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Public Radio Dangerously Close To Making Public Radio Obsolete

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The Public Radio Exchange has just released the 2.0 version of its iPhone app, which aggregates almost all the public radio stations in the U.S. This tuner is a collaboration by some of the biggies in the public-radio space: NPR, Public Interactive, American Public Media, and Public Radio International (PRI). The 1.0 version of app has already gotten some rave reviews, but the 2.0 version, released this weekend, goes a lot further: besides streams, it has started showing what’s on right now on those stations, a seemingly small but game-changing move.

And, as it previously promised, it has added podcasts/downloads of the major shows as well, another important addition that will only increase the usage of the app. It has also added various search and directory listing options, on top of what the previous version had. The new version also allows for streams to be played on the slower Edge network, if Wi-Fi or 3G are not available. The new version is a bit buggy: it wiped out my favorite stations after upgrading (not a big issue for me since I didn’t have many), and is freezing up frequently; I hope the latter issue will be solved soon. The app is closing in on 2 million downloads, and likely will continue to be among the top apps for the iPhone.

So here’s why I think this is one major step to making public radio listening on radio obsolete:

I don’t own a radio (except in the car), and have been using the iPhone to listen to KPCC — the local station here in LA — ever since I bought it a month ago (there’s the whole other issue of sucky iPhone battery life, but that’s for another post). Now with the addition of what’s playing on my favorite stations right now, I have a lot more choices in one screen that I had previously: so instead of enduring “A Prairie Home Companion” on the weekend (not my cup of tea), I could try “On The Media” on at the same time on WBEZ Chicago public radio. And if I happen to join a show after its start, chances are I can get the latest edition of the show on demand (helpfully linked from the live version). In the car, where a lot of public radio consumption happens (especially in SoCal) with one of the options to connect the iPhone to the radio speakers, it makes the local public radio station redundant, to a large extent. Of course you can argue this is only true for the 20 million or so iPhone users, but you can see this playing out on other smartphones like Android and others, when the same app launches of their platforms.

All of this adds to the issues surrounding local public radio funding in the digital age: if a large number of iPhone app users are not necessarily listening in to the local station, then loyalties start to shift, or even fade away, which in turn affects donations to the local stations. This isn’t necessarily a new concern, and has been around since stations started streaming their feeds online, but with the new iPhone app, it becomes a lot more urgent. I am all for it, but the organizations behind it better be thinking of various ways to monetize, including perhaps charging a small amount for the app. NPR CEO Vivian Schiller tackled some of these issues in an interview with Staci last month.

In related news, NPR is close to relaunching its website in the next week. And NPR’s journalists are almost done with their digital training, done in conjunction with Knight Foundation.

14 Responses to “Public Radio Dangerously Close To Making Public Radio Obsolete”

  1. @Rex
    I certainly hope you're right, and that the public radio funders are enlightened enough to agree. Certainly, from a foundation perspective, more ears and more platforms and more spread of message is a good thing.

  2. Dorian,

    I didn't say that.

    However, I believe that once you trade off a wide variety of factors regarding how younger, affluent users of smart phones use there phones vs. how older affluent users use their's, it's probably a wash. I feel certain that lower socioeconomic demographics of any age will be little served by iPhone apps.

    Moveover, I think the issue you raise — public radio's service to various demographics — is more an issue of content and programming than distribution.

    I can point to lots of programming that NPR and other nationally distributed public media companies are producing to serve a wide variety of audiences. The more ways they are distributed, the more likely they are to reach the audiences that would like to hear them — and who, perhaps, can't access them now because of programming choices made locally.

    More channels of distribution means more people can be served.

  3. I think it's wonderful that this thread has continued long beyond the life-cycle of a typical discussion here. Obviously displays that public radio is an important topic to lots of people (and that lots of people use the the e-mail me when someone comments on this thread feature).

    I just wanted to respond to @Dorian regarding the demographics of public radio listeners. I know that in my market we have several public-licensed stations. Their programming ranges from rap to religion. The local NPR station has three different programming formats (FM, AM and HD) and streams and podcasts all in numerous ways.

    I have no doubt the NPR (which also gets programming for other public media sources) has a highly desirable audience, but that has nothing to do with the way in which it is distributed. I think the fact that people who have iPhones are younger (which I don't necessarily believe) is also irrelevant as younger iPhone users have probably figured out a dozen other apps to access the radio stations and streaming music sources they'd prefer over-the-air. In other words, I think people bring with them their over-the-air preferences when they start listening to radio via a smartphone.

