Everybody knows the fate of over-the-air radio over the last ten years. “On Demand Killed the Radio Star,” as Boston Globe Media put it in 2005, going so far as to ask whether terrestrial radio is on the way out. Consolidation led to poor broadcasting choices like over-advertising and de-localization, the story goes. MP3 players filled the void. The standard estimate is that radio listening has fallen back to 1994 levels. Among consumers 18 to 24 years old, the tune-in rate has dropped by almost 22%.
But there’s one service that has bucked that trend: National Public Radio. In March, Arbitron surveys indicated that, by the height of the 2008 election, NPR now had an audience of 27.5 million weekly listeners, a jump of 7 percent over the previous year. Total tuning in to all NPR stations had grown to 32.7 million weekly listeners.
Listening to individual NPR shows also soared: 15% up for All Things Considered; 9% for Morning Edition; 21% for Talk of the Nation; and an amazing 13% for non-drive time Fresh Air.
Why this success? Everybody attacks NPR (including me), for all kinds of reasons. It’s too liberal; it’s too conservative; it’s too pro-Israel and/or too pro-Palestinian. The organization endlessly stumbles over issues like whether Mara Liasson should appear on Fox TV news. And NPR’s still got real challenges ahead, among them: this economic downturn, an aging audience, and a radio station base that critics say has become decidedly un-local.
But whatever you think about the service, public radio stands out like a ballerina in a broadcast landscape packed with eight second sound bite shows and ultra partisan talkers. And that’s why it’s ruling while commercial radio is drooling. As we’ve reported, the balance of new radio stations over this decade have been public stations. And NPR is moving fast to build a strong footprint in mobile and Internet-land. By any standard of measurement, NPR is one of the radio success stories of this decade.