NPR One Personalized Radio. Interview with Thomas Hjelm of NPR

Thomas Hjelm is a digital media veteran with 21 years of experience spanning such corporations as NBCU (both in their Entertainment group, where he was a founding members of the first interactive media team, and the Local News division), AOL, LivePlanet and New York Public Radio. 

He joined NPR in April as the organization’s Chief Digital Officer –a role which draws on his background in digital strategy and operations, audience development and marketing, business and content development, writing and producing, product and technology.

I spoke with Hjelm about his new role at NPR, what he calls the ‘genius' of the public media system, innovation within the NPR network and NPR One, the personalized listening app which has seen +124% year on year growth in app users and is providing important insights into listener behavior.

Charlene Weisler: What is your current role at NPR?

Thomas Hjelm: I’m responsible for defining and executing NPR’s strategies for innovation and growth across current and emerging digital platforms. I also work with our many partners across public radio to develop collective, system wide strategies for building platforms, audiences and value. I manage a few different divisions at NPR that work toward these goals. In Washington, we have a large team of digital strategists, product managers, developers and technologists, producers, program managers and analysts who build and support the core platforms of, NPR One and other properties, as well as cultivate partnerships with third-party platforms and distribution channels. In Boston, we have another unit supporting a suite of products and services that are made available to more than 200 NPR member stations. And then across NPR we have a number of other digital specialists in a variety of functions, starting with news, but also including social media, audience development, and revenue. Digital is a department, in other words, but more importantly it’s an organizational concern, one that’s central to every part of NPR and the public radio system as a whole.

Charlene Weisler: Public Radio is a collection of fairly independent stations. How do you help maximize collective efforts?

Thomas Hjelm: That’s true. As a system, public radio is quite decentralized, even diffuse. There are 264 NPR member stations out there, all of them under their own management and marching to their own strategic drum. And that is part of the genius of public radio. Stations in huge markets and small markets and in-between markets have their own voices and identities. As local institutions, they have a direct and intimate connection with their listeners, and they reflect those communities back to themselves in ways no other media organizations can.

Being a distributed network can also bring advantages in digital terms: when I visit stations (I’m talking to you from Madison, where I just spent a day meeting the team at Wisconsin Public Radio), I’m so impressed by the innovation and creativity of these shops, and the great work they do in digital journalism, audience engagement, even product design, and almost always on very lean budgets. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for a collective network strategy. If everyone is doing their own digital thing, inevitably there’s redundancy, inefficiency and lost value, to say nothing of a fragmentation of the audience. So how do I handle that? Well, I’m still just a few months into the job, but in an effort to find common ground my first task has been to define and socialize a common value chain that links all of us across the system. It’s simple: we’re all in the business of growing the audience, knowing and understanding the audience, engaging the audience and ultimately monetizing the audience through membership and sponsorship. This narrative applies to NPR, it applies to New York Public Radio, to Vermont and Abilene, but above all it applies to the network as a whole. So if we can all get behind that, it begins to clarify our respective links in the big value chain, the roles we play in relation to  each other, the investments we make and the priorities we set. It’s a first step, and obviously those are very broad terms, but it’s critical if we’re going to, as you say, maximize our collective efforts. 

Charlene Weisler: How has digital evolved since you first started 21 years ago?
Thomas Hjelm: My career has been spent working for so-called legacy media companies that have decided, in one way or another, to transform themselves. When I started, no one knew just what digital media was or would become, but people who took a long view of things saw that it was worth experimenting with. I was at NBC at the time, and we were given permission to create an “online network” of original content. It was a lot of fun, though it certainly didn’t produce much money or many viewers. Today, it is a real business, with a real audience, and the technology has caught up with our creative ambitions. And digital departments are no longer just the guys in shorts sitting in the corner. Digital is woven through every modern media company. I often say my job is to make my job obsolete. We don’t have a Chief Radio Officer here, why a Chief Digital Officer? I’m still fighting that fight, but I’m getting there.
Charlene Weisler: Tell me about NPR One.
Tom Hjelm: NPR One is a smart phone app that delivers audio content from NPR and most member stations and public radio producers in a form that’s personalized, based on the user’s listening tastes, interests and location. It’s an experiment in making our content available in ways that map to the changing behaviors of listeners – especially younger listeners. Yet in other ways it builds on the standing model, format, even business model of public radio. It’s geo-targeted, so when you download the app, it will call up an instance of the local member station. So in New York, you get a WNYC-branded version of NPR One. You get content produced by WNYC alongside NPR content, and you can pledge your membership support to WNYC there, too. There’s also a mix of sponsorship inventory – some sold by NPR and some available to the member station’s local sales team. It’s like radio then – only using algorithms (plus some editorial controls) to tailor the audio experience to the individual. If you tend to skip certain content, over time it will deliver less of that; and if you like certain types of content, you’ll gradually get more of it. And the more successful we are in engaging the listener through this “personalized radio,” the more we learn about them so it becomes a powerful data and engagement tool.
Charlene Weisler: What have the results been so far for NPR One?
Thomas Hjelm: The retention, satisfaction and demographic numbers are all very encouraging. Thirty percent of users come back to use it within a week. That rate is far greater than is typical for an app. The satisfaction score is 4 out of 5 based on our surveys. Best of all, the basic demographic skews younger than traditional radio, with18- to 34-year-olds making up a third of the audience -- and they’re as affluent and educated as our current NPR audience. It’s a big step toward taking the enduring value proposition of public radio and making it available in new ways for new listeners.

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