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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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Public Radio Thrives

Future of public radioA recent forum of radio executives made it apparent that public radio is thriving. Audience sizes are up, contributions from sustaining members are up, and many stations have benefited from powerful new digital tools.

We are used to hearing laments about the decline of the big city newspaper, the traditional broadcasting networks, and other broad-based “legacy” outlets.  Most assume that social media have swallowed up the attention of younger Americans.  While there is some truth to that observation, a recent forum of radio executives at The College of New Jersey made it apparent that public radio is thriving.  The event was held in part to honor the 50th Anniversary of the College’s station, WTSR.

For most larger stations in the United States (and there are many), audience sizes are up, contributions from sustaining members are up, and many have found digital tools that have made them community assets.  Dean Cappello, the Chief Content Officer of New York’s WNYC—which is actually an amalgam of about seven stations—cited monthly listening rates that are huge for radio: well over 20,000 million.  Leading programs on National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and American Public Media—some of which are produced by WYNC—now reach Americans in every corner of the globe.  Radiolab, On the Media and Studio 360 all originate at WNYC, as do live opera broadcasts from its sister station, WQXR.  And then there are key shows from other stations around the nation.  Who knew that Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me or This American Life or A Prairie Home Companion would become American touchstones, rivaling old and venerable models of audio programming like BBC radio’s Desert Island Disks?

Another recent factor in station membership growth is the recent election.  The New York Times recently reported that  more Americans are contributing to news organizations, including public radio, presumably because they want the struggling press to ramp up their traditional “watchdog” functions, even in the face of relentless press attacks by Donald Trump.

Roger LaMay
                                  Roger LaMay

While New York is clearly a special case as the largest media market in the country, the story is no less bright in the 5th largest market of Philadelphia.  Roger LaMay who is the General Manager of WXPN and also Chairman of the NPR Board described how WXPN has grown their station with a special devotion to new music and live performance. WXPN’s syndicated World Café Live is picked up by 100 other stations in the United States. Much of the show is produced in a way that is becoming more common for big city public radio outlets.  Live concerts are featured, using a station’s own dedicated performance spaces, sometimes with restaurants and bars attached.

Another of the city’s stations represented on the November 30th panel was WHYY, the home of NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The station is also known for originating substantial news coverage of the region, extending their reach with an ambitious internet site. Audio News Director Gene Sonn credits their success in part to how well matched radio is to news and information programming. As he noted to me before the formal panel started, a print story drains its human subjects of the emotion and feeling in their voices. We understand stories better when we can actually hear participants in their own voices. And, of course, audio technology is so much more portable than the equipment that is required to shoot a well lit-video that also has a clear audio track.  In short, radio is more immediate and nimble in covering many kinds of news stories.

All of the participants reminded the audience that “radio” doesn’t necessarily mean a station with a broadcast license. WNYC’s Dean Cappello notes that “The audience is in charge now,” deciding when and how to listen to programs.  Listeners who are “streaming” programming from the internet will at some point probably surpass those receiving signals over the air. This explains why these stations are now truly global. With streaming, a listener can receive the programming of a station virtually anywhere, vastly increasing the potential audience size.  For example, I like a classical music “station” in Athens Greece. A friend is devoted to a jazz station in Paris. Newer audio equipment can be programmed with station URLs to receive signals from virtually anywhere on the globe.

Newer “On demand” listening  via podcasts helps public radio counter its tendency to appeal to older listeners.

Add in the use of the iPhone, notes WNYC’s Cappello, and the world of radio changes dramatically. The phone’s storage capabilities make it ideal to receive and hold podcasts downloaded from stations and sources such as iTunes. Periodic updates provide targeted programming to Americans on the run or on the road.  A friend reports loading up his phone with lots of podcasts that can be played later on the train or whenever he is in transit. This “on demand” listening helps public radio counter its tendency to appeal to older listeners with a NPR network average age of 58.  And there’s an advantage for program producers going into the podcast business, with avid listeners mostly in their 20s or 30s. The panelists pointed out that they can sell advertising space in podcasts, a revenue stream not open to true “non-commercial” radio operating at the bottom (“educational”) end of the FM band. The ads may not always be a plus for listeners, but they make these executives more comfortable about the future of their organizations: optimism that seems fully justified.