Q&A: Bob Kempf on the digital “front door” for public media

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Bob Kempf led NPR Digital Services until October, when he left to become v.p. of digital services for WGBH in Boston. In an interview on our podcast The Pub in December, Kempf talked with host Adam Ragusea about how public media reach audiences in the digital realm and how they’ll fare as platforms they can’t control — Apple, Facebook and the like — become key players. This is an edited transcript.

Bob Kempf: Digital Services was formed a little over five years ago. I was recruited from the Boston Globe to NPR to run a division whose sole purpose was very specific, very pointed. The notion was … that there were these tremendously well-recognized, in some cases with big audiences, radio broadcast brands in many markets. The digital footprints — and I’m talking about even for the large markets — were barely on the radar screen. Could we bring the journalism, the community, the integrity of what we had done, what these stations had done in broadcast, to digital platforms, and do it at scale?

Bob Kempf

Kempf (Photo: NPR)

That was the idea of Digital Services, to be able to essentially float all boats. Sometimes that was infrastructure and platforms for smaller stations that didn’t necessarily have the ability to create their own content management systems or what have you; when for larger stations, who had more means, it may have been more on training or more around the content that NPR could deliver to those stations for them to publish on their own digital platforms. That was the idea; it was raising capabilities and really allowing stations to build the public radio brand on their digital platforms.

Current: That is the politic way of describing it. I’m going to give you the impolitic way of describing those services which you can or cannot consent to. The impolitic way of describing it is: There are people in the public radio system who don’t feel that NPR.org should ever have existed all. That NPR is a membership organization; its function is to serve its member stations and by creating digital services that effectively go around stations and serve the audience directly, NPR was sort of violating its role as a membership organization, and the compromise that was reached was NPR Digital Services. NPR will create this division that will help you, stations, be better with your own digital products and thus capture some of that business for yourself. That’s the impolitic way of describing it; do you want to challenge me on that?

Kempf: So we’re in The Pub, right? And this is a Pub conversation. So, yeah, in the context of The Pub I would say definitely impolitic … and I would challenge and say: not how it actually went down.

Originally the goal was, let’s enable stations; let’s enable their capabilities under their brand. Five-and-a-half years ago, NPR.org was all about NPR. If you go to NPR.org today, you will auto-localize to the member station in whatever market you’re in. It’s imperfect, but it’s pretty darned good in terms of how it ought to localize, and that station stream will appear.

So what is happening to NPR.org, in short, is that it is becoming a distribution platform. Is it serving NPR content? Yes. Is it also a distribution platform for local content and local streams? Yes. That’s just NPR.org; we’re talking websites. Audio’s grown dramatically on digital platforms over the last five years. Additionally, new applications that NPR is working on, including NPR One, also ought to localize [and] create the potential for a station to insert its own branding, its own marketing into what’s called a “public radio on-demand flow.” I believe the folks at NPR when they say that the goal has always been to enable local stations.

… [O]ne of the things that I realized along the way was the importance of the public and the differentiation that the public media business model is. That is to say, a voluntary donation-based model that generates significant amounts of revenue to support our business, the economy of public media. That isn’t an amazing differentiator from any other number of publishers and news organizations that are trying desperately to do similar kinds of things with subscription models. We have this in place. The real thing that attracted me to ’GBH was thinking about the importance of that member-to-station — emphasize station — relationship that is core to WGBH’s thinking, and I personally believe it’s really important to public media.

Current: What else brought you to ’GBH?

Kempf: I’d been working for NPR for five years, and that’s been great, and working with a lot of member stations, and that’s been great. But previous to NPR I‘d been working at the Boston Globe, previous to that at Gatehouse Media, previous to that at the Dow Jones local news group. It was local, and WGBH is on one level a profoundly local institution. And to be able to build digital capabilities and the benefits of the ’GBH foundation locally on digital platforms — that was something I really wanted to do. I’m kind of coming home in a way. To be able to bring some things that I had done for a lot of other markets to this market was also a very attractive thing.

Current: All of this kind of leads to the big-picture thing that I want to talk to you about, because you’re more qualified and more in the know and in a better position to examine this question with me than anyone else that I can think of. Listeners and viewers of public media products are exposed to an unrelenting alphabet soup of brands to try to sort through. Local stations, then networks that serve those stations — it goes on and on and on, it’s a complete mess.

