The Digital Credo of NPR: Brand, Content, Audience

Article  by  Pia ROUSSEL  •  Published 16.12.2015  •  Updated 15.12.2015
Zach Brand NPR
Interview with Zach Brand, NPR Vice President of Digital Media.
Can you briefly describe the NPR (National Public Radio) Digital Strategy ?
Zach Brand: The digital strategy of NPR is first and foremost an audience strategy : how do we bring people to public radio in the United States, how do we make them use it more frequently, and then how do we connect them more deeply. So, in digital, what we need to do is find the ways that connect with the audience who is using digital platforms. So we have to meet them where they are and provide experiences that meet their expectations so that we can bring them in and connect them more deeply.
Do you consider streaming platforms like Spotify as competitors ?

Zach Brand: Sure… Companies like Spotify, TuneIn, even Apple are both opportunities and commercial competitors for us. They are wonderful platforms that we tend to partner with because they can allow new audience to discover NPR, but at the same time they can create a disintermediation … They create a relationship with the audience and the audience has a relationship with them, and if the audience does not understand the connection to us, then it is not very valuable, so we need to make sure that when we do partnerships, that we understand who the audience is and that the audience understand who we are, and actually has a connection to us. So sometimes they are good partnerships and sometimes we view them as competition.

How do you explain to the audience the difference between this platform and the NPR ?

Zach Brand: Our preference will always be for them to come to one of our platforms. So we want to make them as good and as compelling as possible, but some people, of course, are going to use these other platforms. So what we want to do is finding a partnership with these companies where we make sure that our name, our branding is very clear and we have an opportunity for that audience to actually have a pathway to discover some of our platforms. So, we think that if we put really great content, it will resonate, people will be like “Wow, this was a really great story, this was really good journalism.” And then if we can make sure that our name, our branding, our marks come through very clear, and there is an opportunity for our audience to seek out more with us directly, we think that eventually then this is a good pathway for us.

If I understand well, you have got two tricks; your brand and your content.

Zach Brand
: Oui! [Editor’s Note: In French]
Do you use UX Design in your strategy?

Zach Brand: Absolutely. It is critically important if you are not meeting the audience's expectations, for their kind of features but also how intuitive, how easy it is to use, then it is not going to be a platform that they want to use. So, we have been doing radio for 40 years and we have been working on the aesthetic and as it were the user experience of listening to radio by what program should follow what program, we have had a very limited amount of time to really understand user experience on a screen, because the radio …
Is another media?
Zach Brand: But it is just as important that we put together a great user experience that complements the content, because great content without user experience is not a good experience for the audience. The audience lives with those two things come together, the interface and the content.
What are the characteristics of sound and radio to be considered, for an app or for a website?

Zach Brand: We think that the digital audience has a number of expectations: they expect things to be on demand, their ability to consume it when they want, not when you want to publish it, they want it to be personal, they want it to know that … like:“I like science, but I don't like politics” or “I'm particularly interested in news of Paris, but not so interested in news from Washington D.C.” So we need to build platforms and experiences that bring the best storytelling with the audio history of radio but, too, platforms where we can bring these features together.
You know, podcasts are a simple version of that, people can consume podcasts when they want, and they can have a richer listening experience; but podcasts, by themselves, are very hard to discover, you listen to one, and then you are done, and nothing comes next [Editor’s Note: unlike broadcasting]. So it is also about figuring out how we can build experiences that help the audience discover the thing they did not know they were going to love.

Do you use algorithms or human curation?

Zach Brand: Yes and yes!
Both …

Zach Brand: We have found that algorithms are really good at predicting which of two stories a person would like more, but an algorithm can't – I'm sorry, I should say machine-learning  – machine-learning is not able to put together a long listening experience that works as good. When we have tested machine-learning against human curation, human curation has actually won.
In one test, we increase listening time from 25 to 30 minutes, 25 was machine-learning, 30 minutes was human curation, but the best opportunity is where the two come together. So I said machine-learning instead of algorithm because the human curation can actually be an algorithm of maybe telling you a really powerful story but then understanding after we do that we want to give you something that gives you a little bit of emotional release because you've just been listening to something very difficult. So the algorithm is maybe something very strong, and, you know, it's like a meal, right? A digestif, and then an amuse-bouche you know …
That's something interesting, because I was wondering which was the best, human curation or algorithm: it's different …

Zach Brand: Yes, we think we need to have both. And so, in one platform that is realizing all all of this for us that we have built, NPROne , the human curates.
We have humans curating for every single day, and humans curating the overall algorithm of how one thing moves to the next, but within each collection, each opportunity for you to hear something, it picks the best one for you out of several available, so if it is going to tell you the most important story of the day, there are maybe two or three important stories, and we look to see which one is maybe most important for you.
For one people and not for the other people for example?

Zach Brand: Exactly.
Crédit photo :
Didier Allard. INA

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