Listeners to NPR stations are aging faster than the overall radio audience and listening less to the network’s most popular radio programs, according to new data shared by the network.
Though NPR is seeing some listening gains on digital platforms, particularly with podcasts, its broadcast audience has dropped. Average–quarter-hour (AQH) listening during morning drive time has dropped 11 percent in the past five years, and afternoon drive audience has declined 6 percent. The only age bracket that has increased listening to NPR stations is the 65-plus audience.
NPR’s oldest listeners are “kind of saving us at the moment,” said Jeff Hansen, p.d. at KUOW in Seattle, at a meeting of news and talk station programmers Sept. 30 at the Public Radio Program Directors conference in Pittsburgh. But relying on an older audience to sustain NPR stations is only a “temporary solution,” he added. “The question then becomes, what can we do as stations now to bolster that radio listening?”
Public radio programmers and others at the meeting suggested a variety of options, including attention to broadcast, management, marketing and digital strategies.
Ultimately, Hansen said, “the radio audience is still funding most of what we do.”
‘It’s a different world’
In addition to the overall AQH drop during morning drive, Morning Edition has seen a 20 percent drop among listeners under 55 since 2010, according t0 Gwynne Villota, a senior research manager at NPR, who shared the Nielsen data at the PRPD meeting.
“This is an important metric,” said Villota. “. . . It is tied to a lot of revenue at [NPR’s] level and at [the station] level.”
Morning Edition saw about a 6 percent increase in AQH among 65-plus listeners since 2010. All Things Considered also saw slight AQH gains among listeners ages 12-24 and 55-64 and a roughly 10 percent gain for 65-plus listeners. But AQH listening for the show dropped by roughly 24 percent among 45- to 54-year-olds.
The gap between older and younger listeners of NPR stations is widening. Stations are losing listeners 12–44 years of age. NPR projects that by 2020, its stations’ audience of 44-year-olds and younger will be around 30 percent, half that demographic’s audience share in 1985.
Among all radio stations, AQH for listeners 54 years old and younger dropped from spring 2012 to spring 2015. News and talk stations, both commercial and noncommercial, saw AQH decline in all age groups — most dramatically among 45- to 54-year-olds, for which AQH dropped 24 percent. NPR stations saw a 20 percent decline in AQH in that age bracket.
Younger people “may well still be aging into listening to us someplace, and that’s what NPR One and lots of other initiatives are about,” Villota said. “But I don’t think we can count on them aging into radio listening any longer. Lifestyle-wise, there are so many things competing for our attention. . . . It’s a different world.”
On the upside, the 65+ audience increased listening to NPR stations by 18 percent and NPR newsmagazines by 22 percent.
Villota noted that some of the demographic changes can be attributed to “a fundamental shift in our country’s demographics,” she said. “With the baby boomers moving out of that bracket and into older ones, there is a little bit of a vacuum that Gen X is simply not big enough to fill. But it’s still an alarming trend, because we do need to build these younger listeners so that we have listeners in the future.”
What about digital?
Meanwhile, audience on digital platforms has been growing for NPR and stations. NPR saw a 75 percent increase in podcast downloads from January 2014 to January 2015. Station websites saw a 61 percent increase in audience from 2013 to 2014, and NPR.org grew its audience nearly 35 percent.
But Villota acknowledged that tools are lacking to track digital listening and “at this point, we don’t think that digital listening is making up for the lost broadcast listening,” she said.
NPR stations’ streaming audience grew 39 percent from June 2013 to June 2015, reaching 34,816 active sessions, according to Triton Digital data shared during the session. But Pandora’s audience that month was 50 times that, and Spotify’s audience was nearly 25 times larger.
While podcasts are seeing growth, they still represent a small portion of listeners’ audio habits, according to an Edison Research survey presented at PRPD. A sample of people 18 years old and up were surveyed about their audio listening habits over a 24-hour period. The average listener heard about four hours of audio, listening to radio 57 percent of the time and podcasts just 2 percent of the time.
The 17 percent surveyed who called themselves frequent public radio listeners listened to more radio but fewer podcasts. Podcasts accounted for 4 percent of total audio consumption among millennials.
Addressing the decline
Station program directors and others at the PRPD meeting suggested possible approaches to growing audience.
“The biggest thing you need to do with your broadcast service is fix it,” said Steve Olson, president and c.e.o. of Audience Research Analysis, who said he had studied audience trends of several news/talk stations.
News stations often drive away core and fringe audience during middays, in early evening, and weekend afternoons and evenings, Olson said. “[Stations] can gain anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of your AQH if you address those spots that aren’t working,” he said.
“The second half of the equation . . . There’s gotta be somebody at your station who is ultimately responsible for your air sound so that nothing goes on the air, that you have control over, that doesn’t sound great,” Olson said.
While some stations have sought to produce more local news, some meeting attendees warned that the outcome must be high-quality. More “bad local news” won’t fix declining audiences, they said.
Public radio stations need to improve editing and should train people to “have a more forceful sense of what they want to say yes and no to,” said Ben Calhoun, director of programming and content at WBEZ in Chicago.
KPLU in Seattle is considering giving staff more time to create original radio programming, said Matt Martinez, director of content. Martinez is considering cutting back on episodes of the station’s weekend show Sound Effect.
Producers of the weekly show are “making lots of compromises,” Martinez said, airing “pieces that they would have rather killed, pieces that they thought should have gone through a couple of more edits, and it was not-so-great local radio.”
By cutting back on shows, Martinez said he believes Sound Effect could get “to the point where locally, we are producing great audio that is indistinguishable from national content.”
Participants also discussed whether public radio stations are providing the optimal mix of local and national content on digital platforms. Most station websites barely promote the station’s connection to NPR, said researcher John Sutton. “You can go to almost any station these days and scroll down the website and you will not find NPR on it, except in a tiny corner,” he said.
Yet core listeners are listening mainly to NPR programming. “No one’s moving the NPR part of their brand into the digital space,” Sutton said. “It’s not a hard thing to do.”
That prompted a response from Tim Eby, g.m. at St. Louis Public Radio, who said he was rethinking his station’s digital strategy. The station has focused more on local digital content to set itself apart from national and international competitors online, he said. But “the expectation from our audience on the broadcast channels is that magic of local and national, and if we take that away in the digital space, maybe we’re not delivering the kind of magic we should,” Eby said.
In a post on Medium Oct. 7, Eby also suggested that “national producers and CPB invest in a major research project on millennials to understand how the public radio news product can best reach and serve them in our increasingly fragmented media environment.”
Public radio stations also need to get better at developing talent, said consultant Graham Griffith.
In addition to hiring for potential — especially hiring “people who make you uncomfortable,” he said — public radio stations need to “keep as many of those people as possible by continuing to provide new challenges to them and make sure they’re constantly stimulated by the work environment, not just by the product they’re creating.”
Correction: This post has been revised to reflect the current production schedule of KPLU’s Sound Effect.
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