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April 27 2012

15:30

Agile, social, cheap: The new way NPR is trying to make radio

Old radio

The last time NPR launched a show was five years ago. It was the Bryant Park Project, a morning newsmagazine aimed at younger listeners. The network developed the show in secret and beefed up its New York bureau with reporters, producers, and editors. The budget for its first year was more than $2 million.

BPP was cancelled after 10 months, having reached just 13 markets. The underdeveloped show could never compete with Morning Edition, whose national listenership is topped only by Rush Limbaugh. A few months later, NPR cancelled two more news programs, Day to Day and News and Notes, blaming a disastrous budget gap.

Now NPR is taking another stab at creating new programming, but the approach looks quite different. Its newest show, TED Radio Hour (hosted by Alison Stewart, formerly BPP’s co-host), debuts today in at least seven markets. Ask Me Another, a prerecorded live game show for puzzle types, begins airing next weekend in at least six markets, including Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. And John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders, which I guess is a variety show for hipsters, debuts later this year.

What’s different this time? The network seems to be taking a page from agile software development, the philosophy that products should be released early and iterated often. The shows are live (cheap) and/or adaptations of existing shows (easy), all produced in six- or 10- or 13-episode pilot runs instead of as permanent offerings. Listeners and local program directors are invited to help shape the sound of the programs, making it something of a public beta.

“We’ve had successful shows that have been around for decades, and the newest ones that are reaching big audiences — even those are a decade old.”

Ask Me Another, for example, is perfectly designed for social media (which, remember, barely existed when Bryant Park Project began). Because it’s a live show, every member of the audience is a potential Twitter or Facebook connection.

Word of the show spread on social media — which is how I found out about it — so NPR PR has a head start. The network says 4,000 people have already attended the live shows, pre-launch. The shows are being fed to member stations free of charge.

“Historically, the way that NPR and others in public radio have produced big programming is we come up with an idea we think is really good, we hire a staff, we keep all this very cloak-and-dagger secret, and then we try to make a big launch with it, and we end up with 30 stations and then over time more stations add to it,” Eric Nuzum, NPR’s newly promoted vice president of programming, told me.

“Using that process, it takes years to determine years if something is going to be a hit or not. And that involves millions and millions of dollars.”

In other words, failure is a much bigger fail. If Ask Me Another doesn’t take off, hey, it was still a relatively cheap experiment. Nuzum says the weak economy is driving in the new strategy. (NPR would not tell me how much money is budgeted for the programs, but it’s safe to say none of them costs $2 million.)

Two years ago, NPR conducted an “audience opportunity study” that found listeners wanted more shows that sound like them. A lighter approach, more humor. Shows like Ask Me Another could be the hook that casual listeners need to discover other radio programming, Nuzum said. Some of the most successful public radio shows, after all, are weekend shows — This American Life, Car Talk, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!

“It’s much easier to describe this when I’m in person with someone, so I apologize if some of this seems vague, because I actually draw when I’m talking about this,” Nuzum said.

Don’t worry, Eric Nuzum, we got this. Here is an interpretation of what his drawing might look like, by Lisa Tobin:

Circles

“Imagine there’s a circle, and the circle’s really dark, and that circle is our current audience. And it’s dark because there are so many people — there’s like a gravitational force — that are all kind of brought together. Then imagine a much larger ring around that circle, and that’s our potential audience. What we’re trying to do is bring that audience towards that center, trying to bring them more towards our programming.

“What we did before was we were just creating shows that occupied space in that larger circle without really paying attention to how well it connected to the inner circle. These shows are much more an attempt to have something that connects both to the larger circle and the inner circle as well.”

Nuzum said he is emulating HBO’s iterative approach to programming. He’s not the first to make the comparison. Cambridge-based PRX has experimented with new programming and distribution for five years, including with Marc Maron’s podcast WTF and The Moth Radio Hour. Jake Shapiro, the executive director of PRX, has long proposed a “public radio pilot season.”

“We’ve had successful shows that have been around for decades, and the newest ones that are reaching big audiences — even those are a decade old,” he told me. “We had a really good experiment with something similar, which was Public Radio Talent Quest, but that was more focused on hosts and new voices.”

Glynn Washington, one of the two Talent Quest winners, would go on to host NPR’s Snap Judgment. But the five dozen other people seen as serious competitors were largely forgotten. Shapiro says there’s a big ecosystem of podcasters and aspiring podcasters who would jump at the chance to be a part of public radio.

“It revealed that there’s a way to take some of what is the chaotic but very effective commercial television season dance and translate it into public radio terms, where essentially we collaborate with stations to introduce new show concepts, on air and online, in a very visible, very vocal way,” he said.

Nuzum said the nimble approach to programming is more or less the new normal at NPR. “Whether [these shows] have a future or not, I’m really proud of what we’ve come up with,” he said. “The bigger experiment is the process…This wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago.”

Photo of an old radio by santibon used under a Creative Commons license.

May 24 2011

14:00

“Expanding the palette of public radio”: Marc Maron’s WTF moves from podcast to program

Last month, we posted an interview Josh did with The Sound of Young America‘s Jesse Thorn. During their conversation, Thorn mentioned that he was working on trying to bring his friend Marc Maron‘s interview show WTF to public radio sometime in the “late spring of this year.”

Well: It is done. Last week, WTF was picked up by PRX (FTW!), thus making it available for distribution to stations around the country. And a number have already signed on: WTF has been licensed so far by New York’s WNYC, Chicago’s WBEZ, and, as of yesterday, Austin’s KUT — with more, Thorn told me, on the way.

WTF both is and isn’t standard public radio fare. On one hand, it’s two people sitting behind microphones, one interviewing the other, a form as old as the medium. On the other, it’s far less formal and more sprawling than what you’d get from a Terry Gross or a Diane Rehm. Maron interviews comedians in each episode — Conan O’Brien, Robin Williams, Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K. — in loose conversations that can extend well beyond an hour. The format and Maron’s abilities have led to surprisingly open and revealing interviews. As Ira Glass told The New York Times, “People say stuff to him that you can’t imagine them saying to anyone else. And they offer it. They want to give it to him. Because he is so bare, he calls it forward.”

As part of the shift to a public radio format, podcast episodes had to be compacted and reshuffled to fit into one-hour time slots. There was also some bleeping necessary; WTF suggests “sensitive listeners should be advised.” Glass, who championed the show’s move to radio, insisted on keeping the name intact, acronym moralists be damned. (Check out Glass’ promos for the show below. You can hear all 10 episodes, pulled from the best of WTF’s archives, at PRX’s website.)

Thorn said he hopes that WTF can be part of a move to broaden the kind of content — and the kind of show formats — on the public airwaves. “I think the type of interview that Marc does is something that’s new to public radio,” he says. His interview style signals a shift not because it’s profane or vulgar — “which I think is what, sometimes, program directors assume about it” — but because it is raw and real in a way “that you don’t hear almost anywhere in broadcasting — outside of, to some extent, your semi-exploitative television interviews” (Oprah, Barbara Walters, etc.).

That emotional, human-to-human connection can be a rarity within a platform whose definition of professionalism is often bound up in the interviewer’s ability to express both empathy and detachment at once. (Paging Jay Rosen.) “I don’t think it’s something that has existed in public media in the context of an interview show — and especially on a public radio show,” Thorn says. He likens Maron’s interviewing style to that of…Howard Stern, since, say what you will about the shock jock, “one thing that he’s capable of doing brilliantly is finding emotional revelations in his guests. And he does that by being so honest about himself that the guest can’t help but be honest about themselves.”

That authentic element, Thorn notes — the closeness, the rawness — is part of what has made shows like This American Life and Radiolab into successes, particularly with younger listeners. And when Glass made his push to promote WTF into a show, furthering that trend was part of the idea:

It’s high time we on public radio harvest the very best of the podcasts out there and bring them to our audience. This is a great, easy, audience-friendly way to do that.

It’s about, essentially, “expanding the palette of public radio,” Thorn says: about providing listeners with new ways to understand the intimacy of the spoken word. “I think that Marc recording the show in his garage, with his books, feeds that strength of audio as a format,” Thorn says. “It’s like having something whispered in your ear. It’s automatically very intimate.”

April 28 2011

16:30

Your handiest reporting tool may be the smartphone in your pocket

iPhone Voice Memos

Every journalist has found herself in some version of this situation: Bianca Vazquez Toness, a reporter for Boston’s WBUR public radio, drove about 40 minutes north of her office Tuesday to interview the controversial mayor of Lawrence, Mass. Only when she arrived did she realize she had forgotten her audio kit — recorder, microphone, cables, headphones, everything. Gah.

What she had brought with her, though, was her iPhone. She had no choice but to try using that to record or risk losing a big interview.

