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Social: NPR has the most loyal audience of any news organization. They identify themselves as "NPR listeners" in personal ads; they feel a personal connection with correspondents and hosts; they have sense of "ownership" in the organization. As they trade anecdotes about stories they heard on NPR, many assume they have much in common with other NPR listeners. In other words they comprise a virtual network – an asset that is largely untapped, but potentially of enormous value in a digital world of networked connections. The question is how we take this largely "unrealized" network and move it online -- both to deepen engagement and hopefully perpetuate the commitment that radio listeners have shown to supporting NPR financially.
Local: NPR's member-station network is comprised of more than 280 individual stations which collectively operate over 800 radio transmission towers – ensuring a near ubiquitous presence on the FM radio dial. It is an enormously varied group: some are independent, some operated by academic institutions; some are highly professional in their business operations, others much more seat-of-the-pants; some produce significant local content, others very little. Above all they are resolutely radio operations. And to the extent that many serve as local carriers of nationally produced programs, they risk being bypassed and rendered obsolete in a digital world. So the question is how do they become more relevant to their local communities at a time when more traditionally robust sources of journalism (e.g. newspapers) are collapsing?
Open: NPR was the first major news organization to develop an open API for its content. The NY Times and the Guardian (UK) have followed suit. We've already seen great success with the use of the API – with developers using it to create apps for various mobile platforms and stations using it to power their Websites. But a truly open API also potentially undermines our business model, which like other media, is based on a captive audience model. The question is how we nurture open-source initiatives and at the same time protect our business model, with its mix of listener support, corporate sponsorship and foundation and grant support. (While there are many laudable uses of the API, we're also starting to see commercial ventures take advantage of the API to build independent businesses with member stations).
Platform: NPR and PBS were created in part to address the fact that commercial media – faced with covering the very high cost of distribution – could not support certain types of programming. In essence, the government helped producers of a certain brand of "quality" content overcome the barriers to entry that otherwise would have prevented them from reaching a mass audience. The value of such platforms is rapidly eroding in the face of technological change; and new platforms are emerging that allow the entire definition of public media to be expanded. The question is how NPR (and PBS) should pursue issues of platform. The API provides an initial foundation for a more open architecture; and we have plans to build that out in a way that provides both economies of scale, network effects and opportunities for individual innovation. But there is much to be explored here.
Revenue: We are fortunate in having a diversified revenue model that is comprised of corporate sponsorship, foundation and grant support and listener support. The latter – comprising about 50 percent of our revenue – has been garnered through pledge drives coordinated by member stations. In a world in which listeners can access any signal anywhere in the country, the ability to "pitch" a captive audience is eroding. So what replaces it? How do we maintain the basic connection that we've established between public journalism and public support? What mechanisms exist to further and deepen the engagement of our listeners?