The Secrets of Public Media Embracing Change in the Digital Age

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Sep 07, 2011


For listeners who prefer to take their radio content with them wherever they go, NPR offers apps for mobile including the iPhone and Android devices, which allow users to connect to local NPR public radio station streams and listen live to popular NPR programming. As for tablets, NPR was swift to launch its iPad app in April 2010, a process which Michael Yoch, director of product development for NPR, attributes to the organization's API, which "makes it very easy to distribute this content to pretty much any platform you would want. When we look at a new product opportunity or a new platform such as the iPad, we don't have a lot of upfront work in terms of getting our content ready for it."

NPR competitors APM and PRI have also capitalized on the popularity of mobile. Alisa Miller, CEO of PRI, explains that PRI is "doing everything and more that a media content company should right now. We have an iPad app that is going to be coming out soon," and "we've got a PRI app and a number of show apps for the iPhone." APM provides iPad and iPhone apps and recognizes the different expectations users have when using an app. "We know that the behavior is different when people are accessing the content over apps. They'll spend more time reading and listening and browsing, whereas when they come to the website, they tend to be more focused on trying to get to whatever it was that drew them there," says Joaquin Alvarado, SVP for digital innovation for APM.
In the future, app success could translate into dollar signs for public radio. "The vast majority of radio apps are free," says Jacobs, but public radio could generate an alternate revenue stream "if the app was premised properly as a way to enjoy the content but also to help raise funds for the radio station." Mobile platforms are not exclusive to audio, though. Public radio's visual counterpart, PBS, has embraced apps as well. According to Jayme Swain, senior director of strategic growth for PBS, the BS iPhone and iPad apps now account for 20% of its overall video streams, which run between 4 and 5 million a month. PBS is being vigilant about what will come next for mobile, says Swain, acknowledging that "apps are very popular now, but mobile web is something we need to think about more."

Just like video has been a staple for PBS, podcasts have continued to be a successful platform for public radio and most
likely will not see a decline in popularity anytime soon. NPR's Yoch says, "We have a massive number of podcast downloads per month. That's probably in the 15 million download range," while APM's Alvarado explains, "Our audience has enjoyed the timeshifting aspects of it. There's a deep affinity between the listeners and the shows that they love, and podcasting has been a great bridge to capture people outside of the broadcast realm."

In hopes of better reaching internet users, each public radio organization offers the ability to stream content on the web, though according to "The State of the News Media 2011" report, in the last 4 years the number of Americans who listen to AM/FM radio on their computers by streaming a station's regular programming decreased by 8 percentage points. For this, public radio may have mobile to blame. "Internet streaming on people's computers is declining because people are streaming on other devices. People are going to begin doing more of this on their tablets and on their smartphones," says Rosenstiel.


Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have changed the relationship between listener and broadcaster from a one-way conversation to an open dialogue. "Radio has a wonderful opportunity to share in the social media experience, but it also has to make sure that its social media channels are congruent with what listeners want. That means not just posting programming notes, but engaging in dialogue with consumers," says Jacobs. With this, public media is on the right track. NPR's social media strategy, according to Yoch, focuses on "delivering editorial content and creating editorial content. We are really treating it as a way to connect with people who care about NPR and connecting them to each other." Similarly, PRI is "leveraging and using Facebook not as just a presentation platform but as a platform for conversation and engaging people," says Miller. "The more intense someone is engaging with you, the
more likely it is that they are really comprehending and understanding the content." APM's Alavarado highlights the advantages of having a social media presence, noting that "Facebook is different than everything else that ever happened, but we've been quick to try to explore and mine that as a base for the work that we do."

On the visual end of the spectrum, PBS has used the ubiquity of social media to better understand its audience's needs. In a survey of its Facebook fans and Twitter followers, PBS found that one thing people wanted to see more of on these sites was video, and to remedy this, PBS has now incorporated pushing video content onto social media sites such as YouTube into its digital content strategy. PBS' video portal ( is also socially equipped, says Swain, citing that it "does allow for sharing and social embedding," something she believes is "very important for us to extend our mission and reach as many people as possible with our content."

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