NPR boosts online offerings, seeks larger audience
NEW YORK - National Public Radio, already strong online with free downloads from many of its shows, is boosting its digital ambitions with Monday’s introduction of social-networking features akin to Facebook.
NPR also plans to overhaul its Web site and expand the tools for sharing its programs elsewhere over the next few months. And it is working to increase the flexibility of its popular "podcasts," audio downloads that have tripled in usage over the past two years.
These digital initiatives are aimed at capturing and retaining audiences - particularly younger people who aren’t habitual radio listeners but who represent the future for fundraising at NPR’s member stations.
Yet NPR faces a challenge in finding common ground with the stations, which rely on traditional, local radio offerings to draw contributions.
The national organization, acknowledging that its early Internet initiatives at times collided with its member stations, insists many of the new offerings have been developed with the stations’ needs and concerns in mind.
"We definitely see ourselves at a pivotal point," said Dana Davis Rehm, NPR’s senior vice president for strategy and partnerships. "We know where we want to be, but navigating the waters can be challenging at times. Every now and then we get rough seas."
Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former NPR ombudsman now with the Ryerson School of Journalism in Toronto, described the tensions as "growing pains as NPR uses its considerable editorial and creative muscle to use the Internet to maximum effect."
The fears come down to whether enhancing the NPR.org Web site will encourage listeners to bypass the individual stations on the Web as well as on air. If listeners get everything they need from the central organization to which local stations pay dues, they might stop giving or give less to their local stations.
But both public radio audiences and contributions to public radio have been going up. NPR stations combined had 31.3 million weekly listeners in spring 2008, a 3 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. Although aggregate fundraising numbers were not available, NPR and several individual stations contacted by The Associated Press reported increases.
Online traffic is also up. According to comScore, NPR.org had 2.6 million unique visitors in August, a 78 percent increase from a year earlier.
Rehm, at NPR, said the national organization now sees stations as partners. Long gone, she said, are the days when NPR waited "until the 11th hour, if ever" to consult with stations on its digital plans.
Ken Stern left NPR as chief executive in March, reportedly ousted over his style and clashes with stations over their digital future. A permanent replacement isn’t expected until early next year, though NPR last week hired Kinsey Wilson from USA Today as its digital chief, effective Oct. 20.