MINNEAPOLIS — NPR news chief Nancy Barnes told public radio program directors Wednesday that the network is making its priority “audio first” amid growing competition from commercial media.
“We need to be thinking five years ahead in owning the audio space, because a lot of organizations have seen that there is a big, growing audience here,” Barnes said during a session at the Public Radio Program Directors Association conference. “… Commercial radio has seen that there’s a lot of revenue here, and they’re all crowding our lane.”
Barnes said that prioritizing audio “doesn’t mean that we’re not going to want to have a really robust website” but that “owning the audio space right now is most important.” That includes podcasts, on-demand news, bolstering NPR’s radio shows and making sure NPR is on smart speakers and other emerging audio platforms, she said.
Barnes also said a newsroom reorganization that she announced this month is part of an “ongoing … evolution of our coverage.” The reorganization, which she called “very small,” affected the jobs of three video producers and David Welna, a national security correspondent.
Barnes has previously said that she wants NPR to produce more investigative and original reporting. She again emphasized that priority. “Some days, we’re covering all the news that’s breaking and not uncovering a lot of news,” she said.
“We follow the national agenda a little more often than I’m comfortable with,” she said. “And what I’d really like to do over time is break more original stories, have more distinct coverage lines that you might not find at the New York Times and the Washington Post, and set the national conversation with our coverage — that means with both national stories and local stories.”
That would include “coverage areas that we can own nationally,” she said, pointing to Hannah Allam’s coverage of domestic extremism — which she called “a new form of national security coverage”— and Hansi Lo Wang’s reporting on the US. Census.
NPR is “more lacking than we realized,” she said, in “disciplined, direct coverage of race relations and the culture wars.” The network is looking into establishing a beat for that topic, she said.
Developing new beats and coverage areas “will be an ongoing effort over the next several years,” she said.
Mike Arnold, Wisconsin Public Radio associate director and director of content, asked Thomas Hjelm, NPR’s chief digital officer, whether he’s also prioritizing audio in the digital space. “We’re obsessed by the future of audio,” said Hjelm, who was also presenting during the session.
NPR is “increasingly conscious that companies like Spotify or Luminary or Amazon and Google are essentially building a business based on their access to our free content and making it available in some new way,” Hjelm said. He pointed to Spotify’s Daily Drive playlist feature announced earlier this year as an example.
“There’s a new dialogue that is brewing around the system as to, how do we really feel about that?” Hjelm said.
Hjelm said his “nirvana” would be to have a “sampling of our content out on these third-party platforms.” “So you can listen to parts of podcasts or selective audio on these platforms,” he said. “But if you want the full experience, the full archive or ancillary content or something else, you come to our platform.”