Web 2.0 The Humanity! (aka NPR Media Player Epic Fail)

I have been both listening to public radio and using the internet since long before NPR’s awkward, vaguely Luddite first encounters with the World Wide Web.  I recall vividly Linda Wirtheimer’s bemused tone as she gingerly announced that listeners could finally provide feedback via “the email”.

Gradually, and mostly to great advantage, NPR began to make online services available that acted as force multipliers for listeners.  We could email questions to Diane Rehm or Talk of the Nation instead of wasting time hanging on the phone.  We could look up broadcast schedules.  We could break annoying outmoded regional monopolies by listening to distant stations’ live feeds.  (Local stations HATE this.)

More important than all of this, we could listen to any episode from almost any show at our convenience.  This, at least to someone like me who actually owns a dusty cassette tape of an episode of Morning Edition I ordered by snail mail, was the real revolution.  By now, being human, I’m a little jaded about it, but I can still remember being a bit drunk with power at the ability to call up any story from any episode of All Things Considered going back years.

My how things have changed.  A charming mild suspicion of the more laughable and faddish aspects of Web tech (still appropriately evinced by On The Media) has, on most NPR shows and in its executive conversation pits, transmuted into a gushing fanboi obsession that is echolalic at best and gigglingly hysterical at worst.  It reminds one of certain scenes in “Reefer Madness.”  The indiscreet charms of Tweet-By-Night Web 2.0 social media, their nauseating, Octomom- like fecundity, and their ultimate shallowness, have not been kind to NPR as it attempts to mainline all of them simultaneously.

Diane Rehm’s Tweets accidentally got routed via LinkedIn through the Facebook page of Krista Tippet’s podcast and then into the comment stream of Danny Zwerdling’s blog.  Tragedy ensued when Terry Gross naively gave it a Digg, Buzzfeeding it back to WAMU’s RSS reader, ultimately causing the Minnesota Public Radio’s Streaming Server to become sentient and go Cloverfield during a recording of Prairie Home Companion.

Or at least that’s what I imagine is the reason my now thrice-damned Media Player won’t let me listen to an only slightly stale episode of Fresh Air.

I’m not actually overreacting here.  The problem is one I expressed concern about in my original positive review of the NPR Media Player (which I am now dubbing the “NPR Media Gatekeeper”): it’s a giant step backwards  and makes the internet worse.  Congratulations.

In the good old pre-Gatekeeper days you could stream or download many NPR programs, and it seemed like it would soon be true of all of them.  This is the best of all possible worlds for listeners, but for NPR itself there are some major problems with this whole “information (media) wants to be free” ethos:

1. It’s difficult to manage advertising in this kind of model. For one thing it’s not easy to keep the ads current.  If they, for example, pre-encode a commercial for Archer Daniels Midland in a downloadable podcast then it’s there forever –  even if ADM stops its sponsorship when NPR reports on something unflattering about them involving melamine.

2. It screws local stations.  Why should I listen to my local affiliate or even go to its website if I can listen to my favorite show live or at any later time from NPR’s site?

NPR appears to have adopted two stratagems to deal with this.  They don’t make shows available to listen to live, and after-the-fact they want to force you to use the Media Gatekeeper to listen to them.

The Gatekeeper, of course, has the nefarious power to insert ads live, though I really don’t resent that in principle.  What I do  resent is that when the Gatekeeper doesn’t work, which in my experience on numbers of different computers happens frequently, you find yourself unpleasantly back in the early ’90s before Susan Stamberg’s smith-coronaphilia had ever been troubled by the phrase “web site.”  It’s 2009, and while we don’t have flying cars  I absolutely refuse to lower myself to ordering a cassette tape.  What would I play it with?

This restriction to using the Gatekeeper or nothing  is what’s known in the world of corporate I.T. as “business logic.”  In other words the question becomes, as Diane Rehm so likes to say, not what NPR can offer on the internet but what it chooses to offer.  This is bad behavior by a network that is directly funded by its listeners.

So here’s my oh so unsolicted advice to NPR: find a happy medium between your former web ignorance and your current Web 2.0verload.  Spend less effort chasing every MyblogSpacebookfeeder trend that comes along and more time making your content available to all in every form they’d like to have it.

We’ll see if NPR’s new boss “gets it” and takes this in a better direction.

7 thoughts on “Web 2.0 The Humanity! (aka NPR Media Player Epic Fail)

  1. Wow. I was beginning to think I was the only one who despised the almighty NPR Media Player. Thank you for expressing your frustrations on your blog. It is about time someone has started a dialog about this. Since it first appeared, I have been sending rants to the inscrutable NPR ombudsman, whoever “he”/”she” is, and have been receiving irrelevant form replies ever since. One recent improvement was that this time I received an invitation to join NPR’s ‘audience advisory panel, NPR Listens’ (http://nprlistens.org/). I joined and submitted my responses to a survey. There wasn’t much there other than the survey but there is a ‘feedback & suggestions box’ that allows you to post a message. I will do that soon. We’ll see if it does any good. Maybe you can join and express your concerns too. Heck, maybe you can start a movement. I agree with your Gatekeeper analogy. I think the local station paradigm is obsolete. I also think you are being overly kind to NPR in your relatively mild criticisms. I told them that I think the typical NPR listener is far too sophisticated to be tolerant of their new employment of “PUSH” technology, a relatively old Microsoft paradigm. Of course you can mute the audio during the ad but that’s byzantine. Then I complained about the incredible dysfunctionality of the player itself. I listed what I think are serious deficiencies of the player:

    1. It is even less functional in Firefox than in IE, which I refuse to use.

    2. When you click a program link it opens the player, if it is not already open in a tab or window, and adds a list of stories to your playlist. There is no culling of duplicates so if you wander away from the player and try to resume where you left off, first you have to click the original link which then adds a whole new list of duplicate stories to the playlist. There is no way to modify this behavior by a configuration dialog. If you open a different link your playlist grows. You can manually clear the list but then you lose the current playlist as well. You can refresh the page to get it back but that’s a kludgy solution at best. Also, when you click a link in another tab, it opens in the tab that already has the player open but does not transfer focus to that tab.

