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The Changed Media Landscape for Public Radio

Was I wrong in 2016? What does it mean when virtually every American in the country can listen to any radio station, music streaming or podcast service anywhere at any time?

A forum of public radio executives on The College of New Jersey campus in December of 2016 made it apparent that the medium was generally holding its own. Panelists included the Chairperson of the Board of NPR and news executives from WNYC in New York and WHYY in Philadelphia. Then, audience sizes were larger, contributions from sustaining members were up, and many stations were benefiting from powerful streaming technologies. True, there were hints that storm clouds. The broadcast medium that was at the very center of the American experience during and after World War II was beginning to see more restless audiences and enterprising operators who delivered content digitally, without the need for a broadcast license. We now take for granted that Alexa and Spotify will deliver more customized content at any time, with far less effort from us. In 2016 I didn’t appreciate how this storm might arrive. A post I wrote that year optimistically declared that “Public Radio Thrives.” But even then, WNYC’s Dean Cappello nailed what was changing in this new era of media abundance: “The audience is in charge now.”

Our forum centered National Public Radio, with an astounding 1000 affiliates in every corner of the country. Most nations have somewhat similar non-commercial radio networks, including France 24, Germany’s Deutsche Welle and Britain’s multi-channel BBC. They usually adhere to the broad mainstream of their own societies, usually with a slight tilt toward a more progressive view of politics and human affairs. But all must now contend with other audio sources who can gain access to listeners simply by having a studio and an internet address.


Add into this vastly enlarged field the fact that “legacy” print and “broadcast” media are in the fifth decade of a disordered contraction. In the U.S. newspapers have declined to the point of disappearing in many cities. Traditional Network television news from ABC, NBC and CBS no longer dominates as they once did. Formerly influential magazines like Time and The Atlantic see their futures mostly in non-print digital forms, while most still covering the national scene, like Slate and The Daily Beast, are struggling to pay their reduced staffs through total or partial paywalls. In terms of access, it is the best of times for a person ready to try their hand in digital journalism. But in terms of making a comfortable and secure living at it, it may be the worst of times.

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Against this background, in some ways NPR looks less robust than it did a half decade ago. It has been under pressure to diversify its staff and audience. And, indeed, there is a greater variety of voices on its air. But as the trade magazine Current noted, “NPR’s newsroom is more diverse than its listener base.” Those listening at least once a week have dropped from 60 million in 2020 to 42 million today. In March, the network laid off close to 10 percent of their staff in an attempt to close a $30 million budget gap.  And recent internal data made available to the New York Times showed that NPR’s audience was 76 percent white, 11.9 percent Latinx, 9.2 percent Black and 5.1 percent Asian.

To be sure, attracting younger and non-white listeners has always been a challenge. It is apparent that social media have swallowed up the attention of younger Americans, mostly for the worse, since much of it’s content is light years away from the public service perspective that has defined public radio.

Even the idea of a radio network has changed. Formerly, a listener that wanted to listen to landmark content like All Things Considered, Fresh Air or Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me needed to tune in to a local station. Now, all of those programs are available as podcasts, frustrating affiliates who traditionally raised money from listeners to those network shows.

If these challenges of streaming, podcasting and America’s declining appetite for straight news were not enough, grumbles about salary discrepancies between the old guard and newer staffers have added tensions. Cultural nerve endings rising from increased awareness of past injustices against women and racial groups, altering what a media organization can program without triggering a backlash. In January of 2021 three high profile hosts and women of color–Noel King, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, and Audie Cornish–all left the network, with organizational tensions and unequal pay as reasons. And last month a senior producer made complaints about a “liberal bias” that were picked up by the growing numbers of journalists who follow the media exclusively.

Understandably, in media circles declines in audience numbers are always taken as a bad sign. And yet it is trend not just for NPR, but radio in general, and for theatrical films and publishing as well. The days of legacy sources like city newspapers, national magazines, and massive television audiences are perhaps gone for good. While there are still big media “players,” a period when any single source can function as a big tent matching the reach of, say, CBS News in the 1960s and 70s, seems gone as well. Back then, a program like the CBS Evening News could attract a huge 27 million households. The nation came together for this and the other legacy network programs. But that does not happen any more. We don’t have “mass media” in the ways we used to. And no doubt that will include NPR, which will have to build its audiences from a more fragmented pool of Americans.

