Love it or hate it, truckers say they can’t stop listening to public radio

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Alan Yu

In July last year, long-haul truck driver Stephanie Klang got a rare speeding ticket because she was too engrossed listening to public radio.

“It’s okay, I only get a speeding ticket about once every 10 years,” she said. “… It was worth it for the story.”

She told the state patrolman that yes, she knows listening to the radio is not a valid excuse, then proceeded to tell him all about the radio show that took her mind off her speed — an episode of BackStory about the history of taxes in the U.S. after the country had just broken away from England.

Klang has been a truck driver for 37 years, going through all 48 contiguous states, and she listens to public radio all the time. She said she used to have a small booklet listing all the public radio stations in the country, which she got as a gift for pledging support.

“I used that book until it absolutely fell apart, and I wish I’d ordered two of them now,” she said.

After years of listening, she has memorized some local stations — for example, 90.1 in Dallas and 90.7 in St. Louis.

Murphy

She’s not the only truck driver who listens to NPR — far from it, according to Finn Murphy, who has been a long-haul trucker for more than 30 years.

“Every single driver I’ve ever talked to listens to NPR,” said Murphy.

He recently published The Long Haul, a book about his experiences. “If I can, I’ll schedule my driving to catch Fresh Air with Terry Gross,” Murphy wrote. “ … I’ve got a little crush on Terry, actually. It’s probably because I’ve spent more time with her than anyone else in my life.”

I read the book and interviewed Murphy for a story about the future of the trucking industry, and that part of the book got me curious. Why do truckers like NPR? They probably don’t fit the mold of the “business leader,” “educated lifelong learner” or any of the profiles described by National Public Media. And most people probably don’t think “trucker” when they envision the typical public radio listener. So what can truckers tell us about what public radio knows about its listeners and how we could serve them better?

Murphy writes that even if truckers “may not like the slant, if there is one,” they still listen to public radio. A few years ago, he was sitting at a truck stop coffee counter with a driver who was a Ku Klux Klan member. Murphy asked the other driver if he listened to NPR.

“He said, ‘Oh god, yeah, ‘US Jews and Girls Report.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, all the commentators are Jews … and they’re always talking about women’s issues. It drives me crazy.’”

“And I said, ‘Well, so why don’t you stop listening?’” Murphy continued. “And he says, ‘I can’t, because it’s the only station that will go on mile after mile and I can pick it up again.’”

Aside from the content, according to Murphy, drivers like NPR for the continuity. They can keep listening to the same programs from state to state.

They also like NPR because they’re bored, he said, even if a Klan member is listening to a show about Black Lives Matter or transgender people.

“Even if that’s not important to you, that discussion … you’re hearing on the radio is still a whole lot more interesting than anything else you’re going to find on the radio,” Murphy said. “If you want to get excited and exercised and activated about different points of view from yours, that also makes the miles go by.”

Fred Manale, a 55-year-old trucker from Louisiana, said he listens to public radio, though he finds it “disturbing.” For example, he said NPR should not be blaming President Trump for having a connection to Russia.

“It’s almost like the last thing you can listen to, and then when that runs out, then you find something else to listen to,” Manale said.

Murphy also said that public radio stations don’t know how many truckers listen to them. He realized this after talking about his book on public radio stations.

“They’re like, ‘Really? Truckers listen to NPR?’” he said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, every frigging trucker listens to NPR.’”

Not all stations are oblivious to the audience. WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show has definitely taken calls from truckers over the years, said EP Megan Ryan. And NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara wrote in an email that “it’s high praise when truck drivers — who spend long hours on the road and do more listening than just about anyone else — say they listen to NPR.” She added that NPR’s listener services department does hear from listeners who identify as truckers, some of whom scan for NPR stations as they travel across state lines.

Murphy and his truck.

Murphy said that though he likes NPR, stations could do more to appeal to drivers. For example, he said stations doing pledge drives could consider giving a shoutout to drivers and see whether they can contribute.

In his book, he wrote that “it would be incorrect to think that truckers constitute some harmonized bloc of redneck atavism.”

Ray Hollister discovered public radio when he was a long-haul truck driver for a year in 2002. Now the general manager of an IT company, Hollister said the network needs to “speak more to the flyover states. … Do stories that affect more people than just the coast.”

