He talked to Schiller about his frustrations and she agreed that the ad-hoc nature of Planet Money’s existence had to end. They set up a two-hour meeting in her office—scheduled in back-to-back, half-hour increments—with each department that needed to weigh in. For example, the finance department figured out how to move the team’s funding to the permanent budget, and the general counsel committed to working out the specific legal relationship with This American Life.
“I think everyone left the meeting feeling like they had been heard,” said Davidson. He recalled Schiller’s words as she closed discussion on one contentious issue after another: “Done and done.” He was stunned.
Before Schiller’s arrival, Davidson said, management had sent out several pronouncements on how the staff had to get on board with new initiatives, embrace technology changes, work in a different way. “We were sort of culture-change-fatigued,” he said. But in Schiller’s first year, “the real culture change I’ve seen is amazing.”
Just a few months after Schiller’s arrival, Fast Company magazine dubbed NPR “the most successful hybrid of old and new media,” quite a compliment after many acrimonious starts and stops in the digital realm. NPR went from nowhere in digital media to one of the savviest users of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, to providing apps for phones that run on the Android program, to producing the popular Web sites NPR.org and NPR.org/music, and to building a digital infrastructure that allows member stations and members of the public to pick up NPR content and weave it seamlessly into their own Web sites and playlists.
“We were slow to the game,” said Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s senior vice president and general manager for digital media, who was hired in October 2008 from his position as executive editor at USA Today. He said NPR is not attempting to play catchup to build a portal-like news Web site; rather, it’s creating digital media infused with NPR’s sensibility, available on multiple devices. Using a $1.5 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, awarded in September 2007, NPR is putting its entire newsroom of 334 journalists, plus another fifty or so staffers, through extensive digital training, ranging from two-day sessions to in-depth, five-week programs.
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.