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Eby: Major-Market NPR News Audiences Are Seeing a Dramatic Drop.

Is public radio melting down in major U.S. markets?

According to the Three Things blog by Tim Eby, principal at the Public Impact Group, the NPR News stations in the largest cities are undergoing a dramatic drop in audience. Those stations include KQED in San Francisco; WBEZ in Chicago; WNYC in New York; Pasadena, Calif.-based KPCC (now known as LAist 89.3), which covers Greater Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley; and KCRW in Los Angeles.

While it’s admittedly a small sample size, it’s a trend Eby calls “worrisome.”

“In June 2021, as the country was beginning to slowly recover from COVID-19, KQED had a weekly cume of 734,500 and a market share of 8.7, which happened to place them at the top of the Nielsen Audio ratings in the market,” Eby writes. “Two years later, KQED’s weekly cume is down by nearly 200,000 listeners to 559,700. The station’s market share is 5.3, putting them 4th in the market in June 2023. Now in most markets, a 5.3 would have everything doing cartwheels of joy. But this is San Francisco, also known as PUBLIC RADIO HEAVEN.”

Weekly cume has remained mostly stable through the first six months of the year, Eby writes, but the loss of audience since 2021 is most likely also affecting station revenue — despite the fact that membership revenue increased from $16.7 million in 2021 to $21 million last year. The station also increased the number of donors in 2022 by around 4% to 87,738.

The decline at WBEZ in the Windy City followed a triumphant period following the attacks on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when the station posted shares of 6.7 (January 2021) and 6.4 (February 2021).

“But just as KQED has experienced a downturn in 2023, WBEZ has seen a sizable loss in market share this year as well,” Eby writes. “In addition, the station’s weekly cume has also dropped from 508,300 in June 2021 to 414,200 in [last week’s] release of the June 2023 Nielsen Audio ratings.”

The station’s latest financial results show a slight membership revenue drop and a decline of about 3% in station contributors.

It appears New York and Los Angeles are following suit. While the audience drop isn’t as severe, it’s nonetheless a similar story at WNYC in New York and KPCC (LAist) and KCRW in Los Angeles.

“WNYC’s weekly audience in the just-released June 2023 Nielsen’s was 727,100,” Eby writes. “This is down marginally against the station’s June 2021 ratings, where the weekly audience was 735,500. However, the station’s market share dropped by nearly 20% from two years ago. WNYC’s 6-month market share average from January-June 2021 was 4.3. The average for the first six months of this year is 3.7. This isn’t huge, but it’s definitely trending in the wrong direction.”

At the former KPCC (now LAist), weekly cume has fallen from 639,100 in June 2021 to 478,500 last month, which Eby calls “a pretty severe drop in listeners.”

From January to June of 2021, the six-month market share average was 3.0, Eby notes. For the same period in 2023, market share is 2.3 — a decline of more than 20%.

“And for KCRW, it’s seen a substantial loss in cume, from 480,200 in June 2021 to 278,900 last month,” Eby writes. “That’s about a 40 percent loss in listeners. The market share loss isn’t quite that substantial, but it’s still down significantly.”

Financial challenges at NPR were in public view earlier this year. In February, NPR said it would lay off 10% of its workers, or at least 100 employees, the result of a slowdown in advertising and sponsorship revenue, particularly for its lineup of podcasts. In late 2022 NPR said it would need to cut at least $10 million from its budget.

Eby’s post served as a catalyst for several thoughtful responses, including one from Mike Henry, a respected public radio consultant at Paragon Media Strategies. Among reasons for the listenership declines: a failure to serve audience needs; growing competition; an obsolete fundraising toolbox; and bland, boring, unenergetic presentations. But viable solutions, he writes, can be achieved — and Henry offers several, including:

“Focus on the local audience,” Henry writes. “Find out (through research) what they want and need, and give it to them.” In addition, he writes: “Focus on the daily news cycle, not the daily program schedule. Stations must commit to being the #1 radio news outlet in their markets and that requires more fluidity of coverage.”

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Patrick Alog
Patrick Alog

Is it possible that considering many of the listeners of Public Radio tend to be left leaning, and the President is a Democrat, less interest? It almost reflects news ratings where when Trump was president, ratings where higher?

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