Two initiatives led by NPR will soon offer station websites greater automated handling of editorial content and national sales of underwriting to help support those sites.
On the editorial side, NPR acquired Public Radio International’s Public Interactive subsidiary, a provider of specialized website systems for 170 public broadcasting clients, the companies announced July 31.
On the underwriting side, National Public Media, the underwriting sales agency bought by NPR and WGBH last September, will offer to find sponsors for national packages of unsold underwriting on station sites.
In television, meanwhile, PBS said last week that its new back-end infrastructure for on-demand web video is still on track to debut this fall.
Public Interactive will be operated as a neutral fee-based utility serving all program distributors, both networks said, much as NPR has operated the semi-autonomous Public Radio Satellite System for almost 30 years.
NPR acquired the Boston-based nonprofit service provider for an undisclosed sum.
“This is a very logical place for us to build collaborative services that cut across all public media, both radio and TV,” says Dennis Haarsager, NPR’s acting c.e.o.
NPR and PRI execs said the move gives PI more funding and program resources to let it expand services beyond its current offerings and include content created by all the system’s major national organizations and, in some cases, stations, not just NPR.
PI had already begun working more closely with NPR. In February, PI announced it would begin integrating RSS feeds of NPR content into station sites. Additional NPR content will be key components. The network’s music site, its experimental services for mobile-device users, and custom news products based on its recently released news archives are among the services “stations might want to add within their own online environment,” Haarsager says.
From an operational standpoint, current customers, who collectively operate 325 public radio and TV stations, shouldn’t notice any differences in service in the near future, says Alisa Miller, PRI c.e.o. She said all PI contract commitments will be honored. PRI will continue to manage PI’s sales and marketing efforts until the transition is complete later this year.
In placing Public Interactive under the umbrella of pubradio’s most central entity, the company becomes a foundation for more unified digital distribution for pubcasters, says Debra May Hughes, president of the company. All pubcasters and producers—not just NPR—will be able to contribute content to Public Interactive’s offerings, and stations will be free to carry whatever they want, she says.
“PRI, American Public Media, independent producers, Public Radio Exchange—all of these entities will be able to utilize this service,” echoes Dana Davis Rehm, NPR senior v.p. for strategy and partnerships.
The Public Interactive acquisition emerged out of extensive system talks over the past few years, stemming from NPR’s New Realities planning process in 2006, which endorsed NPR and station collaboration in online distribution. Those discussions, including plans surrounding the Digital Distribution Coalition, got bogged down in details of money issues, Rehm says.
“Once you put revenue into the picture, everyone gets nervous,” she says. “A fee-for-service basis is more straightforward.”
Out of these talks, Miller says, came discussions between NPR and PRI about the future of Public Interactive, which picked up steam after Haarsager, long an advocate for increased coordination of online distribution efforts, joined NPR as interim c.e.o. in March.
Pubcast networks, meanwhile, have worked more cooperatively than ever before on 2008 election coverage, developing a specially constructed online workshop called the Knowledge Network that helps stations share and plan how to use this year’s online map and other election content. Those involved have said they hope that the election project could lay the groundwork for more consistent, systematic collaborations ahead.
With access to a majority of pubradio’s digital offerings, Public Interactive can help make that happen, Miller says.
“The bigger the database, the more content behind it, the easier it is for stations to have websites that reflect what’s on-air,” she says.
Media consumers expect no less, says Mark Fuerst, president of the Integrated Media Association, who has also advocated online collaboration. Studies by the Online Publishers Association indicate that users view websites as another “face” of an offline media organization and are surprised if they don’t see the same array of content in both places, he says.
“In the past, PI couldn’t do that for people,” Fuerst says. “They couldn’t get the content.”
While he’d still like to see pubcasters bring together a broad collection of programming for on-demand service, Fuerst gives NPR and PRI “an immense amount of credit.”
“I assume the best and think they did the right thing,” he says. “Bringing those assets together is really important.”
In the short term, Public Interactive will report to Haarsager. NPR will appoint a seven-member advisory group that will become an official committee of the NPR Board later this year.
NPR and PRI will soon announce a series of consultations with stations to explain the new Public Interactive and solicit ideas for new services. The principals want to convince stations that the company’s evolution will be driven by their needs rather than some nationally dictated agenda.
“You know the system—if we came out and said, ‘Here, everybody get in line,’ they’d all walk in different directions,” Hughes says.
“This has to be a process, and we have to hear what people are saying in a way that doesn’t repeat New Realities, but actually builds on that work.,” she says.
PI’s destiny fulfilled?
PRI and 15 stations partnered to launch Public Interactive in 1999. It added plenty of clients but proved to be unsustainable as a stand-alone, for-profit business. In June 2004, the company was reorganized as a nonprofit and officially merged with PRI. “We were sort of nonprofit whether we wanted to be or not,” Hughes quips.
At the time of the merger, the company was about $600,000 in the red for the year. Now it’s operating at a “break-even budget,” Hughes says.
Public Interactive began life as a one-stop website shop that provided national content for station websites and also developed specialized software to run them, but the company came to focus on its role as technology provider. Its newest offerings include add-ons such as Pulse, a system that manages integrated e-mail marketing, and Public Action, a social-media tool.
In joining NPR, Public Interactive aspires to broaden its reach and be a foundation of the system’s online infrastructure. “For us, becoming a utility for public broadcasting seems like the destiny that was set up for us back then when we launched,” Hughes says.
She sees the service as “a two-way pipe” that could help relevant local content make its way into NPR.org as well as the other way around. The company will also be better positioned to help stations take advantage of the NPR news archives released under an Open API, or application program interface, that enables web developers, at stations and elsewhere, to customize their own online outlets for selected news content.
In interviews, NPR execs stressed that the juggernaut is not seeking to take over local sites. NPR has two missions, Haarsager says. One is program production, and the other is to serve pubradio stations, as fulfilled by its administration of the ContentDepot and public radio’s satellite system. Overseeing Public Interactive will fit into the latter category, he says.
For PRI, the company’s sale frees resources to devote to other projects, Miller says. Public Interactive made good strides as part of PRI, and its adoption by NPR was the logical next step to serve pubcasters who want to see more cooperation online.
“This is really something that NPR and PRI are doing on behalf of the system, and I look forward to what can happen from here,” she says.