NPR listeners shift from over-the-air radio, to streaming content (in a very big way)

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, William Lee who shares the following story via Nieman Labs. Note that this is an excerpt from the story and that my comments follow:

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 Folkenflikreported 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”).

[…]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.”[…]

Continue reading the full story at Nieman Labs.

This is a fascinating report and I’m willing to bet NPR has nothing to lose by being open about listening numbers and platforms compared to some commercial networks.

I’ve spoken with a number of friends in the commercial radio industry and the story is very familiar: since the pandemic especially, less people use over-the-air radio to listen to programming. The majority of over-the-air radio listening is done in the car and with the C-19 pandemic, there’s simply been less driving and commuting.

We radio enthusiasts are unique compared with our neighbors in that we actually have radios in our homes.

There is a trend, though, above and beyond anything pandemic related and it’s hard to ignore: with the proliferation of mobile Internet devices that anyone and everyone carries on their person, consumers prefer and expect on-demand content.  If you have a radio show on an FM station and it’s not offered as a podcast or via one of the streaming networks, you could be missing out on the bulk of your potential audience.

Even though I’m a hard-core radio enthusiast (by pretty much any measure), I appreciate on-demand content. For example, my staple evening news show these days is Marketplace. I prefer listening to the show live at 18:00 local on WCQS (88.1 FM) even though the signal isn’t super strong at my home (fortunately, I’ve got some brilliant radios to pull it in!). At least half of the time, however, family plans intrude on that 18:00-18:30 time slot, so I rely on the Marketplace podcast version of the show which is typically posted thirty minute after the end of their live show. So even though I’m a radio enthusiast, I still rely on streaming content for my favorite news show.

As technology and listener habits shift, I do wonder how local radio stations will adapt.

We’ve a number of SWLing Post community members who work in the radio industry around the world. Feel free to chime in and comment with your thoughts and experience.

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12 thoughts on “NPR listeners shift from over-the-air radio, to streaming content (in a very big way)

  1. Stephanie Brown

    My two NPR stations have been moving programs around, and replacing some of my favorites. I can eventually find the shows & get the podcasts, but I don’t want to futz around programming my own station.
    Also the new shows are all about stories: 2 or 3 story shows, like This American Life, in a row.
    I want ATC, Fresh Air, Morning Edition & Sat/Sun mornings., Marketplace, the World, On the Media, Live from Here, Wait Wait, and some others.
    I have public radio shows on all day. I don’t want to change the station or set up podcasts every hour or two.

    From a loyal diehard listener to Cap Public Radio in Sacramento and to KQED in San Francisco, who’s getting grumpier.

  2. Mangosman

    Radio broadcasters are shooting themselves in the foot if they think that podcasting is the answer to their problems.
    It is like when radio broadcasting was new there was the telephone, radio and books. The audience used the telephone for two way communications, the radio for the dissemination of live information and entertainment including stories. The book existed in libraries where the user could be triggered by a radio program to go and read the mentioned books for more detail. What is different now? The internet not only fulfills its two way communications role that the phone is used before but also can carry requests and replies for data which was carried around in letters. Radio’s role and that of TV are similar and unchanged. The library not only carries books but can be in an electronic form and containing past radio , TV programs and movies for on demand use. Libraries particularly electronic ones can hold vast amounts of information but how do you become alerted to new publications and topics? Radio! Whilst computer programs can learn your taste in stored information, it narrows your view by only showing you the type of information you have previously viewed.

    Digital radio (excluding HD radio) is much more efficient method of program distribution, in terms of electricity consumption. How much electricity does the huge number of mobile phone base stations including their air conditioning use, along with the internet distribution used to feed them and the householders & businesses. Just remember that the large search engine companies have to locate their server farms near water and sources of cheap electricity because they use huge amounts of electricity.

    Lastly the telcos are very effective marketers, to the point that in the USA they have been preventing cell phones from receiving radio signals directly even though the phone is physically capable of doing so. Also radio is the only system with backup power incase of emergencies.

    1. Laurence N.

      Those points seem rather limited. Sure, radio can still introduce you to new content, but so can the internet, and in fact the internet can probably do that better. Radio needs to appeal to a large set of people, is expensive to run, and there are few available stations. The result is that radio tends to broadcast a limited subset of information. That subset is often good as it includes news and music (sometimes even new music), but the internet offers a lot more types of content which appeal to others, this site being a good example. If this blog can suggest extra things that I want to read, why does it have to be radio which takes that role?
      As for power consumption, no, that’s not fair. The internet takes power, no question. It would continue to take power even if people used radio for all their audio needs. However, you’re claiming that the much better solution power-wise is digital radio. Maybe you’re doing that because you know I could point out the massive power consumption of analog transmitters for long-distance stations. Things like DRM can help with this, but they are still rather power-hungry and the receivers must become more so in order to decode the signal. In the meantime, since radio is one-way communication and we have realized the benefits of two-way networking, most people are going to have a phone on them anyway. Now, you bring out the classic argument about backup power. Good point, but not a relevant point. If we had no radio stations, we wouldn’t be able to get information in the case of a disaster that impacted our grid. But in the other 99.8% of the year, this isn’t critical. If I use the internet to get my news while it works and bring out the radio when power fails, nothing has changed.
      Radio has several important benefits over internet. One is simple: when your internet connection is bad, your radio reception is probably better. Since we don’t have perfect internet, that’s relevant. Another one is that radio is simple and cheap for the listener. That it has been standardized for a long time (analog only) meaning we have easy understanding of compatibility. Those would be good arguments. In my opinion, trying to deny that the internet works pretty well for new content discovery isn’t helping radio’s case.

