Public radio’s digital moment: Smartphones, streaming, and the future of listening

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NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Public radio and digital tech are having a moment. Not only has National Public Radio listenership hit an all-time high, NPR podcasts and digital content have spiked in popularity. Meanwhile, Seattle-area public broadcasters focusing on classical, indie rock, jazz, and news are diving deeply into streams, podcasts, and video to reach new audiences in new ways.

Matt Martinez, director of content for news and jazz KNKX Tacoma/Seattle, said they’re finding the definition of “radio” is changing. He cited a study of Millennials who, to the surprise of some stations involved in the research, said they listened to a lot of radio. So they were asked how they listened to the radio in the morning.

“‘On my phone and I just put it on my speaker,’” Martinez described the response. “So (it’s) streaming, but they’re thinking ‘radio’ still.”  That led to an aha moment. “When they think about ‘radio’ what they’re thinking is stories, well-crafted stories, solid news and information, well-curated music.”

Even the definition of ‘streaming’ has undergone some change, noted Bryan Lowe, long-time program director of KING-FM Seattle. KING established one of the first online streams in 1995 to mirror what was broadcast on its classical music station.

KING-FM’s Bryan Lowe and KNKX-FM’s Matt Martinez. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

By 2011, Lowe recalled, KING had four distinct streaming channels because it became clear that classical audiences had varying tastes. “We made a symphonic channel. We made an opera channel,” he said. “We tried to take some of that content and move it over there where a specific audience could find it around the world, and there’s a big audience for it.”

Martinez and Lowe sat down with GeekWire for an episode of our special podcast series on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts to discuss public radio going digital. Martinez joined KNKX (formerly KPLU) two years ago following 15 years at NPR where he was a senior producer, working on everything from podcast pilots to its signature All Things Considered. Lowe, retired from his program director role, remains a host at KING-FM where he’s worked since 1979.

Listen to the podcast below or download the MP3 here.

Their stations are only two of several listener-supported radio stations in the Seattle area, including KUOW, KEXP, and KNHC.

Both KNKX and KING are digital pioneers. One factor may be Seattle’s pervasive and long-standing tech industry. The KING-FM online stream came about, Lowe said, because the station had a fan: someone at RealNetworks, then called Progressive Networks.

“They said we want to do this online,” Lowe said. “The guy who is inventing the streaming process at RealNetworks loved KING-FM and so he was using us as a test. So he put us on as a streaming channel and it’s just been going on ever since.”

Shortly after that, Lowe says KING-FM was involved “in the first-ever classical concert done on the internet; it was called the Cyberian Rhapsody.” KING-FM also became notable when, in 2011, as it shifted to non-profit status, it decided to do away with not just commercials, but the traditional radio staples of news and traffic, effectively turning its broadcasts into an on-air equivalent of a digital stream.

KNKX’s Jazz24, one of public media’s most popular music streams.

KNKX, too, has done its share of turning new digital fields. Martinez points to its Jazz24 stream, which continues to grow after nearly a decade, he said, calling it “still one of the most listened to music streams in public media.”

While the online audiences for both KING-FM and KNKX pale in comparison to those for on-air broadcasts, digital listeners tend to be younger. “The average public radio age, and I think it’s true for our station, is right around 54,” Martinez said. “Sixty-five percent of the NPR podcast audience is between 24 and 44.”

The next digital harbinger may be Alexa and its relatives. “There have been different estimates telling us that 20 percent of the population could have a voice-activated device in their home by 2020,” Martinez said, noting the uptake of Amazon’s Echo and Google Home. “You need to be the thing that they want to listen to, and you have to market yourself to make sure that happens.”

KNKX features videos of jazz artists on its YouTube channel.

Why wouldn’t listeners just pick a fully automated stream from Pandora or Spotify? Expertise.

“They don’t know the product of ‘classical music,’ ” Lowe said. “When I say to that black tube device over there, play Janacek’s Sinfonietta piece I really like, it will only play the first movement because it doesn’t recognize that there are four movements within a symphony.” The same might be said of deep human host knowledge of the contents of jazz, or indie rock.

It’s not unlike what happened to stage after the debut of film, or film after television — the precursor medium had to re-think what it was uniquely good at, and focus. “We are excellent storytellers, NPR,” Martinez said. “We have to continue telling great wonderful stories. As long as we do that the audience will be there; we just have to make sure that we are there in a meaningful way for them.”

NPR studios in Washington, DC, and lots of Windows 7. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

The relentless march of technology for the audience also can be a challenge for public broadcasters behind the scenes. In an unrelated visit to NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. last month, I noticed that every computer on several newsroom floors was still running Windows 7. And when faced with a digital output limitation while recording promos for All Things Considered — theme music had to be played from a compact disc — co-host Ari Shapiro exclaimed (off the air), “My mind is blown … I’m not even a Millennial, and I don’t have a way to play a CD.”

NPR alum Martinez smiled when told that story. At KNKX, “we don’t play CDs anymore,” he confirmed.

Both Martinez and Lowe do expect digital to eventually start to overtake analog broadcasting. “We have a good ten years … where things are going to really be pretty strong,” Lowe speculated. “But within the seven-year period things are going to start turning. There’ll be too many other options that people can turn to.”

“I think the bottom is going to fall out when WiFi becomes a true public utility,” Martinez projected. “And you are able to get it everywhere you go.” As entire cities have WiFi cloud coverage, Martinez said, “people can just call out in their cars what they want to listen to.”

So will this technologically rich future ever improve the listener experience of … the pledge drive?

Martinez, for one, was optimistic. “Technology is fantastic, and you can figure lots of stuff out with it,” he said. “It just takes that person to figure it out.”

Previously in this series: Preserving the future: How MoPOP protects and presents our ever-changing popular culture

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