With contract negotiations looming this fall, leaders at NPR member stations are getting increasingly vocal about what they see as shortcomings of the products offered by NPR Digital Services.
In 2011, NPR leaders convinced the majority of stations large and small to sign a three-year agreement for the newly formed unit to provide a fixed slate of tools and services for online streaming, website design and donation management.
With the contract term ending Sept. 30, station leaders are raising questions and concerns about the offerings and whether to renew the contract as-is. A recent informal survey of heads of 30 stations gathered mixed reviews of the package of technology tools and services designed to help stations distribute and publish news reports and other online content.
Digital Services’ tools include Core Publisher, a website content management system; Composer, a music scheduler and playlist generator; Pulse/Lyris, a service for managing emails and databases; and Quick Pledge, a tool for handling donations. Stations also have access to analytics, NPR’s API and streaming technology.
Digital Services charges stations on a sliding scale based on total station revenue. Stations with less than $1 million in total revenue pay $1,800 a year. The largest stations are capped at $100,000, and stations in the middle pay a percentage of total revenue.
The offerings from Digital Services “have had a predictably mixed response from the eclectic bunch of stations” that use them, said Tom Thomas, c.e.o. of the Station Resource Group, which aids public media outlets with strategic planning. A downside of Digital Services “is that it made people pay for what they don’t want or are not working with,” he said. Larger stations, for example, are more likely to handle digital efforts in-house rather than rely on Digital Services. Furthermore, a one-size-fits-all package is unlikely to suit the diverse formats and approaches of various stations, Thomas said.
NPR Digital Services General Manager Bob Kempf said his staff are aware of stations’ concerns and have been working to address them. Digital Services is planning a review of its own to start this spring, he said.
“We’re always monitoring the system’s impressions and feedback,” Kempf said.
Ellen Rocco, station manager of North Country Public Radio in Canton, N.Y. wanted to find out how her colleagues at other stations felt about Digital Services’ products and what they want addressed as they enter contract negotiations with NPR. She queried them with an informal survey sent to the forum of authorized representatives for NPR stations, promising to preserve their anonymity when sharing responses. About 30 A-Reps sent responses, which Rocco passed along to NPR Digital Services.
Her survey found that station executives feel NPR is focusing less on Digital Services and more on initiatives such as its upcoming mobile app. “I understand this has been a low priority for NPR, but as station general managers, we have to look at whether there is a better way to do this without NPR,” she said.
As an example, she said NPR Digital Services’ database and membership-management program Pulse/Lyris has been a major disappointment and has not been maintained during the past three years. “It’s just dismal considering this is 2014,” she said. “It’s about five years behind the ball.”
Respondents to Rocco’s survey echoed some of her frustrations. “I can understand that providing digital services to a large and hugely-diverse group of public radio stations is incredibly difficult,” one commenter wrote. “I think public radio needs something like [Digital Services] to address shared strategic concerns. But I don’t think [Digital Services] understands enough about what these concerns are, and so can’t act strategically. Instead they’re pushing products that mostly don’t fit the needs of ‘stations like me,’ and we’re becoming disenfranchised.”
Rocco said that at its formation, NPR Digital Services was intended to help the entire public radio system, much as the Public Radio Satellite System does. But it has fallen short, she said.
“The difference with the satellite system is that it was high-functioning right out of the gate, and this isn’t,” she said. “It’s not so much a matter of price; it’s a matter of unacceptable functionality.”
Some survey-takers said they were also unhappy about what they saw as a lack of transparency in NPR’s dealings with stations and about the impact of a restructuring of the division in February, in which NPR laid off three station-relations managers. A commenter asked for “some honesty about the fiscal problems facing the network.”
Station leaders asked whether Digital Services has enough manpower to meet the needs of so many stations. After February’s internal restructuring at the Boston-based division, NPR also laid off editorial training director Todd Mundt and senior news trainer Sora Newman this month.
And respondents also criticized Quick Pledge, the software provided by Digital Services for handling donations, for giving users a clunky experience and failing to work in tandem with Pulse/Lyris.
In response to concerns from stations, Kempf said, Digital Services has started revamping and replacing many of its products. It has procured a new program from a third-party vendor to replace Quick Pledge, for example. Digital Services will also roll out a new version of Composer and a replacement for Pulse/Lyris, also designed by a third party.
NPR Digital Services is also considering a new business model for its next contract term with stations, Kempf said. Many commenters criticized the all-for-one pricing required by Digital Services under the current contract, and some asked for the services to be separated for a la carte selection. Digital Services is exploring that option, Kempf said, but it will need to continue earning $6.5 million in annual revenue to maintain its current level of service.
Digital Services surveys station satisfaction every six months and will factor in the comments from A-Reps along with the next survey, scheduled for May.
“The provider is reviewing its model as promised after the first three years,” Kempf said. “It’s not like we’re sitting here saying, ‘This is the way it needs to be.’ We’re working with the market.”
A holistic look
Like many stations, St. Louis Public Radio has used some but not all of the Digital Services products. It built its website using Core Publisher and has also used Composer.
For back-end functions such as managing website content, the offerings from Digital Services can be a boon for stations lacking resources to handle such functions in-house, said Tim Eby, g.m. of St. Louis Public Radio. But Digital Services should examine NPR’s in-house digital efforts when evaluating its own products to determine what else it might share with stations.
“The big question needs to be how much duplication there is between the products NPR Digital Services is delivering and NPR has for itself,” Eby said.
Digital Services should also consider digital efforts underway throughout the system and how stations could benefit.
“The key question is, how can we run this thing as efficiently as possible?” Eby said. “That’s what we need to look at. The more we can work as a network, the better we can capitalize on opportunities.”