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Nov. 2, 2022, 11:01 a.m.
Business Models

NPR launches a paid podcast bundle, hoping to convert a national audience into local donors

NPR estimates less than 1% of its 20 million weekly digital users give to their local stations.

NPR launched a paid podcast bundle on Tuesday, giving subscribers access to bonus content, ad-free episodes, and other perks from nearly a dozen NPR podcasts including Planet Money, Fresh Air, and Code Switch. To join NPR+, listeners must make a new recurring contribution to their local member station starting at $8/month or $96/year.

Unlike the pilot program that offered single podcast subscriptions, the paid bundle is getting a very soft launch. To start, NPR+ will only be available in the 34 locations where a member station1 is participating in the program. That means listeners with IP addresses that put them in, say, New York City or Boston will only see single show subscriptions available for now, while those living in Orlando or Baltimore or Normal, Illinois can choose the bundled NPR+ option.

A team at NPR developed the NPR+ program and will manage marketing as well as customer service for the bundle. (It’s still not exactly easy to add a paid feed to the most popular podcast app in the U.S.) Member stations, meanwhile, get to keep 100% of the donations.

“We’re reserving our bundle for the benefit of supporting your local member station — that’s really the offer that we’re hoping becomes a resounding success,” said Joel Sucherman, NPR’s vice president for audio platform strategy. “Because, you know, ‘listeners like you’ supporting local member stations, which support NPR — that’s what makes the world go ’round in public radio.”

The podcast bundle has two origin stories. The first starts with die-hard podcast fans asking for bonus content, merch, and other ways to support their favorite show. (“We are a tribe of tote bag people,” Sucherman said at one point.) The other emerged from NPR reading the tea leaves and seeing increased competition and consolidation in the audio space.

“For many of our 50-plus years, our high standard of audio and fact-based journalism was a lane that we had to ourselves in many ways. But over the course of the last five to 10 years, it’s been amazing the number of folks who have jumped into the field and are doing great work — including folks that we never really truly competed against, like The New York Times,” Sucherman said. “What we do differently than The New York Times, or another commercial media company, is realize that we’re in it together.”

An NPR spokesperson said that “tens of thousands” of people subscribed to individual shows as part of the pilot program for NPR+. (Fresh Air and Planet Money were the most popular “singles” offerings.) The pilot phase also confirmed to NPR the importance of bonus content — not just ad-free episodes — in converting listeners into paid subscribers, said Leda Marritz, program manager for the NPR+ podcast subscription service.

“We knew from our technology platform partners that offering bonus content or early access to content is going to move the needle way more than ad-free,” she said. “Having said that, it was very gratifying to see that once we did start doing that, the number of subscribers just immediately started going up.”

NPR+ bonus content has included extended interviews, listener Q&As, and show-specific tidbits like a Planet Money Movie Club and early access to a chatty episode between Peter Sagal and Emma Choi from Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! and their executive producer Mike Danforth.

“We wanted to differentiate bonus content from the core offering, both for philosophical reasons and editorial reasons,” Marritz, who joined NPR earlier this year from Apple Podcasts, said. “Planet Money is a highly polished, highly produced work of art, right? They can’t do that and a piece of bonus content, too. It would just not be achievable on an ongoing basis.”

Marritz emphasized the technical hurdles involved in linking a subscription to a recurring local donation when different stations use different systems to accept payments, share content, and manage donors. For now, Marritz said, NPR is focused on some of the unsexy stuff that’s nevertheless critical to scaling this project to their coast-to-coast vision.

“This is not ‘get rich quick.’ We’re not expecting stratospheric success right out of the gate,” Marritz said. “This group of 34 stations is basically going to be an informal advisory body for this product. We’re obviously going to be staying very close to them, hearing what’s working, hearing what’s not working, triaging those, and addressing them as much as possible.”

The fact that NPR+ subscriptions will only be available to new recurring donors at first was a sticking point for some stations presumably worried about antagonizing current members while recruiting their next generation of donors. NPR heard “loud and clear” from “many, many stations” that they only wanted to offer NPR+ when the technological infrastructure was in place to offer the bundle to their existing members, too.

In addition to the technical hurdles, there are cultural challenges for NPR+ contend with. Radio, NPR’s legacy platform, has long been on the decline. The pandemic accelerated that trend by disrupting many car commutes, where half of AM/FM listening in the U.S. takes place.

“For some stations, moving into a digital-focused strategy is a shift. Many of them still live in the broadcast world, uh, very firmly,” Marritz said. “There’s just a real variety — you get some for whom this feels like a really comfortable program to opt into, and you get some for whom this feels like a much bigger shift from how they’re operating in the day-to-day.”

Asking a national podcast audience to become donors to their local radio stations might seem like a convoluted way to generate subscription revenue. But NPR — for reasons institutional, journalistic, and financial — wants to prioritize local support.

Dues and fees paid by the more than 1,000 NPR member stations are one of NPR’s largest portions of revenue. Currently, member stations are drawing on a donor base that is older and less diverse than America at large. NPR’s own CEO has described the public radio system as “stagnant on new membership” and overly reliant on twice-yearly pledge drives.

Meanwhile, NPR estimates that less than 1% of its 20 million weekly digital users give to their local stations.

“Podcast listeners may or may not be listening to the traditional appeals on the radio,” Sucherman said. “They may not have a favorite radio station — or understand that a public radio station is connected to NPR and connected to the podcasts that NPR creates.”

The NPR+ podcast bundle is just one part of a broader strategy called NPR Network that was approved by the company’s board over the summer. The NPR Network initiative also includes creating a cross-promotional podcast network, launching a digital audio ad exchange, and changing the organization’s bylaws to allow NPR Network to seek individual contributions directly.

With NPR Network, NPR aims to double the number of people who support their local member stations directly and double the total annual revenue in the public radio system by 2030.

“As strong as Marfa, Texas is, that’s how strong NPR is, ultimately,” Sucherman said. “We want to make sure that we have more boots on the ground, more journalists in the field, more regional hubs. How can we think about supporting those in new ways? This is one of those ways.”

Illustration by Irene Rinaldi.

  1. As of Nov. 1st, participating local member stations are CapRadio – Sacramento, CA; Cincinnati Public Radio / WVXU – Cincinnati, OH; Colorado Public Radio – Denver, CO; Georgia Public Broadcasting – Atlanta, GA; Houston Public Media – Houston, TX; Iowa Public Radio – Des Moines, IA; KALW – San Francisco, CA; KENW – Portales, NM; KNKX – Tacoma, WA; KPBS Public Media – San Diego, CA; KUOW – Seattle, WA; KVCR – San Bernardino, CA; Louisville Public Media – Louisville, KY; North Carolina Public Radio – Chapel Hill, NC; North State Public Radio – Chico, CA; KOSU – Stillwater, OK; Prairie Public Broadcasting – Fargo, ND; South Dakota Public Radio – Vermillion, SD; Texas Public Radio – San Antonio, TX; WABE – Atlanta, GA; WCBU – Peoria, IL; WEKU – Richmond, KY; WFYI – Indianapolis, IN; WGLT – Normal, IL; WJCT Public Media – Jacksonville, FL; WKAR Radio – East Lansing, MI; WLVR – Bethlehem, PA; WMFE – Orlando, FL; WNIN Tri-States Public Media – Evansville, IN; WRKF – Baton Rouge, LA; WSKG Public Radio – Vestal, NY; WUSF Public Media – Tampa, FL; WYPR – Baltimore, MD; and WYSO – Yellow Springs, OH ↩︎
POSTED     Nov. 2, 2022, 11:01 a.m.
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