Tuning out.

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Who Isn't Listening to Public Radio

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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National Public Radio’s audience is shrinking, and getting older. Why exactly is that?

Public-media website Current reports that the audience for “Morning Edition,” NPR’s most popular show, has fallen 11 percent since 2010. The under-55 audience has declined 20 percent. The one group that’s listening more: those 65 and over.

current.org

(AQH stands for average quarter-hour persons, Nielsen’s measure of the average number of people listening to a particular station for at least five minutes during a 15-minute period.)

The shift toward the 65-plus crowd has a lot to do with public radio’s history in the U.S. This is from the Washington Post:

“It’s a problem, and no one has really figured out what to do about it,” said Jeff Hansen, the program director at Seattle public station KUOW (94.9 FM). He noted that public radio was invented by people in their 20s in the 1970s, largely at stations funded by colleges and universities. “What they didn’t realize at the time was that what they were inventing was programming for people like themselves — baby boomers with college degrees.”

Those college-educated baby boomers are now passing 65 at a rapid clip, and they’re continuing to listen to NPR. They’re also presumably continuing to donate to their local NPR stations, so the threat to public radio’s financial model isn't immediate. Still, this will eventually pose a problem if NPR can’t win over more youngsters.

One technological factor keeping younger listeners away from NPR stations is the rise of the podcast. In 2008, 9 percent of Americans had listened to a podcast in the past month, according to Edison Research. In 2015, that was up to 17 percent. A lot of those podcasts are produced by NPR and other public-radio organizations -- NPR reported a 75 percent increase in podcast downloads from January 2014 to January 2015, according to Current. But accessing NPR programming this way risks breaking listeners’ ties to the local stations whose fundraising drives are crucial to the medium’s existence. Plus, a lot of popular podcasts have nothing to do with public radio, or they’re the product of some other country’s public broadcaster.

Another factor could be the resurgence of city living. Whenever I have commuted to work by car, I have listened to lots of public radio.  When I have commuted by public transit, as I do now, I have hardly listened at all. There is some evidence in the fascinating “Who Drives to Work” report published in August by the Census Bureau that more millennials in particular are hopping on the bus and the subway -- 7.1 percent of those aged 25 to 29 commuted by public transit in 2013, up from 5.5 percent in 2006. But the increase among all workers is much smaller, from 4.8 percent to 5.2 percent.

In any case, the rise of podcasts and the return to the cities haven’t noticeably depressed the overall audience for radio, which is at an all-time high. Ninety-one percent of Americans 12 and older, 245 million people, listen to radio in a given week, according to Nielsen. From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., again according to Nielsen, radio accounts for the biggest share of media usage, ahead of television, TV-connected devices, computers, smartphones and tablets.

Nielsen reports that the non-black, non-Hispanic radio audience was 173.4 million in March, down from 175.5 million in 2011. So the recent growth in radio listening has been among blacks and Hispanics.

The most popular radio format among black listeners is Urban Adult Contemporary (I’m using Nielsen’s category names). Among Hispanic listeners it’s Mexican Regional, although there is a generation gap looming, with Hispanics aged 12 to 17 preferring (English-language) Pop Contemporary Hit Radio.

Among listeners overall, News Talk Information -- a category that many NPR stations belong to -- is No. 1. It doesn’t even crack the top five among blacks and Hispanics of any age group. That seems to be the biggest issue of all for NPR, and other news broadcasters. The segment of the radio audience that’s growing isn’t interested in listening to the news -- or at least not to the news that’s currently on offer.

  1. I mention this because I've become addicted recently to BBC Radio 4’s “In Our Time” podcast.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net