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Not Just a Lot of Talk: NPR One Sounds Smarter

Listening gets more personal: NPR One builds a profile of you, the listener, to use on all devices.

Benjamin Dauer for NPR

Internet radio gives us the serendipitous instant gratification we so crave, playing Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” just in time for the pool party, and Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” as a long road trip begins.

But when it comes to the Big Kahuna of talk-radio networks, NPR, listeners are stuck obediently listening to whatever comes on when they’re in the car. Or in the shower. Or walking to work.

Meet NPR One, the app designed by NPR’s own digital team in the hope of playing more stories you actually want to hear. I got early access to this app three months ago, and have been testing it on and off since then. Last week, it became available for everyone to download on iOS or Android; it also works in Web browsers.

Like Pandora, NPR One lets people skip ahead to the next story, rather than listening to something they find uninteresting. Unlike Pandora, it allows unlimited skip-aheads rather than limiting you to six per hour, and doesn’t let people thumbs-up or thumbs-down as they listen. Instead, users may tap a lightbulb icon labeled “Interesting” to show that they like a story. (This indicator is more fitting than a thumbs-up for stories on disturbing topics like genocide.)

Not surprisingly, NPR One uses algorithms to find and play stories it thinks you’ll like. Surprisingly, it leans more heavily on human curation to do this work.

That’s right: Real, live people are suggesting stories for you. In the tech world, this kind of craziness is pretty rare.

The idea of listening to NPR on one’s phone or tablet via an app isn’t unheard of (pardon the pun). Apps like Stitcher and Apple-owned Swell suggest streams of talk radio, including NPR, designed to fit your unique penchant for, say, quirky science stories and news about men’s tennis. Even the older NPR News app for iOS and Android lets people play their local station, or tune into individual programs, as they would on a traditional radio.

Still, NPR One is unique in that it plays continuous, but nonlinear, curated NPR content. Unlike the older NPR News app, it lets listeners interact with the stream of playing stories by skipping ahead, seeing listening histories, sharing the currently-playing content, and glancing at what story will play next. Like the older app, it lets people search, and can include content from your local NPR station, like traffic and weather — though not all stations offer this.

Opening the NPR One app for the first time is designed to be an experience that is not intimidating. Avid listeners will recognize the familiar voice of Guy Raz, host of the TED Radio Hour, as he welcomes them to the app in a brief getting-started video. The app automatically determines its user’s location and local NPR station, though this can be manually changed if, for example, you want to hear KQED in San Francisco, but live in the WAMU land of Washington, D.C.

To use certain features of the app, users can log in with Facebook or Google+ credentials, or they can create an NPR account with an email and password. The idea here is to build a profile that travels with you regardless of your platform, so the same curation settings move with you to Android, iOS and Web, using phones, tablets and PCs.

Some of the fun of listening to public radio is hearing a story you might not have otherwise selected from a lineup. Won’t NPR One take away from that experience?

Joel Sucherman, senior director for digital products at NPR, says the app is designed to continuously introduce you to new and interesting stories you might enjoy — much to your surprise, in some cases.

For years, I’ve listened to NPR while getting ready for work, using various types of bathroom speakers. Currently, I use a $40 Bluetooth speaker that suctions to the wall and lets me skip ahead in playlists. The skip-ahead button works for NPR One, too, which I enjoyed.

But I missed hearing regular reports about weather on my regional station, WAMU. Sucherman said some channels offer this now and some don’t, depending on how they deliver their newscast. If traffic and weather are kept separate from news, they won’t be heard through NPR One. This will be fixed in the future so that NPR One users hear traffic and weather.

On a similar note, this app plays cached content about 20 minutes after it’s been aired live, so local news is still relevant, but not quite as relevant as a livestream. When I first started using NPR One back in May, I was nervous that I was missing the latest stories. After all, water-cooler conversation about NPR is common currency in Washington, D.C. When I switched over to the older NPR News app’s live stream, I heard the same stories — plus my traffic and weather. I switched back to NPR One when I realized I wasn’t missing much.

When you hear “NPR” and “skip” in the same sentence, you may immediately wonder if the app lets you skip through irksome pledge-drive announcements. I don’t listen to NPR as much during pledge drives, and if an app could help — especially if a listener already donated money — this feature, alone, would make it popular.

Alas, NPR One isn’t currently a solution for this problem, but Sucherman said stations will figure out how to use the app with their audiences during pledge time, to get smarter and more creative.

A clever feature of NPR One is the use of Xappmedia ads, a new technological twist that lets people speak a prompt to perform some action on their phones, like downloading an app. Since you still need to touch the screen to download or buy most things, some Xapp audio prompts only add onscreen messages to a phone. You do the rest when you next pick up the phone.

Other Xapp prompts automatically initiate actions like calls, emails and shares, without any need to touch the phone. Xapp works on the NPR News app, as well.

NPR One includes additional goodies, like randomly playing stories from its archives. I heard an interesting one from October 2013, called “What Happens When You Just Give Money to Poor People.” I never would have heard it otherwise.

NPR One makes the listening experience smarter and more engaging, and plenty of people will want to tune in.

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