“Truck drivers come from across America,” he said. “They’re a pretty decent cross section of America. I knew a ton of white, black, Asian, Hispanic truck drivers, and the only thing we had in common was that we were all truck drivers.”

If people in public radio are surprised that truck drivers listen to their stations, the system has a blind spot, said John Sutton, general manager of WESA in Pittsburgh and an industry consultant in programming, marketing and research. When people in public radio look at research and talk to potential underwriters and foundations, Sutton said, they focus on how public radio listeners are different — how they’re well educated and more likely to volunteer and engage with the arts.

“Those things are important, but … we often blind ourselves to how similar our listeners are to the average American,” Sutton said. “There are a lot of people who listen to us who don’t have college degrees, and we just don’t focus on those people in a lot of our discussions.”

Sutton pointed out that, according to a GfK Mediamark Research & Intelligence survey conducted this year, the percentage of NPR news listeners who gambled in the past year is almost the same as the percentage who went to the opera or performances of classical music. They’re also just as likely as the average American to donate to religious organizations.

People in public radio making content and programming decisions should think “as much about what public radio listeners have in common with the average American, instead of what the differences are,”  Sutton said. “… [T]here are lots of truck drivers that are curious about the world, and they’ve got a lot of time to listen.”

  • Greg McClain

    I don’t think I ever talked to a trucker on my 15-years on the road that ever listened to NPR. https://www.linkedin.com/in/gregjmcclain/

    • joeehrlich

      I’m a left-leaning trucker who listens to NPR most of the time, but I rarely speak with other truckers; they tend to be chronic complainers, right-wing and bigoted. Who needs it?

  • I think now with digital sat radios you can now hear NPR where ever you are..
    Rather than the cow report and radio preachers/

    • MarkJeffries

      However, they have to go back to terrestrial radio to hear the drive time news shows and “Weekend Edition,” since the member stations don’t want another convenient place to hear their bread-and-butter (and streaming isn’t yet convenient in cars, really).

  • thefasteryougo

    Craig Ferguson, the former late night talk show host, now has a show on Sirius XM satellite radio. He found out that truckers love his show. He regularly makes a point of inviting truckers to “call in, and tell me what you’re haulin’,” and chats with them.

  • Holly Moore Waters

    I love NPR! I’m glad to know that our brother truckers are listening too!

  • Brad Deltan

    Why should it be surprising that public radio stations aren’t aware of truckers who are listeners? I would expect that comparatively few of them donate (because they listen to a lot of different stations) and the few who do donate, only donate to one station.

    The entire public radio system is incentivized to notice, and cater to, donating listeners. That’s neither good nor bad, it just is. Humans respond to incentives. Same way commercial radio is incentivized to notice, and cater to, their advertisers; that’s where the money is coming from. And in public radio’s case it’s even more extreme as there’s been plenty of research (just search Current) on how it’s far more efficient and effective for public radio to focus on turning existing regular listeners into heavy listeners (who typically donate) than it is to turn non-listeners into regular listeners.

    Bottom line, if you aren’t part of a demographic that typically donates to public radio stations, then those stations are far less likely to know you exist, or care about you if you do.

    Again, I don’t judge this as good or bad. It is not, nor should it be, a moral decision. But in almost any business, going after customers who consume your product but don’t pay for the product is generally considered a poor business model. You CAN make a strategic decision to do it anyway, presumably subsidized by other operations. And there’s the potential for value in that, especially if you have a particular mission that dictates such things.

    • atan44z

      But do they know whether there are truck drivers among their donors? They don’t ask that question when you contribute and I don’t believe they survey afterward.

      • Brad Deltan

        *Some* stations do ask a donor’s profession at the time of donation. And presumably some DO occasionally do surveys that help reveal listener & donor occupation. And you can gleam some profession information from Nielsen ratings. Also you can frequently gleam a lot of professional info just from the email address provided, but that’s probably much more helpful in identifying doctors and college employees than it is to zero in on truckers.

        Bottom line, you’ve got a point. A very good one. I think my overall analysis stands but you’ve noticed a critical information gap: stations should be doing more to identify the professions of their donors, if possible and not too creepy.

