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Reinventing Radio

The world listens to his innovations

Earlier this year, Thomas Hjelm ’81 became NPR’s inaugural chief digital officer. It’s not the first time he’s been asked to fill a brand-new position at an established media company. Since the mid-1990s, Hjelm has specialized in working without a map to help lead such companies as NBC, AOL, and New York Public Radio into new eras of digital product, content, and business development to engage a new generation of global audiences. 

Thirty years into a boundary-pushing career, Hjelm looks back on the birth of the consumer internet with a mixture of nostalgia and hindsight.

“What was exciting was that there was no beaten path,” he says of his years spent developing and producing an all-new “online network” of programming for in the ’90s. “The industry was unformed, the stakes were low, and we had license to experiment. At the time, my colleagues and I probably felt that digital media would eventually replace so-called legacy media. That hasn’t happened. On the other hand, digital has bred new voices, programs, and forms of connection that recast the relationship between producer and audience.”

That hard-earned wisdom shapes Hjelm’s vision for NPR, which boasts a worldwide audience of 32.7 million listeners, and where a popular credo is “Radio isn’t going away. It’s going everywhere.” While traditional radio listening via broadcast is still popular, platforms from the smartphone to the connected car invite new forms of per- sonalized, on-demand listening.
“My job is to reinterpret the core values of public radio—things like excellent journalism and inventive audio narrative, the call-and-response of smart conversation, the blending of global and national coverage in one segment and close local reporting in the next—and connect them to the possibilities of digital media, today and in the future,” he says.

In his previous role as chief digital officer of New York Public Radio, Hjelm led a partnership with The New Yorker to create a new weekly podcast, introduced new social tools for sharing audio, and pioneered Discover, a mobile app for NPR member station WNYC to reach a long-untapped radio audience: underground rail commuters. By selecting from a list of general topics and entering the length of their commute, WNYC fans can download personally tailored playlists.

From NPR’s national headquarters, Hjelm has plans to develop more innovative digital products like Discover. He also hopes to bring public radio’s pledge drive tradition in line with digital-era fundraising possibilities.

“We were the original Kickstarter,” Hjelm says. “It’s part of public radio’s special compact with the public. Asked to take proprietary interest in what we do, our audience responds with amazing, generous support.”

Grounding his digital initiatives in cherished NPR values comes naturally to Hjelm, who says the theme music of All Things Considered still reminds him of his family’s kitchen in the small Maine town where he grew up. At Swarthmore, Hjelm even tried his hand at disc jockeying, co-hosting a weekly WSRN radio show with his friend and fellow alumnus Jonathan Franzen ’81. They named it A Clatter of Platters (“and on a clear night you could get it in the dorms,” he jokes).

His college radio show might not have reached as many million listeners as NPR does, but Hjelm finds that Swarthmore’s respect for social mission and civil dialogue is echoed in the public-service “we bring you the world” ethos at NPR. And he’s thrilled to have found a home at a major media company that holds itself to standards that recall those of his alma mater.

“We have nothing to pander to here except the intelligence of our audience,” he says.