How to Measure NPR’s Success in a Digital Age


Is NPR’s performance on the digital front a sign that radio’s digital evolution has stalled? Or, worse, that it’s just a big hairy mistake?

So says would-be town crier Richard Harker.

Harker’s basic point is right on: Broadcasters should direct some of their innovative attention towards content on traditional radio channels and not only experiment with all things digital.

I agree!

But saying innovative effort should be spread around is different from saying initiatives on the digital front are a waste. Yet that’s what Harker seems to say with the example of NPR, where he steps into a nasty quagmire.

Harker’s comments, as reported by NTSMediaOnline:

[Despite an] all out digital effort by NPR, the pubcaster’s streaming listening is reportedly down and over 93% of its listening still takes place on FM and AM radio. NPR is radio’s canary in the digital coal mine. If a multi-million dollar attempt to transform (‘don’t call it radio’) NPR into a digital product is already sputtering, what’s the likelihood we’ll be melting down broadcast towers and turning them into wind turbines anytime soon?

The piece Harker links refers to a decline in cumulative audience. But according to the most recent Triton ranker, “NPR Member Stations” current AAS for domestic streams is just over 34,000 – down slightly from the prior month, but up almost 50% since April 2013. In that same time, Pandora AAS are up by 30%, by the way. AAS is not Cume, of course, but clearly the numbers look different depending on how they’re sliced.

But there’s a larger issue: Harker sees only distribution channel silos, while modern consumers see content and solutions to their problems across platforms. Like many broadcasters, Harker is obsessed with distribution, while consumers care only about content wherever, whenever, and however they want it.

You may be selling radio, Mr. Broadcaster, but as an NPR consumer I’m buying information – knowledge – filtered through a perspective I consider trustworthy and authoritative. Whether or not it’s on the radio. As long as it comes from NPR.

Harker is judging a digital transformation by the degree to which radio listening translates into streaming listening where the totality of the brand is the totality of linear listening, only linear listening, and only listening!

That is a view of consumer behavior that ended with the first smartphone and the first millennial.

Instead, the transformation of radio in general and NPR in particular should be judged by whether or not consumers get what they want from the brand the way they want it and via the channels of their choice.

In other words, NPR is not radio, it’s a public service specializing in news and information and aimed at a particular audience. The goal of that service is to give that audience what it wants the way it wants it on the platforms fans choose. Radio is an important piece of that distribution platform just as DVD’s are an important piece of Universal Pictures’ distribution platform. But Universal is more than DVD’s and NPR is more than radio.

If I want my NPR news in article form, voila! There it is!

If I want my favorite NPR shows on demand rather than on a linear stream or radio station, thank you iTunes! Or Stitcher! Or Swell! Or AGOGO! Etc.

Indeed, the challenges of mobile consumers and their bite-size demands should feed back on NPR and stimulate more innovation for short-form content of all sorts, something which has generally not been their specialty. In that way, content innovation and technology innovation are united in their mission. It’s not one or the other, Mr. Harker, it’s both.

I don’t have the data at hand, but I’ll bet today more consumers are touched by more NPR-created content on more platforms and in more ways than ever before. And THAT is what digital transformation is all about.

You have to reach people where they are using the platforms that occupy their attention and their time in a form that matches the content to the platform. Traditional radio can’t reach consumers when they are substituting other technologies for radio.

For example, exactly how can traditional radio reach these folks right now?

(Not seeing the video? Click here.)

As I said at hivio last week:

Consumers don’t fall in love with a distribution channel.

They fall in love with content.

Be the content. Leverage the distribution.

* = required field
  • paulgoldstein

    Mark Ramsey nails it again.

    Mr. Harker’s anti-digital blog posts (such as “Is the Digital Basket the Wrong Place for Radio’s Eggs?”) are ear-candy to Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Pandora and Spotify who’re plotting to capture as much of broadcast radio’s $16b & 200+ thousand listeners as they possibly can. Like the migration from AM to FM, the trend is undeniable – non-broadcasters like Spotify & Pandora are racing to capture tomorrow’s beach-front property while Mr. Harker and other broadcasters deny, discredit and doubt the obvious (1 of so many examples: http://goo.gl/jB7mys). With TSL to broadcast forecasted to free-fall over four years by 42 minutes while pure play mobile rises by 38 minutes (http://goo.gl/gCOCF0), and while broadcast revenue is forecasted to fall while digital rises (http://goo.gl/E79hCs), Google, Pandora & the rest are rooting for Harker to influence broadcasters to move slowly into digital, so non-broadcast audio media can siphon off even more of broadcast radio’s listeners as the sleeping giants snores on…

  • Jim Russell

    I like Ramsey’s thinking a lot. Another way of saying it is: It is all radio, regardless of the platform used to transmit the content. Though I don’t like the term, radio has become “platform agnostic.”

  • Don’t take it from me, take it from the great Jim Russell.

