‘A fan of ours wrote an iPhone application, just for the sake of it.’ How many media companies can make such a bragging statement? One does: NPR, the American National Public Radio. Bradley Flubacher, is a professional programmer who moonlights as a volunteer firefighter in a small Pennsylvania town. A few months ago, Brad decided he wanted to learn a new programming language and to develop for the iPhone. Et voilà: NPR Addict, a free app that gives access to thousands of podcasts in a simple and efficient way. The author didn’t make a dime in the process: his app is free. If you want to give a few bucks, he will encourage you to do so directly to a local NPR affiliate. This is what I call a true fan – and a testament to NPR’s place in American culture.
Two thoughts to be drawn from this anecdote. First, the relationship a great media brand such as a Public Radio enjoys with its audience. Second, how such bond can be boosted by a clever use of digital technology.
In France, we praise ourselves as being the champions of public broadcasting. We have many brands around Radio France, great shows, excellent journalistic crews and so on. Brands such as France Inter or the all-news channel France Info appeal to a large audience; others, France Culture being one example, target only small circles and feel themselves totally liberated from vulgar strictures such as attracting large audiences. Fine. Personally, I don’t mind having a fraction of my taxes (including a specific line item) diverted to the feeding of the public broadcasting beast. Unfortunately, in my country, public broadcasting is the permanent epicenter of political battles. When the government appoints new management, the new princes replace the next layer on the org chart and reward their friends in the process. The staff (i.e. people performing actual work) prides itself by being in a permanent state of resistance and denounces other media as the free market devil’s henchmen. This under siege mentality, combined with a certain remote hauteur toward the tax-paying public, limits the French public radio system’s audience. The same attitude also puts the brakes on the adoption of digital media.
By comparison, NPR is close to what a public broadcasting system ought to be: independent, content-rich, mass market, local — and fully digital. Here are key figures (some are extracted from a great story published this spring in Fast Company magazine):
• NPR weekly audience: 26.4m listeners; by comparison, Fox News has 2.8m viewers in prime time.
• NPR listenership doubled since 1999; again, by comparison, newspapers audience fell by about 20% in the same period
• NPR productions are broadcast by 860 local affiliates; this local dimension is a crucial component of its success: NPR is seen as a national medium embedded in a local one.
• Its financial structure appears quite sound, compared to other public broadcast entities worldwide:
- 43% of its funding comes from membership fees paid by local affiliates
- 29% come from corporate underwritings (ads in public’s information parlance), 15 seconds announcements: “This show is brought to you by…. ”
- 15% come from foundation grants and private donations, including listeners
- Less than 2% is coming from the government (this should come as a surprise to my French friends who see public broadcasting inherently dependant on public funding). NPR is privately-funded public radio.
This structure provides with much NPR leeway in setting its news strategy, with in-depth reporting, long segments, and explanatory pieces — all unthinkable in a purely advertising-driven system. This led to a faithful and growing audience, which enjoys its reliance on great journalism — a precious tool with which to retrieve the signal from the noise…
But NPR’s most remarkable achievement remains its digital diversification, based on two basic concepts: ubiquity of platforms and openness. Coming back to the iPhone app, it relies on NPR’s API created just a year ago. In this issue of the Monday Note, we explored the advantages of opening news content through API (Applications Programming Interface). APIs allow anyone to tap into structured content, by sending requests aimed at specific items. APIs are not platform-dependant: the XML feed can either go to an iPhone application or a website. In the last months, big news organizations such at the New York Times or The Guardian started to provide APIs. A move justified by the following rationale: stories tend to accumulate; over the years, this growing (and amortized) inventory becomes difficult to monetize. The choice is between trying to sell it by the piece (a dollar/euro or two per article — that’s the penny pinching approach), or to use it as the brand-awareness vector. Hence the API that allows the spread of a branded content that doesn’t bring significant cash otherwise.
NPR pushed the idea a bit farther with the introduction of its Twitter-based NPR Backstory project.
It works like this: using the Google Hot Trends system, a program automatically creates a Tweet relevant to the moment’s hottest item. For instance, as I’m writing this article, Saturday night, the day’s biggest story is the D-Day celebration in Normandy with Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama.
On Twitter, the NPR Backtstory page look like this:
And it sends to this page on NPR’s site, which revives archives (see at the bottom of the page).
This project was created by a guy named Keith Hopper who was willing to experiment NPR’s API on his own (he was later hired by the Public Interactive, the digital arm of NPR, making Backstory a quasi official initiative…)
Again, some interesting data:
• NPR Twitter accounts have more than 900,000 followers
• These followers make NPR n°3 among the news organizations on Twitter, behind CNN Breaking News (1.6m followers) and the New York Times (1m)
• NPR’s Facebook page has 409,000 fans, slightly less than the NY Times (452,000) but more than CNN (386,000)
• As a comparison, two big French Media, Le Figaro (a major daily and the biggest newspaper site) and the French public radio France Inter have about 1200 fans each on Facebook. Needless to say, they don’t have APIs.
This exemplifies how an assertively open, technology-savvy approach can boost a media brand. We are not talking big investments, here, just confidence in the strength of a franchise. Both the iPhone app and the Backstory project were implemented by individuals. Bradley Flubacher and Keith Hopper used publicly available data streams from a media company whose reach has become, as a result, larger and more global than ever. —FF
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