Friday, July 28, 2017


This post is an update of an article originally published September 25, 2015.

Folks who work in public media are preparing to gather in Washington, DC for the 2017 Public Radio Program Directors (PRPD) Content Conference August 14th – 17th [link]. 

Today we take a look at the organization’s impact in public radio over the past 30 years.

The PRPD grew out CPB-funded initiatives in the 1980s to increase the size and loyalty of the public radio audience. 

David Giovannoni
Researcher David Giovannoni started the ball rolling with his memorable quote [paraphrasing]:

People in public radio like to say ‘we’ve got a small but loyal audience.’ They partially correct – public radio does have a small audience but they aren’t very loyal.”

CPB sought to elevate the role of programming within the system.  

 In the mid to late 1980s CPB supported a series of regional meetings specifically for Program Directors, called “PD Bees.” That led to creation of PRPD.

In 2012 the Radio Research Consortium (RRC) published listening trends for CPB-supported stations from 1980 to 2012. 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 debuted in 1987.  On the left is a chart showing the growth of public radio’s weekly cumulative listeners during the term four of the five PRPD leaders.

Craig Oliver 1987-1991
Of course the PRPD isn’t the only factor that stimulated this rapid expansion of listeners.  The number of CPB-funded stations also grew rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1990s NPR increased its focus out the appeal of its programming under the leadership of Bill Buzenberg, Jay Kernis. American Public Radio (now Public Radio International) emerged as a competitor to NPR, causing the quality of programming to rise.

Steve Olson 1991-1997
Beginning in the 1990s, there was massive consolidation of commercial radio station ownership. Because most of the new mega-group owners were heavily leverage in debt, commercial radio made deep cuts in the budgets for news and other programming.

This caused stagnation and regression in the quantity and quality of commercial radio program.  It also enhanced the uniqueness of public radio programming. As commercial radio stations dropped news programming, they added cheaper host-based talk shows such as Rush Limbaugh. In many markets, the only fact-based news programming was on an NPR affiliated station.

Marcia Alvar 1997-2006
Public radio’s ratings growth parallels major gains in station members and private business support. 

The success and increasing clout of public radio began being recognized as ratings showed more and more people were listening.

Each year PRPD emphasized best practices in programming, new initiatives and an overall emphasis on the quality of its sound.

Arthur Cohen 2006-2014
Some cynics say that public radio has a sacrificed its mission by using ratings and other audience assessment tools.   

They are missing the point.   

In commercial radio, the ratings are used for bulk audience delivery of advertisers.  Listener-supported public radio counts its listeners one-by-one. 

Ratings are one way to know how many people listen, who they are and where they are located.

Jody Evans 2015-present

PRPD has helped public radio programmers expand their audiences at a time when fewer people are using radio. 

PRPD has also promoted ways for stations to re-purpose content for digital and mobile platforms, further increasing public radio’s reach.

Today the challenges facing public radio are more complicated but the fundamentals are the same: Compelling content, listener trust and the appeal of noncommercial public service.

On the right 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

Thursday, July 27, 2017


For over three-and-half decades Current newspaper has been journal of record for public broadcasting.  People working in public radio and television have counted on Current’s coverage to stay up-to-date on changes, issues and new ideas.  Current is often the sole voice for this key information.

Recently, Current has won praise for adding new digital features such as The Pub podcast, screenings on OVEE, Currently Curious and the social media campaign (#IamPublicMedia).

Julie Drizin
But, Current may disappear if people do not step up and support the publication by subscribing. Julie Drizin, Executive Director of Current, puts it this way:

“We are about to find out if the people working in public media will support other public media organizations.”

In a recent interview, Drizin said a variety of factors have led to this existential situation:

• Like most print publications, Current has been disrupted by digital and mobile technology.  Print circulation has dropped from a high of around 6,300 paying subscribers 15 years ago, to 2,500 subscribers now.

• The majority of Current’s subscription revenue has always flowed from stations, but many public media organizations are buying fewer subscriptions for their employees.

