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What To Do About Declining Listening for NPR Stations


Listening to NPR member stations is slipping among younger listeners. That’s from new NPR data shared at the recent Public Radio Program Director’s Conference (always a great event, by the way).

The writeup in Current reports:

Average–quarter-hour (AQH) listening during morning drive time has dropped 11 percent in the past five years, and afternoon drive audience has declined 6 percent. The only age bracket that has increased listening to NPR stations is the 65-plus audience [up 18% overall].

It appears the statistics referenced here are AQH persons. And that number is sensitive to changes in the population. What the report doesn’t share is that, from 2000 to 2014, the 65-and-over population in the US has increased by 15%, far outpacing growth in any other age cell (for example, 18-64 is up 2% and under-18 is actually down 1%).

That means, in other words, that NPR’s growth among older listeners can be largely accounted for by the growing number of older listeners, not by the growing affection for NPR content among older listeners.

Explaining the decline among those under-55 is no artifact of demographic change, however. Something real is going on here, influenced by lifestyle and technology and information and entertainment options galore. But also influenced by an industry which sees the future through the lens of the past.

The report says:

The gap between older and younger listeners of NPR stations is widening. Stations are losing listeners 12–44 years of age. NPR projects that by 2020, its stations’ audience of 44-year-olds and younger will be around 30 percent, half that demographic’s audience share in 1985.

You know what else has changed since 1985?


NPR’s Gwynne Villota says:

I don’t think we can count on [younger people] aging into radio listening any longer. Lifestyle-wise, there are so many things competing for our attention. . . . It’s a different world.

Well, Gwynne is right. That’s why I, for one, have never argued that younger listeners will necessarily grow into the media habits of their parents and grandparents even if their information needs expand with age.

Meanwhile, says Gwynne, “we don’t think that digital listening is making up for the lost broadcast listening.” Nor is podcasting, which is estimated for only 4 percent of total audio consumption – among millennials!

So what to do? How do you reverse the decline?

Ideas ranged from providing a more coherent listening experience (i.e., implementing industry best practices), being a better custodian of the airwaves, and not necessarily emphasizing local news simply because the station is in the local neighborhood (another point I have been making for years – too many NPR affiliates have assumed that their competitive advantage in light of the decline of newspapers is to provide more local news rather than to provide more of what listeners want, more often).

All of this is right, of course. But I doubt it will be enough.

So what’s my answer? I’m glad you asked!

My answer is to reframe the problem.

The problem with public radio is how public radio sees its problem Click To TweetIf we view the challenge as “how do we increase traditional radio listening?” we are seeing the problem all wrong. Consumers don’t care about radio per se. They care about content. They care about relevance. And they care about the brands they have grown to love, including many public radio brands.

Years ago I did a presentation at PRPD where I urged the crowd of talented programmers to invest more energy and effort in smart entertainment now that they have cornered the audio market in smart information. While strides have been made, there’s a long way to go. I’m still cautiously optimistic that the gatekeepers serving an audience whose favorite on-air personality has never hosted a public radio show* will see the light and deliver a broader definition of public service, one that acknowledges the desire of the public to have their entertainment needs served, too (indeed, many of the most popular podcasts – even public radio podcasts – go well beyond the category of “information”).

But there’s more: In my view, public broadcasters have to recognize the power of their community of fans. There are an infinite number of business models which recognize the specific interests and tastes of these fans. From events in the real world to digital services (where’s the Yelp for Public Radio tastes, I wonder?). Stop thinking of public media as “broadcasting” only and start thinking of it as a community of fans with common taste threads. Tastes which aren’t served only through public radio shows and podcasts. When your favorite show hosts a live performance or a premium member tier or licenses its content to TV or publishes a book or pitches a slew of merchandise, it’s thinking like a community of fans, not simply a radio broadcast. As such, it has more in common with the Star Wars universe than you might imagine.

The problem with public radio is how public radio sees its problem. Reframe your question and a plethora of answers will reveal themselves.

* That favorite on-air personality among public radio fans – the one who, it just so happens, never hosted a public radio show? It’s Jon Stewart. That’s from research I conducted for public broadcasters some years ago. I did not make it up.

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