If you’ve recently streamed an NPR Music program online, downloaded a podcast, or watched a concert on your iPad, you have Anya Grundmann to thank. Charged with creating a multiplatform experience to encompass and build upon the music programming produced by NPR and its local public-radio affiliate stations, Grundmann has encouraged both artistic and technological experimentation. As a result, while commercial radio has become ever more consolidated and conservative, NPR Music has become ever more eclectic and innovative, broadening its offerings and its audience: Every month more than 2 million people visit NPR Music online and on mobile devices, in addition to the millions more who tune into local stations. Here, Grundmann talks about the importance of an open mind–and a growing team of creative multi-taskers–in confronting a media landscape in flux.
FAST COMPANY: How did you get started in public radio?
ANYA GRUNDMANN: I was an English major in college and graduated during the last recession when there were not a lot of opportunities out there for a liberal arts person. After school, I moved to Flagstaff with friends, where I taught music in elementary school and gave private piano lessons. I was also taking graduate classes and studying piano at Northern Arizona University, and the local NPR station, KNAU, was housed in the music building there. I volunteered, and they asked me to cover a press conference at the Indian reservation on my first day. Yikes! In the summer of 1994, I came to D.C. as an intern at NPR in the cultural programming division. I left NPR for a while after that, but came back again.
Before the launch of NPR Music, you worked on award-winning classical music programs–what did you take away from that experience?
Right, I worked on Performance Today, a national performance-based music program with a lot of features and interviews. Everyone thinks of classical music as something in the past–we wanted to present it in a really current way, talking with music makers and other interesting folks. The classical music world is full of incredibly enterprising musicians, people tearing down boundaries. I played piano from age 7 and sang for eight years in the Children’s Chorus of Maryland, so I approached this from having been someone who loves creating music. It was a very kind of nerdy and intense but really fun experience that gave me lots of opportunities to explore. When you’re doing a daily program, you get a chance to test things out–there’s room to push concepts and ideas.
NPR Music is far more than just classical. How is the music mix evolving?
Classical music is a core part of what we do at NPR, and my colleagues are really pushing ways to present this music to connect beyond radio, doing really inspired work with technology and the concert experience. But the whole thing with NPR Music is to push the boundaries of the kinds of music we’re known for. That’s one of the great things about the digital space. With radio, you have to define your playlist and your brand. For many years, NPR has been associated with classical, jazz, and singer-songwriters. But those aren’t the only genres our audience and our staff care about and are curious about. With the NPR Music platform, we’re able to broaden the tent and bring in all kinds of programming from the stations throughout the public radio system. In public radio, there’s sort of an embarrassment of riches in terms of content.
What have been some of the major challenges in creating a platform for NPR Music platform that goes beyond just radio?
The original thought was that all we had to do was bring together all the radio programming. All Songs Considered was getting a really strong audience and connection to people–we thought we could do more with that. That was pretty much true, but we also quickly discovered that the things that a lot of the beautifully crafted work being created for radio wasn’t what resonated on the web. To really connect with that digital audience we had to go through an incredible thought process, figuring out what are our values, and how do we take that core and make it resonate in another medium.
One of the big problems of newspapers is that they saw they had text, bylines, and photos and thought, “Hey, we’re ready for the web.” But they missed some essence of what the web can do in terms of sharing and tone of voice, and so lots of other folks were able to step in. We’re always asking what opportunities we have, and not assuming that something created for one medium is necessarily going to work on another platform. Each output demands a little different point of view, and we’re thinking about that across all NPR.
NPR was never doing text before, so one of the core things we needed to figure out was how to make something to resonate on the web in that way. In addition, public radio didn’t have any visual identity. We’ve brought on fabulous product people to develop multimedia and video. We also know there are a lot of young people who don’t have radios–how do we create a connection with them? There’s such a glut of information out there–so many ways to connect, with the ubiquity of broadband, connected cars, and an astronomical increase in mobile. We already have great audio that travels to all these devices, and we’ve been really focused on creating new digital products–initially with podcasting, and now developing our own apps.
What does that expanded focus mean in terms of the skills that your staff needs to have, compared to 5 or 10 years ago?
We have a core number of staff who are squarely from radio, and we have specialists on beats like jazz who are creating content. But we have a lot of younger folks who come from working in print, or from the NPR News division. And some people are coming from digital-first backgrounds–digital was part of their growing up. We don’t have any true tech people–that’s a shared resource across NPR, which has really invested in developers and designers.
Everybody on staff knows how to do a radio piece for a news program and can participate in producing live events. Everyone has written reviews; everybody is thinking about special music streams. We need our staff to be engaged in multi-platform possibilities. When an idea comes up, they need to know what the options are for presenting that–a video, a live concert, a blog post, a news story. What form does it take ideally? I think our staff is at its healthiest and things are most exciting when we’re in motion, testing or poking at a question or a problem we’re trying to solve. How do we do something we really love? We’re not necessarily going to get it on the first try.
What are your big initiatives moving forward?
Looking forward, we keep pushing in three main areas: being a multimedia music magazine, being engaged in live events and sharing the live experience with people, and providing curated music experiences that will bring people to places they didn’t know they wanted to go. We’ve focused a lot on the multimedia music magazine piece–if you look at our iPad app, you’ll see a lot of that. The other night we broadcast Regina Spektor in live HD video. It’s exciting to see people connecting from around the world, building self-supporting Facebook groups around music and a shared experience. We just started a live listening club event for All Songs Considered that we’ll be rolling out in different cities.
The Tiny Desk series of live performance videos that Bob Boilen started on All Songs Considered is a good example of us approaching things knowing we don’t have all the answers. Public radio has been doing concerts for 20 years, usually recorded in studios. When you hear it on the radio, it’s so intimate. How do you express that feeling in a media like video? When we tried recording a video performance in our studio, you didn’t get that intimacy–there were microphones in the way, headphones, and it had a little bit of a cold look. It just sort of happened that Bob and Stephen Thompson, the hosts of the show, couldn’t hear the artist really well and said, why not come over and play at the office. Bob got video cameras and the artist put on a show right at his desk. It was asking the musicians to step out of the zone a little, and visually it puts the audience very close to them in a way that’s very interesting and surprising. That was just something that we stumbled upon.
So, do we need to worry about the survival of NPR?
NPR has more than 30 million listeners per week — there are more people engaging than ever. We have a very large podcasting audience still, and the music section has highest rate of website use across all the sites. From 2007, our staff has doubled. More and more people are using the apps, and traffic from social media keeps growing and surprising us. StumbleUpon traffic has really grown in the last year. There are some real challenges ahead in terms of keeping up with how people are connecting with news and cultural information, but we’re just hoping to do work that resonates with people and fills a need. We hope that with really disruptive technology we’re able to transfer what we do and keep it vibrant.
[Image: Flickr user Cosmonautirussi]