fleming. “But clearly younger members of our audience — under 35 — are just as often streaming as listening to the radio.” To be clear, it’s that mobile audience, national and local, that’s the future. “WBUR’s digital audience is now 40 percent mobile phones — a number that grows by double digits every year. We expect it to exceed 50 percent by the end of 2014. NPR’s digital audience is already 50 percent mobile — which is one reason we both believe NPR One is so important.”

It’s a revolution that’s parallel to Spotify’s and Pandora’s — and indeed one key goal of NPR One is adapt lessons from those apps to audio news.

NPR One is free. It’s audio-only. It’s personalized, requiring a sign-in that enables that on-the-fly customizing, equipped with its own recommendation engine.

Most of the programming is national, with local to be increasingly added in. But local branding is front and center, displaying the call letters of your local station prominently. That’s the awkward balance: NPR is sending its content directly to listeners, potentially bypassing the stations and their earlier quasi-monopoly in bringing it to us. The local branding is the tradeoff. Like all tradeoffs, it won’t be exactly 50-50, but the share of benefits to NPR national (which has been afflicted with staff cutbacks) and to the local stations (which are generally healthier financially, with memberships accounting for more than half their revenue) is impossible to forecast at this point.

The big idea of NPR One is to go after the millions of casual public radio listeners — and not the other millions already keenly habituated to public radio listening. NPR figures that’s where the real battle is with the commercial curators — the iHeartRadios, the Stitchers, the Slackers, and the Swells. (Swell, which Apple seems ready to buy.) It’s a top-of-the-funnel play, aiming to customers into the public radio fold — and public media economic ecosystem — before other audio curators can grab and monetize them. The first-screen inclusion of the local public radio station call letters is part of that strategy: Bring in the casuals, burn the local station in their minds, and then go for membership dues.

If NPR One is a big consumer aggregation play, what’s under the hood may turn out to be as significant long-term.

“The product is just the first manifestation of what can be built on the underlying platform, and that platform is available to everyone in the public radio system,” says Wilson. Translation: All the technology-building that NPR’s been up to will enable a smoother flow of network content for all kinds of product packaging by individual stations and other producers. Further, such mundane but essential functions as identity, customer relationship management, billing, facilitating of credit card transactions, and more will be part of the new system. Much of the robustness of U.S. public radio has been built on voluntary membership. Those 3.5 million members are gold, contributing $450 million in annual revenue. The next big question, though: What does paying digital membership look like, and how does it work?

Listen to the platform rollout order of NPR One, and you see how the desktop is receding as as a priority. In order, Wilson’s platform priority: 1. smartphone; 2. connected car (NPR believes it will have a dozen agreements in this area within a year); 3. connected home (including TVs and audio receivers); 4. tablet; 5. desktop.

The app is intended to be dead simple, all about the flow of stories. Its simplicity means that it may frustrate some of us — especially those of much more deeply conversant with the wider riches of public radio content — who may want a product with more control, more switchability, more choice, more ability to bring up The Moth, Dinner Party Download, or This American Life when we’ve had it with the news of the day. But we’re not the target of of NPR One.

Open the app, sign in and you hear its opening pitch: “Public radio made personal”, intoned by distinctive NPR anchor (and former Nieman Fellow) Guy Raz.

The app starts with the latest five-minute national newscast, then starts playing. We get basic clues of segment provenance: names of programs/topics appearing on most stories, though some categorization seems in and out. You can click “interesting” to tell the algorithm that you want more stories like that one, but can’t (yet) do a Pandora-like thumbs down.

The app’s content is evolving. At this point, it’s mainly NPR-produced material, so that means you won’t find APM’s Marketplace and This American Life in the product. How much of that kind of content makes it way into the new product will depend on contractual talks in the months ahead. How much local news content will NPR One listeners find? Kinsey Wilson figures that about 55 percent of users will find some local content. If your default station produces it, it will make its way into the product. If not, you can always place-shift to another station, nearby or across the country.

The nation’s biggest public radio stations, too, have the talent and innovation chops to compete in this streaming sweepstakes, and that’s part of the trend to watch here. Take a look at the impressive Discover function within WNYC’s smartphone app and you see NPR One-like thinking. Launched four months ago, it offers a personalized experience, a pick-your-listening-period timer (say, 20 minutes) and lots of public radio content well beyond what the station produces. That includes public radio news and feature content, but even more intriguingly, content from The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker. So we can see the kind of bridge-building and boundary-breaking that this next wave of public media apps may offer. Why The New Yorker? WNYC knows its audience, so it’s searching out best-in-breed audio content from non-public radio traditional places.

“It’s a tailored listening experience,” says Thomas Hjelm, chief digital officer for New York Public Radio, WNYC’s parent.

WNYC, a leader in listenership, has been on innovation overdrive. Laura Walker, CEO of New York Public Radio, is a force, and, interestingly, she’s just been appointed to the Tribune Company board. Jim Schachter, who led numerous New York Times newsroom innovations, joined the station as two years ago as vice president for news.

