Wilson and others acknowledge that the tension between the traditional radio mission and the digital future still exists within the NPR newsroom, and in NPR’s relationships with its stations. “One of the reasons the transition to new platforms is hard here is because of the dedication to craftsmanship. NPR online is not as perfect or honed as NPR on the radio,” said Dick Meyer, NPR’s executive editor, who described the newsroom as “mostly like a giant workshop of craftsmen who are incredibly devoted to old-world values and new-world goals and visions.”
Melissa Block, co-host of All Things Considered, said the “workload has shifted dramatically” as NPR produces radio programs “that have tentacles in the digital realm.” Although online components of radio pieces can be fun, interesting, and helpful in producing the story, Block said, “last time I checked, no more hours have been added in a day.”
“My fear is that we neglect radio,” she added, even though it’s the radio audience that has doubled in the past decade. “We can’t forget what our engine is as we reach out to the new world.”
Wilson said the successful launch of NPR’s iPhone app in August 2009 is easing radio-digital tensions a bit, especially because the format emphasizes listening to radio reports instead of handing off a script to a Web team to rewrite a story for a text-based site. As for stations’ fears that audiences will bypass them to get to their favorite shows directly from NPR, Wilson said he has directed his development teams to keep member station needs foremost in their minds as they work on new applications. For example, Wilson estimated that at least 25 percent of mobile traffic is going to member stations’ pages that offer streaming audio, so those listeners can be counted in the stations’ online traffic totals. Any podcasts of flagship shows like All Things Considered will use the local station version of that program, including the local content. Launching those podcasts has been delayed by the need to get rights to the bits of music stitched in between each story, Schiller said.
As mobile extends public radio’s traditional drive-time audience, Wilson sees opportunity for huge growth. “Mobile is the ideal platform for audio and NPR is the unquestioned leader in the news space in terms of audio,” he said. Wilson cited statistics showing that NPR’s mobile traffic increased nearly tenfold after the iPhone app launched, and that mobile users spend an average of fourteen minutes each time they open the NPR app, considerably more than Web users do.
Social media has become another hot spot for NPR and all of public radio, with its intensely loyal audiences. Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition Saturday, has more than 1.3 million people following him on Twitter. He usually has a running stream of tweets on Saturday mornings. “Read the transcript of Rev. Robertson on Haiti, seeming to blame quake on pact w/ devil. Can he still be called a man of God?” he tweeted on January 15. “There’s every reason for us to be in the advance of this,” Simon said in an interview. “It’s communication. It’s what we do.”