When I heard the piece that turned out on WBUR’s air the next morning, I had no idea — nor would I have believed — that a cellphone had captured the sound coming through my radio. Sure, I knew a phone could record sound, but not broadcast-quality sound.

Toness (a friend and former colleague) had ended up using a $30 app called Report-IT Live, which includes advanced tools for live broadcasting and phone interviews. Any software, including Apple’s free Voice Memos app, works just as well, however. To maximize the sound quality, she advised, don’t use the crummy mike built into the phone’s Apple-supplied earbuds, just the phone itself, and hold it close (very, very close) to the person talking.

During her interviews Tuesday, Toness was a professional using, essentially, amateur equipment. But it’s not hard to imagine an amateur journalist using the same equipment in the same way. The web turned everyone into writers; inexpensive SLRs and point-and-shoot digicams turned everyone into photographers. The smartphone “could be the technology that turns everyone into a radio reporter,” Toness told me. “All my colleagues now — they heard it, and they’re like, ‘Why do we carry these huge kits around?’”

Public radio people can be pretty snobby about audio quality — I can say that, having worked in public radio for five years — but, given the alternatives proliferating in the market, it’s getting harder to justify the expense and bulk of pro kits for field work. Judge the audio quality of Toness’ piece for yourself. And remember, as you close your eyes and turn up the volume in your noise-canceling headphones, that most listeners hear radio stories over a cheap FM set while making breakfast, getting the kids dressed, or driving to work. News producers may be snobby about sound quality, but consumers, generally, are anything but.

Toness is by no means the first reporter to experiment with smartphone-based reporting. A year ago, WTOP reporter Neal Augenstein packed away all of his equipment — laptop, recorder, cameras, and all — to become “the first major-market radio reporter to do all his field reporting on an iPhone.” Augenstein recently reported on his iPhone-only experience for PBS MediaShift (an account, for all you nerds, that’s chock full of equipment details):

A year in, iPhone-only reporting isn’t perfect. While audio editing works great, with the phone’s built-in microphone I’d estimate the sound quality of my field reports is 92% as good as when I use bulky broadcast equipment. Getting better audio for my video is a real challenge. And if I ever have to cover a story from a subway tunnel or location where there’s no WiFi or cell coverage, I won’t be able to file until I resurface.

Media Bistro’s 10,000 Words recently published its own guide to the art of iPhone reporting. There are some good tips — switch on Airplane Mode to avoid interruptions, buy an adapter to plug in a real microphone — but the best advice is this: “Look like a legit journalist.”

Jerome Hubbard, a UC Berkeley journalism student, took the legitimacy question to the street — using his iPhone to record the video, of course. Can a reporter armed only with a smartphone be taken seriously? Hubbard’s unscientific finding was “yes.”

Said one man on the street:

I would take you seriously, Jerome, because you approached me very professionally. You’re very polite, you’re very kind. You asked my permission. You look like the journalist type. And you’re using modern technology.

So maybe professionalism is derived from old-fashioned manners, not the gear you’re slinging. (What’s that saying, the best camera is the one that’s with you?) And, besides, freedom from bulky gadgets may actually make for a better interview. All that equipment can be a hindrance, especially among sources who aren’t used to being sources.

“I actually feel like people were less intimidated or distracted by it,” Toness said of her makeshift recording kit. “Also, I don’t look quite as conspicuous on the street, which I like.”

There is an intriguing possibility that the entire production process can be executed on the road. At WBUR, reporters typically bring their sound back to professional engineers, who mix finished pieces. Even that can be done on a phone now. A $10 app called Monle is a four-track, non-linear audio editor for iPhone. And as Josh noted last month, the iPad can also be an all-in-one field kit with Apple’s GarageBand. That $5 app includes a fast, dead-simple, eight-track editor. A reporter in the field could conceivably record her interviews and voice tracks, mix a piece and send it back home, shoot photos and video, and, perhaps with the aid of a Bluetooth keyboard, type and file a script — all on one device that weighs less than two pounds.

Toness used her personal phone for the interview, an iPhone 4, since WBUR supplies its employees with BlackBerry devices. And now that they’ve heard her Lawrence story, she says, her co-workers are a little envious. “My colleagues said, ‘OK, when are we getting iPhones?’”

April 21 2011

14:30

Schiller to public radio: Don’t just sit there, take risks

Vivian Schiller

Vivian Schiller has a warning to her former colleagues at NPR: “Your continued existence is not guaranteed.”

But that warning — delivered yesterday in a talk at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center — wasn’t just about the congressional fight over public funding. It was about what she sees as the imminent threat of Internet radio in cars. “The monopoly advantage of the radio tower will begin to fade,” she said, delivering her remarks in the form of an open letter to public broadcasters.

“New digital-only startups will enter the marketplace in audio, and you will find yourselves longing for the days when the competition was that public radio station that overlapped with your broadcast signal,” she said.

The Shorenstein Center has posted audio of Schiller’s hour-long talk and Q&A; you can download the MP3 or listen to it below:

[See post to listen to audio]

Schiller suggested member stations adjust to the threat by starting to offer additional, online-only streams. If the local NPR station is serving news when a listener wants music, Pandora is just a click away. And, as Schiller warned in our predictions-for-2011 package in December, that kind of audio flexibility is coming to cars, terrestrial radio’s strongest bastion.

She said public radio could learn a few things about competition and innovation from its commercial counterparts, having worked in for-profit media herself (CNN, Discovery, The New York Times). She urged public radio to take more risks.

“You are now competing in the big leagues and are no longer the scrappy underdog,” she said. ”You must become your own disruptors. If you don’t aggressively reach out to new audiences on new platforms, someone else will. There is no such thing as lasting media loyalty, especially in this age of media promiscuity.” She said public radio needs to “let go of the nostalgia” of the craft.

In questions afterward, Schiller said little about what’s next for her post-NPR (other than “a week on the beach”) and had little to add about the controversies that led to her departure. Schiller brushed off suggestions that NPR cut ties to member stations, which receive a vast majority of the famously fraught federal funding, saying the national-local partnership model is the network’s “special sauce.” She said the surest way for stations to survive is to deliver locally focused content, alongside NPR’s national and international reporting, on every platform possible.

March 11 2011

15:00

This Week in Review: NPR at a crossroads, hyperlocal’s personal issue, and keeping comments real

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

A bad week for NPR execs named Schiller: For the second time in five months, NPR has found itself in the middle of a controversy that’s forced it to wrestle with issues of objectivity, bias, and its own federal funding. This one started when the conservative prankster James O’Keefe orchestrated a hidden-camera video of a NPR fundraising exec bashing Tea Partiers and generally straying from the NPR party line while meeting with people pretending to represent a Muslim charity. (The “donors” also met with PBS, but their people didn’t take the bait.)

Reaction was mixed: The right, of course, was outraged, though others like Slate’s Jack Shafer and Gawker’s John Cook downplayed the significance of the video. NPR was outraged, too — “appalled,” actually, with 21 journalists condemning the remarks. CEO Vivian Schiller said she was upset and that the two execs had put on administrative leave, but within about 12 hours, however, Schiller herself had been forced out by NPR’s board. The New York Times has good background on the shocking turn of events, and Poynter summarized the six months of controversy that led up to this, stretching back to Juan Williams’ firing (the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder called Schiller’s ouster “Williams’ revenge”).

Reaction to NPR’s handling of the situation was decidedly less mixed — and a lot more scathing. In a chat and column, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard ripped just about all parties involved, and the online response from media-watchers was just as harsh. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen called it “profoundly unjust,” and several others blasted NPR’s leadership.

The Awl’s Choire Sicha called NPR’s management “wusses,” CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis called the NPR board “ballless” and said the episode exposes the difference between NPR and the stations who run it, ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg lamented NPR’s allowing the O’Keefes of the world to take over public discourse, and Rosen and Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy told NPR to start fighting back. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares put it best, saying the fiasco “exposes them as an organization that is fundamentally weak — too concerned about its image to realize that ‘surrender’ is not always the best option.”

The episode also stoked the fires of the perpetual debate over whether public radio should keep its federal funding. The Atlantic’s Chris Good looked at the political aspects of the issue, and The Christian Science Monitor examined whether public radio stations would survive without federal money. A few calls to defund public radio came from outside the traditional (i.e. conservative) places, with Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan and media analyst Alan Mutter arguing that NPR will be in an untenable situation as a political football as long as they’re getting federal funds. Meanwhile, here at the Lab, USC’s Nikki Usher did give some encouraging information from the whole situation, looking at Schiller’s legacy of digital and local innovation during her NPR tenure.

