spring / 2014

The magazine of branded content

Serial Data

Can content curated by user algorithms save listener-supported radio?
Apr 7, 2014


NYPR Vice President and Chief Digital Officer Tom Hjelm

In March 2014, New York Public Radio introduced its Discover app, part of a $10 million grant from the Jerome L. Greene Foundation to support digital innovation. The app, which will serve up playlists that meet user’s preferences, is essentially Pandora for talk radio. But the app’s debut is really more than that. By embracing the curatorial powers of user data, NYPR recognizes that it’s no longer just a radio station, but a content machine.

Similar to how Netflix relies on data of its subscriber’s preferences to program shows like House of Cards, the Discover app will enable NYPR to not only change how they produce their current shows, but also shape their pipeline of new content.

But can curated content make pledge drives bearable? Can the curation-function technology enable NYPR to deliver content to individual subscribers for fundraising?

NYPR Vice President and Chief Digital Officer Tom Hjelm thinks so. We spoke to Tom recently at the NYPR headquarters.

Content: The Discover app is essentially an on-demand experience for talk radio, right?
Tom Hjelm: That’s right. We produce great content, we have for generations now, and we’ve got a growing footprint on a national level. But we also see that the way people are listening is changing. Not too many people under the age of 30 own a radio, they’re listening to Pandora, Stitcher, iTunes or other recommendation-based personalized experiences. So we need to adjust how we present content.

How did you prove the concept?
TH: We did a test about a year ago. We put together a team and the case we came up with was: New York City, obviously, there’s a big commuting population here, wouldn’t it be great if there were an app or feature that would allow subway riders to tell this app what they’re interested in and what the length of their commute was, so they could download a playlist and play it when they’re out of coverage. We called it Underground. And the focus group testing told us that it really resonated, people liked having an app that would allow them to listen without incurring data charges. Even for the non-subway rider that resonated. Then we spent the following summer and fall building it out, enlarging the proposition to include a discovery engine.

Your audience is listening live, either on the radio or streaming it through your site.
TH: The linear listening stream is strong—listeners streaming live have session lengths of 45 minutes being typical. In the mobile world that’s an eternity. The way I look at our audiences, we have the live listener, and then we have the on-demand listener, specifically around podcasts like Freakonomics and Radiolab.

“Ten years ago we were a radio station putting out content the same way that had been around since the 1920s. We can see the audience’s appetite and the way they’re engaging with us is becoming more diversified and fragmented.”

How many downloads are your podcasts generating?
TH: Typically 13 million downloads per month. We had done surveys that showed the general trends in listening, but the number of podcast downloads really told us where the wind was blowing and where we needed to be.

How has the shift to on-demand changed the way you approach creating content?
TH: To date our on-demand offerings haven’t been organized in any particular way. We’ve been sending listeners off to iTunes to download a podcast, or listeners come to our website and they look for a particular segment in a show they heard. What Discover is about is finding an intersection between these two worlds. The premise of this, to our listeners, was simple: tell us a little bit about your favorite topics, and then tell us how much time you’ve got. And it will download a playlist for you to listen to. One thing that people love about public radio is that it informs them, but they also like serendipity. That was another objective, and that’s why we call it Discover, in fact.

How will you be using content to promote your content?
TH: We are using multiple platforms and programming channels to bring attention to it. In addition to running on-air spots, our hosts are using social media to promote the app as well—including tweets and Instagram selfies. Hosts who have voiced promos for the app are Jad Abumrad (@jadabumrad), Kurt Andersen (@KBAndersen), Stephen Dubner, Brooke Gladstone (@OTMBrooke), Soterios Johnson (@SoteriosJohnson), Brian Lehrer (@BrianLehrer) and Manoush Zomorodi (@manoushz).

Our newsletters reach hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and we’re using our weekly as well as daily “Morning Brief” emails to alert our audience.

But the backbone of this app is the content we produce here, and there’s a range of content that’s acquired and aggregated from elsewhere—NPR content, PRI, and American Public Media, so this is an assembly of content, and that allows us quite a bit of reach.

“It’s a new way of thinking about appealing to listeners, and getting inside their head, and inspiring their generosity.”

So the digital reach available from all over the country is like a content syndication model.
TH: What we have found is that while there is a clear WNYC audience, in general, the source of the content is not that important to the listener. But we’re constantly in the process of re-stocking our content. It’s an ongoing effort to find the next Radiolab. I would say that in incubating shows, in finding talent and the right topics, the digital promise of the property is an important criterion of how we evaluate.

The first rule of content is to create content that people care about.
TH: An important issue that the app has forced on us is, because it’s a segment-based experience, it’s forced us to think in new ways about how we produce content. You can’t produce an hour or two-hour show and just call it a day. We now need to think about segmenting it, which has all sorts of implications from the control booth on down. Content is segmented and curated and distributed in more granular ways—we call it atomizing content. You take a two-hour show, how do you break that into chunks for distribution? That’s an important workflow consideration. And we’re still in the process of doing this. We’re putting together a style guide, or playbook, of how each show should be produced and segmented and sliced and diced.

A Radiolab segment that gets a lot of downloads, for example, will inform future content creation.
TH: Totally, and what’s really exciting about products like this is we’re getting a whole new set of insights into how our audience thinks of us. The sample size right now is too small, because the app is brand new, but this will inform the process of how we think about new shows and new content. It’s another set of data points.

Can data-driven content help fundraising for public radio?
TH: That’s a big question. First off, one thing about pledge drives is that they really work. Generosity is our biggest source of funding. If I had to identify my single biggest digital challenge, it’s how do we re-produce the power of the pledge drive through digital platforms? That forces us to think in new ways about what digital membership means. And that’s an ongoing strategic challenge, and we haven’t cracked that code yet. One thing that’s exciting about Discover is that I think it points to a new way of building loyalty and membership. In other words, this is a product that’s really meant to be habit forming, the more you use it, the better it gets to know you, and the more targeted and satisfying the playlist recommendations will be. We’ll get an understanding of when you’re using it and what you’re listening to. We’re collecting data that we can then use to target more relevant experiences to listeners, and, ultimately more relevant membership appeals. So, it’s a new way of thinking about appealing to you, and getting inside your head, and inspiring your generosity.

“You can’t produce a two-hour show anymore and just call it a day. Now, our content is segmented and curated and distributed in more granular ways—we call it atomizing content.”

In the future I might see a more customized pledge drive, a piece of content delivered to me based on my algorithm?
TH: In a non-invasive, non-creepy way we might say, “I see you’re a fan of X show, and perhaps you’d like to support it.”

It’s the public radio version of a monetization model.
TH: We do sell underwriting against our on-demand audience, and that’s been a real success for us.

What will all this look like in 2020?
TH: Ten years ago we were a radio station, and we were putting out content in a fairly straightforward way, the same way that had been around since the 1920s. We can see the audience and their appetite and the way they’re engaging with us is becoming more diversified and fragmented. There’s no one way. We’ve made a commitment to embrace the opportunities to diversify the way we’re producing content.

Apr 7, 2014


NYPR Vice President and Chief Digital Officer Tom Hjelm