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Good News for NPR: Its Most Listeners Ever

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[Steady Ratings Rise For NPR News Shows]
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

At a time when newspapers, magazines and TV news continue to lose readers and viewers, at least one part of the traditional media has continued to grow robustly: National Public Radio.

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The audience for NPR's daily news programs, including "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," reached a record last year, driven by widespread interest in the presidential election, and the general decline of radio news elsewhere. Washington-based NPR will release new figures to its stations today showing that the cumulative audience for its daily news programs hit 20.9 million a week, a 9 percent increase over the previous year.

The weekly audience for all the programming fed by Washington-based NPR -- including talk shows and music -- also reached a record last year, with 23.6 million people tuning in each week, an 8.7 percent increase over 2007.

While almost every news organization saw its audience spike during the political campaign last year, NPR's surge continues a trend that goes back to at least the fall of 2000, when the organization began aggregating audience data from hundreds of affiliated public stations across the country. NPR saw a big audience increase after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has added listeners since. Its audience has grown 47 percent since 2000, according to figures from Arbitron.

"When people discover us, they seem to discover us for good," Ellen Weiss, NPR's senior vice president for news, said in an interview yesterday. "They stay with us."

More than half of NPR's daily audience comes from its two "core" news shows, "Morning Edition" and the evening "All Things Considered." "Morning Edition's" average daily audience, 7.6 million, is now about 60 percent larger than the audience for "Good Morning America" on ABC and about one-third larger than the audience for the "Today" show on NBC.

The favorable audience data, however, hasn't spared NPR from the budget woes that are affecting almost every news organization in the nation.

In December, NPR cut 7 percent of its news staff and eliminated two daily newsmagazine programs, "Day to Day" and "News & Notes." Last week, NPR said its top managers, including its new chief executive, Vivian Schiller, will not be paid for the last two weeks of this year. It will also suspend retirement contributions for these managers, and it dropped some office newspaper subscriptions.

The cuts still leave NPR with a projected budget gap of $8 million this year, based on expenditures of about $160 million, according to Dana Davis Rehm, senior vice president of marketing. Rehm said more cuts are imminent but declined to specify where they will be made, pending an announcement later this spring.

NPR faces declining funding from all its major sources: corporate underwriters that give money in exchange for on-air mentions, charitable foundations and annual dues from almost 900 member stations. Many NPR member stations have announced staff cutbacks of their own in the face of declining listener contributions and other revenue.

"It would be a dangerous correlation to say there's a direct relationship between the size of our audience and our revenue," said Schiller, who took over as CEO in January. "But the fact that we have such a large and loyal audience means that when we come out of this economic slump, we'll continue to be strong. I wish I felt the same way about my brethren in the rest of the media."

NPR remains a powerhouse in its home town. WAMU (88.5 FM), which carries NPR news and talk programs throughout the day, has consistently ranked as the region's second-most-popular station, behind all-news WTOP (103.5 FM), a commercial station. Noncommercial WETA (90.9 FM), which has a classical music format but also carries NPR news, is among the area's 10 most popular stations.

NPR's rising popularity reflects the decline of news as a radio format, said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington think tank. Producing an original newscast is expensive, especially compared with playing music or airing syndicated talk shows; many radio companies have pared back or eliminated their news departments as the industry has consolidated over the past decade. "Local news stations have slowly but steadily vanished in a lot of cities," said Jurkowitz.

One strength of NPR, he said, is its original foreign reporting -- something that is now largely unavailable elsewhere on the radio. The organization maintains 18 foreign bureaus, more than any of the major broadcast TV networks.

Its reports from abroad, he said, are a magnet "for a lot of people who weren't necessarily born in this country who may see NPR as the one place to get news about parts of the world they care about."


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