NPR is taking a product approach to its events as it looks to grow audiences and sponsorship revenue.

The public broadcaster has been putting on live events for at least 20 years like tapings of its popular shows and podcasts like “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” and more recently, “Code Switch” and “How I Built This.” In the past couple of years, NPR has added more elements as it’s started thinking of its editorial properties as franchises. All in all, NPR produced about 30 events last year and anticipates growing that number to 38 this year.

Case in point is NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts that started 10 years ago as videos and this year includes a 14-stop tour and Tiny Desk Talks, master class-type events for aspiring musicians.

NPR also is turning its “How I Built This” interview show into a day-long summit taking place Oct. 16 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The summit, NPR’s first, will include on-stage interviews by the 2-year-old show’s host Guy Raz of the founders of Airbnb, Lyft and others; sessions for budding entrepreneurs; and networking. American Express, a longtime sponsor of the show and NPR, is the presenting sponsor. Most of NPR’s live events cost $10 to $45 to attend; the “How I Built This” summit tickets go for $699. NPR expects 500 to 600 to attend.

“The NPR content is at the center of this wheel and each spoke is connecting content with the outside world,” said Jessica Goldstein, who as director of NPR’s events and strategic initiatives oversees a six-person team focused on events. ”We’re thinking about everything we do connecting at the end of the day with content, and events is helping with that.”

Before green-lighting an event, Goldstein puts them through a checklist to make sure they meet such criteria as connecting with the audience, involving member stations that can help promote the event and having the expenses covered.

“In the past, I think it was easy to spend a lot and not break even because people get so excited about putting bells and whistles on things,” she said.

Breaking even is the goal, given it’s costly to put on events, with venue and talent and production staff costs. Sponsorship sales, driven by NPR’s sponsorship arm National Public Media, help offset the cost of the events (some of which are contingent on getting a sponsor) and in turn fund NPR’s editorial content. National Public Media said revenue from event-centered sponsorships is small but growing, having increased fourfold from 2015 to 2017.

Events also are a way to expand NPR’s audience. Goldstein’s team has a person dedicated to creating events that specifically appeal to millennials and Gen Z, and the events bring in a younger and more ethnically and culturally diverse audience than the average NPR listener.

Other podcast producers are getting into live festivals: Slate Live is doing its first day-long podcast festival, with The Texas Tribune; and Gimlet Media is throwing its first festival, a two-day event in June. One challenge producers face is how to keep the relationship going with attendees after the event is over, especially if attendees are new to the brand.

“With events, it’s hard to measure success because it’s more of a feeling than a number,” said Faith Smith, executive producer of Slate Live. “I could see publishers and advertisers wanting to know more about these people.”

NPR has a “How I Built This” Facebook group where fans of the show communicate and surveys event-goers, but still has work to do when it comes to measuring the halo effect of events. “How to keep talking to people afterwards is tricky to measure,” Goldstein said.

Photo by Beck Harlan via NPR

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