  4. While both Rafat and Rex might be right — less local listening, but more money raised overall, especially if the app allows for contributions — there's another important business issue to consider longer term: a demographic split.

    Those who use smartphones will tend to be of a higher socioeconomic status, and probably be younger, than those who listen only over the air. Phone listeners will get a richer, more diverse set of programming, and at some point may be more highly valued than those who listen only over the air. It's analogous to cable vs. broadcast, and how the broadcast-only audience is less valued, commercially, per viewer.

    Public radio may find some dissonance between its mission to serve all and its desire to target higher revenues. The public radio listener demo tends to be a higher educated and desirable economic group than radio listeners overall, but what happens if that public radio group gets split into the have mores and the have-lesses?

  5. Sarah Spitz

    Streaming is one thing but content on-demand does actually mean that, at least theoretically, you can bypass the station. However, without the original content provider providing the content (i.e., us!), you'll miss out on the fabulous content that drove you to Internet radio in the first place!

  6. Terry Purvis

    There's no need to worry that a station in Los Angeles will lose listeners to a station based in New York.

    Far too many people misunderstand the fatal flaw with real-time streaming over distance, the world is round and there are 40 time-zones to consider.

    Outside of the time-zone a station serves, the programming/output/content, whatever you wish to call it, becomes unlistenable to the human ear.

    A station using real-time streaming has a maximum range on the Internet of a single time-zone. Always been that way with terrestrial radio, the Internet doesn't fix the physics.

  7. Valerie

    speaking of Public Radio

    My friend is a member of NPR's Los Angeles affiliate KPCC and was recently selected as a finalist in the Challenge.Create.Change contest for a video he created espousing the benefits of public radio membership. The contest, sponsored by Target and ConverseOneStar encourages people to challenge, create, or change something about their world. I thought this might be interesting to share with other affiliates as a means of encouraging people to contribute. You can watch the video at Please encourage others to view it and if they like it, to vote for his entry "first charitable act" at

    Thank you,

    Valerie Garagiola

  8. Sarah Spitz

    89.9 FM KCRW- Santa Monica and is the other leading pubradio station in the SoCal market. We've been light years ahead of most stations as early adopters of new tech, in fact, we were one of the very first radio stations, commercial or public, to stream live on the web in the 1990s. We were written up in the (old!) media (NYTimes) when we took our Nokia phones to DemoCon and did live KYTE-TV reports.

    I'd like to share with you a comment made by our New Media Director, Anil Dewan, sparked by your story:

    "As a local station, distributing our locally-developed app and charging 99 cents for it (11,227 downloads and 114,912 total sessions since June 10) we are doing what we feel needs to be done to maintain our connection to the audience, provide our content on an important new platform and still have a strong KCRW brand.

    The Public Radio Tuner app has been around for a while (approx 1 million + downloads, last I heard). It does theoretically break the local/national model but from the user's perspective this is the most convenient. Not all stations can afford to develop and market their apps and not all users want to download a separate app for each station they might be interested in. My sense is that most people probably stick to their local stations or explore a couple of other favorites but probably don't go that much deeper.

    In addition to streaming all three of our channels (Live/On-Air, Music and News), we distinguish our app from the PRX app by offering comprehensive on-demand programming, track lists for the music shows, event listings around town, and additional features coming soon."

    Now a note from me: The KCRW Radio app streams all three KCRW web channels – on-air, music and news – with real time playlists. Two additional apps distribute video highlights from live band performances on Morning Becomes Eclectic, and the latest video webcasts from our popular weekend program Good Food. $0.99 each from Apple’s App Store on iPhone and iPod touch or at

    Perhaps the start of a new funding model for pubradio?

    (PS: KCRW is about news and information but also so much more: we've got great original local programming, from live in-studio music performances, to food, entertainment industry, political and cultural shows plus great commentaries!)

  9. Jake Shapiro

    Yes, local loyalty will now compete with program/content loyalty in more acute way, at least on platforms like this (by far the vast majority of listening to public radio is still over the air).

    Re in-app transactions, unfortunately Apple limits this only to paid apps, so we'd have to offer a separate paid version to enable any transactions in the app. That's a possibility.

