‘Next generation of tote bags and mugs’: NPR launches ad-free podcast bundle for new station donors

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April Simpson/Current

NPR debuted Tuesday its NPR+ podcast bundle, which allows listeners to access sponsorship-free podcasts with a donation to a participating member station. 

NPR is soft-launching the bundle for donors to 34 member stations. Listeners in those markets can access the service by donating at least $8 per month or $96 per year to a station. For now, the bundle is available only to new sustaining members. 

The bundle now includes 13 podcasts, with two, Planet Money and Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, offering bonus content to subscribers. NPR plans to add more podcasts to the bundle, and more will offer bonus content over time. NPR plans to include Up First and NPR News Now in the bundle by the end of the year, according to Leda Marritz, NPR+ program manager.

The podcast bundle is the “next generation of tote bags and mugs,” said Joel Sucherman, NPR’s VP of audio platform strategy. The bundle can also introduce NPR podcast listeners to their local member stations “if they don’t know them already,” he said. 

“The first time they give might be because they wanted the NPR+ bundle because they love It’s Been a Minute and Code Switch and Planet Money, but a year from now they might give more because they understand now what their station does in their community and the fact-based journalism that happens in their city only because they’ve supported this thing,” Sucherman said.

In the bundle’s initial phase, NPR is focusing on reaching new donors, including those who have never supported a member station, according to Marritz. She also sees it as an opportunity for stations to reengage with one-time donors or lapsed donors. NPR will eventually offer the podcast bundle to existing sustaining members of stations, but Marritz said that likely will not be until next year. 

The network also plans to allow more stations to participate next year, Sucherman said. NPR is working with its technology vendor on “infrastructure building” that will make it easier to add stations, he said. 

One area that is “a little bit of a sticky problem to solve” is building seamless connections among the various membership databases used by different stations and identifying NPR+ donors in the databases, Sucherman said. 

“Those are the kinds of things that I think that we are going to be working towards over the course of the next 12, 18, 24 months,” Sucherman said. “This is not a get-rich-quick scheme. This is about building deep infrastructure for future ways that our listeners want to support public radio.”

Seeing ‘what strategies work’

NPR launched its subscription program for individual podcasts last year. In more than a year, it has drawn “tens of thousands” of subscribers to individual podcasts, Sucherman said, which has fueled optimism about the podcast bundle’s success.  “… We feel good about this driving significant membership to public radio,” he said.

NPR has found that adding bonus content has been a major driver of subscriptions. It saw an “immediate difference” in subscriber growth after bonus content launched, Marritz said.

Three months after Planet Money launched bonus content, such as subscriber-only episodes, total subscriptions increased 51% and average weekly new subscriptions rose 155% compared to the prior 12 weeks, according to Marritz. “It’s a clear strategic area of opportunity for us that we want and need to continue investing in,” she said. 

The bonus content also offers Planet Money’s team a chance to “flex different muscles, to do more behind-the scenes-stuff, to interact with their listener community, take suggestions from them,” Marritz said. 

In the early stages of the podcast bundle, NPR isn’t planning to use its full marketing capabilities to seek out new members. That’s in part because it’s available in only a small number of markets, and “we don’t want somebody being told this is available and they can’t sign up easily,” Marritz said. 

“We’re not trying to make a big splash or expecting to see a huge response initially,” she said. “This is going to be a period when … we’re going to see, especially in marketing, what strategies work.” NPR also doesn’t want to make a big push before the bundle is available to existing sustaining members, which some stations are more comfortable with than others, she said.

Once the bundle is available in most markets, “then I think our marketing can really turn on in a much more significant and louder way,” Marritz said. NPR has also supplied stations with marketing materials, including a branded landing page, if they want to do their own promotion in their markets, she said. 

NPR consulted with stations about how much a listener should have to donate to access the podcast bundle, Marritz said. It initially suggested $5 per month, the minimum amount donated by users of PBS Passport. That “felt right” for some stations, Marritz said, but others were concerned that it would lower their average gift amount.

In the end, $8 per month was “down the middle in terms of feedback that we heard from station leaders,” she said. 

NPR does not take a cut of the donation made by a listener to access the bundle, though the technology vendors that NPR uses, Stripe and Supporting Cast, do take a processing fee, Sucherman said. 

The NPR+ bundle is one aspect of the NPR Network plan passed by NPR’s board earlier this year to promote collaboration between NPR and member stations on a host of digital initiatives. Another of those initiatives, a new donation option for the NPR Network on NPR’s website, also launched this week. 

In an era in which NPR and stations are “competing more vigorously than ever before with everybody from iHeart to all of the largest technology companies in the world … it’s become more and more important for us to pull all of our resources together,” Sucherman said.

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