NPR One, a new customised radio app

Once more, NPR shows the world how to produce a great radio experience

By James Cridland
Posted 29 July 2014, 10.15am bst


When I was working at the BBC, I put together a document called "BBC Radio Me". It had a logo and everything.

BBC Radio 2 and BBC Radio 4 are massive radio stations. BBC Radio Me was born from the realisation that their listeners completely miss out on local information from the BBC's 40 local stations.

I wanted something that gave me BBC Radio 2's breakfast show but with traffic and news from BBC Radio Leeds. I wanted BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, but instead of Thought for the Day or the sport, I wanted to know what was going on in my area, as well as a smidgen more tech news.

In short, I hoped that BBC Radio Me could be a personalised radio service, not a personalised music service.

So, imagine my irritation yesterday to discover that NPR, the US public broadcaster, has done exactly bloody that.

In 2011, NPR launched the Infinite Player, which I wrote about at the time. Then, the Infinite Player was taking individual stories from NPR's national output, and weaving them together. They called this 'continuous customised listening'. Audiences could personalise the output by voting individual stories up and down.

NPR's taken this experiment and added content from the 835 public radio stations that are part of NPR. They have then shoved the lot in a mobile app called NPR One. That launched yesterday on iOS and Android.

After logging in (Google+, Facebook or via email), the app prompted me to enter my local NPR station (which I'd imagine is automatic if you're in the US). After I did, I got the latest NPR national news bulletin, then a local news bulletin from WBUR, then a few interesting stories, taken from various parts of NPR programming: health, the Middle East, some tech, a story about the prison population.

The app works well. Audio levels are consistent, which is no easy task when dealing with this amount of content. Since it's downloading and caching stuff ahead of time, I heard no dropouts in the audio. The integration with WBUR's content is good, with a welcome email that's co-branded.

Lessons have been learnt from other apps that have achieved this, including Swell, which was yesterday purchased by Apple. The user interface is clear and works well in a car (without a 'car mode'). Gone are the "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" - why would you ever want a "thumbs-down" associated with your content anyway? - and in its place is a simpler "interesting" button. The app presumably also takes cues from me swiping away a piece of content.

This is hard to do well. But, NPR has achieved this with 268 different NPR Members - a stakeholder list that would put the fear into any project manager. They've made an app that encourages donations and widens partner station audiences. They've produced something which keeps people with the NPR brand for longer.

If the definition of public service is serving the public, I truly hope that, one day, BBC Radio Me becomes a reality. The new NPR One app shows how amazing it could be.

James Cridland — James runs, and is a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. He also publishes a free daily newsletter about podcasting, Podnews, and a weekly radio trends newsletter.