Friday, September 25, 2015


As folks who work in public media prepare to gather in Pittsburgh [link] for the 2015 Public Radio Content Conference (PRCC) it is timely to look at the organization’s impact over the past 28 years.

[Please scroll down to a video history of the PRPD.]

In 2012 the Radio Research Consortium (RRC) published listening trends for CPB-supported stations from 1980 to 2012. As you can see in the chart below from the RRC report, the weekly cumulative public radio audience grew from roughly 5.3 million in 1980 to almost 31.7 million on 2011 – an increase of over 600 percent. Most of this growth happened since PRPD entered the scene in 1987. 

Here is the chart (courtesy of RRC) showing the growth of weekly cumulative audience during the term of each PRPD leader:

There will be updated data at this year’s PRCC.

Craig Oliver
1987 – 1991
 Of course the PRPD isn’t the only factor that stimulated this rapid expansion.  In the 1980s and 90s many new stations signed on and more stations became qualified for CPB funding. NPR focused and expanded its programming under the leadership of Bill Buzenberg, Jay Kernis and many others. American Public Radio (now PRI) added Marketplace and Monitor Radio to the mix.

The massive consolidation of commercial radio, and subsequent budget cuts, made the programming provided by public radio stations more unique and valuable.

Steve Olson
1991 – 1997

The ratings growth parallels major gains in members and private business support.  Many nonprofit organizations measure progress with anecdotes and feel good moments. Public radio has these also. But public radio, virtually alone in noncom media, has RESULTS that you can take to the bank.

Some cynics say that public radio has a sacrificed its mission by using ratings and other assessment tools.  They are missing the point.  In commercial radio, the ratings are used for bulk audience delivery for advertisers.  In listener supported public radio, ratings are used to know the audience. And it helps to know who they are and where they are located.

Marcia Alvar
1997 – 2006


Arthur Cohen
2007 – 2014

Another chart from the 2012 RRC report shows public radio’s appeal in digital media environment. Since 2000 through 2011 public radio’s listening grew while the number of people using radio decline.  Since 2011 public radio’s listening has declined slightly but much less than other radio formats.

This chart shows the percentage of people, age 12+, who were listening to radio during the average 15-minute period during the survey week:

Jody Evans
2015 – present

If you compare this chart with the weekly listening chart above, you will see the good work of the PRPD in action. Today the challenges are more complicated but the fundamentals are the same: compelling content, listener and user trust and the appeal of noncom public service.


In 2005 Marcia Alvar produced this short film that tells the early story of the PRPD:

And here is a 1988 photo of the founders of the PRPD and associates:

Left to right: RRC’s Tom Church, Peter Dominowski, Marcia Alvar, Craig Oliver, Don Otto & Ellen Fraft

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