Broadcasters Are Missing a Huge Mobile Opportunity: Engagement in Apps

    by Neal Augenstein
    January 8, 2015
    The author leading an iPhone workshop. Photo courtesy of AARP.

    Ask any radio or television news organization, and they’ll tell you “mobile is the future.”

    So why aren’t any broadcasters acting that way?

    "The answer is combining a native app with a responsive website ... giving users the tools and reason to more actively listen and participate."

    Most news bosses have read the headlines — more people are consuming news on mobile devices, so news organizations need to make their content easy to view on phones and tablets.


    Responsive mobile sites accomplish the important goal of ensuring a user can view and navigate stories and advertisements.

    Yet, all these organizations that unveil a new site and consider their “mobile strategy” done are missing half of the opportunity — to harness and harvest the audience’s infatuation with always having our phones in our hands, and our tough-to-quench thirst for having our say.

    About a year ago I drew up some really rough thoughts and notes on what I called an engagement app for WTOP, where I work as a reporter and am the Technology Editor (see my rough mock-up below-right).


    Credit: Neal Augenstein

    This would be a native app — downloaded onto a smartphone from the App Store or Google Play — as opposed to a mobile website, which works through the mobile device’s web browser.

    The goal was to let people listen to the news station and browse the website, with the ability to easily contribute content and feedback — studio-quality audio, video, photo, text — with the touch of a button on the phone.

    Sure, radio stations, TV stations and other online news providers have been soliciting audience input for several years, yet most put up countless hurdles that frustrate the user.

    Think of the way most radio stations solicit audience feedback:

    • “Call our listener line at 1-888-555-1212”
    • “Go to our website, search so-and-so and upload your pictures”
    • “Tweet us your kitten photos with #cutestthingever.”

    Each makes it very difficult for a listener to get involved.

    These solicitations require remembering, writing, waiting, downloading, typing with one hand, searching — any of which is enough to make most people give up.

    And if the person does call the listener line, the comment generally is via a hard-to-hear cell phone call.

    There’s got to be a better way. There is. Yet few, if any, are improving upon the way it’s always been done.

    Native + Responsive

    The answer is combining a native app with a responsive website, and more importantly, giving users the tools and reason to more actively listen and participate.

    Of course, the naysayers will say “mobile isn’t generating enough money to pay for a separate native app.”

    The answer to that is: “This engagement app will supercharge and improve our on-air and website content right now, making it easier for our salespeople to sell what is making money now, while paving the road for future mobile sales.”

    Instead of having listeners’ cell phone-quality audio on the air, by using the app they can record their viewpoint studio-quality, and instantly transmit it to the newsroom, where a reporter or editor can decide whether to include the comment on-air, online or on social media.

    A listener who wants to contribute a video of the potential news event he or she just shot on their phone can send the video and audio to the newsroom with a single push of a button, rather than trying to figure out how to download the video when they get to the office, and upload it with their desktop computer.

    Photos submitted through the app can go directly to web editors, for consideration and possible cropping and posting.

    Creative news directors can cultivate quick, fun and effective ways to take the pulse of its users, by posting a basic poll on the engagement app — and anchors in the studio can report results almost instantly.

    Engagement app: Is it possible? What would it cost?


    Pete Johnson. Credit: Apollo Matrix

    It would not be terribly difficult or expensive to build an engagement app, says Pete Johnson, president and CEO of Apollo Matrix in Washington, D.C.

    What it would require is an easy-to-download, configure, and simple-to-operate application for a busy mobile user.

    Enabling listeners to authenticate the app through a Twitter or Facebook account makes the process easy: “Do this once, and done,” said Johnson.

    Not only can the listener now provide content, the station’s newsroom and marketing department benefits, too.

    “This establishes roughly who the listener is and in many cases provides good demographic data on the listener,” said Johnson.

    Making it easy for a listener to provide studio-quality audio is a goldmine for news and talk stations, especially in the digital age when audio lives forever online.

    In response to a question posed on-air, online, or through social media,  “The user could press a button and the app will take control of the mic, advise the listener that they are ‘on WTOP,’ and they can record their message. And they’d have the option to include a photo,” envisioned Johnson.

    In an email interview, Johnson said the app developer and news organizations would need to think about how listeners would likely use the app.

    “Design considerations would include things like getting the user to mute the radio while commenting, possibly muting the car radio if the user is using Bluetooth, confirming the quality of the audio and using a reminder to prompt a re-recording or email later,” Johnson said.

    Johnson estimates the range of developing such an app as between $20,000 and $40,000.

    The time to change mobile behavior is now

    Some news organizations are taking strong steps toward the future.