Making hyperlocal news personal: AOL continued its move into local news late last week, as it bought the hyperlocal news aggregator Outside.in. In an excellent analysis at the Lab, Ken Doctor argued that the purchase is a way for AOL to get bigger quickly, particularly by bulking up Patch’s pageviews through cheap local aggregation tools. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick took the opportunity to ask why hyperlocal news technology services like Outside.in, Everyblock, and Fwix haven’t been as useful as we had hoped.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM posited an answer: Hyperlocal journalism only works if it’s deeply connected with the community it serves, and those technologies aren’t. Without that level of community, “AOL is pouring money into a bottomless pit,” he wrote. The Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran said that might be where local news organizations can step in, focusing less on creating news articles and more on using their community trust to make local information useful, relevant and findable.

Elsewhere on the cheap-content front: All Things Digital reported that AOL is laying off hundreds of employees (including the widely expected gutting of several of its news sites), and Business Insider snagged the memo. Wired talked to two Google engineers about its anti-content farm changes, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said good content is created either by passionate fans or by proper journalists being paid a fair amount. But, he said, “paying people a very low amount of money to write about stuff they don’t care about — that doesn’t work.” And Dan Conover at Xark warned against turning content — especially hyperlocal — into a franchise formula.

Accountability and authenticity in online comments: TechCrunch was one of the first companies to try out Facebook’s new commenting system, and after about a week, MG Siegler noted that the number of the site’s comments had decreased, and they’d also gone from nasty to warm and fuzzy. Entrepreneur Steve Cheney proposed a reason why the comments were so “sterile and neutered”: Facebook kills online authenticity, because everyone is self-censoring their statements to make sure their grandmas, ex-girlfriends, and entire social network won’t be offended.

Tech guru Robert Scoble disagreed, arguing that TechCrunch’s comments have improved, and people know real change and credibility only comes from using their real identities. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo made a somewhat similar argument, eloquently making the case for the elimination of anonymous commenting. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram weighed in by saying that Facebook can’t make or break comments — it all depends on being involved in an actual conversation with users. He pointed to a brilliant post by NPR’s Matt Thompson, who gave numerous tips on cultivating community in comments; much it went back to the idea that “The very best filter is an empowered, engaged adult.”

Meanwhile, Joy Mayer of the Reynolds Journalism Institute got some advice on cultivating online reader engagement from the Wall Street Journal’s (and formerly the Lab’s) Zach Seward, and the Lab’s Megan Garber reported on the results of some research into which stories are the most liked and shared on Facebook.

More paywall test cases: Newspapers continue to pound the paywall drumbeat, with the CEO of newspaper chain Gannett saying the company is experimenting with various pay models in anticipation of a potential one-time company-wide rollout and the Dallas Morning News rolling out its own paywall this week. Ken Doctor crunched the numbers to try to gauge the initiative’s chances, and media consultant Mike Orren disagreed with the News’ idea of how much a metro newspaper’s operation should cost.

Elsewhere, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case that Britain’s Financial Times’ paywall strategy has contributed to its decline, writing, “the FT strategy is exactly the strategy I would choose if I was faced with an industry in terminal decline, and wanted to extract as much money as possible from it before it died.” Meanwhile, The New York Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, chided the Times for not aggressively covering news of its own paywall, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM called paywalls a futile attempt to hold back the tide of free online content.

Reading roundup: Some things to read in between SXSW Interactive panels:

— New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote a rather odd little column taking shots at news and opinion aggregators, especially Arianna Huffington. Everyone then took shots at his column, including Huffington, TechDirt’s Mike Masnick, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan.

— Newsweek published its first redesigned issue under The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown this week. The Society of Publication Designers had a look at the issue, which Slate’s Jack Shafer panned. The New York Times noted the issue’s familiar bylines.

— A few Apple-related notes: At MediaShift, Susan Currie Sivek looked at the impact of Apple’s 30-percent app subscription cut on small magazines, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow urged Apple-fighting publishers to move to the open web, not Android-powered tablets. GigaOM’s Om Malik joined the chorus of people calling for iPad apps to be reimagined.

— Two great posts at the Lab on search engine optimization: Richard J. Tofel on why the web will be better off with the decline of SEO, and Martin Langeveld on the SEO consequences of including paid links on sites.

— Former Guardian digital chief Emily Bell gave a fantastic interview to CBC Radio about various future-of-news issues, and Mathew Ingram summarized a talk she gave on newspapers and the web.

— Finally, two must-reads: The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote a thoughtful essay arguing that we should take the contemporary journalism environment on its own terms, rather than unfairly comparing it to earlier eras. And at the Lab, former St. Pete Times journalist and current Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite called news developers to let the old systems go and “hack at the very core of the whole product.”

March 09 2011

20:30

From Argo to R&D: Vivian Schiller’s legacy of innovation at NPR

With the departure of NPR CEO Vivian Schiller today, and the January resignation of Senior VP for News Ellen Weiss — not to mention threats of the loss of government funding that have been escalating in the past couple of months — things look like they could be pretty scary for NPR at the moment.

In the wake of all of this turmoil, though, it’s worth taking a look at Schiller’s and Weiss’s legacy. Under their leadership, NPR has been doing things that have been helping to set the standard for innovation across the industry — in broadcast and beyond.

I say this after being involved with NPR on the research end since 2008, after the Knight Foundation gave NPR $1.5 million to retrain 400 digital journalists, and gave USC $2.4 million and UC Berkeley $2.8 million to help the transformation happen. I worked with Knight Digital Media Center head Vikki Porter and USC professor Patricia Riley in studies of NPR that included field research, interviewing, and leadership workshops at USC.

Here are some of our findings about NPR under Schiller and Weiss:

• Continued audience growth, not just on traditional airwaves, but in on demand forms, such as through podcasting and streaming radio
• Exposure of large numbers of staff to multimedia training and digital news concepts
• The incorporation of digital news staff into the traditional radio newsroom
• The relaunch of the NPR website
• The opening of the NPR API for programmers and anyone else to experiment with — making it possible for a volunteer firefighter, who happens also to be an NPR fan, to create a streaming mobile app called NPR Addict
• The development of an active social media team, which can both create social media content from NPR and also harness everything from audience Flickr efforts to user comments
• The willingness to experiment with an in-house social media platform on NPR’s community page
• More followers on Facebook — 1.5 million at the moment — than any other media organization, Schiller has said
• The expansion of the NPR brand beyond radio to include visuals (such as flash graphics), video, photography, and — a challenge for any radio or broadcast organization — text
• The active presence of NPR Labs, an R&D team inside NPR that can bake new ideas into initiatives throughout the news organization and at other public radio stations
• The launch of project ARGO, a network of public radio digital sites, which represents a commitment by NPR not to leave member stations in the lurch as it moves forward

Now let’s take a look at the outlook for NPR, something I heard articulated by Schiller when she spoke at USC in November:

• NPR understands that its mission is to increase “interactivity,” as Schiller put it, and to be “more respectful of citizens” in its work — to continue, as she put it, to “put the audience first”
• NPR will continue to give people context and avoid tabloidization
• NPR wants to compete in new ways with other news outlets through new technology
• NPR wants to address the fact that “not all listeners are invited to the party” and to focus on making it more inclusive
• NPR wants to give people on-demand content
• NPR has a goal of “transparency through new technology” — an openness to giving people everything from access to its API to the ability to share and comment and provide feedback

In all of this, there has been something of a revolving door that never stopped in the plans for making NPR an innovator in digital news. In 2008, Ken Stern, NPR’s CEO, left the organization, in part because, some say, his vision for NPR digital news didn’t do enough to include member stations. Maria Thomas, Senior VP for Digital Media also left. Jay Kernis, the Senior VP for Program (and one of the creators of Morning Edition) departed, as well.

But in came fresh blood, such as Kinsey Wilson, who moved from USA Today to become the general manager of digital media, and NPR executive editor Dick Meyer, who helped Schiller and Weiss build their vision.

You can look to NPR’s work just over the past week to see that vision brought to life. And anyone who has been paying any attention to the uprisings in the Middle East knows that NPR is not just a radio station; it has become a curator for information around the world, thanks to Andy Carvin (@acarvin) and his efforts to curate for the rest of us the on-the-ground efforts.

NPR has been hailed by many media activists, scholars, and generally anyone concerned with the future of news as a model for both innovation and for quality reporting. The Downie and Schudson report from late 2009, for instance, praised NPR’s new website as well as its growing audience and its capacity to do journalism on a local, national, and international level — in a comprehensive way that few news organizations still can.

The question is whether all of this progress can continue, given today’s shakeup. But if all the revolving doors haven’t stopped NPR so far, it’s possible to continue to think that it will keep moving forward.

February 11 2011

17:00

Why an expansion of low-power radio stations could mean good things for community news

The future of local radio news may involve more than just the letters N, P, and R.

