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NPR receives grants to create seamless listening across platforms

NPR logoNational Public Radio has received millions in grants that it will use to build a “seamless local-national listening platform,” the network announced today. The new mobile app will provide on-demand access to local station content combined with national programming, allowing listeners to create playlists. The point is to let listeners move from the car to the office or home without losing their place in their programs.

Knight Foundation is providing part of the money to support this effort. In its own announcement, the foundation describes the app’s goals clearly:

“But what if you could take the story with you as you walk inside your home, from one device to another? What if you could continue listening in the hallway, the living room, the kitchen? And what if you could opt to listen to more stories like that story, just like you can select music on Pandora.”

Six local stations are partners in the project: KPCC Southern California Public Radio; KQED Public Radio San Francisco; Minnesota Public Radio (MPR); WBUR Boston; WHYY Philadelphia; and WNYC New York. Additional funding comes from the the Gates Foundation and three individual gifts.

Charles Kravetz, general manager of WBUR, told the New York Times, "this app is clearly, we think, going to be very appealing to younger consumers of our content… It is a play to take control of our own content and to control the platform and delivery system as much as we can.”

I think this is an important step for public radio in order to provide a coherent listening experience for listeners who want public radio content without being confined to the radio broadcast. Right now a listener has to either subscribe to podcasts, navigate individual station websites, go to the NPR website or use the Public Radio Player. All of these methods work to some extent, but some are better suited for on demand, while others are better for live.

Many local stations have been reticent about NPR’s online plans because they’re afraid of losing their local listener donor base. Those fears are not unfounded, and NPR has worked to address them, especially with a recent website redesign that automatically localizes users to their local NPR affiliate.

But public radio, as a whole, is seeing growth in ways that commercial radio is not. Not coincidentally, NPR and public radio stations in general have been forward looking in terms of making radio programs available online, along with creating original digital-only programming and content that supplements and enhances broadcasts. Many stations have also used their web presence to experiment with new types of programming at a lower cost and risk compared to producing broadcast shows.

The next step is making this easier for the listener to access, without having to visit multiple sites and platforms to do it. In many ways this is the same thing Clear Channel is attempting with iHeartRadio. The crucial difference is that while iHeartRadio has hundreds of stations and shows, there’s less variety, originality and true localism than in the NPR universe. Choosing from amongst 30 hit country stations across different markets is barely a choice. Public Radio leads in having popular, compelling national shows that are also topping podcast charts, along with programs of both local and national interest being produced at affiliate stations.

While this is a potentially critical move for NPR, we need to see this kind of experience created for community and college radio. The recently announced Radio Free America may be the ticket, though funding and station buy-in will certainly be challenges.

We’ll keep watching what happens with this NPR effort. It will provide lessons that rest of radio had better learn from.

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