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.”
To support member stations in building their own Web sites, NPR secured a total of $3 million in grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Knight Foundation to fund a pilot project—involving a dozen or more stations—in which each station will create digital content on a specific topic. Wilson is spearheading the project, dubbed “Argo” for the mythological Jason and the Argonauts who searched for a golden fleece. Although final agreements with the stations aren’t yet signed, the funding should pay for one or two new hires at each station’s Web site, who will focus on creating blogs and curating content around a specific topic. Oregon Public Broadcasting, for instance, will focus on building out more content about the outdoors and the environment, said Bass, the CEO there. WAMU will focus on societal divisions over race, gender, age, education, socioeconomic status, and the like. The idea is to make each station’s Web site a center for unique and deep content that can be promoted across NPR’s platforms. The reporting from each station will both enhance national stories done by NPR reporters and also bolster local stories with national examples.
WNYC’s Walker is participating in Argo and credits Schiller with creating “new ways of partnering that are about the whole system,” and not just NPR-focused. “It’s in NPR’s interest as well as our interest to help newsrooms around the country become stronger,” Walker said. “In this world, public media should band together as partners. We’re all too small to do this alone.”