For their listeners, NPR News stations are the last thing worth listening to on the radio

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NPR News stations were hit hard last spring when the pandemic disrupted Americans’ use of radio. Listening to NPR News stations plunged 25% as listeners avoided cars and office buildings. On their face Nielsen’s January estimates scream “Listeners are back!” But in reality listeners never left. They just tuned in less frequently while learning to live with COVID.

It’s taken some time to adjust, and equilibrium has probably not been reached. Yet over the last 10 months listeners to NPR News stations have slowly reintegrated radio into their new routines and realities. Their forays from home are still diminished, and so is their listening. But at long last they’ve brought into their homes the listening they once did in cars and workplaces. That’s a milestone worth celebrating.

Here’s another: The events of the last 10 months have accelerated longstanding trends in listeners’ relationships with their NPR News stations. Today listeners to NPR News stations rely more on these stations than ever. The programming is more important to them than ever. And for most, the service provided by NPR News stations is the last thing worth listening to on radio.

These developments are welcome but not unexpected. Public broadcasters have worked toward these goals for decades. What we could not anticipate was how quickly the pandemic, in combination with other existential threats, would accelerate the longstanding trends drawing NPR News programming and the public it serves into ever-closer alliance.

A few graphs neatly summarize the impact the pandemic has had on listeners and their radio use, their reintegration of radio into their lives, and the long-term trends the pandemic has accelerated.

1. Listeners have replaced out-of-home listening with in-home listening as they’ve reincorporated NPR News stations into their lives. The blue markers show out-of-home listening to NPR News stations plummeted by half as the pandemic kept listeners at home. We might have hoped listeners would bring that listening into their homes. The red markers show they initially did not. Their in-home listening declined precipitously through July in accordance with its normal cyclical pattern — lower in summer, higher in winter­­­. Since then, in-home listening has taken its seasonal upturn and then some. It exceeded what was expected in January by 5 million listener-hours.

Listeners have not returned to their cars and offices in pre-pandemic numbers. Their out-of-home listening in January was 5 million listener-hours shy of where the trend line expects it to be. That’s the same number by which in-home listening over-performed. Patterns of listening may have changed — that has yet to be studied. But in gross numbers, listeners have finally brought home the listening they once did out-of-home.

This and the following graphs show aspects of listening month by month over the last five years. These are Nielsen months, which do not align with calendar months. (Nielsen’s 13th month, Holiday, is not shown.) Pre-pandemic trends are indicated by straight lines based on January 2016 through March 2020 data. They extend through January 2021 to benchmark where the trends might have been had the pandemic not disrupted listening.

2. The pandemic has accelerated NPR News listeners’ abandonment of competitors, already in steep decline. The blue markers show how listening to NPR News stations plunged between March and April — a loss of 14 million listener-hours or 25% of all listening. But for every hour of listening lost, competitors lost two hours of listening from the same listeners (a loss of 28 million listener-hours by NPR News stations’ cume, as shown by the red markers). As of January 2021 listening to NPR News stations has returned to levels expected given pre-pandemic trends (the blue marker sits on the blue trend line). Yet listeners’ use of other stations has not recovered (the red marker is way below the red trend line).

3. The pandemic has accelerated the ascendance of core listeners. Core listeners have always been the most important segment in any station’s audience. Twenty years ago, core listeners typically accounted for one-third of the weekly cume and two-thirds of all listening. Over time core listeners became more prevalent, regularly accounting for more than half of the weekly cume and more than 80 percent of listening before the pandemic. And then COVID hit the accelerator. Fringe listeners dropped from two or three tune-ins per week to one tune-in every two or three weeks, and as such left the weekly cume. The core stayed. As a result, core listeners can now account for upwards of two-thirds of the weekly cume (remember, it used to be only one-third). The pandemic has clearly accelerated the ascendance of the core.

4. The pandemic has accelerated the rise of core loyalty. Not only do core listeners supersaturate the audiences to NPR News stations, they are more loyal to those stations than ever since the pandemic began. Four out of five hours they spend with radio are tuned to NPR News stations.

5. The final graph includes all listeners and gives us a complete sense of things. It shows the immediate impact of the pandemic on listening and listeners’ reintegration of radio in their reshaped lives. It reveals their ongoing abandonment of competitors and the resulting intensification of their loyalty. Sharp spikes in loyalty coincide with significant social and political events that signal the circumstances in which NPR News stations are most important in the lives of their listeners.

Commentary

The headline isn’t that listeners to NPR News stations are back. It’s that listeners are finding the programming on NPR News stations more important in their lives than ever, and by extension, more worthy of support.

They no longer listen in cars and offices in pre-pandemic numbers. Months after the initial disruption they’ve figured out how to bring that out-of-home listening into the home. Today three-quarters of their listening to NPR News stations is done at home. This is a recovery of sorts, enabled by listeners’ reintegration of radio into their new circumstances. But it’s not a return to normal. Whether it’s a new, sustained normal is yet to be seen.

Yet all indications are good. Listeners would not have come back if the service were not worth coming back to. And as they’ve reinstated NPR News stations into their lives, they’ve left other stations behind. Big time. Their use of competitors has dropped 30% from the same period a year ago.

It’s telling that loyalty to NPR News stations and the concentration of in-home listening hit new highs simultaneously. More media options compete for listeners’ attention in homes than in cars. If loyalty to terrestrial broadcast sources can thrive in this most competitive environment, would it not be equally sturdy on other platforms? Wouldn’t the last thing worth listening to on the radio be the first thing worth finding on any new platform?

It all comes back to listener loyalty, decades in the making. The metric of loyalty — the percentage of a person’s radio listening spent with NPR News stations — does not report who listeners are or how many are listening. Yet it’s one of the most insightful and actionable metrics that can be derived from Nielsen’s data.

  • Loyalty reports a station’s ability to serve its own listeners.
  • Loyalty indicates listeners’ reliance on a station and its importance in their lives.
  • Loyalty proxies listeners’ willingness to financially support the station and its programming.

With loyalty to NPR News stations at all-time highs, it’s tautological but useful to state that:

  • Listeners have never relied so much on NPR News stations.
  • NPR News stations have never served their listeners better or been so important in their lives.
  • Listeners have never been so willing to financially support NPR News stations.

Are January’s audience estimates real or flaky? To be sure, NPR News stations typically experience jolts in listening during four-year election cycles. January was also filled with tumultuous events of a type and magnitude that drive listeners to NPR News stations for information, contextualization, even solace. That certainly may have juiced the numbers. But lest we give full credit to politics and other disconcerting perturbations, consider that loyalty to these stations in January 2017 was just 37%. It was 49% in January 2021. Sure, listening in the insurrection’s aftermath can explain some of this. But given the acceleration of decades-long megatrends over the last ten months, this historically high level of loyalty is no longer unprecedented.

The intensifying loyalty of listeners — their desertion of competing stations and ever-increasing dependence on, even devotion to NPR News stations — cannot be denied.

David Giovannoni is a sustaining member of NPR News stations’ core. He was a student of public media’s audience, programming and economics back when it was called public radio. His AudiGraphics services are available through Audience Research Analysis.

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