NPR has a well-deserved reputation for airing thoughtful programming and the occasional quirky personality, but it’s also the place where a wide array of albums can be heard first, on the First Listen section of its NPR Music website. This helpful resource for music fans has premiered everything from The Fall’s latest release to Grizzly Bear, Dinosaur Jr., The xx, David Byrne & St. Vincent, Deerhoof, and many more.
As part of the deal, these albums gradually vanish from the archive, which is to be expected, because duh. But while the party lasts, First Listen is a great place to hear the latest notable releases, in full, for free, while you decide whether to purchase them or add them to your collection within a subscription service.
It started us thinking: How does NPR pull this off? So we asked.
Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: NPR seems to have more — and better — album release streams than much of the “every second counts just post it right away” music blog community. How does it do that?
Amy Schriefer, senior product manager, NPR Music: “Better” is subjective, but thanks! NPR is not a blog, but a public media organization that has been producing news and cultural programming for over 40 years. The First Listen series will be four-years-old on September 30 (which I guess is a lifetime on the web). Here was our first feature.
Public radio has a history of introducing new music to listeners on-air, and this seemed like a natural extension. What we liked was that it seemed to capture the spirit of an old-school listening party at a record store. It inspired a lot of conversation and excitement from our users in the comments section and via social media. The series extends beyond NPR.org — it’s available on station websites across the country, and via NPR mobile. Public radio reaches audience of passionate music lovers (and consumers), so this is a good way to get their attention. But beyond our reach, I think our commitment to quality editorial brings an equal level of quality in return.
Evolver.fm: How does NPR acquire these exclusives, on a nuts-and-bolts level? Is someone calling around to the labels and artists, or how does it usually work?
Schriefer: As a team, we consider upcoming releases — what we’re excited about, what our member stations are playing, and what the NPR news magazines will be chasing — and we discuss the best way to cover each album. If it’s an anticipated release and a strong record front-to-back, we’ll slot it for a First Listen. We source license permission for each stream from label and artists. We do get a lot of pitches from publicists and labels, but mostly we have a roadmap of what we want to feature weeks, sometimes months, in advance.
Evolver.fm: What does it do for these artists and their releases — any idea of the reach?
Schriefer: You’ll have to ask the artists about that. NPR Music receives three million unique visits per month online and on our apps. This doesn’t count the visits to station websites.
Evolver.fm: Do the exclusives play into on-air play as well, or are they online only?
Schriefer: It depends. I know that some of our stations that carry these album streams will also feature the content on air, i.e. KCRW and The Current. If the record is covered on one of our news magazines (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, etc.), we’ll coordinate a call-out to the First Listen with the show. We are working on some ideas to better tap into the enormous reach of our broadcast audience.
Evolver.fm: Which one was your favorite, and why?
Schriefer: I like that we’re multi-genre and will push the boundaries of what people consider “NPR” music. You would think that blending the tastes of so many editors and DJs would sound strange, but it works. I loved streaming the Book Of Mormon soundtrack because it was so unexpectedly fantastic. But my favorite was the Fiona Apple record from this year. It was just great to have her back.
Evolver.fm: Finally, what does it do for NPR to be the first place where people hear all this cutting-edge stuff?
Schriefer: Public radio wouldn’t exist without listener support, so bringing new audiences to our work is mission critical. So is supporting great new music.