NPR's iPhone App Is a Role Model

Network delivers an authentic radio experience on a wireless device
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National Public Radio has been a pioneer in new media. NPR's News App for iPhone is the organization's latest attempt at staying in the forefront. With so many radio entities putting out their own apps, we thought we'd take NPR's in hand and see how it did.

I found it to be an easy-to-use application that supports listening to NPR audio while browsing NPR text stories at the same time.

"The NPR News App is designed to integrate passive and active news experiences into a single easy-to-use platform," says Kinsey Wilson, senior vice president and general manager of NPR Digital.

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"We know that people like to listen to their favorite NPR content while reading the newspaper or surfing the Web. Our News App makes this possible: You can passively listen to audio content while surfing through our wireless site to read whichever stories interest you."

This said, what today's Internet generation really likes is to get things for free. On this score, the NPR News App delivers.

The program itself can be downloaded at no charge from the iTunes store. Once loaded onto the user's iPhone, the content doesn't cost anything extra. It is included with whatever fees they are paying to their wireless carriers.

Ease of use

Once the NPR News App is loaded onto an iPhone, accessing it is childishly simple. First, you tap on the NPR icon on the iPhone's main desktop. Then you use a combination of finger taps and swipes — I call them whooshes — to move through menus and select content.

Once I opened it up, moving through the NPR News App was simplicity itself. With the help of my Apple-supplied earbuds and some fast fingerwork, I was enjoying this application in a few minutes' time. After you get past the opening screen, the NPR News App lets you chose from five main options. They are News, Programs, Stations by State, Playlist and More.

The News section lets you access both audio clips and text stories with photos. The idea is that you can open up an audio file that you want to hear — an NPR news report, to be specific — then listen to it while looking through other stories or other parts of the site. You can also call up the latest NPR hourly newscast on demand.

The audio quality through the iPhone earbuds is comparable to that of a good FM radio. In fact, what is nice about the audio quality is that it is akin to listening to NPR at home or in the car — it has the same feel, somehow.

I found this fact striking: Somehow NPR has managed to deliver an authentic radio experience on a wireless device.

As for the online content: Formatted in a text size and style that reminds me of reading a paperback novel, it is easy on the eyes and simple to move through using up-and-down finger whooshes. Interestingly, the stories do not appear to be transcripts of the audio reports, although they share many quotes and facts.

Some nice features: You can queue up reports into a Playlist, so that your iPhone plays one report after another. You can also do this with other programs that have been archived on the site.

Meanwhile, the NPR News App lets you browse the site unhindered. Unless you click on a new audio link, the one last chosen keeps playing no matter how many different pages you surf through.

The next major section of the NPR News App is devoted to Programs. You can choose from archived or live feeds of NPR shows such as "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Foreign Dispatch," among others. You can also listen live across time zones. For instance, I listened to "Morning Edition" as it was being broadcast on KHPR 88.1 FM Honolulu, while I was working in the afternoon in the Eastern time zone.

The third section is called Stations by State. You can use this to select whichever NPR station you want to hear, assuming that it is streaming its signal to the Web. The NPR News App also lets you find stations that are closest to you (using your iPhone's position relative to the nearest cellular tower). You can also search for them by Zip code.

V1.2 In V1.1, NPR improved sharing tools, audio controls and image enlargement. V1.2 was issued in October; among the 32 updates:

Listen Live: With v1.2, if NPR is in live coverage, the user will receive a start-up alert inviting him or her to tune in. "Down the line, we will improve the ways in which we notify iPhone app users about live coverage," the development team wrote on its blog. "We also anticipate presenting NPR Music live concerts."

Better Audio: The update offers improved audio streaming in low-bandwidth scenarios and greater Playlist stability.

Sharing: NPR added the ability for users to share not just individual stories but also many of the program episodes via e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. "We have also improved the Twitter share screens in particular."

Story Page & Images: NPR improved the layout of individual story pages. "And, if you enlarge any photo on a story page, you will now see an overlay presenting the full caption." The Playlist section lets you see what clips are queued for playback. You can edit the list on this screen, should you change your mind.

Finally, the More section connects to an About page (explaining what NPR is all about). You can also "Tell a friend" about NPR by e-mailing the site's URL via AOL, Gmail, Microsoft Exchange, MobileMe, Yahoo or your own e-mail service.

Add a "Legal and Privacy" link and a last connection to Bottle Rocket (the NPR News App's programmers), and that's the entire package.

Assessment

The NPR News App is easy to learn and use. However, what impressed me was how relaxing it was to listen to NPR audio while browsing text stories. It really felt like sitting at home enjoying the radio, while reading a book that interested me.

Put plainly, this app delivers, both in content and presentation. This is why I think the NPR News App will succeed in attracting younger iPhone users.

The facts bear me out. Not long after being launched on iTunes, the NPR News App became the #1 Free News App offered by the site, based on user ratings. Are these all hardcore NPR listeners who are downloading this program? Not likely: Chances are that NPR is succeeding in reaching the younger demographic it has been aiming for.

I found this app to be a good example of what a radio-focused iPhone application could and even should be. My advice to broadcasters is to buy iPhones, download the app and learn it inside-out before launching their own iPhone applications.

NPR has posted info about the creation of the app, including discussion of the development process, atnpr.org.

James Careless is a longtime contributor to Radio World.

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