        • atan44z

          Yes, I agree, your analysis stands. But I hope we do start giving truckers credit. Here’s one idea for an NPR news piece: Truckers formed a group, Truckers Against Trafficking, to help young people escape trafficking for sex. As the eyes of the highways, they can identify traffickers and report the situation to police. I’ve been very proud of them for taking this action.

  • referencegirl

    I find the remark that a trucker probably isn’t an “educated lifelong learner”, extremely offensive.

    • atan44z

      I did, too. I have known educated lifelong learner truck drivers. You’d think they would be careful about stereotypes.

    • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, typical entry-level education for truck drivers is “postsecondary nondegree award.” https://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/heavy-and-tractor-trailer-truck-drivers.htm#tab-1

      National Public Media defines the “educated lifelong learner” as having a post-graduate or doctorate degree of some kind.

      • Winston Smith

        Because you haven’t learned anything unless a piece of paper says you have.

        I am a radio enthusiast. And I have a piece of paper, aka license aka ham ticket, that says I am.

        NPR programs are easily the best written and well produced ones available over “the ether”. CBC and BBC programs are excellent too. But unless you enjoy tuning for the weakest intelligible shortwave signals, NPR is the best.

        I’ll leave the political content analysis to those that care about stuff like that.

      • referencegirl

        Where does NPR list the definition of “educated lifelong learner” as having a postgraduate or doctorate degree?

        If that is what NPR thinks, then NPR is wrong. I have been listening to NPR since high-school.

        • In this case, “Educator Lifelong Learner” is something of a term of art — it’s a name used in a set of “audience profiles” in National Public Media’s analysis of the GfK MRI survey. http://nationalpublicmedia.com/npr/audience/?profile=the-educated-lifelong-learner

          • referencegirl

            Thank you for sharing the reference. Reporting the makeup of their listeners and users in regards to education levels and education careers is not the same as defining “educated lifelong learner” as holding a postgraduate or doctorate degree.

  • chuckers07 .

    Many people may also be surprised that NPR is also popular with mechanics.

    I think it may have to do with the sound of reasonable voices in an environment that can be stressful and frustrating.

  • Colin Grigson

    So, a Klan member listens, day after day, for hours on end, and STILL, none of it sinks in. Some people just can’t be helped.

  • cruisersailor

    I had no idea that truckers listened to NPR.

  • Brian Evans

    As a techie myself, if you have cell phone coverage you can listen to just about anything uninterrupted. I seriously doubt that most truckers don’t use streaming apps to listen to whatever it is that they are interested in. I live in a congested area that I can pick up radio stations about every 3/10th’s of a frequency. I rarely listen to over the air radio at all anymore. I can usually find content of what I want to listen to and when I want to listen to it with little to no ads. Most of the time it’s not live when I listen to it. I’m not one who calls in and I’m primarily interested in the content of the speaker and sometimes you get occasional good calls that come in. If NPR had to survive on listeners alone without tax payer subsidies they would cease to exist. Just my two cents..

    • referencegirl

      Interestingly, whether or not it is true that NPR could survive without federal funding is searchable on the highly technical internet. 14% of NPR funding comes from the federal government. It’s not really your two cents when something is a provable fact. http://www.npr.org/about-npr/178660742/public-radio-finances

    • Brad Deltan

      If you had actually done any long-form driving, like a trucker, you’d know the coverage for wireless data is nowhere near as solid as you think it is once you get out into the plains states, for example. Or mountainous regions. Or the southwestern desert.

      Also, not everyone can afford an unlimited data plan…and who’s to say “unlimited” is really unlimited these days? Most of the time it isn’t.

      Strictly speaking, SiriusXM satellite radio is still your best ROI for monthly cost vs content variety & control. But of course, NPR has a fairly large presence on satellite radio, too.

  • londo

    Some of the NPR weekend stuff is really good but too much of it is pure leftist propaganda. Can’t stand it unless I think of it as Orwellian comedy.

    • ringmod76

      NPR coverage is obsessively milquetoast and barely-left-of-center. If you consider it “leftist propaganda”, then that’s because you’ve been conditioned by the Fox News’s of this world to consider anything that doesn’t faithfully toe the GOP line as such. Good grief.