Long-term, what is the future that we and the broader public media community should be striving toward? Should we be striving toward a place where all of us have strong individual brands that serve audiences across multiple platforms? Or should we be trying to strive for a future where there is one front door for public media, and we all cooperate on that front door together? We’re all in the building, but there’s one big entrance on that building. One brand. One future.

Kempf: That’s very well-phrased, and a very large Friday-afternoon question. But in all honesty, it’s one that I think about all the time. First of all, one thing I’m convinced of is the power of public media, meaning: How has it done so well? It’s done well because individuals in local markets have made a connection to — sometimes —a local public media entity. Like WGBH. In this market it is very powerful.

Current: Kids [from when] I grew up, those four call letters at the beginning and end of every show, it’s in their blood.

Kempf: In other markets, there may be a local public station, and you’ll ask the cab driver in that city, and he’ll say “I love NPR.” And I’ll ask, “What station do you listen to?” And the answer will be, “Well, it’s NPR.” That’s the local public radio station’s worst nightmare; the identity of the brand is diffused or lost to the national entity. That’s not good either.

I do believe this: What local stations can bring is community and building community and building the kind of connection to community that what we call the networks, NPR and PBS, can’t. They simply can’t. They’re not on the ground. They don’t know the people in the markets, and that’s the differentiator that the local stations can bring.

At the same time, the local station doesn’t have anywhere near — as I just described in my little cab anecdote — the discoverability the national station has. Just as we talk about apps and go to the App Store and search for a public radio app, the NPR app is going to come up in the top numbers, and the local station apps will not. That’s a problem. By the same token, the loyalists for WBEZ or WNYC or WGBH will find that local application and will connect with that one, as opposed to the NPR one. I guess this is a long way of saying the answer is both. The national networks serve as discovery mechanisms that allow the local brand to maintain that connection. And if you look at what NPR has done with localizing NPR.org, and also the NPR One app, it’s exactly that.

Because I’m new to the television side, PBS I know less about, but they’ve done similar kinds of things. That to me, at this point, the right approach is to continue to remind or have a relationship with the audience that says, “Yes, we have national products and services in the form of PBS or NPR, and we have local as well. And the connection is to both of them.”

I’ll make it more complicated and say that as we talk about the big front door, as you move on to Apple or maybe YouTube or Facebook — those platforms that we don’t control — I do think that some kind of front door could be designed with collaboration across the system. That kind of collaboration is really hard to achieve, but to have some kind of collaboration that allows those local relationships to continue, and the local monetary relationship to continue, that front door is the only way we’re going to be able to flourish because — let’s face it — if I’m Apple or I’m Google, do I really want to deal with however many public media entities that there are? I want to deal with one or two, and what is that? My friends at NPR wouldn’t love this, but I’m not sure it’s NPR or PBS but some kind of single approach. From an audience point of view — and I always try to take the audience point of view — that makes sense, right?

Current: We have this thing called the Public Media Platform, which has been in development for a lot of years; it’s an API that links a bunch of different public media content creators together. In this world that you’re envisioning, it could be [that] if Facebook — which is now doing distributed content, hosting New York Times articles right inside Facebook — ever wanted to do that with public media content, they [could be] dragging things in from the Public Media Platform, and it [would be] universally branded as public media content, as opposed to having to have Facebook have relationships with all the hundreds of stations — and what a disaster that would be!

Kempf: However the branding and business rules are worked out, the first step is, How are you going to get the technology? So beyond the branding alphabet soup, there’s technology and content format and all this geek stuff that I deal with on a daily basis. There’s that soup, and PMP is designed to solve that. As you’ve described, it’s the single content repository where all public media content can live and have permissions controls and all the rest. But that would allow public media entities to access each other’s content, again with the appropriate business terms, et cetera — but the tools are there.

And probably the bigger play is with those larger third parties, like there’s a deal with Apple. Let’s pretend we worked out the branding relationship, and then Apple gets its content in some future day straight out of the PMP. The beauty of that, of course, is not just radio, it’s not just TV, it’s not just print text. It’s all of that, and really smart digital producers who understand storytelling on digital platforms; it’s those brilliant combinations that we haven’t thought about yet that become possible on Facebook or  those other platforms. But PMP is an important first step to get us to the world you describe.

