Radio Kills the Television Star

I keep thinking about a factoid I ran across in the weekend NY Times. It has to do with the ratings rise of NPR (radio) and the same-time decline of PBS (television). Here is the money nugget:

The average PBS show on prime time now scores about a 1.4 Nielsen rating … [ed., that’s down roughly 30% over the last decade]

On the other side of the ledger the audience for public radio has been growing: there are more than 30 million listeners now, compared to just 2 million in 1980. “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” NPR’s morning and evening news programs, are the second and fourth most listened to shows in the country. Go figure. Who would have guessed 40 years ago, when public broadcasting came into being, that the antique medium, the one supposedly on its way out, would prove to be the greater success and the one more technically nimble.

Indeed. Who would have thought radio could kill the television star?

Now, the article goes on to argue that it’s partly because radio benefits from being a smaller target, that it doesn’t create the political furor that television does, which is patently wrong. Hello, never heard of Limbaugh/Hannity/etc.? Radio creates plenty of political heat, so it’s not that radio has fallen off the radar.

A more credible argument is that PBS programming costs more than NPR programming, so NPR has been able to innovate easier and most cost-effectively than PBS within the same tight budget. I buy that, to some degree. At the same time, however, has there been a better time in recent history to be a guerilla television producer on a tight budget than now? With the cost of production falling off a cliff, and the tools of production smaller, cheaper, and more widely available, the real test for PBS starts now.


  1. The internet hurts PBS a lot, taking away the free time of the high-brow audience, and offering much more breadth and depth on subjects than PBS.
    NPR has still wins in commute time for the liberal / intellectual audience.
    Other factors of PBS’ decline:
    – agenda motivated programming (which bores people)
    – Discovery / History Channels and their ilk offering much more science and history content
    – General trend of decreasing viewers on all channels (again, partly internet).
    It’s probably a good time to take away federal funding for both PBS and NPR.

  2. +1 for John K. Alternate post title: “commuting saves the radio star”

  3. Big endowments help in a way that membership drives offering Motown boxed sets and Grateful Dead DVDs never will:
    “Philanthropist Joan Kroc Leaves NPR $200 Million Gift”

  4. NPR is perfect for smart people trapped in a car on their commute or generally driving around.
    They can’t surf the web for smart stuff and they can’t channel surf on the radio for intelligent life because NPR has a monopoly on that.
    PBS is in a different space and has a tough time competing with the web. Same goes for news.
    I think there’s never been a better time for a new format, but it’s really tough to break through. Look at Current and search through YouTube and you struggle to find factual news/doc content with high view counts.
    Meanwhile, to add to all this confusion, a weekly news magazine called The Economist is flourishing.

  5. The market offerings for quality television have never been as abundant or diverse as they are now. (of course there’s still trash, but you have much more good stuff to choose from).
    PBS: Today, there are multiple channels devoted only to documentary; well written, compelling dramas have also proliferated. No need for PBS exclusively.
    NPR-the reverse: Over 25 yrs it’s been consolidated and “ClearChannelitized” w/predictable results-EVERYONE goes to NPR, last bastion of quality, to make the commute bearable.
    The Economist enjoys an unusual lucrative niche. Expensive subs for a $100,000+ earning, well educated set. With $$, Econ can maintain hi qual reporting. All of this drives hi paying advertisers, completing a virtuous cycle.

  6. I think it may have something to do with NPR stations being more local and more relevant then PBS stations.
    Since radio is a lot cheaper to produce, there are a lot more NPR stations, they are more focused on local news, local events. PBS stations often cover larger areas, more cities, and provide less local focus – if any at all.

  7. I was going to make the same point that some previous commenters allude to, that it doesn’t have to do with the content but everything to do with the technology. PBS competes at home, where you can easily entertain yourself with many other TV channels or the web. NPR competes on the radio, where it is not yet easy to plug in your podcasts and listen during your commute. Even the linked article refers to this: “How would we fill those otherwise empty hours when we’re held hostage in our cars?” Most people don’t want to deal with the hassle of hooking up their ipod to the car radio and end up listening to whatever is on the airwaves. Once the technology connecting your car to the internet becomes ubiquitous (maybe a wifi receiver and flash drive in your car?) so you don’t have to do anything physical to listen to podcasts, NPR will be as dead as PBS.

  8. franklin stubbs says:

    Definitely the commuter thing as others have mentioned — but NPR has also managed to create a powerful brand.
    The initials themselves have become a pop culture reference for the intellectual set. “So I was listening to NPR” etc.
    As for being as dead as PBS, that will probably take a very long time.
    It’s not like PBS was slayed by its competition overnight — how long have the Discovery and History channels been around? — and NPR’s brand equity, sentimental appeal and content delivery experience all give it an edge.
    Plus there’s no reason they can’t dominate the podcast too… which comes to one last point. For the typical western intellectual, capitalism is wonderful in practice but mildly distasteful in principle. Those folks could go on preferring NPR’s highbrow business model to the gauche thought of commercials between their insight nuggets.

  9. 1. NPR owns the “intellectual” commute
    2. NPR podcasts own the “intellectual” podcast market (take a look at Top 10 subscribed podcasts on Itunes)
    3. Total commute time

  10. Always go with the obvious:
    1. PBS programming is mostly crap and getting worse.
    2. PBS programming is increasingly putting issues ahead of entertainment.
    3. Both are likely due to talent going where money and ability to express their talent lies. (Writers don’t like being told to write advocacy and viewers don’t like watching it much.)
    4. NPR has a captive commuter market and is benefiting from the aging baby boom. Without drive-time, NPR would tank.

  11. Oh, three more factors against PBS, in descending order:
    3. Discovery Channel
    2. History Channel
    1. BBC America (this is huge)

  12. PBS in Connecticut is pretty much all pledge-drives, all the time.
    Worse, while NPR stations mix pledge drives into their regular shows, PBS relies on different programs for the most part – motivational speaker infomercials, schmaltzy music specials, and 50’s/60’s nostalgia.
    The NPR approach lets listeners support (or think they’re supporting) a favorite show. The PBS approach turns them into Andre Rieu pay-per-view for Rieu fans, but fans of NOVA or Nature are unlikely to contribute.
    Worse, the PBS approach is a spiral: If your pledge drives tend to focus on Andre Rieu specials, then contributions will encourage the running of more such specials. Apparently, CPTV must find these shows very profitable, because they’re on all the damn time.
    But how does a fan of NOVA or Nature vote with her money to support *those* shows against the tide of dreck?
    Luckily, I live in Boston, and WGBH doesn’t seem to be remotely as bad as CPTV. I get six WGBH variant stations, thanks to high-def broadcasting over the air.

  13. L'Emmerdeur says:

    A lot of immigrant cabbies in NYC seem to listen to NPR. I guess turning on Fox to listen to Anchorwoman Whitey McWhiteson tell them they are an evil job-stealing terrorist isn’t quite as appealing.

  14. Sam Penrose says:

    Didn’t anyone else notice the false parallel of the comparison: ratings for TV ( a relative number) and estimated viewership for radio (a quantity)?