  • Gary Scott

    Interesting. I worked in a public radio news room for 12 years. Every fundraiser I’d always think we’re ignoring, (maybe insulting), portions of our audience. We’d read the demographic info, and come across a little snotty and a little full of ourselves when we’d talk about who our audience is. While the multiple college degree, average household income stuff is all very true, I was constantly saying, “believe it or not, people who work with their hands listen to public radio. I know truck drivers, plumbers, waitresses, postal workers…etc…who listen daily. We need to reach out to them, too.” Deaf ears. Those folks don’t fit the demographic, and our own sense of who we are. Right? Hazardous thinking.

    Maybe that’s a result of academics traditionally managing stations, rather than business minded folk. My guess, anyway.

    I remember once, when asking why a station I worked at was eliminating a local, favorite, Folk and Bluegrass program. I was told, “public radio listeners don’t like fiddles and banjos all that much.” I thought, “ever hear of A Prairie Home Companion.”

    Anyway, interesting article. I think public radio should pay attention to this. The elitist mentality is what drove Trump supporters to the voting booth. I would never suggest changing programming, but get to know your entire audience.

    For my money, the single most important characteristic of an NPR listener is intelligence. Intelligent folk come in all shapes, sizes, occupations and levels of education. Some of the smartest folks I know are high school drop outs. Recognizing that, especially on the local level, could go a long way.

  • locoyokel

    Up until 5+ years ago I would have said I listened to more than 90-95% of NPR listeners, largely in part to being in the trades and being generally curious (and right of center). Among other reasons (podcasts), I decided to stop defaulting to it (or radio even) when they took Talk of the Nation off the air, which has led to 4 hours of NPR a week vs. 40++. I have no doubt the replacement must have been a largely metrics-based decision (ie: two hours is a big chunk of the day) but it was the peak of civility and informative programming while almost all the other which is demonstrably left of center and flies in the face of the ideal that TOTN embodied (I was NOT looking for right of center, just genuine portrayal of the other side, which NPR does. not. do.) I eventually discovered I was/am delighted to have freedom to choose and get out of a 25 year(!) rut. (btw podcasts are downloadable for when you’re out of range -LOOK IT UP)

  • Dodo/Lurker

    Boy, did C.W. McCall get “Convoy” all wrong.

    I say, Big Ben? Yes, it’s the Rubber Duck and I shall be putting the hammer down presently.

  • Kim Kelling

    Many cab drivers listen to NPR as well! I always comment if I get in a cab with NPR on – and the answer is always the same, interesting content while driving all day or night.

    • MarkJeffries

      WBEZ in Chicago has always made a big deal during pledge drives about cab drivers listening, particularly the immigrants who find public radio a better source of hearing what’s going on in their country. On the other hand, I find that Uber and Lyft drivers listen to the CHR stations more than anything else. Younger?

      • I was recently discussing on Twitter how I’ve never gotten into an Uber that had NPR on. Always music. My totally uneducated guess is that since drivers are rated, they’re playing it safe, and news/talk has greater potential to be divisive. But I think we need a follow-up article getting to the bottom of Uber and Lyft drivers’ listening habits!

    • Yes cabbies, and in Minneapolis, where a significant number are from the Somali community. Who knew.

  • Tim Kern

    NPR, thanks to your tax dollars and the government’s obsession with getting into your head no matter where you are, is the only radio network that can be heard pretty much everywhere, so the fact that long-haul drivers listen is no surprise whatsoever.

    • Brad Deltan

      ….wat?

      • Brad Deltan

        Spend some time listening to a lot of the AM band across the country, and you WILL hear the exact same conservatalker shows over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over….

        • Tim Kern

          …and you have to change stations every 50 miles. That’s why nobody’s listening to AM on the road. If you were to look at NPR’s coverage vs ANY other network’s, you’d see that there is no comparison.
          Or you can just make stuff up.

          • Brad Deltan

            You have to change stations every so many miles with public radio, too. The physics of AM & FM are the same for any radio network. NPR is not alone here by any stretch. But I’m rather amused that someone is accusing me of “making stuff up” when they’re talking about the government’s obsession with getting into our heads.

            I think you need to add a few more layers of tinfoil to your hat. And don’t forget to cover the face, too. Make it airtight or it won’t keep “the rays” out. :)

  • Phyllis T Eisenberg

    Funding being cut for PBS

    • MarkJeffries

      PBS and NPR are two separate organizations. And the funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is the one potentially being hit, not NPR or PBS.