That single front door is compelling and I think about it all the time, but we’re not quite there yet. It’s kind of the uniqueness of public media that it is at once national and local and building community as well as delivering the kind of journalism and culture and content in both television and radio. But it’s community that’s differentiated and that needs to be maintained one way or another.

Current: A further challenge to the single front door thing. … The station I listen to and watch now is Georgia Public Broadcasting, a joint licensee, radio and television. You go to GPB.org and — all due respect to my friends there; I love you all — but they know their website is a mess, and to a certain extent it’s not their fault. It’s because it’s really hard to have a single website that is a website for a television station and a radio station and all the other education stuff that GPB does. And also be a news site. It’s going to be a disaster no matter what you do.

I used to work at your crosstown competitor WBUR, and WBUR was the station that — before most other stations made the decision — decided that WBUR.org is no longer going to be a radio station website; it is going to be a news website. You could get information there about the radio station, but fundamentally this is going to be a news site where you would go to get both [local, national and international] public radio news content. And that’s worked for them OK, but they’re also a simpler organization than ’GBH, which again is a radio station, a television station, a national program production house and probably five other things that I’ve forgotten about. I don’t know how you get that all into one website, and in fact you don’t. There is WGBH.org, but there’s also a news site, right?

Kempf: Yeah. You’re raising an important point about what we refer to as the “joint licensee.” With ’GBH it’s radio, it’s television, it’s news, it’s kids. There’s a whole educational component, so it becomes big. You’re right: It doesn’t all live under one brand in one site, and from a digital product point of view it is an immense challenge. I haven’t quite got that totally figured out; talk to me in six months and I’ll probably have a better answer.

But looking to my colleagues who’ve done some smart work around this, KQED in San Francisco is similar. There’s an educational component, there’s television, there’s radio. But what KQED has done is taken an audience-centric, content-first approach. I don’t think it’s the ultimate solution, but what does our audience want to consume in terms of content? Not so much, what kind of marketing of our brands do we want to do on the website? I think that’s where sometimes joint licensees or combined-format stations or entities get into trouble; it’s like, “Well, I just want to promote all these different things.” And then you get this sort of mess. But if you say, “What does my audience want? What does this brand mean in this market?”, I think it’s possible.

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  • Aaron Read

    Great interview, Adam!

    I don’t know if it was discussed elsewhere in the show, but the elephant in the room here is not just a question of whether NPR.org should exist at all because of branding…but rather that the current funding structure for NPR is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of NPR being the central clearinghouse for individual member stations, because that idea greatly degrades the ability of the member stations to pay the hefty member/program fees that comprise a huge portion of NPR’s budget.

    I don’t mean to say that NPR shouldn’t do things like NPR One or expand on the concept of a shared website platform like NPR:DS. Well, not per se, anyways. But I do think that there is nowhere near enough discussion about the funding structure when the online strategy is talked about. NPR cannot, to cite just one example, keep expecting to charge annual fees for NPR:DS (regardless of whether or not a station uses the platform) and simultaneously leverage NPR:DS to degrade the branding that allows local stations to fundraise effectively. Besides being patently unfair, sooner or later it just simply won’t work anymore as the station’s fundraising degrades to the point where they can’t afford the fees. (or to stay in business)

    (SIDE NOTE: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: eat your own dog food. It’s ridiculous that NPR has its own web platform and member stations have a different one. Either make NPR.org run on NPR:DS’s platform, or make the platform that NPR.org runs on the platform that NPR:DS provides to member stations.)

    This may be why these discussions are always interesting to me but are usually unsatisfying. We’re not tackling the core issue of the revenue model. A better discussion…albeit a terrifyingly huge one…might be to ask whether we should be moving to a model where NPR O&O its signals in the Top X number of markets (maybe 50, maybe 100, I don’t know) and centralizes operations as much as is appropriate, but maintains local staff for sales, fundraising, news, etc. Logically this would make far more sense…it’s not dissimilar to how most of network TV functions…but obviously it has big, big, scary-big change implications to all parties involved. (and that includes valid and relevant entities like APM. PRI and PRX)

    (note: I’m only suggesting a cutoff of Top X markets for ownership because it might be too unwieldy to own them all…but it’s just a suggestion, I have no inherent approval/disapproval of NPR owning all its member stations vs only some.)