Last month, President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, a new law allowing the expansion of noncommercial stations around the country though new low-power radio licenses. Running on 100 watts (about the same as an exceptionally bright lightbulb), these stations are intended for nonprofits, schools, and churches to create community programming. While this may inspire visions of contemporary Christian music and school board meetings popping up alongside the best hits of the ’80s, ’90s, and today, it could also mean more locally produced journalism.

Consider the commonalities low-power radio stations have with local news startups: A defined coverage area and audience; a model that requires engagement with the community; a need for financial support from businesses and a mission to serve the public interest.

“Low power radio really fits well into the model of covering local issues,” Ian Smith of the Prometheus Radio Project told me. “It’s a hyperlocal medium.”

Very hyperlocal, considering that a 100-watt signal won’t carry very far, but it could be just enough to cover a small town or a neighborhood in larger cities. Smith, a development and communications associate with Prometheus, said low-power stations directly reflect the communities they are in, whether its keeping zydeco music alive or voicing the concerns of Latino farm workers.

Smith said a number of low-power stations have set out to not just provide cultural programming but respond to gaps in local news coverage and offer alternatives to traditional media. In that sense, community radio stations join the growing network of nonprofit journalism startups as well as locally oriented initiatives from NPR like Project Argo and Impact of Government.

But what separates community radio from its larger public and corporate cousins is the same thing that could make it work as a vehicle for citizen journalism. “One of the things that makes low power radio so unique is its so participatory,” Smith said. “You can participate in the production, not just the consumption.”

Though low-power radio offers a ready conduit for people concerned about issues within a community, it also can impose certain disciplines helpful to journalism. In order to put a program on the air, you need to know how to run a soundboard (or some basic audio recording tools) and have the ability to put together a cohesive program. Dean Graber, who works at the University of Texas’ Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and has researched low-power radio, points out that some stations are already attempting to guide citizen journalists. KPOV in Bend, Ore., for instance, created a journalism handbook for volunteers. As Graber wrote on his blog: “For people worried about the state of U.S. journalism, now is the perfect opportunity to consider and experiment with new forms of non-profit, community-based journalism, on the time-tested medium of radio.”

While some community radio stations may wish to take on the mantle of news provider, it would be wrong to expect their programming to be similar to that of traditional news outlets, Graber told me over email. “Some news and information programs will follow existing formats for delivering news and information over the radio, including Pacifica and Free Speech News. Other programs will thoroughly innovate their news and information programs,” he wrote.

As malleable as the programming is, it’s likely the ubiquitous nature of radio will also help low-power stations grow and find an audience. As Smith points out, radio is largely free (okay, yes, once you buy the radio) and accessible everywhere, at home, at work, or in the car. Although streaming radio complements that and increases the potential to reach broader audiences, the focus, as always, remains local.

“We think it’s important to maintain the localism of this medium in any way that is relevant to their community,” Smith said. “It’s part of the public commons and should be serving the public good,” he said.

Image by William Li used under a Creative Commons license

January 31 2011

15:00

Audio/visual: Adding captions to NPR to reach a text-based audience

Things to take into consideration when trying to caption a radio newscast: how to convey sarcasm, irony, or seriousness; how to represent sound or ambient noise that’s important to a story; how to differentiate the voices of multiple hosts and guests.

Oh, and how to enable captioning on a medium that typically comes with no visuals.

All of these are things NPR Labs has been working on for several years as they try to bring captioned radio into mainstream use. This fall, they’ll begin a pilot program to test out captioned radio at stations around the country through display-capable digital radios and other devices like the Insignia Infocast. The hope is that, one day, captioned radio could also be viewed on mobile apps and tablets.

“We’re trying to build this to work for all public radio and create a large enough model that it can be emulated by others,” Mike Starling, executive director of NPR Labs, told me.

The idea of captioning is much more obvious for television, where the visual medium provides a ready display for text. (Closed captioning dates back to the early 1970s at Boston’s WGBH.) But radio is just as critical a source of news reports and emergency information, Starling said. NPR has come a long way in offering transcripts of their programs online, but they still come with a delay. NPR Labs, which works on software and transmission technology, has been experimenting with captioned radio as digital broadcasting has expanded and radio has burst out of its audio-only bounds. As more radio signals became digital, it allowed for transmission of something like a speech-to-text algorithm that creates a captioning feed. A description from NPR Labs:

Audio recorded in any of NPR’s studios is sent to Master Control, which then routes this audio to both PRSS and to a captioner. The captioner can be either a stenographer or a re-speaker, like the BBC uses. Re-speakers listen to audio and re-speak what they hear into a voice recognition program that has been trained to their voice. This increases the accuracy greatly over speech-to-text programs that are untrained, and removes any background sounds from field reports that might confuse the program.

From there, captions would be sent to stations over the Internet or by satellite and available to read on display-enabled radios, on the web, or on Internet-enabled devices.

Starling said a big reason captioned radio is advancing now is because technology is making it easier to put screens in front of the estimated 25-30 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing. That may be part of the reason NPR was looking to make friends with Apple and Android developers at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show. Tablets like the iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab are the right size for viewing live text, Starling said. But the price of those gadgets means they’re not widely available, which is why Starling considers something like the Infocast or Sony Dash good options that run less than $200. (NPR also developed a prototype car radio display with Delphi, that could act as a screen for turn-by-turn navigation or captions. See the video above for more.)

“It’s perfect timing for us to do the initial work on how to do captioning cost effectively,” he said.

More important than the technology is translating newscasts and other programs in a way that is faithful to content but also understandable for deaf audiences, Starling said. NPR worked with researchers at Gallaudet University to find the best ways to relay non-spoken information in stories, and what factors can interfere with reading captions. In one test, they found that people liked seeing avatars of NPR personalities like Robert Siegel or Michele Norris in captions, but that the extra visuals cut down on the retention of information from stories, Starling said.

“It’s like interpreting for a different language,” he said. “You have to figure out how to best translate this into something else so the full semantic impact is made in articulating a concept.”

The largest trial run of captioned radio was on election night in 2008 when 150 people at five member stations tested captions on a large display, an online stream, and a slide show. Starling said they now want to get a sense whether captioned radio can fit into everyday life and what problems may arise for listeners or stations. Though they’re just scratching the surface of what could be done with captioned radio, Starling said he can see a future where broadcasts could be visualized in different ways, possibly to incorporate images, graphic or video, made available anywhere on any device.

“We’ve got enough to bite off in doing faithful transcripts before we explore how this new artform could be more fully exploited for the intended audience,” he said.

November 23 2010

16:30

The Business of Public Radio: WNYC Bulks Up, Builds Out

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

On a recent chilly night in downtown Manhattan, about 130 fans of WNYC's Radio Lab chuckled at quips exchanged between show hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich in the station's new event space.

The performance wasn't part of the public radio show's on-air lineup, but was instead a live event for which the audience members had paid $25 per ticket. This is just one way the station is reaching out to the community -- and in the process making a few bucks.

WNYC, the flagship public radio station in New York and the most listened to public radio station in the country, has in recent years developed a lot of ways to, in the words of CEO Laura Walker, "diversify revenue streams." It has increased its member base, used new fundraising techniques, attracted new grants, conducted capital campaigns to buy radio licenses and build new offices and studios, made financial investments, developed new sponsorships, increased web revenues, rented out its event space and more.

"What we have done is been a leader within the public media industry in applying both traditional and non-profit fundraising techniques," Walker said in a telephone interview. "We're taking the best of the non-profit world, the best of the public media world."

While WNYC has the advantage of being situated in the largest U.S. city -- a financial and artistic hub Walker says is "at the center of the creative world" -- the station also provides lessons in how public media can try to improve, even in difficult financial times.

LauraWalker_ScottEllisonSmith_medium_image.jpgWalker took charge of the station in 1995, when it was owned by the city and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was looking to sell it. Some of Walker's first tasks were to launch a campaign to raise $20 million to buy the FCC license and to negotiate a deal to stay in the city offices for a few more years, rent-free.

She later worked to diversify the programming and sources of income and to develop a five-year plan to bring more news and information to an audience that grew swiftly after the 9/11 attacks that occurred just blocks from their Municipal Building offices.

Growth in Audience, Staff, Funds

In 1995, the station's operating budget was $8 million, and "there was no endowment to speak of," Walker said. Today, its budget is about $55 million. In fiscal 2010, which ended in July, the station raised $56.2 million in revenue and support, according to its financial statement [PDF]. It has more than $16 million cash on hand, and a staff of about 252 people, including 31 news reporters and producers, and 13 salespeople at the national and local levels.

