NPR boosts online offerings, seeks larger audience
NEW YORK - National Public Radio, already strong online with free downloads from many of its shows, is boosting its digital ambitions with Monday's introduction of social-networking features akin to Facebook.
NPR also plans to overhaul its Web site and expand the tools for sharing its programs elsewhere over the next few months. And it is working to increase the flexibility of its popular "podcasts," audio downloads that have tripled in usage over the past two years.
These digital initiatives are aimed at capturing and retaining audiences - particularly younger people who aren't habitual radio listeners but who represent the future for fundraising at NPR's member stations.
Yet NPR faces a challenge in finding common ground with the stations, which rely on traditional, local radio offerings to draw contributions.
The national organization, acknowledging that its early Internet initiatives at times collided with its member stations, insists many of the new offerings have been developed with the stations' needs and concerns in mind.
"We definitely see ourselves at a pivotal point," said Dana Davis Rehm, NPR's senior vice president for strategy and partnerships. "We know where we want to be, but navigating the waters can be challenging at times. Every now and then we get rough seas."
Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former NPR ombudsman now with the Ryerson School of Journalism in Toronto, described the tensions as "growing pains as NPR uses its considerable editorial and creative muscle to use the Internet to maximum effect."
The fears come down to whether enhancing the NPR.org Web site will encourage listeners to bypass the individual stations on the Web as well as on air. If listeners get everything they need from the central organization to which local stations pay dues, they might stop giving or give less to their local stations.
But both public radio audiences and contributions to public radio have been going up. NPR stations combined had 31.3 million weekly listeners in spring 2008, a 3 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. Although aggregate fundraising numbers were not available, NPR and several individual stations contacted by The Associated Press reported increases.
Online traffic is also up. According to comScore, NPR.org had 2.6 million unique visitors in August, a 78 percent increase from a year earlier.
Rehm, at NPR, said the national organization now sees stations as partners. Long gone, she said, are the days when NPR waited "until the 11th hour, if ever" to consult with stations on its digital plans.
Ken Stern left NPR as chief executive in March, reportedly ousted over his style and clashes with stations over their digital future. A permanent replacement isn't expected until early next year, though NPR last week hired Kinsey Wilson from USA Today as its digital chief, effective Oct. 20.
Stations are warming up.
"Certainly years ago there was much more of an attitude of us-them," said Bob Lyons, director of new media for WGBH in Boston. "That's largely dissipated. There have been changes at NPR, changes at the stations and changes in the world all around."
Lyons said the new social-networking tools, even though they initially will be available only at NPR.org, will help local listeners connect with one another and with local stations.
The new tools let listeners create personal profiles and declare other listeners or NPR staffers as friends. They also can add a photo of themselves and list their favorite books, movies and NPR programs and - soon - their local station.
NPR also plans to expand its library of Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs, which are software tools to let the general public and local stations incorporate NPR content into their own applications.
One use of the APIs plots the subjects of NPR stories on a world map. Another lets people listen to stories on Apple Inc.'s iPhone.
Upcoming ones promise to help stations blend local and national content online.
"That will help strengthen their own Web sites," said Mitch Praver, NPR's chief operating officer. "Rather than force the audience to come to NPR's Web site, the journalism is being extended to sites all over the world."
Many stations credit the Internet for exposing local programs to a broader audience, be it "The Leonard Lopate Show" on WNYC in New York, "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" from WAMU in Washington, D.C., or a 24-hour classical-music feed from KUHF in Houston.
"The burden is somewhat on stations to diversify and produce compelling content," WAMU spokeswoman Kay Summers said.
Laura Walker, chief executive for WNYC, said 60 percent of its contributions now come over the Internet, and the expanded audience for local shows has resulted in pledges from as far as Japan and China. But she said the station can't be too aggressive, lest it divert contributions from fellow stations.
Rehm said fundraising is a key source of anxiety, but if done right, a strong Internet presence could bring "more giving from more people."
"Consumers' expectations are changing, and our audience wants more flexibility," said Darren Mauro, a digital media director at NPR. "To be realistic, the Internet is a fast-moving place. That makes everybody nervous on one level, and everyone sees new opportunities on another."