The NPR News stations in America's largest markets are seeing a dramatic drop in audience
Spot on, Tim. From our Paragon's research for NPR News stations across the nation, there are many reasons for the decline in listening, including:
1. Some stations are very late to recognize the obvious, which is that serving audience needs is required for growth. It's crazy that in 2023 the industry is just now coining the term "audience development" and addressing it like it's a new concept.
2. Competition for national and international news, in-depth coverage, and local news is increasing, which exposes NPR News and some station's penchant for ignoring major news and breaking news in lieu of a rigid program schedule and sometimes irrelevant, pre-recorded topics.
3. Fund drives have long been audience killers, and now they appear to be sunsetting in relevancy (and results). Stations are late in diversifying their fundraising toolbox in a concerted effort to maintain consistent content instead.
4. Non-listeners and past listeners overwhelmingly feel the presentation is bland, boring, and lacks energy.
5. The national political divide has pushed NPR News and local stations squarely on the liberal side of the dividing line.
6. News cycles ebb and flow. Right now we're in the ebb stage.
The answers to turning the tide are obvious and achievable:
1. Focus on the local audience. Find out (through research) what they want and need, and give it to them.
2. Focus on the daily news cycle, not the daily program schedule. Stations must commit to being the #1 radio news outlet in their markets and that requires more fluidity of coverage.
3. Stop interrupting the content for extended periods by evolving away from fund drives and diversify membership (or "subscriber") concepts.
4. Stop trying to sound like stereotypical public radio and modernize the sound with great voices, quick storytelling, strong local news reporting, and professional imaging production.
5. Stop giving lip service to balanced coverage and diverse POVs and deliver on it without prejudice.
6. Be prepared for the news cycle to flow back up in the next 18 months for the next national elections. Seize the opportunity.
I hope this generates more discussion. Thank you.
For these five stations, I'd like to know where the losses occur in their schedules, if there is a trend among them. Morning and/or afternoon drive? National vs local content? Weekend mornings?
I certainly have found that I am spending less time listening to my local station, WNYC. Part of it is a conscious effort towards my mental health of just not wanting to be addicted to news all the time. Part of it is what others have noted, the repetition of the same news stories throughout the day. Pat of it is that the quality of the news reporting has declined too, and has taken an overly casual, "slangy" quality that maybe is designed to appeal to younger listeners but comes off as inarticulate to a middle aged listener.
But the really big factor in my listening is that WNYC has gone to an almost entirely 24 hour news/talk format and honestly, by the evening, I don't really want more news or talk. I want music and an interesting variety of music that I wouldn't run across otherwise. An hour or two of music in the daytime wouldn't be a bad thing either. Maybe I'm in a minority here, but I just want more diversity of programming from my public radio, not just news and social commentary all the time. Since WNYC is largely declining to provide this, I spend my listening time elsewhere.
You hit the nail on the head, and it is so discouraging. I can’t believe that NPR doesn’t talk about the changes they have made in content and how it is affecting the system.
NPR keeps talking about losing revenue from both donors to stations, directly to NPR and the drop in underwriting revenue. In addition, to the drop in listeners and yet they do not discuss how they have changed their content.
It isn’t hard to figure out that content is why listenership is down. You can’t do the same story on All Things Considered and Morning Edition as your true NPR listener listens to Morning Edition on their way to work and All Things Considered on their way home. Even with remote work, true NPR listeners are listening as they start and end their day. When you are airing the same story, people turn you off. I know I have been a longtime listener of NPR and I turn NPR off as I have already heard the story.
In addition, when you are gearing your content to 20 and 30 year old's, you lose your current older listeners and donors.
Drop in listenership of course equals a drop revenue from donors and thus in underwriters. People are turning us off and listening to other providers.
Plus, the lack of journalistic standards that are showing up on our air is also driving listeners and donors away. NPR used to be leaders in the industry and now it appears we are vying for shock jock.
It is sad, as I truly believe in the mission of public radio. I hope people wake up before there is no public radio as currently we are losing our current listeners and donors faster than uploading younger listeners who by the way do not have as much disposable income to support stations.
Podcasts compete. I listen to The Daily instead of my local station - WFAE. I get a deeper dive on one issue rather than bland, boring, expected coverage of many. Mike's numbers 4 and 5 resonate with me. And I used to love public radio.
I grew up listening to NPR and their voices were my family as I moved around the country. But slowly, I’ve shifted away. And recently, since moving from Colorado to Massachusetts, I’ve basically ended my lifetime relationship with NPR.
A long time ago, NPR had an edge to it. But then the old guard retired, Prairie Home Companion grew schtick. I lost respect for NPR during the Democratic primary in 2020: NPR did not give Bernie’s platform the respect it deserved, missing every opportunity to explain how his agenda would be funded by moving Americas fiscal priorities away from 20th Century values. NPR pushed Hillary on us like we would be deplorable not to expect her to win because, well, “it’s her turn”, right? Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me’s young new comedians have shrieking inauthentic laughs and are cringingly unfunny. NPR’s daily news shows are focused on grievance culture; does NPR think they can fix white privilege by making every show feature injustices and the aggrieved?
