News cycle attracts record listening

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NPR programming on public radio stations topped its previous audience record by reaching 27.5 million listeners a week during Arbitron’s fall 2008 survey period.

The weekly cume audience for all NPR programs and newscasts, Sept. 10 to Dec. 10, beat the previous high of 26.4 million set last spring. It is one of several ratings gains announced March 23 by NPR Research:

  • Measuring audiences for non-NPR as well as NPR programs on those member stations, the weekly cume hit another all-time high, 32.7 million, 6 percent larger than fall 2007.
  • Broadcasts of NPR’s flagship newsmagazines — Morning Edition, All Things Considered and their weekend siblings — reached 20.9 million listeners, a 9 percent gain.
  • All Things Considered, which has been retooling itself to halt erosion of its average quarter-hour ratings, boosted both its AQH and weekly cume by double-digit percentages, gaining audience faster than Morning Edition. Nearly 2.2 million listeners tuned in to ATC during the average quarter-hour last fall, a 10 percent gain after three years of losses. ATC’s cume climbed 15 percent, topping 13 million listeners a week for the first time ever.

“Just being what they are at that time of day, the election cycle played to their benefit,” said Ben Robins, NPR research manager, explaining ATC’s audience gains. With breaking news events throughout the day, listeners increasingly turned to ATC for analysis and summary, he said.

“It was a big, big book for public radio,” said Joanne Church, president of the Radio Research Consortium that provides Arbitron ratings for pubradio stations. Hunger for news about the world economic crisis and the exceptional presidential election propelled faster growth than past news cycles.

“In fact, sometimes election coverage doesn’t do all that much, but people saw the whole thing as an event that had to be followed,” Church said.

“It’s a really big deal for all of us, not just for NPR,” said Vivian Schiller, NPR president. “This research shows us the audience draw is strong right now for all of public radio.”

“Is it totally sustainable? Probably not,” Church said. “Generally when there are big bumps, it’s good news to hold on to half of it.”

Robins predicted a different trend line. “What we see on our end—when they come to us, they stay,” he said. The audience numbers may flatten out, but they “hold steady until the next major bump.”

Few observers were recalling the period several years ago when audience analysts saw stagnation in the small AQH declines of 2003 and 2004 (Current, Oct. 31, 2005).

With the introduction of Arbitron portable people meters—which have now replaced diaries in 10 top markets, cume ratings indicate trends most clearly, Robins said. “Historically, public radio researchers have focused on AQH ratings, because there’s a correlation between people who are spending a lot of time with a station being more willing to support it. Now there’s more research that there’s value in the cume.”

With the recession suppressing underwriting sales, the fall ratings book “makes us a much more appealing prospect for media buyers,” Schiller said. “We’re in a terrible economy, and marketing budgets are being cut across the board,” she said. “This helps position us as a much more attractive buy than other forms of media.” The climbing numbers also improve NPR’s funding prospects from other sources, including member stations, major donors and foundations, she said.

The added listeners detected by Arbitron are mostly age 55 and older, offsetting small losses of younger listeners. “That is something we’ve seen in the last four or five years and is driven in part in Arbitron’s difficulties in reaching younger listeners,” Robins said. “They are trying to address it by adding cell-phone-only households into their samples and offering bigger cash incentives to young people to fill out the diaries. It’s an ongoing challenge for all researchers.”

Day to Day, the midday newsmag that NPR discontinued March 20, went out with a big bang, ratings-wise. The show’s weekly cume topped 2 million and its AQH jumped 10 percent in its final Arbitron book, even though five stations had dropped the show since fall 2007. News & Notes, the show targeting African-American listeners that also broadcast its last edition on March 20, lost 12 percent of its AQH since fall 2007. Its cume climbed 3 percent to nearly 452,000 listeners.

The audiences for NPR-distributed talk programs also grew substantially, led by Talk of the Nation, The Diane Rehm Show and On Point. Each boosted its weekly listenership by 21 percent or more. Fresh Air remains the most-heard pubradio talk show with nearly 5.1 million weekly listeners — 13 percent more than last fall.

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