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Breaking the Cycle of Grievance


We have become a culture of grievance.

Maintaining healthy life-affirming personal relationships takes time and effort. Add in layers of complexity in dealing with our digital daisy chains, and we may begin to notice that the need to fix problems they create can outpace their advantages. Can we still have time for others if we are pushed into a reactive mindset that leaves us exhausted?

This does not apply to miraculous medical advances or life saving inventions. But it seems like everything else–from online banking to mastering a smartphone apps–is less easily mastered. GPS is an amazing advance. Using it for directions on a portable device, not so much. Or consider that a busy adult may need to appeal a denial of an insurance claim, or understand a wordy user agreement for a “one time offer,” or find workarounds to a firewall that denies information they are entitled to know. At least for this digital immigrant, examples accumulate as a typical day moves on. I recently gave up on doing a review of a journal article that I promised to complete after a run-in with a Fort Knox of gates: the requirement to find yet another new username and password to access the piece, then a pin I did not know, and then the appearance of a prompt insisting that I would need to reset some preferences in my browser. Only then could I cast my eyes on the article that carried no national security secrets. Or consider the widespread use of digital phone trees and closed option customer service recordings that delay us from reporting a specific problem or a simple request. These are typical with our cable supplier, which thinks it is in the communication business. Though it reliably collects its monthly charges, it is not. Any requests coming from our end are the rough equivalent of an airline routing a Twin Cities passenger through Miami.

What I am describing produces a consumer funk that settles into a cycle of grievances. Almost everyone seems to have the same complaints about broken service agreements or inert organizations that cannot be roused. With the so-called “internet of things,” common household items ranging from robot vacuums to washing machines are sold as “doing more” because of their added and unnecessary digital capabilities. We set them up with all the necessary strings that will later become hopelessly tangled: a new “account,” usernames, passwords, and numerical codes which may or may not match up with the platforms we are using. I am waiting for the day when a request for Alexa to turn on household lights will instead open our neighbor’s garage doors or turn on their vacuums. Like many, I have an account notebook in a mostly failed effort to keep a record of all my digital breadcrumbs. But they have clearly scattered across the pages, leaving indecipherable and crossed out passwords that resemble cave paintings covered in graffiti.

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None of these single events are seriously egregious. But they can easily accumulate, leaving us in a state of festering grievance. Social media like to show us male and female “Karens” who have left the world of the sane, having been provoked into in a state of barely containable rage. Most seem to have lost their skills for interpersonal adaptation. Their explosions also spill out into in our polarized politics, where polling suggests that many less affluent Americans carry perpetual grievances about being left out of the American dream. Was Donald Trump channeling these thoughts with his surprising inaugural reference to “American carnage?”

What has changed in part is the nature of problem-solving and troubleshooting. In the analogue world of the last century various schemes for fixing things were sometimes within the grasp of a creative teen or adult. Getting a clear picture from a television might have come from simple manipulations of an over-the-air antenna. A new vacuum tube might revive an ailing radio. Now, obviously, our entertainment arrives in electronic lockboxes that turn us into supplicants. Instead of the tinkering mindset fostered in earlier epochs, we must become compliant followers of their protocols.  I suspect recent legislative “right to fix” initiatives have come too late.

How do we stay sane and upbeat against the daily pounding we take from increasingly arcane channels of the organizations we need to do business with? At what point does this added complexity drain us of the energy to meaningfully deal with others in simple interpersonal space?  Add in the problem of constant dysconnectivity and it is easier to challenge the assumption that digital tools are the fastest routes to restoring pieces of our lives that have fallen apart.

We can escape a doom cycle of continuous grievance if we use the tools that are already around us, perhaps:

  • a vacation that that lets us get away from our broken connections.
  • immersion in long form media—a novel, a film, or an hour-long performance of music.
  • meditation in whatever form works
  • an extended mode of physical movement on foot, on a bicycle, or on the water, all of which can put us back in the unmediated world that our bodies were made to know.

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