    CNN’s iReport feature enables users to contribute video and photos, and explains and encourages users on techniques and strategies for creating content on their smartphones. Other stations make it easy to send photos directly from Camera Roll to the newsroom.

    And, I’m pleased to report that WTOP is testing a native app, designed by AudioNow Digital, to team with our new mobile site.

    In my opinion, there is still a lot more to be done to get people to think “I’m listening to WTOP, so let me grab my phone because I want to be part of the action. I want to hear and see everything in one place, and now it’s easy for me to be an active contributor to the coverage and conversation.”

    That will eventually require creative ways of letting radio listeners and web readers know that if they hold their phone in their hand, their experience can be even more eventful and informative, and they can almost effortlessly help shape the content they’re hearing and reading.

    While social media was initially pooh-poohed as another task for an already burdened news staff, social is now acknowledged as an important part of your brand. In the same way, the “hyper-engagement” of engagement apps will produce “super fans” — those who not only crave your content, but crave the involvement that the app facilitates. They feel like they are part of your news team. Maybe they even fantasize about helping break a story.

    I want them to think: “I can’t wait to tell and show WTOP about what I’m witnessing.”

    That two-way sharing energizes the kind of brand loyalty broadcast programmers and marketers dream about.

    It’s an exciting time — the future of mobile is at hand. And, in your hand.

    For the past 18 years, Neal Augenstein has been an award-winning reporter with WTOP-FM, and is the Technology Editor with wtop.com, in Washington, D.C. He’s the first major-market radio reporter to do all his field reporting on an iPhone. His iPhone is part of the permanent collection of The Newseum. Neal is a frequent contributor to CBS News Radio. Born in Connecticut, he graduated from American University in Washington, with a degree in broadcast journalism. On Twitter, follow @AugensteinWTOP.

    Tagged: apps mobile mobile news native apps news on mobile responsive design wtop
    • Paul Greeley

      I think local TV newsrooms need to make it easier for people
      to communicate with them.

      If I’m driving down the street and I witness something that
      I want to report, what do I do? Google the station, go to the web site, look
      for the newsroom number. If I find the number, you want to be able to dial it
      be pressing on it, not having to write down the number, leave google and go to
      your phone. That same ease needs to be available should someone take a picture or shoot video.

    • Neal Augenstein

      Agree, Paul. It’s important to empower people ahead of time with an app, so they know they have the tools and encouragement to conveniently engage with their favorite stations.

    • Scooterch

      I see elements of this approach in the British Forces radio (BFBS) app: “Got something to say?” is a key component, allowing listeners to send messages to family serving abroad, or left at home.
      Radio stations with loyal listeners can certainly use this approach, but would it work differently for online-only stations looking to expand? How can stations reach listeners using third-party apps, such as TuneIn?
      It would be interesting to know what level of response citizen reporter apps are getting e.g. AJ+, GuardianWitness and their ilk.

      • Neal Augenstein

        Thanks, Scotterch. I don’t think it’s limited to broadcasters. I think anyone who communicates (realtors, lawyers, music stores) in “traditional” methods (onair, newsletter, press release) can (and should) look for additional ways to engage. The key: make the communication easy, so a person is inclined to want to do it. We don’t want to repeat the earlier mistake of on-air and online content being the same. For instance, making it easy to answer a poll question with a click of the app gives a person a reason to do it, if it’s simpler than logging onto the website and trying to find the poll.

    • Chris West

      Let’s face it. Stations don’t walk the walk – 95% let outside companies provide their websites. TV newsrooms are run by consultants that all copy each other, so it’s no wonder they all look alike. Not much innovation going on which is why they are destined to shrink with time . . .

    • Gabriel Barnes

      Terrific article. Wow! I wish I had written this. Much of what you are discussing we are developing in our v2 Application for radio stations. Another component that we look to introduce is giving the users to turn their radio app into an audio DVR of sorts, and be able to share that as well. Live video interaction between the station and the app user will be another key component. I am interested in speaking to you in more detail about some of your thoughts and ideas.

      Mersoft Media

    • Sumner_Vengeance

      Here’s what it will be great for: nearly all of the radio newsrooms are run by obama-polishing fools, even and especially those on the talk radio stations.

      Nothing worse for millions of Rush and Levin fans than listening to 30 minutes of accurate, Conservative commentary only to have some moron news reader come on and tell us how Dear Leader Obama is going to improve America tomorrow with his latest exec action, amnestying millions of wage depressing/ job taking DEMmigrants, or banning ammunition that even the Police say is no threat, or kow-towing to the next jihadi group while blasting Israel.

      Now, with this app, as soon as the propaganda is finished, astute listeners can note the advertisers bracketing the lies, call the station via the app and let them know their next call will be to those advertisers, telling them they don’t buy from people who pay for the Regime’s propaganda.


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