I still love On the Media and Marketplace because I learn new ways of thinking, new words, new scholarly considerations, from them. So maybe NPR needs to take a seat and let American Public Media lead the way. There are major stories out there untold about corrupt local governments, community efforts to solve local climate change problems, legislation efforts that need our vocal support (animal cruelty legislation was recently proposed in Congress and NPR never mentioned it!), advancements in healing trauma and our environment and our health, ways people are challenging corporations and how to link arms with them, ways to protect your privacy online. I’m not saying activist journalism is the answer. Explanatory and investigative journalism should still be foundational.
It would be easy for NPR to feature a new station with fresh music styles they found in Radio Garden, to help us all become smarter, more expansive music appreciators. I don’t need a millennial talking about how they feel about how they found the music or how much they like it. Only real musicologists should lead that segment and I welcome old white men if they have the chops.
I don’t care what people look like, I just want them to not waste my time! If the segment isn’t worth listening to twice, it’s probably not worth listening to once.
At the local level, I’m very concerned. New England Public Media, with its weekly major production errors (restarting segments midstream, blank airspace), zero investigative journalism segments, and uninspiring classical music most of the day - it’s embarrassing! There are masses of extremely well-educated people in New England, how is this radio quality reflective of this culture!? Why would I be a member of a station that makes no effort to add value to my life?
NPR has become a platform for millennials who think they are the show, who spend our time blathering on as if NPR were just another self-impressed influencer podcast.
Whew. Glad to have a forum to get this out there. Thanks.
In Canada, CBC Radio still dominates locally in morning drive. In many markets including Toronto and Vancouver their share is over 12, sometimes 15. Some of that is due to how awful commercial radio can be. And CBC Radio can also sound irrelevant and "woke." Even so, it is a local alternative. National news programs are doing less well and too often recycle content. Being connected to CBC TV is a serious drain as the tv audiences are fleeing to streaming services. The opposition Conservatives have called for defunding of the CBC, especially online. In my experience, the power of local content is the key. Thanks for posting this Tim.
After decades I can no longer listen to WBEZ in Chicago. It's become a non-stop racially biased platform with a single POV.
It's an interesting conceit but there's several concerns I'd have with the statistical rigor in this analysis. I emphasize "concerns". Not "problems", just "concerns."
First off, and correct me if I'm wrong, but Tim you're using the 6+ public numbers from Nielsen, correct? We all know how problematic drawing ANY conclusions from those numbers usually is. For example, it's common knowledge that public radio has historically appealed mostly to a Boomer-aged demographic. (and it still does, which is its own problem, but I digress) That demo is pretty old. Do we know if a lot of that drop is just a particular demo dying of old age? (or perhaps greater COVID vulnerability and COVID-related issues?) Remember that numerically GenX and Millennials are smaller demographics to begin with, and that's before we get into different media consumption habits. A relatively smaller hit to a Boomer-aged demo could result in an inflated hit to our numbers.
Again: I do not KNOW if this is the case; I don't have access to the Nielsen data outside of Providence RI. It could be I'm flat-out wrong here. But before we go making any major changes, we better be sure of what changes the data is pointing us at making.
Also, I can understand using 2021 as a starting point, since it helps mitigate the natural "bumps" from the 2020 and 2022 elections. But I think it's still too much in the "unsettled time of COVID media consumption" to really draw too many conclusions from. I'd trust the numbers starting from 2023 and seeing where they end up in 2025 a lot more than 2021 to 2023. And anything post-2016 (really post-mid-2015) is "contaminated" as well due to Trump's outside influence on the media ecosystem, and anything pre-2016 is too far in the past to be terribly relevant. It's a hard time to use data to make decisions; I certainly grant you that. That's not your fault or anyone's fault. I don't know how, or if, to account for that.
Finally: three of your four examples are in one-station towns. And even in LA, one can sort-of argue that KCRW and KPCC aren't in nearly as a competitive media environment vis a vis each other. One-station towns have historically allowed their pubradio outlets to get away with truly terrible practices far longer than they might otherwise. I'd like to see what was happening in Washington DC with WAMU vs WTOP, et al, (not pubradio competition, but the news/talk competition in DC is *fierce*) in Seattle with KUOW and KNKX, in Atlanta with GPB/WRAS and WABE, and Boston with WBUR vs WGBH. For that matter, what about WHYY in Philadelphia, KERA in Dallas, and KUHF in Houston? Those are also one-station towns, at least in terms of NPR news. Have they experienced similar drops?
In general I know that WAMU, KUOW, and WBUR have all been doing quite well for themselves in recent years. WGBH was doing well for a while but slipped a lot in recent months. (I suspect those reasons are partly internal and partly due to improvements WBUR has made) I don't know, one way or the other, how well they've been doing under the methodology you've selected. Nor do I know about KNKX, GPB nor WABE, nor WHYY, KERA, or KUHF. I think it would be informative to know if this trend is truly universal. And more importantly: if it's NOT, then WHY is it not? That's even more informative.
Tim, could it be the audiences were inflated in June 21 because of the pandemic and are returning to pre-covid levels?