The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NPR may be ‘public’ radio, but it’s feeling the economic pain of the pandemic. More trouble lies ahead.

NPR headquarters in Washington. (Evy Mages/for The Washington Post)

NPR reporter Kelsey Snell would normally have spent last week covering Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell as the congressional correspondent for “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” But it wasn’t a normal week for Snell or anyone else at NPR.

Instead, she was out of work — one of dozens in NPR’s 520-person Washington newsroom who are going on unpaid week-long furloughs at some point during this shutdown summer, under a cost-saving agreement between NPR’s management and its newsroom.

“Please support your local public radio station!” she tweeted before ducking out for the week.

For decades, the P in NPR stood for “public,” as in publicly supported, noncommercial radio and digital news. Yet with its growing dependence on corporate advertising, NPR has found itself on equally troubled footing as its for-profit competitors, all of them reliant on the same pool of advertising dollars that have dried up during the coronavirus pandemic.

At the same time, ratings have taken a hit, with stay-at-home orders keeping many devoted listeners out of their cars, and thus away from their radios, raising concerns about the effect on public donations to hundreds of member stations.

A sharp downturn in “underwriting” — public broadcasting’s euphemism for its tasteful style of advertising — prompted NPR to adopt a package of pay cuts, furloughs and other concessions in April. Yet NPR will still show a deficit of about $10 million when its fiscal year closes in September, its widest in years, chief executive John Lansing said in an interview.

The new year starting in October figures to be even tougher. Without another round of givebacks, Lansing is projecting a deficit of $30 million to $43 million — by far the largest in NPR’s 50-year history.

Advertisers began to grow wary in early March, as the full dimension of the pandemic became clear. Many “paused” or canceled spots on NPR’s signature news shows, Lansing said, tearing a hole in budget projections for the year.

The coronavirus crisis is devastating the news industry. Many newspapers won’t survive it.

“When the economy all but shut down, companies cut their marketing expenses. We felt it,” said Lansing, who became NPR’s chief executive in October. He estimates that the organization will lose $12 million to $15 million in ad revenue this year from the pullback.

NPR, of course, was founded to stand apart from the ups and downs of the commercial marketplace.

It was established in 1970, alongside television’s Public Broadcasting Service, as a kind of national trust, supported through federal funding and fees and dues paid by affiliated, though independently operated, public stations nationwide. (NPR doesn’t hold pledge drives, but its stations do.) To wean itself from government funding — and the political battles that accompany it — NPR began courting advertisers. Ad money was projected this year to pass station fees as its largest source of revenue, accounting for just over a third of its $275 million annual budget. Nowadays, the federal government directly contributes only about 1 percent of its operating money.

This raises a definitional question: Can NPR still be called a noncommercial broadcaster? The more immediate question remains how the organization can muddle through the coronavirus crisis that has pushed many news organizations to the brink, and a few over it, even as the news — the health crisis, mass protests, a presidential campaign — has intensified.

The cost-cutting agreement negotiated in April between NPR’s management and its main employee union, SAG-AFTRA, didn’t spare its executives or its stars. Lansing took a 25 percent pay cut, at the top of a sliding scale that will reduce pay for every employee earning more than $80,000 annually, either through a direct cut or a combination of a pay cut and a furlough. Among those who will be furloughed next month is Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg, who has worked at NPR since 1975.

The intent of the agreement, which will save about $15 million through September, was to avoid layoffs, said Richard Harris, a longtime science correspondent and one of the shop stewards who negotiated the package. So far, NPR hasn’t laid off anyone or cut its programming schedule.

“We felt like we were all in this together,” Harris said. “It was one of the least acrimonious negotiations I’ve been in. We all had big, common goals.”

But things figure to become tougher before they get better. With fewer people commuting, fewer people are listening: NPR says the audience for “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” declined an average of 28 percent in the 50 largest cities over the past three months, compared with the same period in 2019.

If the decline persists, a smaller national audience could translate into less revenue from sponsors that pay NPR for the short messages broadcast on its programs and podcasts. And fewer listeners means fewer fans for local stations to nudge for donations during pledge drives — which could make it harder for the stations to afford to pay NPR for its programming.

The one bit of good news for NPR is that its digital operations are surging as people search for news, information and entertainment online.

Traffic to increased by 76 percent in the spring compared with a year ago, according to internal figures. A daily coronavirus podcast launched at the start of the pandemic quickly became one of the 10 most popular in the country (it’s now called “Consider This,” with a broader focus). Podcasts produced by NPR’s “Code Switch” unit, focused on racial issues, also zoomed up the charts, reaching No. 1 on Apple’s weekly list, amid the protests of police brutality. Overall, downloads of NPR-produced podcasts have increased 24 percent compared with last year.

But financial pressure is already being felt on its network of stations, many of which are small and rely on a combination of listener contributions, federal funding and support from a college or university. Several have already begun painful downsizings.

WEKU, which serves central and eastern Kentucky, is warily watching fall enrollment figures at Eastern Kentucky University, which owns the station and contributes about a third of its operating budget, said Mike Savage, the station’s director and general manager. He said it’s “unknown” how much the university will be able to contribute, given the state of its cash flow.

Unlike other public broadcasting managers, Savage hasn’t had to lay off any of his staff members or make major cuts. But the station didn’t have the money to set up home or remote broadcasts for its employees when lockdowns began. So on-air hosts now must isolate themselves inside separate studios in the station’s basement; live conversations are mixed together to sound like face-to-face discussions.

Savage says he sees danger signs everywhere — local businesses that are hesitant to contribute or support local programming, listeners too unsure about their own finances to renew memberships, fundraising events that can’t be held because of social distancing rules.

“We see all of the pressures closing in,” he said.