NPR Kicks Off Major Digital Transformation

Aided by $17 million in fresh grants, NPR is embarking on a major digital change.
 
“It’s the biggest and most important initiative in NPR’s history,” Zach Brand, NPR’s vice president of digital media, said Monday.
 
As part of the broader effort -- which will ultimately span clock radios, Web-enabled cars, tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices -- consumers can expect a new mobile app sometime next year.
 
Currently in development, the app will tailor content based on an individual’s geographic location, individual tastes and consumption preferences.
 
“Going from home to their car to work, there is no reason why someone should hear the same story three to four times a day,” Brand said. “And if someone is not interested in a particular story, there’s no reason why they should have to listen to it.”
 
Yes, “hear” and “listen.” Staying true to its roots, NPR will remain an audio-first entity as it goes all in with digital, Brand assured.
 
“Not to the exclusion of other formats, but audio will still come first,” he said. “We’ll invest in pictures, and we’re doing some amazingly beautiful things in video, but we still see huge demand for audio.”
 
As for advertisers -- or “underwriters” and “sponsors” as NPR calls them -- Brand said there will be new opportunities for them, too. Details remain scarce on this front, but better content offerings and improved cross-channel interfaces should please everyone, he said.    
 
NPR still expects the majority of its support to come from donors -- something the digital renovation will also improve. “We think we can offer a much better user experience, which is less about call-in’s and hitting people over the head [with donation requests],” he predicted.
 
The grants are also meant to expand NPR’s coverage of key issues -- including education, global health and development, race, ethnicity and culture. They will also assist six member stations (KPCC, KQED, MPR, WBUR, WHYY and WNYC) in the creation of a “local-national” listening platform.
 
Building on efforts like “Code Switch” -- a recently launched news unit covering race, ethnicity and culture -- and the economically-focused “Planet Money,” NPR is currently assembling teams to produce in-depth coverage of key beats.
 
The teams will be made up of reporters, editors, bloggers and visual journalists to tell stories audiences can “hear, read and see,” NPR promises in a press release.
 
Code Switch launched in April 2013 with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Support from the Ford Foundation should help NPR continue building on the work of Code Switch itself.
 
Donors include the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; The Wallace Foundation and Ford Foundation; and individual contributions from Paul Haaga, acting President & CEO of NPR, and Heather Haaga; William Poorvu, former Vice Chair of the NPR Foundation and Trustee emeritus, and Lia Poorvu; and Howard Stevenson, former Chair of the NPR Board and NPR Foundation Trustee, and Fredericka Stevenson.
 
Through its network of 975 member stations, NPR reaches 27 million radio listeners each week, and nearly 23 million monthly via digital platforms, according to internal estimates.
 
Paid out over two years, the $17 million is just a fraction of what NPR needs to keep up with digital innovations, Brand said. The grants will "help with the start of the digital initiative.”
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