Public Radio’s Existential Crisis
With both its stars and audience aging, NPR is struggling to adapt to the digital age: ‘The most innovative people are doing podcasts’
By ELLEN GAMERMAN
June 16, 2016 5:13 p.m. ET
When 73-year-old Garrison Keillor retires as host of “A Prairie Home Companion” next month, he’ll leave more than 3 million weekly listeners loyal to a show that began more than 40 years ago. Elsewhere on the dial, “Car Talk” ranks near the top of National Public Radio’s ratings even though co-host Tom Magliozzi died at age 77 nearly two years ago—his jovial cackle still echoing in “best of” versions of the show on more than 600 stations nationwide. Later this year, Washington talk-show doyenne Diane Rehm, 79, who boasts one of NPR’s 10 largest weekly audiences, will end more than three decades on the air.
“We’ve known that the so-called old guard would eventually have to retire,” said Mike Savage, general manager of public-radio station WBAA in West Lafayette, Ind., which has aired all three shows for decades. “There’s concern because these programs are well-known and well-loved.”
Public radio is facing an existential crisis. Some of the biggest radio stars of a generation are exiting the scene while public-radio executives attempt to stem the loss of younger listeners on traditional radio. At the same time, the business model of NPR—the institution at the center of the public-radio universe—is under threat: It relies primarily on funding from hundreds of local radio stations, but it faces rising competition from small and nimble podcasting companies using aggressive commercial strategies to create Netflix-style on-demand content.
All this has amplified tensions between veteran radio executives who continue to cling to popular broadcast shows like “Car Talk” and those who believe podcasting, with its innovative storytelling and younger audiences, is the future. At NPR itself, a top executive recently issued guidelines to staff barring on-air promotion of its much-praised new app NPR One. Encouraging listeners to tune in via the app could alienate the local public-radio stations that pay NPR for shows.
“It’s a moment of anxiety systemwide,” said Ben Calhoun, vice president of content and programming at Chicago public-radio station WBEZ and a former producer with “This American Life.” “There’s a tendency for that dynamic to manifest as sort of protectionist and defensive.”
“A Prairie Home Companion” is an emblem of the outgoing era, not just old-timey in its sound, but also in the appointment listening of its audience. Every Saturday night at 6 p.m., tucked in their log-cabin weekend home in southern Maryland, Connie and Sterling Mehring stream the two-hour live program online, sip white Russians and listen to Mr. Keillor sing, host musical guests and deliver the news from his fictional town of Lake Wobegon. The show’s current weekly audience is 3.2 million, down nearly a million from a decade ago but still the third-largest audience among weekend programs on public radio.
The Mehrings, both in their 60s, are unsure about the show’s incoming host, 35-year-old musician Chris Thile. “We’ll try it for a while,” Ms. Mehring said. “Until they force us not to,” her husband broke in, “if the guy’s not very good.”
Many younger people are mystified by Mr. Keillor’s appeal. “It’s like an embarrassing uncle—the jokes are so bad, this guy thinks he can sing but he cannot sing, and I’m not interested in anything he has to say,” said Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the 31-year-old creator of the animated Netflix sitcom “BoJack Horseman.” Though he said he also feels real affection for Mr. Keillor, Mr. Bob-Waksberg’s 966-word rant on his Tumblr about “A Prairie Home Companion” in 2014 briefly made him the most hated man in Lake Wobegon.
Mr. Keillor’s last live show of “A Prairie Home Companion” is slated for July 1 in Los Angeles; it will be aired the following night. Mr. Thile, a mandolin player known for the groups Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, will start as the program’s new host in October. The musician, whose honors include multiple Grammys and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” doesn’t plan to tinker with the radio show’s variety format but hopes to broaden its range to include rock, rap and other contemporary genres. He also plans to expand the podcast and engage with listeners during the show via social media.
The transition at “A Prairie Home Companion” reflects a growing divide in the audio world between older listeners who prefer programs on the radio, often in their cars, and a younger audience more likely to download podcasts of music and edgier shows onto their devices.
By the end of the decade, NPR projects that younger listeners under age 44 will make up only around 30% of the overall audience for its member stations, compared with about 60% in 1985. Currently more than 80% of podcast listeners are under age 55, according to recent data released by Edison Research and Triton Digital.
These shifts in listening habits promise to continue. Auto makers are working to install voice technology in new cars that would allow drivers to simply say the name of a show they’d like to hear, making it less crucial to stay tuned to a particular radio station. Within seven years, 57% of all cars will be sold with built-in internet, controllable by smartphone, up from 32% in 2015, said Egil Juliussen, principal analyst for car-market researcher IHS Automotive.
