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paidContent - NPR Mobile Strategy Mixes Text With Live And On-Demand Audio

This story was written by Staci D. Kramer.

National Public Radio is already a leader in podcasting. But a free NPR News iPhone app, approved late today and launching tonight, opens up a new dimension for the network and its member stations with live and on-demand mobile streaming. It’s also the first app to make reading the news and listening to it equally important, providing full-text coverage along with audio. In addition to NPR’s own programs and those it distributes, the app includes direct access to local shows from more than 600 member stations live and on demand. (Slide show here; Scott Simon video demo embedded below.)

And iPhone is just the beginning. NPR already has apps in the pipeline for Symbian and Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Android. As the NPR team waited for Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) to approve the app, CEO Vivian Schiller and NPR Digital SVP & GM Kinsey Wilson spoke with paidContent about the network’s mobile strategy. It’s all aimed at what Wilson sees as “a unique opportunity in the mobile space” to be the premiere audio news provider.

At the same time, NPR is playing up the combo aspects of the app developed by the NPR Mobile team and Bottle Rocket Apps. Wilson explains: “This is the first app that is both for reading and for listening; our feeling is that people want to do one or another. There are times when reading a story is simply the quickest and most efficient way to get the news you want. There are other times, particularly when you’re engaged in other activities, that listening makes more sense. Where we have both, we’ll certainly present both.”

He adds, “Our emphasis both in mobile and on the web is first and foremost the NPR experience and the depth we’re able to provide in various areas. We need to stay current on the news and that’s an absolute price of admission.” That means a mix of NPR and AP; as NPR’s blogs are integrated into the app, NPR’s content should outweigh AP most of the time.

Member stations: It might have been easier to stick to providing NPR’s own programming but the goal was always to produce the combined experience. Schiller: “If somebody says they love NPR, they may say that but what they mean is they love their listening experience in whatever market theyre in.” For instance, to someone listening in morning drive, their NPR experience is the blend of local, national and international news. “There’s no reason we would walk away from that.”

Wilson adds later: “We’re trying to use the NPR brand and our particular flavor of national and international coverage as a strong hook to draw people to station streams and station offerings. It’s another pathway to the stations.” NPR’s open API makes it possible for stations or other non-commercial developers to build their own branded apps. (NPR Addict, built using the API, offers zip code search and podcast links but live radio.)

While a user can find any of more than 1,000 streams from member stations by drilling down a little, the programs icon on the nav bar leads only to NPR programming and shows it distributes nationally. That’s more about usability than strategy, highlighting the programs most people are most likely to listen to as opposed to ffering the entire universe of public radio programming. “That’s one of the things that distinguishes us, frankly, from the Public Radio Player,” says Wilson. “They’ve taken a comprehensive view and tried to encompass every single show produced at every station. It does create some performance issues and some navigation issues. We wanted to keep it a little more compact, a little more focused on what 80-90 percent of the audience is listening to.”

Is NPR making it too easy to get to any member station? I just got a car with an auxiliary input and while I was testing the NPR News app,  plugged in the iPhone and listened to a couple of stations in Alaska. The sound was as clear as if I was listening to my usual NPR affiliate, KWMU. Then again, if not for the app, I might not have been listening to any public radio given my options at the time. It’s not an issue for Schiller: “Why would we withhold anything from the audience if the technology is available to serve the audience? That would be a very dubious media strategy on our part.”

Donations and sponsorships: The long-term strategy is to bring the same financial structure to mobile as it has for digital and radio: a combination of corporate underwriting, listener donations, grants, foundation support. There isn’t any way to donate directly through the app—yet. As for sponsorships, currently the only promos are for the NPR store but that space is available for “friends of NPR.” And, no, users can’t purchase anything through the app; interest is redirected to the Safari browser. (It would be nice to have an “email this info” option in the app.) “In the meantime,” says Schiller, “we need to build audience.” Why not sell a version for people who want to give NPR money and still offer the free app? A pay NPR app isn’t an option: “Free and universal is part of the key mission of public radio.” NPR has discussed donate-from-app options with Apple but no solution is in sight. Wilson: “Right now they don’t allow for any financial transactions within their apps so it’s not an avenue we can pursue at the moment.” (In the meantime, Schiller reminds users who want to support NPR they can go to

Some features:

—Using the iPhone geo-location capability, the NPR app will find the closest member stations. My first test in St. Louis turned up WSIE in Edwardsville, Ill., which is across the river, and KWMU, much closer to my home. That may have to do more with broadcasting towers than the physical location. Either way, it went straight to the stations in my zone. Zip code search is also offered.

—Clicking on an NPR program or one it distributes brings up multiple options. If the show is being aired on a station or stations, you can pick one for the live stream. Or you can listen by the story, create your own playlist or use the iTunes button to listen to the full show or download it as a podcast. Wilson: “Our goal was to present as much opportunity as possible to the end users so they could tailor it to their own listening needs.”

—An easy-to-access five-minute newscast updated at the top of the hour.

Not in this release:

—NPR’s blogs haven’t been integrated yet but will be over the next few months.

—No way to share stories or audio links yet. That’s coming and will be enabled for anything offered through the app.

—Live coverage, which would solve problems like access to events being streamed live on but not broadcast by member stations, as happened with the recent Sotomayor Senate hearings.

No text to speech: One feature that isn’t in the plans despite the emphasis on text: NPR isn’t interested in automated text-to-speec, which Schiller describes as “antithetical” to the quality NPR listeners expect. “We don’t want to lower our standards; we want to provide the best news experience in whatever format.”

By Staci D. Kramer

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