Robert Spier Picture for Mobile Thinkers interview about how NPR creates content for Mobile Applications and Mobile Web.

Robert Spier, Director of Content Development, NPR

Robert Spier piqued my curiosity at the Think Mobile Conference when he told the audience that luck played a role in NPR’s success in delivering mobile content.  Robert is the Director of Content Development at NPR Digital Media and the luck he was talking about was the decision to record podcasts in segments.  That decision was made years before mobile hit everyone’s radar, but those small segments just happen to fit the mobile channel perfectly.

When Robert went on to explain that “data” had replaced “the story” as the  atom of NPR’s business, I knew he would offer some interesting insights on creating and delivering mobile content.

I interviewed Robert through a series of email messages after we realized we couldn’t connect in person.  We discussed ways content providers can evaluate their product with the mobile channel in mind, the value of Apps vs. mobile web, what to look for when seeking external expertise or building an in-house mobile team, and soliciting donations through mobile.  Following is an edited version of our email exchange:

Q: Is there any advice you can share with other content providers on how they can re-evaluate, categorize, segment or approach their content creation with the mobile channel in mind?

A. Start by thinking less in terms of what you produce, and much more in terms of the users: who they are or could be, how they will consume your content, where, when.  We still produce programs for radio, but in the digital space, we must think much more multi-dimensionally.


Some users simply want to time-shift programs they already know; others want to dip in and out of a content stream throughout the day while at work or on the go.  And then there are those who don’t even know us, or have no idea what the “R” in “NPR” once stood for, or who might not even own a radio.   Yet we know that such audiences will value what we produce, if we can deliver to them in ways that are relevant.

Finally, “old-line” publishers must learn how to enhance their core product, effectively and on a scalable basis.  In our case, that means supplementing our audio with text and visuals, most notably.  (We are comparatively much less focused on video at the present time.)

Q. How would you compare Mobile Web versus Apps in terms of their strategic value for content providers?

A. While apps are all the rage right now – and make no mistake: we are very happily riding that wave – having a good mobile web site should be your bedrock.  It will enable you to serve all audiences; from there, you can and should be mindful and selective about whatever Apps you deploy.

Q: What insights can you share on what to look for when seeking external expertise and conversely, what type of skills sets do you feel are critical when building your internal team?

A. We generally start our vendor selection process with a pool of 10-15 vendors recommended by our counterparts at various media and technology companies.  We then try to assess each vendor’s design skills, creativity, and the extent to which they understand the audio capabilities of various devices and carriers.  More recently, we have started favoring non-proprietary vendors.  In an ideal world, any code developed for NPR would be open source.  Internally, we like coders who are also good communicators and strategic thinkers with heavy expertise in Java and PHP.

Q: What are your thoughts on location-based mobile technologies?  Will they play a part in NPR’s future mobile efforts?

A: We already use geo-location in our Apps, to help users find and stream the NPR station that is close by.  With a network of some 280 stations coast-to-coast, and our increasing emphasis on helping those stations produce high-quality local news and entertainment content, it is all but certain that location technologies will play a vital role as we expand our mobile.  At the same time, such experiences are still in their infancy; issues such as users’ willingness to embrace them, as well as privacy concerns, will continue to inform whatever steps we take.

Q: What are your thoughts on the mobile channel as a means for organizations to solicit and receive donations from their supporters?

A: Today, nascent and still competing technologies, protocols and players make this a marginal proposition at best.   An initial experiment on NPR Mobile in 2007-2009, in which we invited users to donate to their local station, did not yield notable results.    But as mobile commerce takes the same hold in our lives that e-commerce did at a similar point in the evolution of the web, supporting public broadcasting and our stations via mobile seems like a natural. Key in our case will be educating users, especially those new to us, as to how public broadcasting works, and specifically why support from individual members is crucial to our success.


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