    However, the two bigger obstacles to donations are that Apple is currently rejecting apps that enable or even promote the fact that payments go to charitable causes or third parties (they say it's too problematic to police, authenticate, and process), and even if they did approve such apps if you used Apple's payment system (which is by far the most frictionless path as opposed to bouncing users to websites and new forms), the 30% cut just won't fly for nonprofit donations.

    This is an important topic, something I'm writing a blog post about, and one that Apple is aware of and hopefully will start addressing soon.

  10. Rafat Ali

    Thanks on the feedback guys. Still think it would make the concept of "local" a lot more nebulous than current. And while that may not necessarily be bad, I can see it hurting local donations over a period of time. I hope I am wrong on this…
    Btw, Jake, the in-app commerce option has been turned on in the last month: and would be a great addition to spur funding. Hoping this would be implemented as soon as possible.

  11. Jake Shapiro

    Thanks Rafat, glad you're digging the new app. We agree it's a game-changer for public radio, but far from making public radio obsolete it is helping increase audience across platforms and create new connections between content and listeners, cementing public radio's presence as a unique service locally and nationally. It's true that the app makes it extremely easy to find programs across schedules and on demand, increasing the need and opportunity for stations to differentiate their own programming. In a recent survey we've seen that users of the app heavily favor their local stations while also bookmarking a handful of others – often from places they've lived or visited.

    While in some cases you could say the new app highlights homogeneity in public radio programs – look at all those All Things Considered listings in the late afternoon – it's also surfacing a remarkable diversity of local content, music, news, talk. And even within those national news magazines there's a lot of locally-produced segments we don't yet have the ability to promote. Curious listeners (as most public radio folks are) have a whole new discovery tool in their hands.

    You're absolutely right that monetization is top of the list for this project and others like it. Primarily we're interested in helping channel support to stations and producers whose content drives the app, weighing the usual mix of ads vs paid download vs direct donation (the last of which Apple currently does not support or even allow in the app store). Thanks to Rex for pointing to Project VRM, one of the key tracks for our next phase of development.

    We're blogging about the project at and gathering a lot of useful user suggestions for improvements to the new version.

  12. Rafat, the Public Radio Player is, without a doubt, the most used app on my iPhone…but I don't see it as a threat to public radio as you describe in this post — in fact, I see it as a solution.

    Like you, I've discovered the App to be an amazing alternative listening to NPR content in a conventional way. However, the "business model" of public radio stations has never been about advertising, so stations have always been niche oriented in their programming. And savvy in their fund raising.

    In Nashville, we have a very smart group of individuals who support and run the stations who have always been on the cutting edge of providing their content in various ways — they now have a wide array of different streams for distributing their content — one via their FM frequency, another via their AM frequency and yet another programming alternative through a new HD frequency. They also provide all three of those programming formats via three different file formats for supporting internet streaming — including one that can be picked up on the Public Radio Player. I can now, no matter where I go, pick up one of the Nashville public radio stations 24/7. However, like you, there are times when I'd rather listen to one of two other stations: KQED in SF and WNPR in Connecticut.

    So how is "not" a threat to my local station?

    I contribute annually to my local NPR station — and will continue to — but now that I'm listening to the other stations, should I contribute to them?

    This question is where the developers of the Public Radio Tuner have come up with a unique and potentially "saving NPR" idea. Since its inception, the Public Radio Player has collaborated with the "Vendor Relationship Management" efforts of the Berkman Institute at Harvard (

    The plans, if I understand them correctly, are to provide the listener with the ability to use the Public Radition Player to track how much they listen to different stations and to provide them with a one-click means to direct their contribution dollars in any way they see fit. (The VRM project is a potential solution to a wide-array of "content worth paying for" challenges.)

    In other words, the Public Radio Player is not just envisioned to be a means to access content streams, it is envisioned, ultimately, to be an automated contribution tool for listeners of Public Radio.

    Here's wording from the Public Radio Player website:

    "The goal is to create the Public Radio Tuner – an application for the iPhone platform using Apple’s recently released software development kit (SDK) and iTunes App Store distribution service. The application will serve end users by initially offering access to local stations’ internet radio streams. Additional versions will offer program/content guides along with a catalog of on-demand audio content from local, independent, and national content providers. Future functionality will enable direct listener contributions to stations and content providers. The project will establish a coordinated approach to the iPhone as a powerful platform for public media, setting standards and shared resources for further application development."