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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

How NPR Killed the Radio Star

Voice-activated app suggests broadcast isn’t long for this world

  • January 11, 2012

NPR’s mobile app isn’t just good, it’s a joy to use. In a world where most content is strangled by some executive’s desire to put advertisements or paywalls between you and accessing your content whenever and however you want it, NPR’s alternate funding model and embrace of the web mean that their app lets me get the shows I want when I want them, in their entirety, even if they’re currently playing on my radio and technically I’m kind of cheating my local NPR affiliate by skipping around in the online versions of the network’s national shows.

Now NPR has revealed a new partnership with Ford, which allows voice-activated control of their app through Ford’s Sync system, which is part of Ford’s overall “digital car” strategy, which has been covered in-depth on TR.

There’s an excellent video breaking down the user experience for the NPR sync app (above) created by filmmaker John Pavlus.

It’s a logical extension of NPR’s existing mobile strategy, but it makes me wonder: what’s this going to do to radio broadcasts? Currently, the advantage of radio is its just-there, always-on simplicity. But if I have a system that requires only that I speak aloud my desire to hear my favorite show, am I ever going to listen to NPR on FM radio again?

Already I’m getting my favorite shows through podcasts, which have become a genre unto themselves, spawning shows like WNYC’s Radiolab that don’t even really make sense in the traditional radio format.

Radio is a robust medium – try getting your Ford Sync system to work after a natural disaster has cut you off from the “cloud” – but it’s also expensive. The cost of running a tower is many times what it takes to push content digitally. NPR is embracing the future, but at what price? Will local stations go the way of local newspapers, with only a few national outlets dominating the news ecosystem, or will radio in its digital form come to resemble the robust and diverse ecosystem of blogs that have colonized the “print” medium?

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