Current’s online presence has been free and people have gotten used to it.  Even though online usage is strong, advertisers have been reluctant to spend as much on digital ads than they did on print ads.

• The Great Recession of 2008 – 2009 hit Current particularly hard.  Revenue from advertising and subscriptions fell and they didn’t return to prior levels.

• Support for Current by the Wyncote Foundation is tapering off.

• The cost of doing business continues to rise.

KEN’S NOTE: Like many of you, I was once a subscriber to the paper version of Current. But, let my subscription lapse because I read Current online. I wasn’t alone. Once approximately 1,000 individuals subscribed to Current. According to Drizin, the number is barely 300 today.


According to Drizin, Current’s annual operating budget is around $1.1 million, an amount typical of a small or medium sized public radio station.

Revenue comes from three major sources: subscriptions, paid advertising and grants from the Wyncote Foundation, based in Philadelphia [link]. Subscriptions account for about 12% of Current’s revenue, hence the sustainability problem. Subscribers and ads brought in about half a million dollars last year.

Wyncote has been particularly generous to Current. In 2011 and 2012 Current was going through a number of big changes.  WNET transferred “stewardship” (meaning fiduciary responsibility) of Current to American University’s School of Communication, where it remains today. Editor Steve Behrens retired and longtime reporter Karen Everhart became the new managing editor.

Wyncote recognized the importance of Current to public media, stepped in to provide bridge funding for the transitions and the transformation to a digital-first news source that is self-sustaining.

According to information on the Wyncote website, in fiscal year 2015, the Foundation provided $467,077 in support.  In fiscal year 2016 that number grew to 638,142.  But, in fiscal year 2017, Wyncote’s grant dropped to $275,407, and that amount will decline further in the next two years.

Moving forward, Wyncote has given Current a commitment for a new three-year grant for $1.2 million. They want Current to nearly triple their subscriber revenue over the three-year period. And, Wyncote wants to see a big jump in subscribers during the next 9 months. Drizin described Wyncote’s challenge:

“Wyncote wants us to increase revenue from all sources. If we don’t, we may need to cut back on our services, precisely at a time when we should be expanding them.”


Recently Current changed its business plan and began requiring subscriptions for access to news content. Visitors to Current’s website can now view three articles per month before the paywall kicks in. Subscribers have the option for a print and/or digital subscription for $89.00 a year or a one-month digital subscription for $10.00.

Discounts are available for advertisers, stations that purchase group access for employees and licensee board members. Access to job listings and Current’s podcast The Pub are free. More information about subscriptions is available here.

Drizin described the changes as an opportunity to get more public media people involved:

“We are truly excited to finally give you a chance to help fund all of our content that you enjoy. We gave our content away for free, just as public radio and TV do. But that’s no longer an option for Current. The future of Current is up to you, the people of public media.”

The key words in Drizin’s announcement are “fund all of our content.”  This fight for Current’s future began then.

Current’s job now is to convince the estimated 25,000 who work in public radio and television to become subscribers. This means overcoming a couple of prevalent myths: Current is supported by CPB, and American University provides direct financial support.

Neither of these misconceptions are true. Decades ago, CPB did underwrite publication of important projects, such as David Giovannoni’s research about public radio listeners. However, CPB does not fund Current, beyond having a basic subscription. AU provides Current in-kind services and a connection to a School of Communications, but does not provide any cash.


During the course of assembling this article I was in touch with several public radio leaders and I asked them for thoughts about the importance of Current to the system. Here are a few of the responses:

“For years, Current has been such a valuable publication for public radio and public television and digital media.  It provides industry-wide news and updates on emerging issues, plus important think pieces from public media veterans including Mark Fuerst, Tom Thomas, Mike Arnold and others.  I'd hate to see it fold.”

