Inside National Public Radio’s Play for Local Online

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I’ve been writing about large media brands and their hyperlocal efforts for the past few weeks, looking at Gannett, Tribune and PBS for example. Balancing things out with another not-exactly-for-profit property, I recently asked NPR’s digital services GM, Robert Kempf, to talk about his organization’s forays into hyperlocal.

How does NPR approach”local” — from the radio side, in the digital division, and elsewhere?
A strong, sustainable local/national partnership is core to NPR’s mission and strategy and is embedded throughout the company.  Our mission explicitly states that we represent our members in matters of their mutual interest (which is generally a locally focused public media mission) and that we provide distribution of content and interconnection from the entire public radio system.

Specifically for digital efforts, local strategy and support is guided by NPR Digital Services, a division of the company that provides member stations with digital product development, technology, business support and strategic guidance.  Our intention is to allow stations to focus on local content, brand positioning and revenue development with a goal of achieving impact and reach on digital platforms comparable to radio.

Do NPR’s Web initiatives operate as their own entities in local markets or do they act as arms of the local radio station?
NPR Digital Services initiatives operate locally in partnership with local stations and under the local stations’ identity. operates as its own entity, but a robust, open API allows for exchange of content between and local stations and also between local stations. Enabling stations’ and NPR’s ability to combine quality public radio journalism from national and local sources strengthens audience engagement at both levels.

How many “affiliate” sites are there in the U.S.?
268 independent member organizations that operate 900-plus stations nationwide.

Robert Kempf, Vice President and General Manager, Digital Services

Is the roadshow related to your hyperlocal efforts?
The Digital Services initiative represents NPR’s local strategy in collaboration with member stations.  Our goal is to bring the same level of quality journalism to digital platforms that we exhibit in radio — both nationally and locally.  That journalism may be focused on general local news, may be vertically or topically focused locally, and may venture to take a deeper look at news, issues and community concerns that may be “hyperlocal” in nature … but it is not specifically a “hyperlocal” initiative as commonly defined.

Is there a broader plan to develop hyperlocal in markets where NPR has no broadcast presence?
No plan at this time.

How are your local Web sites currently staffed?
Local Web site staffing is up to local stations and varies widely station-to-station, depending on resources available. NPR Digital Services provides centralized business, technology, product, analytics and training support to member stations’ local digital efforts.  Providing this support will allow stations to focus scarce local resources on content and revenue development.  NPR Digital Services staff is a mix of product, editorial, technology and client services personnel, projected to be a staff of 42 by Q4 2011.

How much focus on hyperlocal is top-down versus handled exclusively in the field?
One of the unique advantages of the public radio system is it’s potential to enable collaboration. and NPR Digital Services can offer expertise in digital strategy, technology, product development, user experience, and digital news production. Local stations understand their audiences and what causes them to engage with their brands. Local strategies, product development and initiative focus emerges from collaborations between local stations and the NPR teams.

NPR Digital Services is exploring an opportunity to put technology in place that would allow stations … to insert digital sponsorship units into their online audio streams and potentially realize additional digital underwriting dollars.

Are any of NPR’s hyperlocal efforts driving revenue? If so, how is it being sold?
Traditional Web advertising (banners, etc.) in support of underwriting revenue does contribute to monetization of local sites. Those revenues are entirely controlled by local stations, not by NPR. By providing common presentation standards through Digital Services, there is potential for a larger underwriting network and localized/targeted sponsorship campaigns from national underwriters. However the most significant potential exists in monetizing broadcast streams that are made available on local stations’ digital products.

NPR Digital Services is exploring an opportunity to put technology in place that would allow stations — at their discretion — to insert digital sponsorship units into their online audio streams and potentially realize additional digital underwriting dollars.

Separately, stations would have the option of supplementing those sales and filling out remnant inventory with nationally sold spot sales (via National Public Media, a separate public media sales organization).

We believe there is significant revenue potential here for stations, but there is a lot of consultation that needs to occur and groundwork that would have to be laid before this can be put in place.

Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight.