NPR may be a noncommercial podcaster and broadcaster, but it takes money to create the programming. And for the first time ever, the public radio network expects it will make more from podcast advertising in 2020 than from broadcast radio ads — or underwriting, in NPR lingo — according to CEO John Lansing. He told NPR’s in-house media reporter that while podcast ad dollars are up compared to a year ago, it is not expected to be enough to make up for the forecasted $23 million drop in sponsorship dollars overall.
The audience story is a mixed bag for NPR. Its podcast downloads have grown by about a quarter, and last month it retook the top spot on Podtrac’s list of largest podcast platforms. More people are also using its app, and it reportedly has seen a 76% increase in users of NPR.org as more people access the network’s content from home.
But at the same time NPR says there has been a sharp decline in the number of people listening to its over-the-air programming. With an audience that is more likely to commute to an office, the COVID-19 move to work-from-home has taken a toll. Drive time shows “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” have taken the biggest hits.
NPR commissioned research to try to figure out what may be going on and it apparently showed that a return to regular commuting patterns would help recoup its audience losses. The data also showed that some listeners had grown weary of the big stories of 2020 such as COVID-19, racial justice protests, and the upcoming presidential election. Typically, an election year brings more listeners to public radio, not fewer.
“The first thing that I see is a situation driven by habits of consumers that are not related to the content of our programs,” Lansing said. “It’s almost entirely related to the disruption caused by the pandemic to commuting patterns — both in the morning and the evenings.”
Even as ratings are down, NPR said its overall reach is up almost 10% from a year ago. When broadcast radio is combined with podcasts and other digital platforms, NPR says it reaches more than 57 million people each week. Its report also noted that local public radio outlets in some markets have seen ratings rise, not fall. That includes stations in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Miami, Minneapolis and Austin.
In May NPR announced it was reducing pay and benefits for employees on a sliding scale of up to 9% through the end of September. It also cut executive pay by 10% to 25%. Workers were also offered furloughs. A memo to staffers from Lansing said at the time that NPR faced a budget shortfall of $30 million to $45 million through its 2021 fiscal year. NPR had budgeted a total of $115 million for 2020, according to Lansing’s memo. NPR now anticipates a loss of $40 million to $53 million in fiscal 2020 and 2021.
NPR has reportedly told labor unions that it will seek to extend those austerity measures into the new fiscal year, which begins October 1. There is also no assurance that layoffs can be avoided, Lansing said.