More private podcasters such as Gimlet Media, Panoply and Earwolf are taking advantage of the move to on-demand listening. These companies, populated by public-radio veterans, are busy. In the past year and a half, Gimlet launched five podcasts and will debut five more by the end of the year, including a true-crime show with the team behind the HBO documentary “The Jinx.” The Amazon-owned audio retailer Audible is building its own short-form audio-content division as well.
Public radio is pushing hard on digital, too. WNYC Studios, the podcast-creation arm of New York’s public radio station, this spring launched the show “2 Dope Queens,” a hit comedy podcast co-starring Jessica Williams of “The Daily Show” and comedian-writer Phoebe Robinson.
Meanwhile, NPR itself is already the nation’s top podcast publisher with a monthly audience of 7.2 million listeners, according to podcast analytics firm Podtrac. In the past year, it has doubled the revenue it gets from corporate sponsorship for podcasts.
NPR executives say they’re seizing this moment as an opportunity to showcase fresh, young voices on many platforms—as guests on existing radio shows, on their own shows or as podcasts. “Code Switch,” for example, is a new podcast that explores race, ethnicity and culture. This week marks the return of NPR’s “Invisibilia,” a radio show about the unseen forces that drive human behavior whose first-season episodes have been downloaded more than 50 million times.
“This is a great moment of expansion in terms of looking outwards, evolving our sound, connecting with folks we might not have connected with before,” said Anya Grundmann, vice president of programming at NPR.
Even so, NPR critics say it is not embracing podcasts wholeheartedly. Its longtime business model, which depends on member stations broadcasting its content, is in direct conflict with the podcast model. Member stations potentially lose listeners if people are getting their shows elsewhere. NPR itself has lost 1.2 million weekly broadcast listeners between 2010 and 2015, according to Nielsen data.
In March, Chris Turpin, NPR vice president for news programming and operations, posted a memo to NPR’s ethics handbook instructing hosts not to actively promote even its own podcasts on the air or mention npr.org, iTunes, Stitcher and other audio providers. An NPR spokeswoman said NPR already promotes podcasts on air by featuring segments or reporters from those shows in its news programs. Mr. Turpin doesn't want hosts to promote NPR One until all local stations are represented on the app, she added.
After the memo hit the internet, critics accused NPR of being tone deaf at best and, at worst, undermining its own future by slighting its digital presence. Adam Davidson, co-founder of NPR’s “Planet Money” who now co-hosts the Gimlet show “Surprisingly Awesome,” asked whether rising audio stars would stick with NPR going into the future. “Pretty soon, the question will be: Why did you stay at NPR so long?” he wrote on Facebook in a widely circulated rebuttal to the NPR rule. “Were you bad at seeing the signs? Do you value stability more than creativity?” Mr. Davidson declined to comment for this article.
Despite the growth of digital, Americans ages 13 and over spend more than half their total listening time on AM/FM radio and 2% of their listening time on podcasts, according to Edison. NPR’s weekly broadcast radio audience now averages 26 million.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that many public-radio stations continue to stick with so-called legacy radio shows with built-in audiences that have been around for years. “Car Talk,” for example, still outperforms most other public radio shows. Based on average number of listeners per 15-minute blocks, NPR ranks “Car Talk” as its third most popular radio program (first is “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” followed by weekday episodes of “All Things Considered”).
NPR’s shows feature several hosts in their 30s, but personalities past retirement age still populate the dial. WNYC, for example, features on its AM or FM weekend schedules several hosts who have been on the air for decades: Jonathan Schwartz (music), Joe Frank (variety) and Lynne Rossetto Kasper (food) are all in their 70s. “Folksong Festival,” the country’s longest-running radio show with the same host, airs Saturdays with a short introduction by 96-year-old Oscar Brand.
Some older hosts still balk at the digital experience. “To me, podcasting is like pretending you’re on the radio,” said Michael Feldman, host of the comedy-quiz show “Whad’Ya Know?,” who nevertheless plans to launch a podcast after his live two-hour show ends in late June. The 67-year-old Wisconsin native, whose more than 30-year-old program recently was canceled by producer Wisconsin Public Radio, said podcasting doesn't encourage communal listening but is designed for “one individual who is doing an elliptical machine for 20 minutes.”
Critics say the reliance on old shows is stifling creativity among producers and a new generation of storytellers.
“The people who are inventing what could be the weekend shows are tending to leave radio,” said Ira Glass, creator of “This American Life,” the hugely successful and influential public-radio program that spun off the hit podcast “Serial” in 2014. “The most innovative people in audio are doing podcasts.”
Others question the wisdom of sticking with old shows, even if they’re still popular. A few months ago, WBEZ Chicago dropped “Car Talk.” “People said, ‘Car Talk’ works,” said Mr. Calhoun, the WBEZ executive. “I have a lot of respect for all the people who have been in the system a lot longer than I have, but I also thought, ‘Works for what?’ ”