NPR's Ratings On a Decade-Long Climb

Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi reveals a story that public broadcasters don't like to talk about: their ratings. They don't want to sound like they care (they certainly do), like they're obsessed like a for-profit company, or that they're taking market share away from commercial radio. But now, in tough times, NPR's rating success is leaking out:

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.

The Post routinely leaves the public radio stations out when it surveys the D.C. radio landscape. But there are two public stations in the top ten:

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.

Farhi's story is right to suggest that the decline of news on commercial radio (and NPR's focus on foreign reporting) are reasons for its ratings climb. But the Post doesn't suggest that NPR's post-9/11 climb might also be due to its liberal tilt -- that just as left-wing journals like The Nation saw a surge in subscriptions in the Bush era, the same liberal uplift may have occurred at NPR. Whether that theory might hold will depend on ratings in the new Obama era.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis