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Confronting ‘Revolutionary Changes,’ NPR Adapts Cornerstone Shows To On-Demand World.

NPR was among the news organizations with dramatic increases in consumption during March and early April as many parts of the country started instituting stay-at-home orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19. More recently, as the national conversation pivoted to discussing racial injustice in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s, the news network is seeing a “continued spike in digital engagement with our websites and our podcasts,” NPR Chief Marketing Officer Michael Smith said Monday afternoon.

Digital traffic for NPR almost tripled in March and early April as listening to its podcasts “exploded,” Smith told media analyst Jack Myers during a “Collective Leadership Conversation” online event.

Triton’s March webcast rankings documented some of the surge as the online streams of NPR Member Stations rose 16% Mon.-Fri. in the primetime 6am-8pm daypart. “People were very engaged in learning about the facts, because there was a lot of misinformation going around,” said Smith, who joined NPR in April after serving as Senior VP/GM of Digital Channels for Scripps Networks Interactive. In mid-March, NPR launched a new daily ten-minute podcast in afternoons focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. Hosted by Kelly McEvers, “Coronavirus Daily” quickly grew from “zero to almost a million listeners a day,” Smith said. Its launch and other podcasts that will follow are manifestations of the organization’s ongoing evolution from a pure linear radio company to on-demand audio company.

In the past when a major news story with legs broke, NPR would use its two drive time news magazine shows as the main vehicle for coverage: “Morning Edition” and its PM drive counterpart “All Things Considered.” “We would add a new section or beat or coverage to those shows. But in an on-demand world, it’s a different strategy,” Smith explained. “You have the ability to stand up totally new content.”

“Coronavirus Daily” became the afternoon bookend to “Up First,” the morning drive news podcast launched in April 2017 that NPR says now has 5 million monthly listeners. And now as tune-in to daily podcasts about COVID-19 begins to wane, NPR plans to evolve “Coronavirus Daily” into a new show called “Consider This,” an on-demand version of “All Things Considered.”

Smith told Meyer, “We also have some other new ideas for what we call daily habit podcasts,” as the broadcaster rethinks and adapts linear three-hour news shows for “a portfolio of daily podcasts.”

NPR was certainly one of the first to embrace podcasting and it now boasts of having 8 of the top 20 podcasts in Potrac’s May ranker. “We've had a lot of success with it,” said Smith. NPR connects with over 100 million people but a few years ago that was mostly through radio. Now the on-demand audio podcast side is our fastest growing reach vehicle,”

‘Tectonic’ Changes Ahead

The very first NPR broadcast was in May 1971, when the public radio broadcaster devoted the inaugural edition of “All Things Considered” to covering protests in Washington, DC against the Vietnam War. Now 50 years later, the network has been at the forefront of covering the protests against police brutality and racism that have dominated headlines for much of the past month. “What's unique in this moment for NPR is we’ve always been about taking that deeper dive into the facts behind the story,” Smith continued. “We’ve never been a media brand that’s been about one side, being left or being right. Our side is the truth. We’ve always felt that by getting to the truth and the facts behind something, that allows people to be better informed, be better citizens and make better decisions on their own.”

As it continues to transition, Smith said NPR faces two “tectonic or revolutionary changes.” The first is responding to how Americans are consuming content differently, moving from linear broadcast to on demand. The second is adapting to the country’s changing demographics.

When NPR launched half a century ago, the country was about 82% white and only 18% diverse. Now, Gen Z, people aged 5-25, are about 49% diverse. “Our future audience is going to be very different demographically and very different in how they engage and consume the content,” he added.

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