For Local Audio News, No More Free Rides

“So you work for NPR!”

I pause a second and consider whether I should begin my lecture. No, it’s not NPR, exactly. KNKX is a local radio station that plays NPR shows. But I cover local news in the Seattle area, so you won’t hear me in Milwaukee or Phoenix. We mix the local content in with the stuff from NPR, which feeds us national and international news. But once in a while NPR will pick up one of my stories and … ah, hell.

“Yeah, I work for NPR.”

This used to be a pretty academic distinction, and not, in my judgment, worth the pedantry required to explain it. Some people knew me from KNKX. Others just NPR. Still others were sure that I worked for the other public radio station, across town. A surprising number of people still believe I work for PBS.

It didn’t used to matter much, because people would all come to the same place to get public-radio content: their local station.

But now that listening is shifting to digital, it’s starting to matter a whole lot more. Those listeners are increasingly cherry-picking their sources, subscribing to This American Life or catching one-off stories from NPR’s website. That cuts the stations, and their hard-working local news staffs, out of the equation.

So we’re now asking listeners to do something they’ve never had to do before: seek out, and pay for, local audio news as a stand-alone product. As a system, we haven’t figured out how to do that yet. And that puts at risk a crucial source of civic news, local culture and the social glue that binds communities.

I’ve spent the last year at Stanford University trying to figure this out, as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow. Spoiler alert: I fell short of rescuing local journalism. But I’ve gotten my feet wet in a couple of technologies that, while they won’t save us, may point us toward the kind of thinking we’ll need to help navigate a perilous transition to digital.

Those include digital voice assistants — smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo or Google Home (read more about our work on those platforms here).

And then there are platforms that preserve — or restore — that marriage between local and national content. One of the most promising is the NPR One app, a kind of Pandora for news. It assembles a string of stories for you, learning from what you skip and dishing out more of what you want. And crucially, NPR One uses your location to match you with your local public radio station. It mixes those local stories in with the national, recreating part of the alchemy of broadcast public radio.

Over the last year I’ve worked on ways to make this platform work better for local stations. One problem is that the NPR One tends to lack the flow and continuity of, say, All Things Considered. It sounds a bit like a robot is assembling your news feed. That matters because one of the key reasons people support their local public radio station is that they feel close to the people they hear. We become their smart, slightly dorky friends, so when we come hat-in-hand at pledge drive time, some chunk of them feel compelled to give. It’s just like how you’re more likely to donate to your friend’s Kickstarter project than to some stranger’s.

So how do we establish that kind of loyalty and intimacy with listeners on platforms like NPR One? I worked with my home station to experiment with it, to warm up the sound of the local elements and develop some of the personality that inspires devotion in public-radio listeners.

We added signposts that better branded our local stories. We switched from having many anonymous voices reading story intros to a single host, and let her bring personality and humanity to the writing. And we used the email addresses generated by NPR One listener data to reinforce our relationship through (sparing) direct communications with listeners. We want our NPR One feed to sound like us, so listeners will understand how we add value beyond being a conduit for Fresh Air.

It’s tempting to say that in a free market, listeners vote with their ears. If they’re not seeking out local content, that must mean there’s simply not enough demand for it. But I’m not buying it. For one thing, NPR One data shows that listeners do want those local stories. One of the least-skipped elements of the feed is the local newscast, which follows national headlines right at the top.

Listeners want the local stuff … but maybe we need to be clearer about who makes it. I want people to know that my stories come from KNKX — not PBS. We need to give them frictionless ways to find local content, and make it valuable enough that people will help pay for it.