    Thanks Jim!

  • Aaron Read

    Except for the slight problem that the entire funding architecture for NPR depends on differentiating between methods of distribution.

  • Joshua Johnson

    I like the basic premise of this article, but as a public radio guy myself, I disagree that NPR is not “radio”. Yeah, it is! And “radio” is not a bad thing to be, considering that it still reaches 92% of the American people every week (including many poor and underserved communities with very little Internet access – reaching them is a core part of our mission). Granted, I understand why NPR stopped calling itself “National Public Radio” — that makes good sense. But “radio” is still part of what it is, so let’s not be afraid to say it.
    Most bad podcasts that I hear are bad simply because they are not “good radio” — they lack polish, focus, dispatch, solid content and distinctive style. True, AM/FM radio programming has a LONG way to go in meeting the needs of today’s audiences, but there’s still something to be said for being a broadcaster. Radio is a highly powerful medium, and I don’t think we should avoid it, even as we modernize.

  • Don Keith

    With all due respect to Richard Harker (with whom I once had a business relationship and who did a good job for us) and with credit to Monty Python for coining the term I’m about to use, Mark Ramsey just ran rings around Mr. Harker logically!

    Look, we all know the problem here. Digital listening in its myriad forms is still not measureable in one cohesive and all-encompassing number. Radio (and, even more so, TV) are only comfortable with CPP, TSL and the traditional commercial spot announcement. (Heck, radio never really accepted CPM, the real measure of an advertiser’s reach-per-dollar, mostly because it made TV and newspaper look good.) Until the guys with the keys to radio stations get their heads around how to market their accumulated audiences some other way and how to monetize their inventory differently than they did in the 1970s, they will never willingly accept anything other than the signal on the air from the transmitter on the hill. That and telling us over and over again that they are “playing the biggest hits of the 80s, 90s, and today!” while they stream the same songs over and over.

    And we will continue to get tripe like the headline today on Inside Radio’s site about ComScore data that shows media use rising as increased digital platforms become more ubiquitous. IR–in their usual way of trying to find good news for Napoleon and his army after Waterloo–paints this as a good thing for broadcast radio. Media consumption goes up? Radio has to benefit, right? (If anyone cares, I blog on this subject at http://n4kc.blogspot.com today.)

    And if more devices mean more listening, then content really doesn’t matter at all. A rising tide raises all boats. Just because consumers have so many choices doesn’t mean they will leave behind one of their traditional ones just because it is boring and bad and offers absolutely no good reason to continue to consume it. Right?

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  • The business model challenges of NPR are real, but they are not the problem of consumers and will have no bearing on how consumers get what they want.
    It’s up to business to create business models.

  • It’s not about avoiding it, it’s about not being limited to it.

  • Aaron Read

    True, but that’s kinda like saying “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” If the consumer aspect will not differentiate between distribution methods while the producer aspect will not change their business model, then it’s an irresistible force vs immovable object. I agree that it’s like the business model will be what has to change, but that’s an ugly, ugly process. Ugly enough that it could well endanger the very production of the content the consumers want to get.

  • Thanks for the input, Aaron!

  • finalrune

    It is ironic that public media is more powerful than ever, but public radio is in a terrifying transition/uncertainty moment. While I’m sure NPR’s streaming stats are down, I would bet anything that the cumulative influence of podcast models – This American Life, The Moth, Radiolab, Snap Judgement, Freaknomics, Marketplace etc. which are all routinely top of the iTunes charts, blows away any of npr’s own streaming numbers.

    What I think is scary/interesting/awesome is that as you say, Mark, the listener does not care where they get the content. The listener has choices – UGH! you are interrupting TAL for this stupid pledge drive, well that’s fine, I am just going to listen to the podcast instead (and, at least for this listener, that happens a lot).

    I am also certain that most casual customers have no idea of the difference between NPR, APM, or PRX, nor should they.

    The problem, really, is for those member stations who survive because of the public media content, but are in a sense competing for donations since most of the podcasts are now asking for listener donations directly and thus competing with the local station pledge drive. I don’t think public media is ready to move 100% digital (would a new “This American Life” really be able to become the phenomenon it is without terrestrial radio distribution?) and so the content, which is increasingly self-funded, may need to renegotiate its relationship with the medium, which is as expensive as ever and thus pressured to pay less and accept more advertisers.

    NPR-member stations are mostly like the stations it sounds like your work with, Mark, kind of dumbfounded by the future and trying to figure out how to stuff digital back into the Pandora’s box. A few (and I think my local Maine station MPBN is doing a good job) are trying to really establish their own brand experience, and differentiate themselves from both NPR national as well as the individual shows that comprise them, and are doing things like having events in the local community, exclusive content on THEIR channels and otherwise creating content that differentiates their local member station brand in amongst all the other swirling chaos of the fragmented world.

    – Fred

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