The audience has grown more than 40 percent since it became independent to 1.2 million people weekly, a spokesperson said, for its two stations, one each on AM and FM. The station's members in fiscal 2010 gave the largest share of contributions, $15.4 million of the $33 million received. Major donors, who gave $1,000 or more each, contributed $2.4 million. About $3.25 million, 6 percent of the station's yearly operating budget, comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, according to the spokesperson.

The CPB also is expected to donate more than $1 million to help support "The Takeaway" morning news program, which WNYC produces in partnership with Public Radio International.

Fundraising Activities Raise Millions

To bolster its ability to create programming and keep expanding, the station has launched campaigns that in the last several years raised $62.9 million, Walker said. Members of the board, which include many New York media and society luminaries, have donated close to $22 million. Thirteen individuals or family foundations have given $1 million or more each to help support the station and its shows, she says.

takeaway-logo-sm.jpgWNYC partners with PRI and American Public Media to produce shows such as "Radio Lab," the "Studio 360" arts and culture show, "On the Media," "Freakonomics" segments for the Marketwatch business show, and "The Takeaway." Costs and revenues are shared with the partners.

For local audiences, WNYC launched "Financial 411" segments that explain economic issues, "Mainstreet NYC" to explore how the economy affects New Yorkers, and the Peabody award-winning "Radio Rookies" that gives teenagers, often from less privileged communities, a voice, among other shows, programs and events.

Last year, WNYC moved its operation to new headquarters that include the performance space, which was created with the help of a $6 million gift from the Jerome L. Greene Foundation. State and City agencies gave another $10 million toward the move. The space is working to become self-sustaining financially, said WNYC's Indira Etwaroo, who runs it.

The Greene space, as it's known, has hosted cooking demonstrations, concerts and readings, and is accepting applications for a second "Battle of the Boroughs" talent quest in which performers compete to host a concert and perform during the summer at Central Park's Summer Stage.

The recent 11th-annual gala, a glittering event hosted by station friend and listener Alec Baldwin and Ira Glass, host of Chicago Public Radio's "This American Life," raised close to $1 million. Baldwin, star of the hit TV show "30 Rock," not only donated his time, but also starred in a number of humorous radio spots used for the recent fundraising drive.

The station raised another $15 million to purchase and operate WQXR, the nation's most-listened to classical music station, from the New York Times this year. (Of that, $11 million was used to purchase the FCC license, and $4 million went to operations.) WNYC has since moved its classical music programming from WNYC-FM to QXR and now concentrates WNYC-AM and -FM on news and talk.

It all adds up to a station that has become a big fundraising presence in New York, bringing in dollars that support current activities and allow for new ones that, in turn, attract more interest and generate more revenue.

Walker Is Station's Highest Earner

By public media standards, Walker has been well-compensated for her efforts. According to the station's tax return for 2008 [PDF], the most recent provided, her compensation was $512,870, with $150,000 of that amount as a bonus. She was the top earner at WNCY, with former "Takeaway" co-host Adora Udoji coming in second at $332,147 (the other co-host John Hockenberry received $265,595). Dean Cappello, chief content officer and SVP was the third-highest earner, garnering $309,341.

Not everyone, of course, has been happy with everything Walker and the station have done. Last year, amid a decline in membership dollars, the station laid off four staff members, eliminated 11 unfilled positions and cut senior staff pay by five percent. Like any station, WNYC gets complaints when it changes programming or schedules, but because it's in New York, those complaints can come from highly visible individuals.

While the station has diversified its audience to better match the multi-ethnic and racial mix of New York, some believe it could do more. Maxie C. Jackson III, was the station's senior director of program development until a year ago. He is now president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and thinks the station's fundraising should reflect "a greater diversity."

"There needs to be a focus on generating revenue from communities of color," he said of WNYC and other public media.

Walker said the next phase for the station is "about doing innovate, creative programming in New York" and also "building out new revenue sources."

"I think we are uniquely positioned because we have diversified revenue streams, unlike our traditional non-profit brethren that often have less" and have to rely more on government and foundation support, she said.

While WNYC does have some unique advantages by being in New York, their efforts may hold lessons for ways in which public media can grow, prosper and expand its mission in the years to come.

A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil has devised and executed marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk. He and his wife, residents of New York, support WNYC as members.

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

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November 17 2010

15:00

The Magic 8 Ball of News: The Future-Jobs-O-Matic

American Public Media has built a better Magic 8 Ball. Okay, not exactly, but it’s just as fun to shake things up on the Future-Jobs-O-Matic game and find out your destiny. And better than the 8 Ball, it’ll tell you what your salary will be.

Released by the team at public radio’s Marketplace, the Future-Jobs-O-Matic is a game-ified (or maybe app-ified) way of breaking out data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Specifically they’re breaking down the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the guide released every two years by the bureau outlining the jobs and industries that are expected to grow.

The guide is already available and searchable online (or in paperback, weighing in at more than 800 pages). But the team at Marketplace figured they could make the information more accessible — and maybe even fun — for their audience.

Taking a spin on the Future Jobs-O-Matic is as easy and familiar as picking a flight on a travel website. You start with a career field, ranging from agriculture and manufacturing to transportation and professional, and narrow it down to specific occupations and ultimately your Job of The Future.

Going several steps better than a high school guidance counselor, the Future Jobs-O-Matic provides a competitive outlook — will your field grow or shrink? — the change in job numbers over a decade, and the median income for 2010.

(The outlook for reporter? “News tip: Keep your eyes open.” For an author/writer/editor? “The internet could be your best chance.” For a network administrator? “Your future is bright. Really bright.”)

I emailed Adriene Hill, a multimedia reporter working on sustainability issues at Marketplace who worked on the project. She said displaying the labor data as an interactive feature gives the audience a better way of understanding information than a more straightforward story.

“We wanted users to engage with the information — to play with it,” she wrote.

The release of the game was timed to coincide with the fall election, as jobs were expected to be a big issue. But with Marketplace’s broader economic focus, the game fits into their continuing coverage on the recession. Hill told me it took around a month to develop and package the game, and similar to most data journalism, one of the larger tasks was figuring out what information was important to the public.

Hill said the game serves a basic function of helping people consider potential jobs, but also provide perspective on the economy. The editorial goals of the game, Hill said, were to examine future jobs, identify trends causing changes, and to “show that some of these changes in the labor market are unrelated to the claims and promises of politicians.”

American Public Media has a history with news games, having previously released Consumer Consequences, which shows the impact of society’s consumption habits on the environment, and Budget Hero, where players could try their hand at spending and cutting the federal budget. Hill said news games need to go beyond just good design and user experience — they need to fulfill the standard of news. “It also needs to meet some need the audience has. In our case, we wanted something simple that would be fast to produce and look at serious, long-term trends (trends that actually are depressing in some cases) and present them in a fun way,” she wrote.

November 16 2010

15:00

NewsWorks: Back-to-the-future community news

Yesterday brought the launch of a news site with a promising tagline: “For you. With you. By you.”

The evocative motto belongs to NewsWorks, a web portal overseen by WHYY, the public radio station serving metro Philadelphia. Though it’s been built under corporate-parent oversight, the site sees itself primarily as a network, Chris Satullo, WHYY’s executive director for news and civic dialogue, told me. In addition to reporting that comes courtesy of WHYY staff, NewsWorks will both rely on content provided by its community and aim to amplify it. And, in that, it will make a point of featuring the kind of news that often gets lost in the rush of gossip-based, conflictastic stories, providing “balanced journalism that is as interested in solutions and heroes as problems and scandals.”

In other words, Satullo says, the site will be “everything you love about NPR, only on the web.”

It will also be, from the looks of things, everything you love about the web: NewsWorks is something of a proof-of-concept when it comes to the new compact the Internet allows between journalism and its users. The site will emphasize, in addition to information about politics, health, culture, and the like, neighborhood news (with an early focus on northwest Philadelphia, but with plans to expand). User-produced stuff will factor heavily into the site’s content. And conversation will be key. Indeed, NewsWorks’ vision for itself is the product of several little revolutions going on at once — and another step toward the normalization of the pro-am model of journalistic output.

Pretty much every feature of the new site aims at user engagement; for NewsWorks, all roads come from, and lead to, community. In addition to its planned reliance on user-provided content, the site is also experimenting with ways to encourage engagement — and good behavior — in online discussions. Its Sixth Square space (“William Penn designed our city with five public squares. You can build the sixth”) provides a moderated area for community discussion, bringing together six different features — and, really, concepts — into one piece of conversational real estate. Junto (so named for Ben Franklin’s storied discussion club) is a discussion area that emphasizes “civil, knowledgeable posts”; Props (“good words for good people”) invites compliments for community members; MindMap offers a self-generated profile of a user’s tastes and preferences; influences and tastes; Snarl (coming soon) will be a blog dedicated entirely to the vagaries — and frustrations — of traffic; Sleuth provides a space for people to ask questions about, and solve, “local mysteries”; and Sixes, taking a cue from Newsweek, asks users to summarize news events — in six words or less.

