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Aug. 19, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

Radio listening has plummeted. NPR is reaching a bigger audience than ever. What gives?

This year, for the first time, NPR will make more money from underwriting on podcasts than on its radio shows.

Since the pandemic took hold in the United States, NPR’s radio ratings have taken a nosedive. Half of AM/FM listening in the United States takes place in a car, but between reduced (or eliminated) commutes and social distancing, there’s been a steep decline in the drivers that make up public radio’s traditional broadcast audience.

“People who listened to NPR shows on the radio at home before the pandemic by and large still do,” NPR’s own media correspondent, David Folkenflik, reported on July 15. “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.”

Even as its legacy platform’s audience has declined, though, NPR says it is reaching more people than ever. The dip in radio listenership — 22 percent — has coincided with a record number of people turning to NPR on virtually every other platform. More people than ever are reaching NPR through the website, apps, livestreams, and smart speakers (“Alexa, I want to listen to NPR”).

In total, 57 million listen or watch or read NPR content each week, up 10 percent from this time last year. Comparing spring 2019 to spring 2020, here’s where NPR saw its numbers move:

  • Unique weekly visitors to NPR.org increased 94 percent
  • Smart speaker streams and on-demand audio increased 29 percent
  • Live stream listeners increased 39 percent
  • NPR app usage grew 22 percent
  • NPR One app usage increased 19 percent
  • NPR Music, through YouTube, saw its traffic increase by 90 percent

These changes have implications for NPR’s bottom line, which draws on a mix of underwriting, member station fees, government funds, and donations. In 2020, for the first time, NPR will make more money from underwriting on podcasts than from its radio shows.

That’s not to say it’s been untouched by economic pain. The broadcaster, which avoided layoffs by implementing pay cuts and furloughs this summer, projected $12 to $15 million in coronavirus-related ad revenue losses and continues to compete alongside for-profit news outlets for a dwindling pool of advertising dollars.

Some of the changes in NPR’s audience mirror what we’ve seen elsewhere in the news industry — traffic to news sites spiked in the early months of the pandemic — but the pandemic’s long-term effects seem poised to have a unique impact on radio listenership.

NPR’s senior director of audience insights, Lori Kaplan, has said public radio’s audience includes a disproportionate percentage of workers who are able to do their jobs remotely during coronavirus shutdowns — and that these professionals are interested in continuing to work from home even after we’ve left coronavirus in the rearview mirror.

“We’re experiencing a sea change,” Kaplan told Folkenflik. “We’re not going back to the same levels of listening that we’ve experienced in the past on broadcast.”

NPR’s leaders have been reading the tea leaves. They’ve seen the studies showing younger generations overwhelmingly use the internet and their phones (not radios) for audio. In other words, they knew this shift was coming. They just didn’t know it would happen all at once.

“It was so clear people’s behaviors were changing,” said Tamar Charney, who leads NPR’s digital strategy. “You’d look at the demographic trends and young people were not listening to radio like older people.”

Bringing a younger, more diverse audience into the NPR fold means reaching listeners on the platforms they’re already on — whether that’s putting podcasts on Spotify, music on YouTube, or newsy explainers on TikTok. The increased emphasis on digital platforms started long before Covid-19 and has been coming from both directions, Charney said. At the top, executives are putting two and two together from the demographic reports and, bubbling up from the bottom, junior producers and interns want to produce content that their digital-native friends will actually see.

“I think many of us looked at what happened to newspapers and saw the type of thing that could happen when people haven’t changed and technology changes,” Charney said. “We have great journalism content, and it’s about getting it to the people we want to serve on the devices they’re on.”

Maria Godoy, a senior science and health editor and correspondent, is one example of this newly critical effort. Godoy has seen her “News You Can Use” segments reach new audiences — and be repurposed from, originally, a segment on All Things Considered (one of the legacy shows that’s seen its radio ratings collapse) to an episode of the Life Kit Podcast to a video shared on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

Since April, Godoy’s story on safely shopping for groceries has been viewed 3.9 million times on NPR.org, 2.74 million times on Apple News, 446,000 times on Instagram, and 77,000 times on YouTube. The podcast episode was downloaded 176,000 times and drew 600,000 interactions (likes, comments, shares, etc.) on Facebook.

“I recorded it once and was able to use it and get it out there in all these different ways. That felt really good,” Godoy said. “We were able to reach new people who may not be coming to NPR.org or tuning in to radio.”

Godoy said correspondents are encouraged to expand into as many platforms as they feel comfortable doing. Some — like podcasts, which are also audio-first — come easier than others. She’s leaned on colleagues for help creating illustrations for visual platforms like Instagram and, tasked with creating her first video during lockdown, enlisted her 10-year-old son to hold her mic. (“How’s that, Noah?” “Uh…decent.”)

The type of stories that Godoy has seen take off — in addition to the grocery shopping tips, a video she made on safer face masks saw similar engagement on YouTube and Instagram — are framed for a national audience. One of NPR’s greatest challenges remains finding the right mix of national and local news on digital platforms, including the NPR and NPR One apps.

Charney, who lives and works from Michigan, said local news stories like her state’s water crisis have deepened her commitment to ensuring local coverage isn’t left behind as national NPR innovates and launches digital platforms.

“Digital platforms are so damn expensive to create that they’re almost by definition national,” she said. “We’ve been working really hard to think about how we bring station content into packages on a national digital platform. We need to make sure that local coverage is there, because it’s so important to the life that people actually live day to day.”

The coronavirus is another news story where listeners are hungry for up-to-date local information on school board decisions, restrictions on local businesses, the number of ICU beds, confirmed Covid-19 cases, and more.

Charney, whose long career in public radio includes leading Michigan Radio and managing content for NPR One, said that even after 20 years of “mind-boggling change,” this year still feels like the fastest acceleration yet.

“We’re doing a lot of things in a lot of places and I hope we’ve chosen the right places to concentrate because, at the end of the day, we don’t quite know where some of this will shake out,” she said. “The way we are living our lives has changed radically and the way we’re consuming media has changed right along with that radical change.”

Looking at the most recent numbers, Charney is most heartened by the new listenership for NPR’s apps and the Alexa-based stream. (NPR customizes content for Google Assistant and Google Home but 70 percent of smart speaker owners in the United States use Amazon’s Echo products.)

“This is something we’ve been quietly working on in the garage for a while, and to see it finally in the spotlight is really encouraging that we’ve made some of the right bets about the future way audio will be delivered,” Charney said. “I think that’s been a tremendous success story for NPR — that the things we’ve been doing to ensure that our core strength, which is audio, remains strong in the digital environment are paying off.”

Illustration by Irene Rinaldi on Behance.

POSTED     Aug. 19, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
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