October 19, 2006

NPR Hits Cruising Altitude?

Audience *(including newscasts)
2000 14.7
2001 16.6
2002 19
2003 22
2004 22
2005* 25.3
2006* 25.5

After years of explosive growth, National Public Radio’s audience looks as if it might be beginning to plateau. The outlet’s just released Spring 2006 Arbitron numbers indicate that 25.5 million people listened to any NPR program or newscast in an average week, an increase of 1% from the spring of 2005.

The audience for NPR’s two signature news programs, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” were essentially flat in the period – though relative newcomer “Day to Day,” with a newsmagazine format, saw a 7% increase.

An NPR news release notes that the 1% increase stands in contrast to a 2% decline in overall listeners to radio news talk programming over the same period. Still, the number represents a slowdown from the heady days of dramatic growth that NPR experienced in the first half of the decade. Since 2000, NPR has seen its audience shoot up from 14.7 million listeners to its current 25.5 million. And since 1985, its listenership has more than tripled.

Many factors probably drove the growth, including the decline in commercial radio news on the local level. So why is it leveling off now? One possibility is that NPR has reached its natural ceiling. Another is that, like other platforms, NPR is seeing people move to the internet and elsewhere. NPR podcasts are among the most popular, and the outlet has invested heavily in its website.

One wrinkle in the new NPR audience, at least according to one survey, is ideology. A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press this summer showed the outlet’s audience has grown notably more Democratic in the last 10 years. In 2006, the Pew survey found 22% of Democrats to be regular NPR listeners while only 13% of Republicans regularly tune in. In 1996, those numbers were 15% for Democrats and 11% for Republicans.

Asked about a growing ideological gap among listeners, an NPR spokeswoman countered by saying their internal data indicate that the audience is evenly divided between liberals, conservatives and independents.