Thomas Hjelm of NPR on Digital Integration and Innovation

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Thomas Hjelm, NPR's Chief Digital Officer, is responsible for adapting NPR for an era where consumers expect on-demand, personalized content. He leads new content efforts that are predicated on deep audience insights, creating new experiences ideal for consumers and sponsors alike. Thomas (pictured at top) talked with shortly before the Consumer Electronics Show about adapting NPR for an always-on world and the success of the new customized listening platform, NPR One, which The New York Times recently named one of The Year's Best Apps.

Charlene Weisler: What is the importance of your current role to the future of NPR?

Thomas Hjelm: Digital is a department, 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. 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 partners across public radio to develop collective, system-wide strategies for building platforms, audiences and value. I often say my job is to make my job obsolete. We don't have a Chief Radio Officer here, so why a Chief Digital Officer? I'm still fighting that fight, but I'm getting there.

Charlene: How has digital evolved since you first started 21 years ago?

Thomas: 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. Now digital departments are no longer just the guys in shorts sitting in the corner. Digital is woven through every modern media company.

Charlene: Tell me about NPR One.

Thomas: 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, the format, even the 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. The more successful we are in engaging listeners through this "personalized radio" the more we learn about them so it becomes a powerful data and engagement tool.

Charlene: What have the results been so far for NPR One?

Thomas: The retention, satisfaction and demographic numbers are all very encouraging. Thirty six percent of users come back to use it within a month. 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, with 18- 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.

Charlene:  Does the fact that Public Radio is a collection of fairly independent stations have any advantages? 

Thomas:  Yes. 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. 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 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.

Charlene:  What are the disadvantages? How do you help maximize collective efforts?

Thomas:  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.

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