Though the features range on the scale from silly to serious, the common thread is their earnestness — and their commitment to community. The site offers an ideal vision of the public square as a place not only of community, but of harmony. And that’s evident in NewsWorks’ commenting system, as well. Its experimental approach to enforcing civility involves rating individual comments according to a karma system, which will ask users to rate each others’ comments according to their relevance, propriety, etc. (Karma systems have, of course, been around in various forms for years.) And from the consumer side of things, users can also customize their site settings to display, for example, only those comments with higher user ratings, bypassing the low — and thus, ostensibly, the low-quality.

Though NewsWorks, with its focus on engagement and empowerment of users, is experimenting with of-the-moment ideas about journalism, there’s also a distinctly back-to-the-future feel to all of this — a sense of return to the early days of the newspaper, and of journalism in general, as a vehicle for community discussion as much as anything else. Days in which journalism was the people who consumed it. As Satullo put it in the site’s welcome note yesterday:

We won’t be able to do any of this without you. Newsrooms aren’t the teeming masses of eager reporters they were back when I first walked into The Inquirer in 1989, as the 560th employee on the newsroom rolls.

Nor are today’s readers willing to settle for having formulaic news shoved at them, by reporters who have no time to answer questions because they’re already racing to the next bit of fluff or sensation. Rightfully, you want journalism to be a process of continuous engagement between you and those who claim to bring you the news you need.

That’s how journalism will get saved in these troubled times, by a new depth of connection between the reporter and the public.

November 12 2010

16:43

Remix Radio Re-Imagines Public Radio as Interactive Collage

While we continue to delve into code-level collaboration with Spot.Us to get our Story Exchange crowdfunding project launched later this year, I'll take the opportunity in my next couple posts to give updates on other emerging PRX services that are helping reshape public radio, and that ultimately will amplify the results of Story Exchange.

First up is Remix Radio, an entirely new sound for public radio.

Remix Radio

remix_flyer_front_hi.gif The basic idea of Remix is to create a story-driven radio format that aggregates and curates remarkable audio -- short-form documentaries, features, podcasts, interviews, archives, "found sound" -- and rotates it through a 24/7 channel in surprising and serendipitous ways. The goal is to make it sound awesome, interesting, fresh, diverse, unusual and compelling. We want to reach a new audience -- one that is younger and more diverse than the current public radio average, and that is curious about the world but not satisfied with the steady diet of talk/news on the radio or elsewhere.

You can check out Remix Radio now using the player below, visit the Remix Radio website, find Remix in the iTunes radio directory, favorite it on our Public Radio Player iPhone app, or tune into XM 136. And soon you'll be able to find Remix on local public radio stations around the country.

On Remix you might hear a classic short documentary from the Kitchen Sisters followed by audio from a recent PopTech! presentation, mixed in with a voicemail music mashup from the new website OneHelloWorld.

Some things you won't find on Remix Radio:

There is no set schedule, no top-of-the-hour news, no standard public radio clock (the breaks at the top of the hour and at 20 and 40 minutes, public radio's circadian rhythm). There are no daily or weekly national programs like "Fresh Air" and "This American Life," although you might encounter short segments that have appeared on other shows, brought into a new context. There are no announcers, news-readers, or reporters. But we do have a host -- our head curator, documentary DJ and producer extraordinaire Roman Mars.

Experimenting With a New Format

There are several insights driving the development of Remix Radio.

First is the realization that there are tons of powerful stories and audio pieces that often languish in the margins of existing formats and programs, or don't get on the radar screen to begin with. NPR calls these "driveway moments" -- the stories that trap you in the car lest you miss a second of a gripping tale.

PRX has a growing catalog of tens of thousands of these stories, and mostly we help get them out to local stations for broadcast. Last year we distributed over 9,000 pieces, but, with the exception of some superb showcase programs like KUT's O'Dark 30, the best stories aren't tied together to create a collective impression.

Another is the sore need to experiment with a new public radio format. The main flavors of news/information, classical, jazz, and Triple A have largely stayed the same for decades in public radio. The focus on consistency has been a necessary and successful strategy to build audience, but it's also led to uniformity and lack of innovation around new local/national channels and new program development. (See Bill McKibben's article in the New York Review of Books that underscores this and highlights some promising programs.)

While public radio has been making serious investments in new digital capacity and experiments on the web and now in mobile, there's little systemic strategizing or experimentation (with the notable exception of Vocalo) for the industry's biggest platform by far: Audio broadcast and streaming.

Then there's the fact that many of the best stories that air on public radio aren't heard by the majority of listeners because they air only once or twice, when only a fraction of a station's "cume" (weekly total listeners) is tuned in. This is especially true for short pieces.

Remix Radio has turned a necessity into a virtue: Since we have 24 hours a day to fill, we inevitably have to repeat a lot of content. Rather than hide that fact or resort to big blocks of looping programs we hand pick hundreds of stories that bear repeated listening and much like a music station we put them in heavy, medium and light rotation (with help from our friends and partners at Backbone whose Internet radio automation software is a linchpin of the service). We set patterns and ways of tagging and categorizing the pieces, but it's an algorithm that chooses what to play when and we ourselves aren't sure what might play next.

And lastly is the somewhat paradoxical and intriguing notion that at a time when the world is going on-demand and we all have the tools to stitch together our own media menu, there's an interesting opportunity to rethink the lean back experience of a curated channel. Where's the sweet spot between the rapidly fading value of "appointment listening" ("tune in this afternoon at 3 o'clock to hear...") and the unsustainable expectation that we will meticulously assemble podcast playlists, sync our devices, and devote time to discover new stuff?

Remix Radio is plunging into that question and using it as an excuse to reimagine radio from the ground up.

New Ideas

Some ideas we're cooking up:

  • Mobile participation -- How might Remix enlist listeners to help shape the channel, submit content, vote on playlists, and connect with each other? We've been keeping an eye on Jelli, a commercial music radio attempt to do some of this. And we're in love with Twilio as a way to integrate our web applications with voice interactivity.
  • Networked DJing -- One great advantage of our Remix Radio setup is that anyone working on the channel can manage it remotely from their laptop. All of the audio is stored in the cloud, streamed directly for the web and mobile, and delivered over the Internet as broadcast-ready files for XM and terrestrial delivery. There's no physical station, control room, master control engineering, satellite dishes etc. This means we can have a distributed network of program directors, show producers, on-air hosts, etc. -- all collaborating on Remix from different locations.
  • The continuum of sound -- We're thinking hard about how audio pieces traverse the various platforms that audiences use, what form factors apply, and where smart systems can help make that migration smooth for producers and listeners. What kind of technology, design and editorial input is needed for a podcast to become a segment of a radio program, for it to live as an embedded widget on a page, or a swipable screen on an iPhone app? It doesn't make sense to focus exclusively on one end of the continuum or the other; listening happens everywhere.

    How does all of this tie back in to Story Exchange? At PRX we're rethinking the whole life cycle of content creation, distribution, and engagement. Story Exchange will create opportunities to find and fund new stories, and Remix will help connect them with audiences in new ways.

Stay tuned!

September 23 2010

15:30

'Sourcing Through Texting' Brings Public into Radio Investigations

If a large truck illegally barrels through a neighborhood and no reporters are around to see it, does it make the news? It does if local residents with mobile phones can text truck sightings to a local public radio station.

This is the premise behind a new pilot project called Sourcing Through Texting from a team at "The Takeaway" radio program. Sourcing Through Texting provides a way to connect citizens with journalists via mobile phones.

Picture 1.pngThe Takeaway is a co-production of Public Radio International and public radio station WNYC in collaboration with the BBC World Service, the New York Times, and WGBH Boston. It can be heard live online or on the radio at about 60 stations in "Takeaway cities" across the U.S.

The program is trying to explore how to better connect with communities that are not a typical public radio demographic. John Keefe, executive producer for news and information at WNYC, said that typical listeners tend to be educated, older, and non-Hispanic whites.

"We want to be able to have connections and sources in communities where we're not heard or where people aren't going to our website," Keefe said. "In communities where people are communicating primarily via text."

Studies show that Hispanics and African Americans use their phones, and text messages in particular, more than non-Hispanic whites.

Sourcing Through Texting allows people to communicate with journalists by sending tips or information via text message in response to story topics or specific questions. The pilot project also won a 2010 Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism in which judges said "the experiment opened the doors for engaging non-listeners in ways they liked."

