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NPR Radio Ratings Collapse As Pandemic Ends Listeners' Commutes

Audience research indicates that NPR's audience is disproportionately made up of professionals who are able to work from home and who are interested in doing so even after the pandemic subsides.
Ariel Zambelich
Audience research indicates that NPR's audience is disproportionately made up of professionals who are able to work from home and who are interested in doing so even after the pandemic subsides.

Broadcast ratings for nearly all of NPR's radio shows took a steep dive in major markets this spring, as the coronavirus pandemic kept many Americans from commuting to work and school. The network's shows lost roughly a quarter of their audience between the second quarter of 2019 and the same months in 2020.

People who listened to NPR shows on the radio at home before the pandemic by and large still do. But many of those who listened on their commute have not rejoined from home. And that threatens to alter the terrain for NPR for years to come, said Lori Kaplan, the network's senior director of audience insights.

"We anticipated these changes," Kaplan said. "This kind of change was going to take place over the next decade. But the pandemic has shown us what our future is now."

Commercial radio is experiencing, if anything, worse declines. But audience research commissioned by Kaplan indicates that NPR's audience is disproportionately made up of professionals who are able to work from home and who are interested in doing so even after the pandemic subsides.

"We're experiencing a sea change," Kaplan says. "We're not going back to the same levels of listening that we've experienced in the past on broadcast."

There are some countercurrents. Ten major stations have enjoyed a spike in audience, thanks to a sharp rise in listening at home. Those include Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Austin, Texas. Public radio officials say they do not yet know to what to attribute that rise.

Ironically, this larger plunge in radio listenership has occurred even as a record number of people are turning to NPR for news and other content. More than 57 million people now consume the network's offerings each week, whether on radio or its various digital platforms. That's a rise of nearly 10% from last year, despite the severe drop in the broadcast audiences. Podcast downloads and the usage of NPR's listening apps are up nearly a quarter, and there is a 76% increase in users of NPR.org as more people access the network's content from home.

Additionally, for the first time, NPR is on track to make more money from underwriting on podcasts than on its conventional radio shows, according to CEO John Lansing. That dynamic had been projected to occurbefore COVID-19 hit U.S. shores.

In an interview, Lansing said this year's revenue from podcasting will likely be slightly greater than last year's earnings. Yet that growth will not make up for the projected $23 million drop in total sponsorship this year, driven by losses on the radio side, he said.

"The first thing that I see is a situation driven by habits of consumers that are not related to the content of our programs," Lansing said. "It's almost entirely related to the disruption caused by the pandemic to commuting patterns both in the morning and the evenings. [Most] of us, including me, are working from home."

The drop affected shows across the day, though the midday show Here & Now has fared better than the flagship morning and afternoon shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Several NPR programs that don't revolve around the news, such as Ask Me Another, the TED Radio Hour, and Hidden Brain, have also lost listenership.

NPR's research revealed recommencing commutes would boost back audience the most. Yet a significant minority of public radio listeners said they would tune in more often if NPR shows offered a greater variety of news coverage, beyond the coronavirus, recent protests for social justice and the election.

Kaplan and Lansing presented the findings at a series of meetings with staff Wednesday.

NPR has, to date, weathered the recession without resorting to layoffs, unlike many other media outlets. The newspaper industry has been beset with job cuts stemming from before the coronavirus and the economic crisis.

On Wednesday, the BBC said it would lay off 70 staffers, on top of 450 announced earlier this year, for a total cut of about 8 percent. The British newspaper The Guardian also disclosed it would lay off 180 staffers, including 70 journalists.

NPR receives revenue from underwriting sponsorship, foundation support and fees from its stations, as well as gifts and some government grants. NPR used to charge station fees based on the size of audiences for its programs, which include Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Fresh Air and Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. Now the network derives revenues based on a formula involving how much money each station receives from its community members.

Lansing has declared protecting jobs a top priority. Staff has agreed to pay reductions, furloughs, a near-total hiring freeze and a temporary freeze on employer retirement contributions through Sept. 30 in exchange for job protections.

The company has signaled it intends to seek similar concessions from its labor unions in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Yet Lansing is not guaranteeing that NPR will avoid layoffs. He said that the network is projecting a deficit of between $30 million and $43 million for the upcoming year. In the worst-case scenario, he said, layoffs may become inevitable.

NPR has been planning for the migration of listeners away from traditional radio for years. Back in 2010, under then-CEO Vivian Schiller, the network shifted its on air and online branding from National Public Radio to the ubiquitous NPR as it made a greater digital push.

Lansing joined NPR last year after a long career as a television executive and a stint as the CEO of the federal government's international broadcasting agency. At that time, he identified the urgent need to attract a younger and more diverse audience.

"It's important for us to reach our future audiences where they are," Lansing said Wednesday, "whether or not it's in their car, or on other digital platforms, or social media platforms."

Lansing now said he expects the pandemic to hasten the inevitable.

"Not unlike World War II, you just don't come out the other end and everything's back to being 1939," he added. "Certain habits are going to be changed."

Disclosure: This article was written and reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR Tech and Media Editor Emily Kopp and Managing Editor Terry Samuel. Under the network's protocols for covering itself, no corporate officials or news executives reviewed this story until it was published.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.