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March 10, 2015, 11:39 a.m.
Business Models

Putting on a show: How NPR is retooling its events strategy

“Because of the criticisms we’ve heard from stations and the results that we saw, we’re re-analyzing our approach.”

Last October, as part of NPR Presents, NPR’s nationwide events series, Morning Edition host David Greene and Planet Money correspondent Robert Smith hosted an engaging and lively event on financial planning in Lexington, Kentucky.

NPR and WUKY, the local station in Lexington, hoped to draw an audience of 200 to the event, but only about 80 people showed up. The reason for the light attendance? That same night, WUKY was also sponsoring a concert in a nearby town, Tom Godell, the station’s general manager told me.

“We had part of our audience at this concert in Richmond, Kentucky, and we had part of our audience in Lexington,” Godell said. “We were trying to promote both of those on the air at the same time.”

NPR launched NPR Presents last spring after piloting some events in late 2013, and while many of the events have been well received, the logistics and planning processes haven’t gone as smoothly, according to people at both NPR and member stations. And as an increasing number of news organizations turn toward live events as potential sources of revenue generation, NPR’s experience underscores the importance of proper behind-the-scenes planning.

“Some of the live events that we’ve done have gone badly,” NPR CEO Jarl Mohn told Current in a February interview. “Because of the criticisms we’ve heard from stations and the results that we saw, we’re reanalyzing our approach. We believe, deeply and strongly, that working with member stations to produce live events is a very important part of our business strategy. We’re going to learn from our mistakes and improve.”

In Lexington, NPR told WUKY a month or so before that it was planning on holding the event there, and by then it had already selected a venue and a date, which it said couldn’t change — creating the conflict. Similarly, in November, NPR partnered with Seattle’s KUOW to produce Water±, a theatrical show directed by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon discussing water usage and conservation. Caryn Mathes, KUOW’s general manager, said editorially the show was a success, as NPR emphasized local Seattle-focused content along with the national show that toured the country. Still, Mathes said that there were logistical difficulties, though NPR was receptive to feedback and solicited constructive criticism in order to improve future events.

“Lead time/planning was poor, as was timely decision-making on everything from contracting the venue to the startup of online ticket sales,” she wrote in an email.

“KUOW’s experience with this pilot run was challenging, but NPR has documented what they learned and there is strong evidence of them ‘hearing’ their station partners. I’m very pleased with that.”

One change NPR has made is committing to a minimum of a 12-week planning process to get the member stations involved earlier to choose dates, venues, and topics that are mutually beneficial to both the network and the stations.

Last month, NPR put on its latest NPR Presents event in Miami. Planning and promotion of that event, a panel discussion on immigration led by Michel Martin, began in December.

“By mid-December, we had guests booked, which meant we were in a perfect position to begin to promote the event and to draw audience to a February 24th experience,” Emma Carrasco, NPR’s chief marketing officer and vice president for audience development, told me. “That is just not something we had been in the position to do when we first launched, but we turned the corner on that front.”

Carrasco took over running NPR Presents in December after the executive overseeing the events program left the network, and she said NPR is looking to expand the number and type of events it produces.

During its first year, NPR produced a number of different types of events, from Water± to discussion-based events led by Martin touching on everything from the concussion crisis in football to diversity on Broadway. The network is now looking at other types of events as well as ways to combine them. For instance, Carrasco suggested that NPR may bring together NPR Presents events with some of its comedy or arts shows, like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, which frequently tape live in cities around the country.

New York-NPR event

“[There are] things that are already taking place, and is there a chance to look at scheduling them, as an example, as a way that allows the listener to interact with more than one of their favorite shows over a short period of time, potentially over the weekend?” Carrasco said. “We’re talking about that right now.”

As both the stations and NPR look to diversify their revenue streams, events are seen as an integral part of their future business plans. Many local stations already put on their own events in their markets, but the NPR Presents events are seen as an opportunity to draw in audiences with the the NPR brand and the cachet of the national hosts.

For NPR Presents, NPR and the participating stations split the revenue from the events, but the network works with the stations to provide additional opportunities to interact with members and station donors. NPR’s Water± show debuted in New Orleans last October, and the night before the performance, the station held a dinner for its board members and some donors to meet Michele Norris, who hosted the show, and other NPR and station staff members.

“Michele Norris was wonderful with our folks,” WWNO general manager Paul Maassen said. “When we do an event, we’ll have a public event…and just because of space constraints, we’ll have a dinner or breakfast that will be an invite kind of thing. They augment each other. It’s very nice.”

And despite the challenges of the early shows, member stations say they’re eager to participate again with NPR Presents. Next month, NPR is going back to New Orleans and it’s also planning on stopping in Detroit soon, where it also put on its water show last fall.

Maassen said NPR has been communicative throughout the planning process not only regarding logistical matters, but in terms of the editorial content as well. The event in New Orleans, which will be hosted by Martin, will focus on education in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and NPR wanted to ensure that they include local expertise of New Orleans’ school system while also incorporating a national perspective, Maassen said.

“The concept is pretty neat, taking the power of the national hosts and the content and mixing it with some localism and things that are unique to this area, or wherever it happens to be, to really connect real firmly with the audience,” Maassen said.

Photo of NPR Presents Water± on November 8, 2014 in Washington, D.C by Paul Morigi/AP Images for NPR. Photo of Michele Martin leading “A Broader Way,” NPR Presents’ event on diversity on Broadway, by Lance Rosenfield.

POSTED     March 10, 2015, 11:39 a.m.
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