Audiences & Technology Series: NPR gives a face-lift to jazz

illustration by Tom Dougherty

NPR is giving a face-lift to how jazz is being presented.

We spoke with Anya Grundmann, Executive Producer of NPR Music, about how public radio is taking jazz to the next step  by building robust underlying technologies that will affect the radio industry as a whole.

This is one of a series of conversations with leaders from eight organizations convening in December 2011 around the topic of Audience Engagement and Technology.

Piama Habibullah (ArtsFwd): What is NPR?

Anya Grundmann (Executive Producer of NPR Music): NPR is a media organization at the forefront of digital innovation, distributing news, information, and music programming to a network of 900 independent stations, reaching 26.8 million listeners every week.

PH: What project are you working on?

AG: We are creating a multi-platform multimedia website whose purpose is to help elevate and expand jazz coverage and the technology that is used to present jazz. We are trying to build our capacity to present jazz online and to make it make sense because there are all these different properties we have from radio shows to partner stations doing streams. Public radio has been doing jazz for at least 30 years, but on the radio. How do we create something vibrant on a new platform?

PH: Where are you now in the process?

AG: We already created a jazz blog and we’re doing live events so we’ve been working on the underlying technology, which has implications over the rest of our site as well.

NPR Music Jazz & Blues channel

Now we’re working on a live events platform behind the scenes that people haven’t seen yet. It will be a jazz channel or a jazz output where we can basically present live jazz on our own site in a much more fluid way, so that it can be also seen on the tablet and on a mobile device without having to create 3 separate things. We want to create versions that stations across the system can connect with and actually put on their own sites so it’s like they’re presenting it.

Also, we will be trying to gather an audience together to experience live jazz in real time online. The goal is to be able to talk to each other about it so it doesn’t feel like only an archival experience. It should feel like a living experience.

PH: How has your thinking or your way of doing business shifted as a result of this project?

AG: It’s been a constant evolution. We’re testing aggregating more streams from across public radio, defining and finding smaller niches of coverage rather than broad, and working on the technology that supports it all so that no one has to reinvent the wheel.

In some ways we’re learning from what we’ve done with indie rock coverage. We’re trying to use the models that have been very popular for us and transfer them to jazz and classical. Sometimes we target a project around a particular genre and it helps our entire system and website.

PH: What are some of the challenges?

A major challenge is that we can create radio pieces that millions of people will hear but we’re a very large company that has probably not enough resources around the digital platform, so we have to fight for resources.

Another challenge is that each individual entity within public radio has its own geographical relationship with its audience and NPR has a different kind of relationship with its audience. Who gets to have the connection with the user on the radio side? How do we make sure we’re helping to promote the best stuff they do? There are a lot of challenges inherent in that. It’s about being able to make the most of the opportunities within your ecosystem and overcoming the challenges that stand in the way of you really truly activating the potential.

PH: What is something you’ve learned that has surprised you?

AG: From the time that you decide to do a project and the time that you implement it, the technology change, so we introduced the idea of responsive design.  NPR has never done a project where we use responsive design in this way. Every time we do a technology project, it sort of pushes and pulls us and changes how we’re thinking because sometimes you imagine something’s going to happen in a certain way and actually it’s either not possible or the technology has evolved into something else that is possible.

NPR Music Jazz blog

Also, people who are product oriented and visually oriented often imagine things in different ways than people who are content creators, so it’s interesting to see what happens when you mix them all up and work together on something because it probably doesn’t turn out to be how anyone exactly expected due to other influences- not in a bad way, in interesting ways.

PH: What are you looking to learn from others in the field?

AG: Ten years ago a lot of people looked at websites as marketing tools and now web, mobile and digital platforms are about content presentation and audience engagement tools. What are the best practices around that? Distribution comes into that, what is the tone and kind of content that will connect with people in that space?

How do you look at the digital platform as a content creation platform like you would look at any other platform?  How do you connect with an audience on this platform and look at it as a serious, playful or true vehicle for connecting and presenting?

Piama Habibullah is the former Online Producer + Communications Manager at EmcArts.