Why NPR is merging its apps and focusing on ‘digital serendipity’

Future News 79

Amid all the news media razzmatazz of the US White House election, public radio stalwart NPR made a series of important and quiet changes to its app, NPR One. To be exact there are two NPR apps, but the NPR one (not to be confused with ‘NPR One’) is being merged into NPR One (not to be confused with ‘the NPR one’) this year. 

The process will bring the “core experience” of the NPR app to NPR One whilst adding personalisation functions to the experience, FN has been told. Emily Barocas, podcast lead for NPR One, also said the team was going to be “really careful” because primarily the independent non-profit outlet is a news organisation, and “we don’t want to put [listeners] in a media bubble”. Instead NPR will be hoping to provide “serendipity moments'' to its 2.6 million monthly active listeners with a mix of on-demand national and local news, stories and podcasts, including Planet Money, Up First and How I Built This

The editorial team of six behind NPR One (not including the developers), which was launched in 2014, will achieve this by using human curation, editorial judgement and personalisation. It is 2021, so there will be some help from the app’s data, analytics and algorithms.

NPR One also now has a balance of text and audio thanks to a new headline module, something which Barocas described as “unique” and will be coming to iOS devices soon (it’s currently working on Android). There is also the new homescreen experience, enabling listeners to tune into live NPR coverage for the first time, a function that has “lots of interest” apparently.

“We saw our audience make really good use of those opportunities and experiences, which really fed into the idea that we need to meet our listeners and our readers on what they need in any given moment,” Barocas said. The intention is that the homescreen, a one-stop-shop similar to BBC Sounds, is here to stay but there will be improvements down the line. 

“NPR has the benefit of member stations all over the country, which get into the news deserts that exist in big cities and rural areas,” Barocas added. “Our vision for a digital future very much involves and highlights that network. We see time and time again that our listeners value the local news sitting alongside the national news. It’s the backbone of public radio in this country. It makes sense for NPR as a network and for listeners.” 

As for the election campaign and the night of political drama itself, the app saw some “really strong growth” (although NPR won’t disclose its download figures) at it naturally hit a peak right around 3 November. The outlet has also seen “huge growth” thanks to smart speakers, namely Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa which dominates the market. Initially, the service just provided NPR news briefings, but it can now stream NPR One’s content, substantially pushing average engagement up from around five-minutes (for the briefings) to 30-minutes (for the streaming). 

The whole innovation process is about creating more “sticky”  and “continuous” listeners, ones which presumably value public service broadcasting, want to be challenged and have a dose of culture alongside their current affairs. 

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Illustration: Upklyak