Wednesday, August 03, 2005

And the Largest National Radio Programming Network is....?

Quick: What’s the largest group of uniformly programmed radio stations in the U.S.? Did you say Clear Channel? Wrong. Infinity? Wrong. The answer is….National Public Radio--NPR.

Non-commercial radio has become a major media force. Primarily on the FM band, it has grown faster than the number of radio stations overall. Accounting for 6% of all stations in 1970, public radio stations multiplied in number 560% by 2000 and more significantly more than tripled in proportion to over 20% of all radio stations. Non-commercial radio stations are often affiliated with higher education, municipalities or public television stations.

Their growth has been accompanied by the emergence of National Public Radio as a programming network that rivals the reach of the largest commercial owners. NPR’s most well known programming includes “Morning Edition,” “Fresh Air” and “All Things Considered.” The role of NPR is important in the context of radio competition.

· NPR provides content for much of the programming day on a national basis for the 780 public radio stations it serves.
· Its reach is so pervasive it claims “Just about anywhere you find yourself, you’ll find NPR.” According to NPR’s Web site, “Morning Edition” is the leading morning radio news program in the United States and is the second most listened to radio show nationally. (“All Thing Considered” is number three).
· NPR reaches 26 million listeners on a typical week, double the number of 10 years previously. In the 1980s it claimed an audience of about 2 million weekly.
· Public radio listeners outnumber the combined circulation of the top 35 U.S. daily newspapers.

For comparison, the nationally syndicated talk show of political commentator Rush Limbaugh has a weekly audience of between 15.5 and 20 million on about 600 stations.

With 99% of the U.S. in range of one or more NPR stations, virtually all Americans have a very differentiated choice should they seek an alternative to the music, talk, news, religious or other programming choices in their area.

What’s curious (well, not really-- I’m not surprised) is that media industry critics do not seem to complain about the common programming that emanates from NPR’s Washington, DC headquarters. Whether in Minot, ND or Los Angeles or Baton Rouge or Bangor, there is little local news or information being transmitted during the highest listening times of the day on NPR-affiliated radio stations. Whether broadcasting “Car Talk” or “World Cafe,” it is the same programming everywhere.

Don’t get me wrong here—NPR has some quality programming. I think it’s great that it’s available nationally. My point is that when the high decibel critics take on a commercial radio chains for programming out of some central facility for many of their stations around the country (which is far less common than they suggest) but don’t criticize the NPR-affiliated public station network, they expose their real bias. And that is that they just don’t like the programming that the commercial stations provide. If Infinity produced the NPR schedule I suspect they would have to be silent. When you look beyond the rhetoric on media ownership structure, what many of the angriest and most active of the self-styled media reformers really want is media that will provide content they think the audience “should” have: NPR for everyone, all the time. What we have now is choice—to listen to Rush or Neal, Al or Bill.

Works for me—and most others as well.

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(Note: In the original version of this entry I included "A Prairie Home Companion" as being an NPR program. Rather it is a program of American Public Media, the other major national programming service for public stations, with primary headquarters in Minneapolis.)

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