Sramana Mitra: Tell us a bit about what you did with NPR. What was special? How is that relevant today and where is that app going?
Calvin Carter: When we first approached the challenge of what you do with an amazing brand like NPR, continually building a body of content as well as an archive of content, we started thinking what you could do with that that you weren’t able to do before. How can you experience this brand and this content in a new way, unique to the technology, hardware, and software called mobile?
NPR has a famous marketing phrase called “driveway moments” where you are listening to an NPR program and you pull into your home or business and it is time to get out of the car, but you are so pulled in to the content that you sit in your car and finish the rest of the program. We thought about that and asked ourselves: “Why can’t you just get out of your car, hit one button, and continue to experience that content and carry NPR with you wherever you go?” That became part of the solution – part of “how can we transform the experience with this brand?”
Another thing we started thinking about was that radios weren’t linear. There is not a lot of choice. The only choice is to go elsewhere on the dial. If there is something going on at NPR that you are not terribly interested in, we don’t want to push you to someplace else. We want to pull you to programing from NPR that you want. By working with NPR, we broke very long programs into news stories, for example. Those are often considered long programs, but there are actually lots of different episodes – one- to four-minute stories. Breaking that down allowed us to then allow the user to become like a DJ of radio. Something that is considered fairly normal now was invented by us. This is the playlist concept of “I want to put this article, then this article, and maybe 12 other articles on my playlist and then put my phone in my pocket and go jogging or walking. I am essentially curating my radio experience. Or I can hit a different button and listen to any NPR station.”
That is another component that is making the world small. During our work with NPR, we realized that there are some people who, while they might live in Dallas, like the NPR station in San Diego. Maybe they used to live in San Diego and like the sensibilities of the local shows or the host. They would try to find ways to listen to that station, either by streaming it through their Mac or PC, but again that doesn’t fit their life very well. We made it so that you could listen to roughly 300 different NPR stations any time you want. If you like what is playing at 3 p.m. but you are working at the time and you don’t have a chance to listen to the radio, you can say, “I would like to listen to this episode” and it will find the station that is currently playing it live. We basically wanted to create the brand experience that we wanted if technology would let us. This technology led us to all the things I just described, which were unique at the time.
SM: You seem to be making an assumption that people were using this app in the car. Talk to me a bit about the car app interface.
CC: People were using this app not just in the car, but all over the place. They might have been listening to the radio in their car, then they got where they were going, and continued listening to their program while they were walking. I don’t think we realized that people would use the app in the car as much as they did. We said, “Well, if you are in the car, you have your radio.” But when we created those three unique experiences we just went through, it became much more powerful than the radio even though the radio was right there.
You could argue that it even had higher audio fidelity. At the time there were maybe one or two auto manufacturers with iPhone and iPod audio interfaces. Cars in general didn’t have the interfaces like they do now in numbers. But people would say, “No, I would like to listen to NPR’s streaming on my iPhone even though the radio is sitting right there in my dashboard.” Why is that? It is because they have the playlist, because they don’t want to listen to the radio station located near them, but a program that is not available in their area. The fact that people used it in the car was a bit of a surprise for us, but that is when you lean in to something. Here we talk about how we should be driven by the desires of the users. We should not tell users things like, “No, that is not how you use our products. Please use our product as intended.” Absolutely not. You should lean in to the way people use the things that you make. Look at Converse, for example. Chuck Taylors were not really good athletic shoes, but there was a trend, primarily driven by the punk movement, where kids were dying their Converse pink and blue and painting on them. If Converse had said, “No way, these are athletic shoes; they are for basketball,” they wouldn’t be the company they are today. They wouldn’t be the fashion brand they are today.
They lean into it. They say: “Great, how about 15 more colors? How about different laces?” That is what we did. We leaned in to it. We had a great transformational feature set when we came out. But then we were asked how to use it. Then we would lean in to the way people were using it, and we would support how they wanted to direct their experience with the brand.