      1. Mangosman

        DAB+ transmitters typically carry 18 or more programs from a single VHF transmitter.
        DRM now have a 6 channel modulator which can combine 6 x 3 programs into a single VHF transmitter. This is much more efficient than using separate transmitter for each, both in capital and running costs.

        Like FM DAB+ and DRM systems do not transmit a wasteful carrier which occurs in AM and HD radio in the AM band including all digital. The carrier can be from 67 % – 100 % of the transmitter output depending on the level of modulation. The only function of the carrier is to provide DC to bias the diode in the receiver. It contains no information. Mobile phones do not use carriers in their digital systems either.
        The poor economy of internet both fixed and mobile is that the return path is virtually unused.. The infrastructure has to stay powered including the air conditioning to all cell transmitters. Each listener uas to use a unique signal to each phone/tablet/computer which increases the load on the system which for large audiences will require additional bi-directional capacity for this traffic, where as radio doesn’t care how many simultaneous listeners.

        There are different program sources. Music streamers play music often from unknown sources for which they pay a pittance to most artists from a computer, which may be providing similar music to what you have listened to before or on demand. Some digital radio stations play a computer, in pseudo random order and without an announcer and often with virtually no advertising. Broadcasters can be government owned, commercial and community broadcasters. This mix gives the audience choice and tends to improve program quality. The number of licences in a coverage area also affects quality along with whether the program source is near the listener.

        The cost of delivering content to the listener is labour particularly in the creation and production of content, presenters where used. Even music streamers have to decide what content will be uploaded onto their servers.

        1. Dennis Nilsson

          “DAB+ transmitters typically carry 18 or more programs from a single VHF transmitter.”

          When a DAB+ transmitters goes down, all 18 or more programs are silenced.

  3. Jake Brodsky, AB3A

    Radio broadcasts are great because they can reach places where infrastructure doesn’t exist. These days in cities, there are very few places that do not have internet access in some form, so the magic of radio is dimming a bit. The programs that one could only hear by turning on a radio are few and far between.

    But radio is not dead yet. Go outside a city where cell phone coverage is thin, and radio is pretty much the only way you’ll get news and programming. XM radio helps a little, but it is only aimed at North America and you have to pay for access.

    So the notion that NPR or any other radio programming provider are seeing their audiences favor streaming content isn’t a shock to me. I was actually wondering when it would happen. And then some day, perhaps when Elon Musk’s Starlink Constellation is complete, there won’t be any place on this planet where we can’t get a feed from the Internet.

    But large software networks can still fail. That’s why I still believe radio will have a place. There will always be people who will want to listen to something without having some data aggregation company slurping up their listening habits.

    Broadcast radio is like that. I might listen to NPR today, and I might listen to Infowars or Radio China International tomorrow. Even when I disagree vehemently with the politics of the broadcaster, I still listen. But I detest having Google, Nielsen, Microsoft, Amazon, or some other information aggregator saying “You heard Brother Stair yesterday, maybe you’d want to hear THIS!”

  4. Steve Allen

    I started listening to “All Things Considered” in the very early ’70 as part of my later afternoon dinner preparation. I continued to listen to ATC as it was always included programming on the classical music radio stations I listened to wherever I lived. But, as I aged and become more aware of national and world events I began to realize how biased their programming was. It became a problem for me that they were partially funded by the federal government, yet their programming was obviously biased towards the Left. I still enjoy listen to a few public radio stations and hopefully they will fill this vacuum with more musical programming.

    1. Tom

      I agree. I used to be a regular listener to the morning edition. And I supported my local fund drives religiously. Like steve however that all changed when they started attacking my core beliefs and lying to advance a false narrative. I apologize if it seems like a discussion about radio has been taken into the sewer. It wasn’t me who took the first shot.

  5. Mike

    Not surprised at all. Most NPR (realistically, radio in general) was drive-time listening. No need to turn on the radio if you’re working from home and have all of your music there, or have CD quality on-demand programming whenever you want to listen to it.

    NPR demographics also lean more towards wealthier, more educated people so they’re more likely to embrace technology than others who may not have the cash to make it happen.

  6. Michael Black

    Vermont NPR, if not NPR in general, has long made a point of having programs that people sit in their driveways until it’s over. Especially at pledge time.

    I thought it was hype, but at least it’s consistent.

  7. Dan Baker

    I only listen o BCB AM or FM to look at propagation, the commercials are too frequent and annoying. I use podcast and YouTube for content that is valuable to me however, I frequently listen to AM BCB in other countries specifically the UK using as well as their local Hams on 75&40 meters. I find in my vehicles I listen to XM radio for bluegrass music. For 40 years I always had a HF rig in my vehicle, now with all the distracted driving laws I mostly used it for listening. In my new pickup I simply remote into my home station through my iPhone. It is simpler than properly installing a HF station in the truck. The pandemic has not changed my listening habits but technology has.
    Nothing is more satisfying than a battery, radio and antenna, anywhere.

    Best Regards, Dan KM6CQ

  8. SpartanPhalanx1

    This is little surprise to me. I am probably on the “younger” side of listeners… and despite still loving radio, I use streaming services a LOT as well. I “feel” as if in NPR’s case, the audience is one of the more likely groups to move to streaming. The proliferation of Android Auto and Apple Carplay has probably made a dent as well…. you can access all your streaming services through a car’s head unit without even touching your phone.

    In my area many of our local stations have been consolidated into one regional corporation. Formats have been changed and frequencies have been swapped around on all but the major pop station. They also have been pushing the app for streaming, which was never done before. I would not mind it too much, but it is strange that one company now operates over half of all the viable stations here. Oh, and for some reason they decided to put the same morning drive show on EVERY station.

    As for our NPR station, they recently moved music programming onto another frequency with limited range… expecting the vast majority of their audience to stream it instead. They are a regional NPR station, so it services multiple small cities…. but in some of them you can only get the talk station.


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