Monday, October 2, 2017


Jarl Mohn (courtesy LA Times)
Jarl Mohn, President and CEO of NPR, says the network’s goal is to have NPR’s News/Talk stations be the most listened-to radio news station in all PPM rated markets. Mohn announced the goal last week in remarks at the public radio Super Regional conference last week in St. Paul.

The Super Regional is an annual meeting of the managers from NPR member stations and other stakeholders in the system.

Mohn was beaming with pride when we spoke with him at the Super Regional. He had seen our September 25th report [link] saying NPR News/Talk stations were the leading radio news source in 20 of the 50 or so Nielsen PPM markets in the August ratings. 

Dave Becker
Mohn was referring to observations made by Dave Becker, PD of KNPR, Las Vegas, Becker found that NPR News/Talk stations in all 20 markets had more weekly cumulative listeners than commercial News/Talk stations in the same market.

Mohn sensed there was more to the story so he examined the August Nielsen numbers. When looking at Persons 25-54 in weekly drive times he saw that NPR News/Talk stations are reaching more listeners than “big” commercial news/talkers in 26 of the PPM markets during Morning Edition and in 28 markets during All Things Considered.

Listening trends are moving in NPR’s favor. Mohn concluded that it is possible that NPR News/Talk stations could top local commercial news/talk stations in all of Nielsen’s PPM market.

Not that many years ago, such an thought seemed unrealistic.  But now, according to Mohn, it is doable. Mohn cited several reasons for NPR News/Talk stations recent success:

• NPR News is sounding better than ever. More and more people seem to value their fact-based, non-hyped reporting style.

• NPR is strong on digital and mobile platforms.  According to Podtrac, NPR is the number one publisher of podcasts in the nation.  NPR One is achieving serious traction.

• NPR News has become a recognized source of the day’s news and is increasingly cited as a story source by media of all types.

• Meanwhile, many commercial radio news/talk stations are slashing already-lean newsroom budgets because of pressures from corporate debt. Thankfully, NPR and member stations don’t have this problem.

• Audience for many commercial News/Talk stations appears to be declining as persons-using-radio slides a bit each year.  Many NPR stations are going against that grain by adding new listeners at a time when the “listener lake” is shrinking.

I told Mohn that there is another reason: From my perspective, NPR is working in harmony with station newsrooms and Regional Journalism Collaborations (RJC). This has built a sense of cautious optimism and sense-of-purpose I have never seen during my nearly three decades working in public media. NPR and its member stations are in sync.

Historically, relations between the network and stations have been dicey. The stations have often resisted NPR’s efforts to unify the system because they feel it infringes on their local turf. Now feelings of “us and them” have been replaced by a culture of trust. I believe this trust radiates through the speakers and ear-buds and people like it.


I picked up this vibe wherever I went at the Super Regional. Some readers may think my take is too Pollyanna-ish, naïve or just wishful thinking. Certainly there is still friction between NPR and its member stations. But now it appears that NPR and the stations are focusing on the greater good: making public radio and public media work.

The dialogue at three Super Regional panel sessions reinforced this perception.

Kathy Merritt
At a CPB sponsored luncheon station and network leaders praised the sense of collaboration.  

CPB’s Senior VP for Journalism and Radio Kathy Merritt moderated a panel about RJCs during the recent hurricanes.

NPR’s Southern Bureau Chief Russell Lewis and KERA VP of News Rick Holter talked about how stations had been brought together by the collaborations. 

It helped stations and the network work together seamlessly when reporting on Hurricane Harvey’s impact in south Texas and Louisiana.

Before the Texas RJC was established, station folks felt like they were on their own during times of crisis.  The collaborations have fostered a news infrastructure that has increased reporting capacity and quality. These relationships are based on mutual trust.

During Harvey, Texas stations shared resources including people, equipment and story ideas. Individual stations concentrated on specific aspects of the story, increasing the reach and value of the reporting. One station actually sent food to another station that was logistically hampered by flooding.

Rick Holter

Panelist Rick Holter told folks at the luncheon that because of the collaboration Texas stations now have the infrastructure to provide deeper coverage:

“A foundation is in place in Texas based on trust between stations and NPR. This sense of trust has been built over time. Coordination between stations is the key. Now it doesn’t matter if an idea comes from NPR or a station.”

At a session called Creating Sustainable Local News in Your Community panelists included Dave Edwards, GM of WUWM, Milwaukee; Joyce Slocum, President of Texas Public Radio in San Antonio; and Robin Turnau, the soon-to-be retiring CEO of Vermont Public Radio.

The panel freely shared details of their budgets, staffing and plans to establish specific news beats with funding from foundations to increase local news reporting. The session also highlighted establishing a “firewall” between the funders and the content, another form of trust.

Mike Reszler
Perhaps my favorite session was Metrics That Matter moderated by Tom Thomas, head of the Station Resource Group (SRG) and featured Mike Reszler, the Chief Digital Officer and VP for Innovation and Digital Strategy and Content for American Public Media (APM). Reszler spoke about his work with APM's Public Insight Network and program development where he examines how news and culture intersect with power of the Internet and mobile devices.

Reszler spoke about the need to put research and metrics in context by asking at the start of project what people want to know and what they want to do with the data. 

This is a refreshing and useful approach that reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Yogi Bera:

“If you don’t know where you are going, you are going to wind up somewhere else.”

Thank you Georgette Bronfman of ERPM for making my attendance at the Super Regional possible.


  1. Putting content aside ... an element which must be factored in: People are fed up with commercials, and this is one way to escape them! For researchers, how does this balance the scale?

    Just a question ... not taking sides.

  2. NPR/Public Radio is in sync with its listeners and they are a trusted source.

    The local affiliates complement NPR with strong local radio news teams, something that's disappeared on the commercial side of radio -- with the exception being in major markets that have a strong commercial news/information station. But we now are seeing NPR winning over listeners here too.

    Public Radio comes from a "listener first" approach to its programming content. Once all radio stations had this mission based approach but consolidation and large debt changed the focus.

  3. Beware the slippery slope of chasing ratings.