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Can NPR Survive the Technology Tsunami?


Today, in an article posted by Andrew Phelps for The Nieman Journalism Lab, the new CEO of NPR sat down for an interview with regards to the future of the organization.

Recently, NPR made a push to get in on the technology of the future by announcing its endeavor with the Ford Motor Company.  In a press release on January 9, 2012 from NPR the company announced:

“The SYNC® AppLink™-enabled NPR News app lets Ford drivers listen to their favorite public radio programs and stations on their own schedule while on the road

Users can create playlists of stories and programs to listen to later or select from topics and then call them up with simple voice commands

NPR News is the first dedicated news app for SYNC AppLink that Ford is launching at the 2012 International CES”

According to Gary Knell the newly appointed CEO, if NPR doesn’t jump on this sort of technology, all may be lost for public radio.

“So now you have voice-activation systems in Fords and other car manufacturers, which are just going to get faster, smaller, and cheaper every year, and NPR’s gotta be on there. Public radio’s gotta be a player. If we’re not on these platforms, we’re dead. This isn’t a choice of whether — it’s really a choice of how. And we decided to go first with Ford…”

Knell goes on to talk about the importance of local interests and how with this new technology a Bostonian living in Los Angeles can tune in and find out what’s going on locally in Boston.  It is his hope that this local information will appeal to listeners and grow support which would hopefully grow the amount of financial contribution the organization receives from public funding.   He doesn’t leave out other news, he added that he thinks the public needs to be aware of international events as well.

“It’s very important for Americans to understand what’s going on in Syria, because it does affect them. And it does affect the military budget and whether we’re going to have some conflagration which they’re going to have pay for, so that we can make correct decisions and our political leaders can make correct decisions. So I think these kinds of things are important investments publicly.”

The big question here is funding.  Will this strategy prove successful, and is the appeal to the public strong enough for the organization to continue?

These days there are so many ways for people to obtain the news, it’s really difficult to say whether public radio has any real footing at all.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American spends over 100 hours commuting each year.  In an analysis of the Commuting Statistics for the United States, 90.7% of commuting is done on our roadways.  In the same report, there are just over 97 million commuters that drive to and from work alone.  That’s a lot of people driving for a lot of hours.  This would seem like a captive audience for NPR to capitalize on.  A goldmine of potential listeners.

A Pew Research Center report in 2010 broke down how folks in the United States are getting their news.

In another Pew Report,  “National Public Radio’s audience is holding steady as well: 16% of Americans regularly listen to NPR.”

To me, 16% doesn’t sound like big number.  And I think NPR needs a much bigger number, not fancy gadgets to stay in the game.  I think it’s smart that they are partnering with technology that will make their programming more available to the public, but I have to wonder if their content is diverse enough to attract new listeners.  In my view, with growing internet news aggregators and other methods, it seems people are interested in one-stop-shopping.  In other words, they want to visit a single site, or listen to a single broadcast or television program, and get everything they need or want to hear.  Well isn’t that the same old issue in the news business?  Of course it is.  It will never change.  The problem is, when you use the internet, you can essentially design a home page that with one click will give you everything you want to know before you leave the house, all in about 30 minutes. You can download very specific programs to your mobile device and just listen to the most recent streaming reports and shows.  Satellite radio has allowed us to fine tune our “pre-sets” and easily jump through whatever programs we choose and when.  While NPR seems to grasp this necessity to stay alive, I think it’s the content that needs to change.

As I said, I do think this is a smart first step for NPR but they also need to broaden their programming.  I don’t think maintaining a loyal audience of 16% is going to keep them competitive in the long run.

How will NPR capture that audience and convince them to be regular financial contributors to keep the programming alive?  I suppose we will have to wait and see.