Origins of Sourcing through Texting

Sourcing Through Texting is as much a story about process as it is about a product. The basic question was how to use standard mobile phones to connect journalists with people in communities where public radio was not typically popular.

"We didn't have an answer," Keefe said. After a summit, a planning group formed that included journalists, mobile technology experts, members of the Public Insight Network (a web-based citizen participation platform at American Public Media), and people from the targeted community in Detroit.

Keefe said the process was a combination of experimentation and design thinking in journalism to come up with -- and eventually try out -- various ideas. On the first morning of the summit, the group brainstormed.

"And then we said, it's lunch time. By 2:00 we're taking a bus to the neighborhood, and we're going to try it out," Keefe said. (Read more about design thinking and process experimentation on Keefe's blog or watch this screencast:

One outcome from the summit, which included some prior planning and visits to the neighborhood, was the idea to work with radio station WDET to help people in Southwest Detroit report large trucks that were illegally driving through the neighborhood in order to take a shortcut.

A team went to the neighborhood to make connections and demonstrate in person how to text "truck" to 69866 to send in the location of any spotted trucks. The team worked with Mobile Commons, a commercial mobile service provider in the United States, on the text messaging platform.

Rob St. Mary, a WDET reporter, said that since this initial launch they have received about 300 text messages from 25 to 30 sources. (There have been two subsequent pushes to encourage people to send texts about the trucks.)

Ultimately, Keefe said the response "wasn't overwhelming. But it was enough for the local station to develop some stories around it. It gave them enough energy to go about it." The information that was received led to a week-long investigative series on the trucks at WDET.

Later, the group also invited people in the same community to send via text message their favorite things about the neighborhood in six words or less. Responses included: "proud alive latino growing hardworking home" and "multiculturally divided, but strong when united."

The responses were not used for any specific aired program. "It was more of an experiment to see what would engage people," Keefe said. Over the course of the afternoon, WDET received about 20 texts.

For Keefe, the process was as promising as the product.

"Radio stations, software platforms like Mobile Commons, community leaders, Public Insight -- the fact that we're all working on this together to me is exciting," Keefe said. He stressed the experimental nature of the development process and the importance of bringing together people to brainstorm and talk about issues.

"People are wrestling with this and having conversations together about it," Keefe said. "This is almost more valuable than anything that we actually did on the ground."

The Takeaway for The Takeaway?

Sourcing Through Texting is beneficial for both the local radio station and for The Takeaway. Local stations rely on the resources of the national program to help connect with citizen sources. And "the national show benefits in the end, with stronger stations and content that bubbles up," Keefe said. (The trucks story later became a segment on the national program.)

The citizen text reports also function as a form of journalism assistance, as in the case of the truck sightings. "We can't have reporters canvassing the neighborhood and waiting for trucks to go by," Keefe said. "But we can have neighbors doing that. It's a way to get them involved in our crowdsourcing."

Future iterations of Sourcing Through Texting may include voice and call-in features to allow for longer messages and more community interaction.

h2.Challenges and Approaches to Sourcing Through Texting

Keefe said there are larger, longer term benefits involved in growing a database of contacts. Those who participate are identified "as somebody who has expressed him or herself as someone who wants to participate in covering their community, that we can turn to as citizen sources."

The sourcing project ultimately comes down to ensgaging a new audience. "We're really focused on figuring out ways to develop that soure base from people who aren't listening to the radio and aren't going to our website," Keefe said. He calls this outreach imperative. "I'm trying to use texting to get people into our sphere," he said.

Sourcing Through Texting is not without challenges. One has to do with the role of activism in journalism. If someone in a neighborhood has a specific bias toward an issue or specific company (the trucking industry, for example), this could be reflected in their citizen reports.

Another challenge is figuring out the best way to promote the service and the right level of interaction via texting. "If you ask someone six questions," Keefe said, "how often do you get an answer to the sixth one?"

Adjusting to language and culture issues is another challenge. Cost may be a limit to participation, too, especially since mobile users in the U.S. typically have to pay to send and receive text messages, although Keefe said this hasn't been an issue yet.

One success of the Sourcing Through Texting project was that the topic -- illegal trucks in Southwest Detroit -- was an issue that people were interested in. In other words, they had something to say about it.

"It was really easy to get people in communities engaged in the issue of tracking trucks because people felt like it was a violation of their neighborhood, and that they were being taken advantage of," Keefe said.

A more general or blanket request to ask people to help cover any story may not work as well, Keefe said. "It's harder to try and jazz people when you just ask them to be sources in general."

September 15 2010

17:18

PRX Story Exchange, Spot.us Bring Crowdfunding to Public Radio

Story Exchange (formerly Story Market) is a way for local public radio stations, producers, and listeners to pitch, find and fund documentaries and stories on important local issues. We're also one of this year's winners of a Knight News Challenge grant.

Here's how we envision it working: Let's say that in Kentucky the issue of mountaintop mining needs a deeper investigative look. On Story Exchange, the Louisville public radio WFPL station can invite producers to bid on reporting the story, ask listeners to contribute funds as well as ideas, and see the story through to completion for broadcast and digital distribution.

You can also watch this video to learn more:

Story Exchange has deep roots as an idea at Public Radio Exchange. Since we first launched in 2003 the core service of PRX has been an open online marketplace for public radio stories -- audio documentaries, interviews, features, and other pieces that might have already aired somewhere locally or nationally but have continued value in distribution. Over time we have built a robust market where today over 2,500 local stations, independent producers and others regularly buy, sell and distribute tens of thousands of stories (over 8,300 purchased so far just this year), reaching millions of listeners through broadcast and digital channels.

PRX Today

PRX's approach has been to create efficient tools for distribution and discovery that reduce barriers and friction, establish incentives for participation, and increase the overall pool of talent, content, access, and reach. (PRX has expanded its services and recently announced a significant round of funding.)

But even as this has succeeded on PRX.org, we see ongoing gaps in supply and demand, and new ways to use PRX's growing community and platform to connect stations and producers -- and the public -- around issues that need coverage.

Today a typical transaction on PRX might consist of a local public radio station looking for an hour-long documentary on, say, urban agriculture. They search the site, find a handful of results, audition them and then license one for broadcast. PRX charges a license fee and pays producers royalties when their work is used.

If the results turn up empty, or stations wants something customized for local use, the most PRX can typically do is help connect them with producers as a kind of talent broker. (Producers maintain LinkedIn-style resumes and portfolios on PRX.)

But what if stations, producers, and listeners themselves could use PRX as a way to seed, surface, and fund original content matched to a direct distribution opportunity? What if donations from "listeners like you" weren't just for the news you already use, but for what's missing?

This is the idea behind Story Exchange.

Story Exchange

When we were gearing up to pitch Story Exchange as a News Challenge project, we came to an interesting conclusion. While we had been kicking around the idea for several years, by now there were similar projects taking shape. Some were in adjacent fields like indie music (i.e. Sellaband), and one in particular in journalism (Spot.us, a previous and prominent News Challenge winner).

The News Challenge states up front that criteria for selection include innovation and originality. Rather than try to claim Story Exchange as a unique insight, we stated what our idea had in common with Spot.us and proposed a code-level collaboration as a signature approach of the project.

By joining the open source development of the Spot.us codebase we're going to help develop and extend the platform, integrate it with PRX's own services, and add functionality specific to the public radio system. We see this as a unique opportunity to build on a promising new model with an open source approach.

Knight's commitment to open source software sets an important threshold, but while there's important value in ensuring that investments in software stay accessible, most open source projects fail to attract a community of developers beyond the project's original team. A benefit of PRX joining forces with Spot.us is the greater likelihood that the codebase will evolve and stay relevant as ours and other projects incorporate it.

Story Exchange is just getting under way, we're planning our first pilot later this year with our partners at Louisville Public Media. Right now we're working out the details of various APIs and user authentication integration with our friends at Spot.us (If you're a coder you'll be interested to know that Spot.us and PRX are both using Ruby on Rails -- one more incentive for our collaboration -- and you'll be able to track our progress on GitHub).

We anticipate (and will blog about) some of the challenges to come, including the ways that Story Exchange runs counter to some of the ingrained public radio culture, the obstacles we encounter integrating a new model into the existing PRX system, the tech partnership, and the overall merits and successes of the emerging crowdfunding model for journalism. Stay tuned!

September 10 2010

14:00

August 12 2010

21:27

Marketplace brings a Twittery approach to the explainer

When you listen to Marketplace, American Public Media’s finance-focused show, you generally expect to hear expert, and even entertaining, takes on the day’s economic news. On Wednesday’s show, though, the typical quick-and-dirty met…quick-and-funny. Marketplace offered a segment pretty much summarizing the world financial situation…in pretty much three sentences. Listen to the whole thing — all two minutes of it — here; but the gist of it, per the transcript, is this:

Paddy Hirsch: People are worried about the local economy. They think gold is the safest investment, so that’s where they put their money.

