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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.

NPR News logo

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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The Addressable Audience: The Decline of a Communication Model

Greek Theater in Syracuse, Sicily Wikipedia.org
Greek Theater in Syracuse, Sicily        Wikipedia.org

 Are we a nation that is still addressable as a society that coheres?

Since the early democracies in Sicily a person or group with specific persuasive goals has been said to be locked in to the requirement to formulate messages that build on community attitudes. This idea is a central canon in communication studies. For most scholars in the field, the study of public persuasion would be unmanageable without this convenient notion. We understand an audience to be the generative source of successful persuasion attempts.  It’s from their views that a persuader fashions ways to connect with them.

Yet this basic assumption is increasingly problematic. We still lean heavily on the belief that we can lump individuals together in cohesive groups with demographic and lifestyle similarities (age, sex, income, region of residence, and so on). Traditional media outlets such as television networks often “sell” their audiences to advertisers based on some of these features. And virtually every music, film and television producer is convinced they know their “market.” Even so, the concept of the audience rarely works as well in fact as it does in theory. In their study of The Mass Audience, James Webster and Patricia Phalen remind us that “audiences are not naturally occurring ‘facts,’ but social creations. In that sense, they are what we make them” (p. xiii).

There are two problems with this core idea the audience. One is that with the proliferation of “new” media choices contained in the Internet as a gateway supporting many “platforms.” In this environment audiences turn out to be neither uniform nor very predictable. Even the motives of those who self-select themselves into the same group can be surprisingly diverse. For example, it would be risky to infer much about the audience for content on Snapchat or any of the thousands of sites that stream video and audio content for free. Even analysts at The Nielsen Company—the nation’s most visible audience research firm—would concede that it’s extremely difficult to come up with reliable metrics especially for “one-off” events.

The second problem is even more daunting. The structural changes in our newly dominant media make individual usage far more scattered and fragmented. Aristotle wrote one of the first studies of human communication (The Rhetoric, circa 335 BC) with an eye on the challenges of addressing a few hundred citizens within a small city. Today, by contrast, audiences are sometimes defined in the millions, with messages delivered to them on a host of platforms that increasingly muddle the question of what makes a message “public” or “private.” We may still assume that most men do not read Cosmopolitan or Vogue. But beyond recording “hits” to a site, even popular message aggregators like the Daily Beast or similar news sites cannot be easily defined by their audiences. The impact of their customizable messaging is difficult to access.

Consider just two snapshots of current media use:

  • Digital devices of various sorts get about ten times more attention than newspapers and magazines. Most of these devices are accessing the web, where the average time spent on a single page is under a minute.
  • Among American teens who will shape future discourse, texting has become a time-consuming preoccupation, with an average of 60 separate messages a day, and 6-hours at social media sites over the same 24 hours.

Usage patterns like these hint at the paradoxes about the nature of modern discourse. Does our dependence on digital devices borne from imagistic platforms (graphical interfaces loaded into virtually all digital devices) disallow the kind of thinking about uniform attitudes that is thought to be needed for message development? Put another way, if modern life now proceeds as continuous exposure to a series of visual riffs in broad-based and space-restricted media such as U-tube or Google Plus+, is there any chance to create a series of appeals that speak to the needs of their heterogeneous users?

Is the fraying of our faith in a true national community one of the prices we will pay for the fragmentation of our media?

Beyond our love of shopping malls, mass market films and television, do we share anything like the common civic culture that was easier to see in the pre-digital age?

When Americans witnessed the first moon landing in 1969 there were just three national television networks that made up what some media historians have called “the national hearth.” Together they had a 93 share, representing about half of the nation’s total population.1 Are there still universal values and ideals that define our national life? In classical terms, is the collective polis still addressable as a common unit?


Some social theorists have noted that we are less a “melting pot” that blends away our differences than a culture that more or less accommodates them. If that is the case, the older idea of an audience sharing the same property of a common culture may be simply a fiction of media and communication disciplines. Should that turn out to be even partially true, we need to ask what a viable alternative model of communication that is not based on assessing audience-oriented appeals looks like. There is growing evidence that we already see the withering effects of undirected communication: for example, rhetorical bomb-throwing for its momentary thrills. “Trolling” in the “comments” section of news site is just one symptom.

All of these concerns may appear rather abstract. But they have real consequences. We traditionally assume that effective messages usually get their energy from appeals that trigger a sense of identification with a source and their message. We also assume that communication failure can often be attributed to messages that have “boomeranged,” meaning a piece of discourse has actually alienated those who received it.  But, of course, you have to care about the effects of your words. So a fading tradition that assumes our words are chosen to match the needs of a given audience raises practical questions about whether enough Americans have the will to function in a society that coheres.


193 percent of Americans watching television were tuned to this event.  TV By the Numbers, July 17, 2009, http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2009/07/17/moonwalk-draws-125-million-viewers-cbs-and-cronkite-win-big/

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu