Building digital capability: PRI collaborates with startup Instant Automatic

Public Radio International was built on collaboration. With a staff of 50 in its downtown Minneapolis office, it creates and distributes content to nearly 900 public radio stations nationwide — reaching an audience 50 percent the size of National Public Radio with a budget only 20 percent as large.

It does this by partnering with other news organizations, such as the BBC and stations like WGBH in Boston. PRI programs include “This American Life,” “The World” and “Studio 360.”

So when PRI began thinking of boosting its digital capability, it was only natural that partnership would be key. Toward that end, PRI just selected the first recipient of its “Innovator-in-Residence” fellowship, the Minneapolis digital startup Instant Automatic.

Instant Automatic gets office space at PRI for a three-month stint, the chance to collaborate with PRI staffers and some serious networking opportunities. In return, PRI will get an as-yet-unspecified digital application from Instant Automatic, which specializes in geo-targeted mobile solutions.

“The people who work at PRI are focused on creating audio content and marketing it,” said Julia Yager, PRI’s vice president of brand management and marketing strategy. “We want to find ways to incorporate other knowledge into our thinking.”

Changing the game
It’s a big deal for Instant Automatic, which has four full-time employees and two part-timers. Although the residency is unpaid, the opportunity is tremendous, said company founder Geoffrey LeMond.

“It’s great to be in a media organization right now,” said LeMond, son of cycling great Greg LeMond. “New media is changing the game every day. PRI needs to rethink where it’s going to be in six months. What do they need to do to reposition themselves? How can PRI use its platforms to engage 13 million listeners in a new way and give them a new experience?”

Neither Yager nor LeMond could give details on the expected application, because it’s simply too soon to say. But it will be directed at using location targeting to create opportunities for connection and community.

“We already have an iPhone app that gives people access to our [content] stream, and we have Droid and BlackBerry apps in development,” Yager said. “We want to go beyond content to create a true connection. I think we see a there there, we just don’t see what it is yet.”

It’s tough to create in-house digital expertise from scratch, and expensive to hire it. But in today’s communication world, if you lack digital capacity, you’re missing out on huge chunks of the consumer engagement pie.

PRI appears to have found a creative solution with benefits for both parties. And with a new innovation residency set to be awarded every three months, it won’t be long before PRI has sampled quite a smorgasbord of fresh ideas.

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly stated the number of radio stations PRI distributes content to. PRI distributes content to nearly 900 stations.

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