National Public Radio is one of the most well-known media brands in the United States, with radio shows such as All Things Considered and Morning Edition. However, despite this popularity, media and radio face new competition from many directions, in particular, the proliferation of digital channels such as the web, podcasts, and social media.
In addition to the broad digital challenge, radio is inherently a non-personalized medium in a world that increasingly expects deep personalization based on data and predictive analysis based on reading and listening habits, social media activity, and other preferences. As every modern marketer knows, personalization matters.
Despite these fundamental shifts in technology and user expectations, NPR has done a remarkable job remaining a relevant and vital player on the American scene.
As part our ongoing exploration of major brands and their response to changes in the digital environment, I invited the Chief Digital Officer at National Public Radio to be a guest on episode 254 of the CXOTalk series of conversations with innovative business leaders.
During our wide-ranging discussion, in which Thomas participated from a studio at NPR's headquarters in Washington D.C., we explored the organization's challenges, opportunities, business model, NPR One, and new technologies. It's a fascinating look behind the scenes at one of America's great news organizations.
Watch the video of our entire conversation embedded above and read the complete transcript. You can also read an edited summary of key points below.
What are your responsibilities as Chief Digital Officer at NPR?
There is a digital team that is directly responsible to me; accountable to me. It's about 85 people, most of them based here in Washington with a few working remotely. This team includes product managers, product directors, technologists, programmers and developers, front-end, back-end, QA, systems engineers, design, design thinkers as well as interaction designers, project managers; all of those functions roll up into the digital media group that reports up to me.
I'm responsible for running that team, managing their output, their execution of what they do on a regular basis. The output of what they do, by the way, includes things like running NPR.org, the NPR One mobile app, the NPR News mobile app, our various relationships with third-party platforms, whether it's Apple, Google, Amazon, etc.
Also, working very closely with our many partners across the organization: our news department, our marketing group, our business development team, our fundraising teams, operations, legal, all those guys. That is my corporate role; is to manage this division.
Where do narrative and story come into play?
The art and the craft and the process of digital work is an evolving story. It's an evolving narrative. As are the methods, the best-practices for how we identify the opportunities we want to explore. What do end-users need? What does our customer want and where is technology going? Where is the audience going? Identifying where the audience is, where the audience is going, what is our place in an increasingly crowded marketplace. And then, how do we mobilize our team to explore those opportunities as effectively, efficiently, and thoroughly as possible?
This is an ongoing narrative that's always being written and rewritten. We are a lean shop and our development team subscribes to lean principles. But, we also have a first-class design team. And so, in this kind of constant state of self-evaluation and reinterpretation, I'm always interested in exploring new technologies, new methods of doing our work.
To summarize, part of the mission of this team is to be thinking about and working on a regular basis about the development of products and platforms that will meet the user, the listener, the viewer, the reader wherever they are going. To anticipate and then build and innovate accordingly, challenging ourselves and the organization around different ways of thinking about the audience and organizing our workflows to meet the needs of this increasingly dynamic marketplace.
Part of my challenge is to think about that great asset -- the great stories, the great stock of content that we produce today and that we've been producing for some time - and map it or reimage it in new ways for new audiences.
How do you think about disruption and innovation?
NPR One is an attempt at personalization. It takes our core assets, the spoken-word content that comes out of our news magazines, and marries that to the very special local-national blend, that value proposition that ties the big national entity of NPR to your local member station, which is the main outlet for distribution of that NPR content. It reinterprets that national-local value proposition.
It also enables us to take our membership model, which is part of the basic, essential element of our business model, and cultivate membership in new ways. Historically, membership has been driven by the pledge drive. Turn on your local NPR member station, and there is an ongoing appeal for individual membership. Well, that works. That worked for many years now, but as the audience gradually migrates online, and as digital becomes an increasingly central access point to public radio and public media, that invites us, or forces us, challenges us, to think in different ways about membership. And so, NPR One has an interesting approach to membership, personalization, building the affinity and engaging the audience in new ways. That, hopefully, will encourage loyalty and generosity in ways that the pledge drive has done so successfully for generations.
Dealing with transformation, job one is not to panic at the velocity of change and the brave, new world of digital disruption and challenge in technology. But, instead, to retreat, look into your corporate soul, understand what it is that differentiated you in the first place, and to reinterpret those core values, those raw assets, and find ways to re-channel them, reimagine them, repackage them to suit new technologies and new behaviors. That's what we tried to do at NBC twenty years ago, and it's what we're trying to do on public radio today.
What is "radio" today?
There's value in that fully-curated experience which, today, is essentially radio.
[The] opposite extreme is "roll your own." Find your own show, your own segment, your own podcast. And so, we are competing in that marketplace as well. We produce podcasts out of NPR. We produce any number of podcasts where we are, by a wide margin, the number one producer of on-demand audio, the number two producer is WNYC, the number three producer is Ira Glass. Again, public radio is top in the charts here when it comes to podcasts. Most of those podcasts are being listened to on third-party platforms. Maybe, it's the third-party podcast on Apple; maybe, it's overcast or pocket casts, or "name your favorite podcast" app.
People are finding and curating their own experiences based on podcasts that they've heard about or have been recommended. That's the opposite extreme. The fully self-curated listening experience. That's another part of this landscape that we're exploring. And then, again, visualize this sort of continuum, curated to un-curated.
In the middle, that's where NPR One lives, which is a curated and yet personalized experience. If you listen to NPR One, we will give you a stream of segments and podcasts. The more you use it, the better we get to know you and the more we will tailor that experience, the sequence, the topics, the nature of the segments that we're delivering to you based on your interests, your location, what you like or what you don't.
It's finding the middle ground, the white space between the fully-curated and the fully un-curated. As a radio or an audio-first -- not audio-only, but audio-first -- organization, we are eagerly exploring that entire spectrum. Radio's still going strong, but we're also exploring this in-between zone of the next generation, the personalized radio listening experience.
Therefore, traditional radio is one channel through which you distribute your content?
That's a good way to look at it. That's absolutely right.
What new technologies interest you right now?
We're all about smart speakers, these days. The phenomenon of how successful Alexa has been, and Google Home, and Apple has announced similar entries into the smart speaker space. That is something that I'm really excited about.
[You must] look at your core assets and how they might be reinterpreted, reimagined for new contexts. The smart speaker, the voice-activated device: I can't think of another technology innovation that's come across my plate in the last five or ten years that's better suited or speaks right to our strength.
Conversation -- that's what we do, and it's what we've been doing since day one. Call and response, rendered communication; that is right in the heart of the value proposition of public radio, and it's very much what the folks at Alexa, and Google, and Apple are thinking about as well.
That sense of the friendly companion, the voice in your ear, is something special. That's in the mojo of public radio, and I'd like to explore ways in which we can translate that value to what is an increasingly voice-activated smart world.