Despite public radio facing tighter budgets, many stations are in better financial health than their local newspapers. In other locales, they are the last media standing as more than 2,500 local newspapers have shut down since 2005 as advertising dried up and left behind news deserts. But a Harvard Kennedy School Media professor thinks radio can be an oasis for many communities, particularly public radio.
Thomas E. Patterson says public radio stations have largely been “overlooked” as efforts to save local news have spread in recent years. He says public radio has often been positioned as media for the well-educated and the well-off. But the author of several books about the state of journalism says there are several good reasons that public radio could help fill the gap.
In an op-ed for the website The Conversation, Patterson says trust in public broadcasting remains higher than that of other major U.S. news outlets. But it is factors that are well-known to any broadcaster are also critical, he says, including the fact that operating a radio station costs far less than a newspaper or television station, and radio has a broad reach – it is calculated by NPR that public radio stations already cover 98% of American homes. There is also online reach. “Local public radio is no longer just radio. It has expanded into digital production and has the potential to expand further,” Patterson says.
The biggest challenge to achieving the goal is staffing according to a survey of 253 NPR member stations conducted by Patterson. While more than nine in ten public radio stations surveyed told him that they want to play a larger role in providing news to local communities, most stations said they would need to add to what they believe is their currently undersized newsrooms. Patterson says 60% of the stations he collected data from have 10 or fewer people on their news staff. That is well below what even a small daily newspaper has. He points out that the Des Moines Register has a nearly 50-person newsroom, which is more people than 95% of local public radio stations.
“Local public radio has a staffing problem,” Patterson says. “The staffing problem is most acute in communities that have lost their newspaper or where local news gathering has been sharply cut back.”
The result is that only two hours of local news airs on the typical public radio station between 6am and 7pm during weekdays – but many more are far less. Many others do no local reporting. And with so few people in the newsroom, Patterson says many public radio stations are not posting news on their websites, missing the large and growing online news consumer.
Based on estimates he collected from NPR member stations, Patterson believes it would cost about $150 million per year for local public radio stations to fill the gap created by newspapers.
“With more staff, local public radio stations could help fill the information gap created by the decline of local newspapers. They could afford to assign a reporter full-time to cover local government bodies like city councils and school boards,” he says. “With adequate staff, local stations could also make their programming truly ‘local,’ which would broaden their audience appeal.”