I’m Paddy Hirsch for Marketplace.

Liza Tucker: Demand is way down for oil. That’s because some economies are shaky and countries aren’t using as much.

I’m Liza Tucker for Marketplace.

Ethan Lindsey: People are still scared about the economy. So no one wants to blow their savings on a house.

I’m Ethan Lindsey for Marketplace.

And the kicker, from host Kai Rysdall: “Y’know, it’s funny, our news spots are usually a whole lot longer than that. I’m not really sure what happened on those.”

Seriously, if you haven’t already, it’s worth a listen. It’s funny. Also, short. From the future-of-news approach, though: It was also a pithy (“pithy,” in fact, might be too expansive a term for it) explanation of the financial doldrums the nation — and the world — are currently experiencing. Sure, the topics covered are the stuff of dissertations/post-graduate programs/think-tank white papers; but they’re also, more to the point, the stuff of everyday life. People need to understand it. As Celeste Wesson, Marketplace’s senior producer, told me: “We are always trying, as a show, to think of more interesting ways to tell business stories. That comes with the territory of covering business, economics, money, etc.: we want to look at how it affects people’s lives, but we also want to make sure that we’re really clear — and really entertaining.”

A Twitterfied take on the ongoing financial crisis: Clear? Check. Entertaining? Check.

The idea came in Wednesday morning’s editorial meeting, Wesson told me. Marketplace staffers were talking about one of the big financial stories of the day — oil prices — and how best to explain it to listeners, when Liza Tucker, the show’s senior Washington editor and resident sustainability expert, finally said: “It’s easy. Demand is down, and that’s because economies are in trouble, and countries aren’t using as much oil.” And “she said it in the meeting,” Wesson says, “as if to say, ‘This is not a complicated story here.’” But “she did it like this perfect little tiny news spot.”

Everyone laughed — but there was something to the joke, Wesson realized. “There’s something we can play with there”: clarity by way of brevity.

“And then someone said, ‘Yeah, but we can’t do just one. So maybe we can do a mini news report with a number of them.’”

“Yeah — we probably need at least three.”

“Maybe we could do gold.”

“Oh, yeah, that would be good.”

Et cetera. “So we had this little, inchoate idea floating around the morning meeting,” Wesson says — which crystallized throughout the day, as producers refined it, into a segment. They tapped Tucker, who’d come up with the initial, off-the-cuff gem, to participate in the final product; then Paddy Hirsch, an expert in gold markets; then Ethan Lindsey, who came up with that “perfectly deadpan way” of talking about home sales.

“Really, it’s a group process,” Wesson notes. “All of us know that one of the things we need to do is make sure that we’re taking complicated things and making them clear” — and to explode the formula that’s all too familiar among lay consumers of financial journalism: incomprehension leading to boredom (laced, often, with frustration).

One way to do that: go simple. Really simple. In this case, “It just struck us as funny that sometimes these things are simpler than we think they are,” Wesson says. “And wouldn’t it be fun, in the middle of August, to break this up with something that’s fun to listen to, and catches listeners by surprise?”

July 07 2010

14:00

WBUR app inches public radio toward mobile fundraising

Apple just approved a local public radio iPhone app, now in the iTunes store, that promises to deliver “localism, journalism, participation and monetation” — goals set out by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in backing its development.

The app, from Boston station WBUR, is a test of sorts. It was built by PRX, creator of (among others) the popular This American Life app, with a grant from the CPB. The hope is that the app leverages the strengths of a local station and entices other stations to pick it up.

“PRX plans to offer the resulting code under an open source license to enable other local stations to develop additional apps, and encourage a developer community to help improve and extend the app for subsequent versions,” Jake Shapiro said in a blog post when the plan was announced. Shapiro told me in an email that at the moment the code belongs to WBUR and PRX, but they’re working with the Berkman Center on hashing out licensing issues.

Content and engagement aside, mobile offers another potential benefit for public radio: fundraising. Imagine being able to click “Pledge $60 Now” on your phone and then being able to sit out the rest of the pledge drive. But unfortunately for nonprofit journalism, Apple bars apps from letting users donate directly within the app. PRX worked around that issue by using pledge buttons that call WBUR (it is a phone, remember) or send you an email reminding you to donate online through your web browser.

Shapiro wrote about the issue here for Ars Technica, after the This American Life app ran into a similar problem. Apple claims it’s a liability issue for them: They don’t want to be held responsible for scammers pretending to be legit nonprofits, even if it’s an organization like NPR developing the app. (Shapiro calls that a cop-out.) The workaround Shapiro came up with isn’t ideal — who wants to read a credit card number over the phone instead of just pressing one button? — but it’s still a step toward mobile contributions. John Davidow, WBUR.org’s executive editor, shrugged off the issue: “We didn’t think of it as a problem.”

There’s also an alarm clock function that will play WBUR to wake you up, an idea submitted by a listener. And if you’re a WBUR member, the member discount card is taken to a new level with a location-based feature that shows you businesses nearby that will give you a discount. (Nice.) On the content side, the app lets you listen to show archives alongside the usual live streaming. Davidow said he wanted the app to also increase engagement with the audience: The app makes it easy for users to send in a photo or a news tip, for instance. “Mobile is a fantastic platform for radio,” Davidow told me. “It’s built for it.”

July 01 2010

15:00

From Bryan Adams to Neil Young: Canadian Music Wiki

Wondered what Neil Young’s been up to lately? Or k.d. lang? Or Avril Lavigne?

If so…meet Canadian Music Wiki, the collaborative site dedicated to, yes, Canadian music. The project, the brainchild of the Vancouver-based j-school student and music journalist Amanda Ash, adds a new dimension to the crowdsourcing-of-information ethos behind projects like Wikipedia: It’s crowdsourcing culture. “This project,” the site explains, “is dedicated to using collaborative and social media to enrich Canada’s music scene by creating a comprehensive guide to Canadian music. We welcome your contributions.”

So the site’s not fully comprehensive yet (Justin Bieber’s not in there, for example, which means that the site is both incomplete and tasteful) — but, then, it’s also young. It came about as Ash’s masters thesis, part of the arts and culture journalism program at the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism; the wiki was one aspect of a broader examination of public media’s new mandate in the digital world. (The digital journalist and UBC professor Alfred Hermida was Ash’s — and the project’s — adviser.) In August of 2009, Ash received a $15,000 grant from the internship facilitator MITACS Accelerate to develop her idea for a music wiki into a full-fledged, public site, in conjunction with CBC Radio 3. In September, she began her internship with Radio 3, working with the network to develop the wiki into a site that would become both a resource and an outlet for music fans in Canada and beyond.

The wiki had its public launch just over a month ago, in late May. Since then, it has generated around 14,000 page views, Ash told me, and — probably a more meaningful metric for a wiki — 2,300 pages of original, crowd-sourced content about Canadian music (everything from albums to songs, labels to venues, stores to studios). Ash and Hermida attribute that response in part to the wiki’s topic itself: Music is one of those things that, whether you’re into Broken Social Scene or the Crash Test Dummies or Shania Twain or even Justin Bieber (the hair, the hair, we get it), people tend to feel strongly about — and committed to. “It seems like people are happy to have a resource out there where the average fan can contribute,” Ash says. The wiki adds an extra element of democratization to music culture. “It’s kind of this two-way dialogue.”

That puts the wiki on the receiving end of one of the most sought-after resources in journalism: engagement. One mystery for news organizations — and, if solved, probably the closest we’ll come to a financial silver bullet — is how to leverage the interests, and the passions, of the crowd. And, yes, if there’s anything people tend to be passionate about, it’s music. But not just music, the product, tellingly — but music, the community: the concerts, the camaraderie, the shared knowledge of a group’s history and sensibility. Music is “one of those niche topics that people can create communities around,” Ash says. And while there’s no shortage of online outlets that serve those communities — MySpace, Pitchfork, and on and on — what a wiki offers is centralization by way of information. “MySpace is fragmented,” Hermida points out; and, on the other side of the scale, much of traditional music journalism focuses on pushing content out rather than pulling communities in. A wiki is a kind of middle ground: it gives and gets at the same time.

In that, the Canadian Music Wiki — a resource for journalism, more than a strict product of it — puts a culture-specific spin on the Wikipedia effect we’re seeing in journalism: It hints at a future of news that marries content with context, information with conversation, old news with new…all in a single platform. A wikified approach to music “flips the broadcast model on its head,” Hermida says. But it also fulfills a broader, and perhaps even more relevant, mandate: It “helps Canadians express themselves.”

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