Discover seems like such a potential breakthrough that WNYC is considering breaking it out as a separate app from the WNYC app itself.

KPCC, or Southern California Public Radio, has also built out its own direct-to-consumer plays (“The newsonomics of public radio’s all-in-one tablet strategy”), as have several other bigger operations.

Then there’s PRX Remix, one of the latest offerings of PRX (“Can’t stop, won’t stop: PRX introduces an app for unending audio storytelling”). It bears a certain similarity to WNYC’s Discover and NPR One, but it’s focused more on storytelling than news.

PRX executive director Jake Shapiro recently got some ink from being part of Ira Glass’ This American Life’s new business model launch. He has built a major source of independent audio and is moving PRX from a generally B2B to both a B2B and B2C operation, with innovations like the new Radiotopia podcast network and Remix.

In both PRX Remix and Discover, we can see great and growing — perhaps competitive, perhaps complementary — public radio curation ferment.

Why now? Shapiro says there’s always been a glut of public radio content. “We have about 60,000 programs in our catalog” — then add in iTunes’ 250,000 podcasts and 20 million tracks on Spotify. Public radio glut sounds a lot like news text infinity. But on radio, there are at most 168 hours to fill. In the glut of news and information, there’s lots of opportunity for editors and algorithms, algorithms and producers to do some sorting for us.

Storytelling and news is just one of the curious dyads that has to be thought through as the public radio morphs into public media which morphs into streaming public audio. Consider these pairings and you come away with a new appreciation of the complexities involved here — and ones that mirror many of the challenges in the news, magazine, and TV broadcast businesses as well as they chart futures in product development.

News vs. features / Public media news is of growing importance to us, but sometimes we need a break from the carnage of the day. The diversity of programming — music, arts, interviews and more — is what makes public radio unique. Sometimes we want to move from one to the other, and we’d like to do it as effortlessly as possible.

News vs. storytelling / The web has rebirthed an incredible storytelling culture, led by the likes of The Moth. Audio streaming and offline play are a perfect use of our new smartphone radios. Here, too, we may want to toggle back and forth between news and storytelling.

Segments vs. whole programs / Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you feel like a whole bag. Linear podcasts can be a good time investment for shows we like, but finding just the best or right segment can be a great disaggregated bonus of digital curation.

Streaming vs. podcasts / Podcasts, an old form, have taken on a new life with wireless broadband. It’s a sturdy form, and as inviting for some as streaming.

Local vs. national / The eternal question, reborn in another arena. We want both, in differing proportions at differing times — and depending on the volume of real local news.

Audio vs. text / Can NPR escape its sound-only roots? Should it? It’s added lots of text to its digital presence, but still seeks to balance the two — and figure out where the greater audience/market may be.

Loyal vs. newbie / Many of the public radio’s millions of weekly listeners are addicted. Do you focus on better serving them as they transition to streaming? Or do you focus on the casual, would-be listeners before other aggregators snatch them away?

That’s a profound set of issues. It’s one that’s parallel to the kinds of decisions that other new product makers are noodling, including NYT Now, which decided on the three things it would do for its younger, mobile target audience: briefings, top news, and curation of other top news products. (Is that the new holy trinity of digital products?)

What will be listening to in three years, and through what? That’s the question of for movers and model-shakers in public media. Public media isn’t so much an ecosystem as a scattershot map. Like most forms of media, it evolved into its current patterns, its culture and its dot placement, haphazardly. Now digital disruption has come to call — later than for newspapers and magazines, but insistently nonetheless.

While “NPR” may seem like one thing to many of its listeners, it’s incredibly diverse, and the resulting map is full of politics and conflicting interests. Those mega-stations like WNYC and KPCC (which just claimed a potentially lucrative Santa Barbara territory) certainly want to chart their futures. Most of the hundreds of smaller and small stations around the country are pass-throughs or barely more, licensing all that programming and resending it to their local area customers. They’ve come to believe — as local newspapers once believed — that they “own” their listenerships. They don’t, and NPR One is just one of what will be many earthquakes reshaping their fundamental relationships with both listeners and underwriters. (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a major funder of public media, too, is rethinking its approach. Just this week, it promoted Bruce Theriault to its new position of senior vice president for radio and journalism. In that role, he’ll be newly responsible for all CPB journalism funding initiatives.)

For the news-reading public, this is more than a curious industry to watch. Public radio — the best of the news-producing radio, NPR and a dozen or so top “stations” — are close cousins to newspapers in how they approach the news business. Advertisers (or underwriters) don’t exert much sway over content, and the without-fear-or-favor creed of the newspaper industry drives public radio news thinking. News creation growth has been haphazard, but moving in the right direction. Aggressive KPCC’s newsroom, now with over 100 staffers, for instance, offers a noteworthy challenge to the ongoing chaos of southern California newspapering (“The newsonomics of the death and life of California news”).

The issues are real within “the system,” as public radio people like to call their world. That doesn’t mean, though, those issues should be allowed to minimize innovation or to blunt its impact. The faster public media gets its collective acts together, the better for everyone.

POSTED     July 28, 2014, 10 a.m.
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