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paidContent - Public Radio Dangerously Close To Making Public Radio Obsolete

This story was written by Rafat Ali.
The Public Radio Exchange has just released the 2.0 version of its iPhone app, which aggregates almost all the public radio stations in the U.S. This tuner is a collaboration by some of the biggies in the public-radio space: NPR,  Public Interactive, American Public Media, and Public Radio International (PRI). The 1.0 version of app has already gotten some rave reviews, but the 2.0 version, released this weekend, goes a lot further: besides streams, it has started showing what’s on right now on those stations, a seemingly small but game-changing move.

And, as it previously promised, it has added podcasts/downloads of the major shows as well, another important addition that will only increase the usage of the app. It has also added various search and directory listing options, on top of what the previous version had. The new version also allows for streams to be played on the slower Edge network, if Wi-Fi or 3G are not available. The new version is a bit buggy: it wiped out my favorite stations after upgrading (not a big issue for me since I didn’t have many), and is freezing up frequently; I hope the latter issue will be solved soon. The app is closing in on 2 million downloads, and likely will continue to be among the top apps for the iPhone.

So here’s why I think this is one major step to making public radio listening on radio obsolete:

I don’t own a radio (except in the car), and have been using the iPhone to listen to KPCC—the local station here in LA—ever since I bought it a month ago (there’s the whole other issue of sucky iPhone battery life, but that’s for another post). Now with the addition of what’s playing on my favorite stations right now, I have a lot more choices in one screen that I had previously: so instead of enduring “A Prairie Home Companion” on the weekend (not my cup of tea), I could try “On The Media” on at the same time on WBEZ Chicago public radio. And if I happen to join a show after its start, chances are I can get the latest edition of the show on demand (helpfully linked from the live version). In the car, where a lot of public radio consumption happens (especially in SoCal) with one of the options to connect the iPhone to the radio speakers, it makes the local public radio station redundant, to a large extent. Of course you can argue this is only true for the 20 million or so iPhone users, but you can see this playing out on other smartphones like Android and others, when the same app launches of their platforms.

All of this adds to the issues surrounding local public radio funding in the digital age: if a large number of iPhone app users are not necessarily listening in to the local station, then loyalties start to shift, or even fade away, which in turn affects donations to the local stations. This isn’t necessarily a new concern, and has been around since stations started streaming their feeds online, but with the new iPhone app, it becomes a lot more urgent. I am all for it, but the organizations behind it better be thinking of various ways to monetize, including perhaps charging a small amount for the app.  NPR CEO Vivian Schiller tackled some of these issues in an interview with Staci last month.

In related news, NPR is close to relaunching   its websitein the next week. And NPR’s journalists are almost done with their digital training, done in conjunction with Knight Foundation.


By Rafat Ali
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