NPR news app broadens the provider’s spectrum, stays true to its radio roots

Think of National Public Radio (NPR) and maybe one of two things pop into your head: you’re either a listener and think of people like Robert Siegel, or you think about a famous SNL skit parodying it.

Either way, one thing is constant: radio.

So what would an iPad app for a radio service look like. Would it be like a music streaming and podcast app?

The answer is yes and no: the NPR News app stays true to what NPR is— the “R,” radio — but it provides more than just a play button to please fans and outsiders.

Let’s start off with the screen you’re first presented with: three rows labeled “news,” “arts & life” and “music.” The rows are filled with stories that, when you click on them, pull up a news article, which you can read or hear. About half of the articles come with a button to play the story as it was originally broadcasted. There’s also a link to the same article on NPR’s website and a strip of suggested reading at the bottom.

These articles can be filtered to display specific topics like health if selected from the “Topics” menu near the top. From the same menu, you can also download them to read offline. But this social media-inspired presentation of news and audio only scratches the surface of what the app contains.

At the bottom of the menu is where classic NPR lies: there’s a button to hear the hourly news play, a “programs” button to listen to the wide variety of news and entertainment shows that NPR provides (including my personal favorites, “Car Talk” and “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”) and a “stations” button to find and tune into one of over 900 NPR stations around the country, including local affiliates KCUR, KANU and KRNW.

You can tune into a station like you would any other radio or make a playlist of shows and news articles. You can also continue to listen after exiting the app or locking your iPad. In other words, the NPR News app can turn your iPad into a radio with just a tap.

So, the concept is there, but how well is it executed?

As far as speed goes, I have yet to experience a single loading screen using the app. It feels seamless, with animations that make it look and feel like you’re sifting through pages on a desk. The same goes for my favorite feature, the live radio broadcasts: they’re crystal clear and I’ve yet to experience buffering, except when the Wi-Fi acts up, but that has nothing to do with the app. The ability to listen a huge selection of shows, podcasts and news reports on demand and without loading screens is a fantastic feature for anyone that feels like listening, instead of watching, for a while.

Of course, there are some downsides. Yes, just like any other app, there are ads, but not your typical ones. When you tune into a radio station, for example, you’ll likely hear a smooth voice telling you  “NPR is brought to you by” at the start, but that’s it. No commercial breaks, no car lot owners screaming at you and no minute-long ramblings about some furniture sale.

The app may also be daunting for people trying to first experience NPR. It’s easy to dive in, and there’s even an ability to search for NPR stations by zip code or city. But there are no descriptions for shows and stations, something that station websites handle quite well, anyway. There’s also a noticeable absence of popular American Public Media shows like “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Pipedreams” due to copyright, but they can still be heard from the NPR stations that broadcast them.

And finally, like any other piece of technology, it isn’t free of the occasional bug or glitch. The other night, I found myself having to reconnect to a radio broadcast every few minutes. This was a unique incident, however, and in a year’s use I’ve yet to experience any other software issues.

If you’re a news hound, give the app a look. If you’re an NPR fan, give it a listen. And if you’re curious about the unique programming and culture surrounding the cultural phenomenon that’s lasted over forty years, the NPR News app can be a great place to start. Most importantly, just like the radio service that it’s based on, the app is free.

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