Essential reading from NPR’s own David Folkenflik, reporting on his own institution:
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.
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 occur before COVID-19 hit U.S. shores.
Tons of fascinating detail in the report, and I highly recommend you check the whole thing out. But the big takeaway is the fact that there isn’t an expectation that radio listenership will return to pre-pandemic levels after — if? when? — the world figures out the pandemic situation, particularly because of the nature of the audience: it is argued that many are the kinds of folks who can continue working from home, and thus are people who could possibly opt out of the commute for good. (This possibility is debatable, of course, but worth raising nonetheless.)
What’s happening to NPR here is a version of what’s been happening everywhere else: namely, the pandemic has triggered the rapid acceleration of dynamics and processes that were long already in place. In this case, the accelerated dynamic is the shift away from broadcast-centrism towards greater multi-platform digital audience distribution. This is also reflected in the piece:
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.
To repeat in a rephrase: aggregate audiences across digital platforms are going up, while radio listening is going down. This is perhaps the very moment that many upstarts strongly felt was coming and that many legacy execs argued would never happen. It is, indeed, one of the principal beliefs that led me to start this newsletter.
You might be hearing a slight echo here: podcasting, of course, similarly saw an audience hit in the early weeks of the pandemic, eliciting headlines and analyses about the medium’s possibly perilous position amid the pandemic. But it has since recovered, while its principal predecessor, linear radio, has not.
Misc. other notes:
- One nervous detail to clock on the jobs: according to Folkenflik, CEO John Lansing is not guaranteeing that there won’t be layoffs, though his focus remains on job protection. NPR’s staff has already been hit with furloughs.
- This should probably be in the main text, but for now: this presumably has deep significance for the relationship between NPR and individual local stations. Specifically, I’m going to guess this does not bode well for smaller-to-mid-sized stations.
- If this is happening to public radio, imagine what’s happening to commercial and satellite radio. You know, this might reshape the way I’ve thought about this SiriusXM deal.
- Anne Li, the emerging platforms lead on the NPR One project, tweeted that NPR’s Alexa audiences are also up.
- Also on Twitter, NPR Politics social producer Brandon Carter: “Apropos of nothing, NPR does indeed have more news products beyond its two main radio newsmagazines.”