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NPR One App Represents a Possible Future for Podcasting

Podcasts are really just on-demand audio. However, the medium debuted in the period before nearly-ubiquitous wireless data and wifi. That’s the historical reason why it still relies heavily on downloading, rather than simply streaming programs from the internet like video platforms, such as YouTube, Hulu and Netflix. Of course, it’s also because audio files are much smaller than video, making them easier and more economical to download rather than stream.

Because of the growing availability of bandwidth nearly anywhere streaming is slowly taking over podcasting. This is being driven by smartphone apps that are designed to make podcasts easier to browse and listen to on the go, rather than having to download them at home, in advance.

NPR One is the newest entry in this category, providing a simple-to-use on-demand stream of public radio programming. Unlike many other apps, NPR One isn’t designed around browsing and searching. Rather, when you start it up and press play it just starts delivering stories. The interactive features are minimalist–you can pause, skip forward and mark stories as “interesting,” which is basically indicating that you’d like to hear more stuff like that.

You can swipe left to go back and re-listen to a story, or swipe forward to see what is coming up, with the option of jumping directly to a queued story. If you sign in to the app then NPR One keeps track of what you’ve heard to both select stories you might like, and also make sure you don’t hear the same story twice.

There is a search function, but it’s relatively limited. When you select the search icon the app shows recommendations before you even enter anything. You can search on keywords or show names, but don’t expect to do any binge listening to deep archives of your favorite shows. At most a search on a particular show will deliver only a few segments or episodes, biased toward newer content.

It’s almost a cliché to say that NPR One is the Pandora of public radio, but I’d argue that it’s more true for this app than any I’ve used before. That’s because it focuses on streaming individual stories and segments instead of full shows or podcasts. The segments range from a couple of minutes up to a quarter-hour or more. But in my short time using the app, most of the stories streamed by NPR One averaged around 5 minutes each–about the same length as a segment on All Things Considered or Morning Edition. That length isn’t too different from a rock or pop song that one might stream on Pandora.

NPR One really is a Pandora / public radio mashup, especially since it customizes your content feed based upon your likes (there is no “uninteresting” or thumbs-down option). It’s best suited for someone who wants to listen to some public radio talk content, but isn’t interested in a picking a particular program. It’s like turning on the radio, but without any schedule, yet with a limited degree of control.

The app also has you select your local NPR affiliate station so that local stories and shows can be mixed in with national content. I’m sure it’s also a feature designed to allay the fears of local stations that they might be replaced by a national program stream independent of their own expensive broadcast and internet infrastructure.

Now, I am covering this in my weekly podcast update, but only some of the content streamed in NPR One is generally considered a podcast. While many of the national news segments can be played and downloaded individually online, they generally aren’t available in most podcast apps. But that formality is beside the point.

NPR One presents an interesting and potentially promising model for podcasting as a medium, though in its current form it is most well-suited to a single network of content that can be segmented easily. While many podcasts across genres are broken up into individual stories or segments, they’re most often only available for download as whole, unbroken programs. Segmenting them without cooperation from the producers would likely be a labor-intensive endeavor.

One of the things I love about podcasting is the access to thoughtful, engaging long-form content that doesn’t have to conform to the broadcast clock or short attention spans. At the same time, it’s also nice not to have to commit to a 60 or 90-minute show. It would be great to have an app like this dedicated to comedy, tech or other genres of podcasts for those times when I’m not in the mood to decide. That’s no different than the times I listen to Pandora (or the radio) instead of picking an album or playlist stored on my iPhone.

The timing of NPR One’s release is interesting, since it came during the same week that the previous “Pandora for podcasts” app, Swell, was acquired by Apple and taken off-line. NPR was a Swell partner. Not to advance any conspiracy theories, but did they have any advanced knowledge, or was it just luck? Given the amount of design and development time needed, I’m pretty certain it’s luck.

NPR One is available for Android and iOS, and also in your browser.

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