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A Look At NPR’s New Mobile Strategy

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NPR’s relaunch of its mobile web site and the release of its Android mobile app this week are part of a larger strategy designed to ensure that its member stations don’t get lost in the listener transition from over-the-air to digital. The moves follow the August launch of NPR’s well-received — and well-used — free iPhone app, which netted 1 million downloads in the first month. As important, 25 percent of the page views come from the station’s section and users spend more than 15 minutes at a time with the app. In an interview with paidContent, Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s SVP/GM of digital media, and Demian Perry, the head of mobile operations, explained how the iPhone app’s use, a desire to enhance station access and interest in open source helped frame this phase in NPR’s mobile web strategy.

Revamped mobile site: One way to measure progress: the old site had limited station content and the current site has only 55 stations. The new site, which reflects the look and feel of the iPhone app, will have all stations. Wilson explains: “With apps, you get a giant spike around a release, then plateau so the real focus is on the site. More people are getting web-enabled phones. It’s too early to tell where the future is going to go, though, whether apps or the mobile web will ultimately become the main source for listeners.” The upshot for now? “It’s at least as important as native apps.”

Perry adds: “The mobile wap relaunch allows to us to address the BlackBerry platform. The BlackBerry has six different operating systems, which is an added complication in terms of creating an app.”

iPhone limitations: Wilson and Perry praise NPR’s iPhone app but they also pointed out that the open-source aspects of Google’s Android system — versus Apple’s more restricted mobile OS — make it possible for NPR to ensure that the publisher and its network of broadcasters can more easily share content on a mobile platform. “The issue [of digital threatening to supplant terrestrial radio] has loomed for a decade,” Wilson says. “In the last year, we’ve been very open about our direction. With the Android app, we can let the stations incorporate their own apps into ours. Some stations are more advanced digitally than others. We’re working with them about becoming more robust providers of local news, which will keep them relevant. And we can share our programming and theirs on one app. That expands the opportunities for all of us.” The differences between the Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Android systems have helped refine the thinking about what it can and can’t do digitally.

Openness: For example, one big difference between Android and the iPhone that Wilson likes is the ability to “background,” or use other smartphone functions while still being able to listen to an NPR stream. (Apple says the desire to avoid any further battery-drain is the main reason it prevents iPhone multitasking.) Working with the iPhone was “like packing a Swiss Army knife app. Android is open source; they can take pieces of the code and attach other things. We wanted developers to tinker with it and that will help us.”

Volunteer developer: The first NPR iPhone app was developed by a volunteer; that’s also the case with the Android app. Google (NSDQ: GOOG) engineer Michael Frederick used his “20 percent time” — the search company lets staffers devote that percentage of their time to personal projects intended to ultimately benefit the company.

The role of customization: NPR will let stations and outside developers put their own individual touches on the app. “The main thing we want to preserve across all the different platforms are the bottom tabs,” which include News, Programs and Stations, says Perry, NPR’s mobile head. “On Android, we think it would be nice to let local stations include their own content, not just NPR content. And we want the users to be able to customize it according to their interests. It’s in their hands.”

Not just about apps: “Apps could be the primary way of accessing content on mobile, but we’re still paying close attention to how our audience uses our website,” says Wilson. The site will remain more text-heavy with a focus on news items, but Perry says NPR wants to do more like expand its music and entertainment offerings.

Podcasting eclipsed: The growth of mobile and the adoption of apps will inevitably diminish the importance of podcasting, a particularly popular medium for NPR, Wilson says. “Podcasting is purely a delivery mechanism, and users have shown that they want to do more with the content they receive. But people want to customize their content, and helping them do that is where our focus lies.”

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