NPR at the Tipping Point

With the launch this weekend of the new NPR Mobile App, I can look back over the last 4 years and see a pattern emerge that tells me that NPR is poised to be the first major new organization to break through into the new Media Reality.

That’s a bold statement so let me try and back it up.

First of all, NPR and the public radio system have got something that no other media has in America – Growth in audience.


Why? I suspect that a large part of the answer is to be found in one word – “Trust”. As our world becomes more uncertain, it is also clear that much of the media was either complicit in hiding the truth about what was going on or that they just missed it. The non profit aspect of NPR and its system, I suspect helps keep it more trusted. The second point is just good journalism. As all other sources of media have retrenched on their staff, NPR and its stations have continued to invest in great staff.

But there is more going on here than the core journalism – NPR – like no other organizations except the BBC – is there a pattern here too? – Has made a decisive push to make the web work for it, for the stations and for the audience.

Here is the “Story” as revealed in a “Power Curve”.

NPR Growth story.002

This suggests that NPR is at the Tipping Point. Why? Because we can see both the acceleration and also the growth of the supporting system that will facilitate the growth.

We see a long gestation period from 2005 – 2007. Podcasting began then – greatly facilitated by iTunes.

It is in 2008 that we see progress begin to accelerate. In 2009, NPR is positively rocking.

How did this happen when so many other media organizations are merely hiding behind the castle walls?

I think the answer is in the New Realities Process that NPR undertook at the end of 2005 – May 2006. Over 800 people were involved in “Exploring” what the web might mean to NPR and the system of stations.

This was the basic problem presented to all.

NPR Growth storyquestion.003

Please let me explain. Remember this was done in early 2006. The core assumption was that by 2009, the web would be ubiquitous. NPR’s relative position versus the web at the time was that tiny black line.

The question was this – How did we get to scale on the web in time AND still not piss off the audience AND the Stations?

Looking back, the time line we posed was correct and it seems that we have solved the key question.

So how did this process of mutual exploration help NPR and the stations do this? My answer is this – It gave everyone a real voice. ALL the issues were on the table. A real common view emerged.

NPR Growth story.003

In every meeting, groups came up with the same big idea. That we had to be able to offer the audience what we did “Their Way”. This appears to have been an underlying idea that has been realized by the Mobile App – many groups even envisaged a device like the iPhone that would enable this.

Surely this is no small thing? Most media organizations still insist controlling everything.

NPR Growth story.005

The underlying constraint was what would be the role of NPR and of each station? At the time, many believed that NPR had a “secret plan” to go it alone. In truth many at NPR also did not know what to do. They talked about working with the stations but were uncertain.

A major result of the process is that the senior NPR folks realized that they HAD to work with the stations. It has taken years for much of the fear that NPR would go it alone to dissipate but it is. NPR have proved by their actions that they are in this together.

NPR Growth story.004

For another common theme that kept coming up again and again was this. That the end game would look like this – a REAL NETWORK based on Natural Systems. This was the systems’ great hidden strength.

This idea of a large natural system is now even bigger than anyone envisaged in 2006. For the CPB has been making major investments in creating a Public Radio AND TV system. The Facing the Mortgage Crisis project is one of these investments where radio and Tv stations in 32 markets are working together. NPR and the NewsHour are working together to offer the best news service in the nation. Key local stations are creating local news hubs.

All this is going to come together in late 2009 early 2010.

2010 will be I think THE year. The product will be unparalleled. The Web approach will be ideal. The resources will be all that such a network can supply.

With the audience, with the engagement and with the web fully supporting the air all that is left is this..

NPR Growth story.006

I think that with the underlying audience, engagement and a network – it should be possible to make the money and the system work – don’t you?

So in closing I return to the question of our time. How do large organizations make the changes that they have to? How do they do this when the New is often the opposite of what they are and what they do today?

I think that the answer for NPR and Public radio is that they overcame the huge natural resistance by investing in a shared and deep exploration of what confronted them. What they have done since has come from the genuine emergence of ideas and of a language that they created for themselves.

It has not been easy. I admit to being in despair in 2007 when I could see no visible progress. But in retrospect I was naive. The laws of nature demand a period of gestation. 2007 was that time.

What is remarkable now is that NPR and the system has fully met the challenge set out in the starting question of the process. They have kept their audience, kept the system together AND become a leader in the web.

Now they have to turn this into revenue. I think that they are up to this.

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