Over 48 million people across America rely on NPR to get their daily news, discover new ideas and listen to stories that explore different facets of what it means to be human. While you may be tempted to think of terrestrial radio when you think of NPR, half of its listeners consume content digitally through a variety of channels that include the NPR website, mobile apps, videos on social media like TikTok, and Alexa.
In July 2022, the development team at NPR integrated a new feature called Alexa Routines Kit to enable customers to listen to their favorite NPR stations and shows automatically without having to take any action. For example, customers can set up a morning Routine that triggers Alexa to play news from NPR, and provide the weather update at their wake up time. And presto – Alexa will nudge them into wakefulness with the soothing sounds of their favorite NPR host at the scheduled time.
The total listening time for NPR and its member stations on Alexa has doubled since the launch of Alexa Routines Kit on Alexa’s NPR skill. NPR also saw a 40% increase in the number of days that listeners came back to engage with their skill every month.
“What’s really impressive is the sustained engagement we have seen after we integrated Alexa Routines Kit,” says Joel Sucherman, vice president of platform strategy at NPR. “This is not a one trick pony where the results have faded away. If anything, customer reach and engagement have gotten stronger over time.”
As the head of NPR’s platform strategy, Sucherman says that a large part of his role is focused on looking around corners to ensure that NPR member stations are able to draw on national and local content, and connect with customers in ways that are meaningful to them.
Sucherman’s team has helped pioneer a variety of NPR listening experiences on Alexa. These include an NPR flash briefing that was first made available when the first Amazon Echo device launched in 2014.
Sucherman’s team also developed other voice-forward experiences such as an interactive quiz for Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me that featured a leaderboard, and allowed listeners to play along with the show’s hosts Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis. In addition, NPR also developed the urgent notifications feature that allowed listeners to stay on top of breaking news, and capabilities that allowed users to skip, pause and replay segments.
However, Sucherman points to Alexa Routines as one of the most impactful listening experiences that NPR has developed with Alexa.
“We have seen significant spikes in listening during key moments in the day, such as when people wake up,” says Sucherman. “It’s clear that NPR fans really like the easy listening experiences that Routines enable.”
Customizing Alexa Routines to cater to different listening tastes
Kaivon Jones, lead technical developer for Alexa routines at NPR, is constantly exploring new ways to engage NPR’s listeners.
“A big part of my role is developing experiences that help grow people’s mental models of what it means to ‘listen to radio,’” says Jones. “After all, we might rapidly be coming upon a generation who may never have owned a traditional radio,”
Jones says that with over five decades of archives that thread the needle through every major news event, and a dedicated user base, NPR is uniquely positioned to meet new audiences and listening habits.
“We don’t want to ever take our audience for granted,” says Jones. “They’ve been gracious enough to invite us into their homes, and we want to make sure that we are making listening to our content as simple and relevant as possible.”
Jones says that the customization offered by the Alexa Routines Kit, which allowed NPR to deliver personalized listening experiences, was a huge factor that influenced their team’s adoption of the feature.
Broadly speaking, there are two major points of ingress for listeners when they listen to NPR on Alexa. There’s on-demand listening powered by NPR One. There’s also live radio, where a customer asks Alexa to play the live stream from their local NPR Member station.
“With the Alexa Routines Kit, we were able to serve the most relevant content to each user based on their individual preferences,” says Jones. “If a person has come in through a particular pathway a certain number of times, we are able to easily select the right experience to offer them, which in turn helps ensure that they keep coming back for more.”
Jones says that the Alexa Routines Kit makes appointment listening possible, similar to the experiences enabled by clock radio on listener’s bedside tables.
“The voice that wakes you up every morning is an important part of your life, and if done right, can quickly become a part of your daily habit,” they say.
The listenership statistics point to the incredibly positive impact that results from becoming a part of customers’ daily routines. As of January 2023, the monthly active days for Routines users is 4.8 times as compared to listeners who listen to NPR by invoking the voice skill. In addition, the monthly retention is double for Routines users as compared to voice-only listeners.
However, Sucherman says that the success of Routines goes beyond statistics.
“We don’t view the success of Routines from a purely quantitative standpoint,” he says. “NPR’s mission isn’t about ones and zeros. Our mission is to reach as many people as we can with high-quality and trustworthy journalism. We believe with all of our heart that being able to do this effectively is critical to the future of our democracy, and fulfilling this mission goes beyond any financial and other traditional analytics that we might look at.”