    3. The volume control pad must be clicked and dragged to control the volume. You can’t just click beside the pad and jump to a higher/lower volume like in any media player. When the ad starts when you first start the player, the volume is fairly high and very annoying. I can mute the system volume but why should I have to? In Firefox the ad frame covers the player’s volume control until the ad plays. Sometimes it persists so you have to turn down the system volume to a tolerable level. That is beyond intrusive in my opinion.

    4. The playlist window does not respond to the mouse scrollwheel like in any media player.

    5. When you click in the gutter of the scroll bar it advances only 3 stories at a time and not the expected entire page. This slows down navigation.

    6. Most annoying, the story titles are truncated and there are no tooltips to show you the entire title when hovering the cursor over the title area. You have to click the story and listen to it before you see the entire title over in the main window of the player. This makes it unnecessarily difficult to decide which stories you might want to eliminate from the playlist. Considering that the entire player interface is about half as wide as the screen, this is a true waste of screen real estate.

    7. Deleting entries from the playlist is tedious. You have to click a little x for each one and use the dysfunctional scrolling mechanism to go to other entries you want to delete. A simple checkbox arrangement with a delete button would make this a much more streamlined operation.

    8. If you make the mistake of clicking a link in the main player window, you leave the player behind and lose the audio stream, and when you return it adds yet another duplicate playlist and starts from the first entry of that list. There is virtually no way of resuming from where you left off.

    9. If you pause the player and return to resume it, even seconds later sometimes, you wait eternally for the stream to buffer and end up having to replay the story, losing your place in the stream.

    10. There is no free way to download the stream so you can listen to it in the player of your choice and the NPR idea of podcasting is naive at best. They make available streams that THEY want you to listen to and very few at that.

    So, in general, we have a highly dysfunctional player that monopolizes the browser and doesn’t have the option to play the stream live in another player or download it for portable listening. I think the extreme dysfunctionality of the player is inexcusable. It lacks nearly all of the functionality of any freeware media player. I get the impression that it was programmed by summer interns and not by professional programmers. That said, as you pointed out, NPR just doesn’t get the web experience at all. The player occupies less than a third of the screen with white space all around. I already mentioned the cut-off titles and the problem with clicking on a link in the main window. But it goes beyond just that. All that unused white space is just screaming for extra content. Links to relevant content about the current story. Sidebars showing videos and images related to the current story. Heck, I wouldn’t even mind ad frames at this point. It would be more honest and less invasive than that annoying mandatory 30 second audio ad when you first tune in, and sometimes several times during a listening session. I see a lot of missed opportunity here. As bad as Real Player and WMP are, they are still better than the NPR player. At least we had SOME choice before. I don’t know what NPR’s current demographic is but the fact that they haven’t complained vehemently about this big step backwards and effected a correction implies that they are not too web savvy. It is up to the few that are aware of the infraction to make it known to NPR and its listeners that this is just unacceptable practice.

  2. I can’t believe it, just a day after I posted this rant, NPR has just gone and launched their “new, improved” website. Their words not mine. NPR must have been reading this. And they went right ahead and made the player even worse than ever as punishment. Now I get the dreaded ad before every other story on ATC and then the story clip buffers forever and doesn’t play. And every time I click the story item in the playlist so I can get it to play, I get the ad again. Thank you so much NPR! Now you are even more invasive and obnoxious than NBC!

  3. I agree with pretty much all of your comments, but I will point out one improvement: you can now download individual stories directly from the show pages at “the new” npr.org.

    1. Yes true but not all stories have a link and you can’t just download the whole show to listen to it offline or on a functional media player. Almost all the other bugs still remain. They will probably never fix them.

  4. An update on the “new npr.org”:

    OK, it is an improvement that you can now select a show date from a pulldown menu. BUT that’s all you can do. Until you can see an entire week’s, or preferably, month’s show rundown AND check a box for each segment you want to hear to be added to a playlist it will still be dysfunctional. They put a download link for most, but not all, story segments so you can download them one by one, but again, unless you can check boxes and download them all at once, it ain’t fixed. There is an option to add a segment to the playlist which is laughable. You click it and it loads the accursed media player, which typically takes a full minute on Firefox, and SOMETIMES but not always, adds the clip to the playlist. Then you go back and wait another minute for the show page to load and keep going. So this feature is worthless. Again, the only acceptable thing here would be a checkbox next to each story. I get the general impression that NPR either just doesn’t get the user experience or that some less than capable programmer just can’t do any better. I’m pretty sure all of this is doable with Flash. Meanwhile we the listeners are stuck with this monstrosity for now. I am hoping someone will write a Greasemonkey script or addon that modifies the interface to allow more functional use.

  5. I cannot get anything to load into the NPR Media Player and on the rare occasions that the list loads, it still plays NOTHING. I have deinstalled/reinstalled Flash Player 4x to no avail. Since I had been batching ATC on the weekend so I could listen to baseball games during the week, I am now clueless about what is going on in the world! NPR’s only solution is to reinstall Flash Player. Any other suggestions?

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