Is the iPhone app Public Radio Player the good guy or the bad? The critics aren’t so sure. Marshall Kirkpatrick’s post on ReadWriteWeb, “How One iPhone App Could Save Public Radio” took the super-hero stance, but Rafat Ali opted for the villain with “Public Radio Dangerously Close To Making Public Radio Obsolete” on PaidContent.

Public Radio Player, the new version of the old Public Radio Tuner, is a free application that allows users to access more than 300 radio stations across the country. With a few swipes to the screen of an iPhone or iPod Touch, users can listen to live shows or recorded podcasts from locations of their choice. The app is a collaboration led by Public Radio Exchange (PRX), with National Public Radio, American Public Media, Public Interactive and Public Radio International, and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

With 1.8 million downloads to date (including Public Radio Tuner, the previous version), the app has given thousands of listeners access to stations and favorite shows — like Marketplace, Prairie Home Companion and This American Life — without the geographical limitations of a radio signal.

Relationship between listeners and stations

But while increasing listeners, the app has initiated a conversation about funding for public radio stations and the responsibility of listeners to their local station. In his piece on PaidContent, Rafat Ali wrote, “All of this adds to the issues surrounding local public radio funding in the digital age: If a large number of iPhone app users are not necessarily listening in to the local station, then loyalties start to shift, or even fade away, which in turn affects donations to the local stations.”

Jake Shapiro, founder and executive director of PRX, told me that he’s not surprised by the controversy. “I think there are definitely some things that this kind of application will provoke,” he said. “It does stretch the relationship between listeners and their stations.”

But eventually, he would like the app to evolve into something that supports public radio in a different way.

“Our hope and belief is that it expands and grows the total audience for public radio,” he said. “Although there’s a big question of how to translate that functionality into something that is convenient at the producer and station level.”

Ideally, Shapiro would like users to donate directly to the radio stations from their iPhone. With a simple click, a listener in Chicago could see that she was a frequent listener of WCPN in Cleveland, and donate to that station using the credit card stored on her iTunes account. But because Apple currently doesn’t allow iTunes to be used for charitable purposes, this isn’t an option.

“It’s true there isn’t much incentive for Apple to solve this,” said Shapiro. “But we’re hoping there’s at least a moral case for how Apple should be involved.”

And even if Apple did begin to allow for charitable donations, there is still the stipulation that only paid apps are allowed to have in-app transactions. Although PRX considered charging, they wanted to make the app available to the broadest possible audience. And they also didn’t like the idea of Apple taking 30 percent of all payments.

Other ways to connect

Google’s Android platform may also offer an easier way to connect users with their stations, said Shapiro. “You’d have the freedom to map however you wanted to do transactions, but not the seamless experience of Apple’s ecosystem,” he said. Although PRX is not actively working on an Android version, Shapiro said that there has been both discussion and demand. PRX is also working with Doc Searls, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, to develop a way to log user listening patterns and then encourage them to donate to their favorite stations.

And when it comes down to it, listener support is just one of several revenue sources — taxes, corporate underwriting, philanthropy — that keep public radio alive. If, at some point in the future, Public Radio Tuner would be able to change the landscape of public radio, Shapiro hopes that it will be for the better. Listeners might not want that free tote bag with the name of their local station, but by increasing public radio’s audience and eventually letting people know what stations they’re listening to, Public Radio Tuner will not only keep public radio alive, but help it to thrive.