Jo Anne Wallace
Vice President & General Manager, Radio

“In my early days in public media (now, more than 30 years ago) Current was an important tool in learning about public media and the key events and issues in the ecosystem.  More than 30 years later I still read Current and cannot imagine being without a source of information about public media.”
Brenda Barnes
President, USC Radio

"Current in an invaluable resource for public media. I have been in and out of public radio for years, but I have continued to subscribe to keep up on important news, trends, research, jobs, and people moves. How would we learn and share what's happening in our field without Current? I can't imagine that!" 

Wende Persons
Managing Director, Classical Music Rising

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


Denton, Texas has a new local radio voice.  KUZU FM 92.3 [link] came to life on Saturday (7/15) at High Noon. KUZU kicked off with 24 hours of music entirely from local artists from North Texas. The station combines Triple A, rockabilly and Texas twang. 

The station is a homegrown effort. Peter Salisbury, now the chairman of KUZU’s Board of Directors founded Real Waves Radio Network, the nonprofit behind KUZU, in 2013. They applied and eventually were granted a LPFM license after four years of waiting and planning.

According Board Member Paul Slavens, KUZU’s local music focus was inspired by Triple A KKXT, Dallas, where Slavens used work weekends. Denton is about 40 miles north of Dallas. In recent years, Denton has become an exurb of the DFW Metroplex.

Slaven told the Denton News [link] that a dream was finally becoming a reality:

“We all knew today was a great challenge — emphasis on the word great. We learned a lot, and a brand-new animal has emerged out of the cocoon. Now we just have to get the butterfly to fly.”

And fly it did, and it is flying 24/7.

Volunteer Bruce Burns summed up the enthusiasm for KUZU this way:

"You don't have to be an expert at whatever you're doing. It's all about passion and not the money."

All of us in public media should find a bit of that passion.


Kathy Merritt
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) announced that public radio veteran Kathy Merritt is now CPB’s Senior Vice President ofr Journalism and Radio. She replaces Bruce Theriault who left the job in 2016. Merritt previously was VP of Content Strategy & Development at Public Radio International (PRI).

Merritt was CPB’s Senior Direction of Program Investments in Radio before moving to PRI in 2013. She will be in charge of developing journalism collaborations and strengthening public media’s role as a trusted news source.


We continue our tour of Nielsen Audio’s Diary markets today with a look at legendary NPR News station WBFO. In the Spring 2017 sweeps WBFO added almost 25,000 estimated weekly cumulative listeners, a jump of 18% over Spring 2016. WBFO’s cume of 127,300 is likely a record. Sister station Classical WNED was also up.

WBFO and WNED also have a substantial number of listeners in Ontario, just over the falls.

NPR News also is performing very well in Richmond. Hometown WCVE and Roanoke’s WFFC and WVTF (via repeater WVTW) were all up in the Spring 2017 estimates compared to Spring 2016. The survey was conducted prior to format changes at the two Roanoke stations. WFFC continues to be all News/Talk. WVTF is now fulltime Classical music.  It will be interesting to see if the changes have any impact of dual-format WCVE.

All four subscribing stations in Rochester lost cumulative weekly listeners between Spring 2016 and Spring 2017. All four stations are operated by WXXI.      .

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


We’ve got lots of numbers for you today, plus a chart that has no numbers at all.
Dave Edwards

The big news is in Milwaukee. NPR News station WUWM’s estimated weekly listeners grew by almost 50,000 between June 2016 and June 2017, an amazing 33% jump in one year. Dave Edwards and his team have been doing great work for years and now are seeing the benefits. I don’t know if the June 2017 Nielsen Audio estimated weekly cumulative listeners is a record high for WUWM, but I can’t recall when they had a higher cume.

It doesn’t appear that WUWM’s success is coming at the expense of Wisconsin Public Radio’s WHAD. Talk-based WHAD was up 32% in June 2017 compared with June 2016.  Triple A WYMS also made major gains over the past year, up 32%


Jim Johnson

The first results from the Nielsen Audio Spring 2017 Diary markets are now dripping out. The initial batch shows a nice uptick for KGOU in Oklahoma City. 

Credit KGOU PD Jim Johnson for much of the success. He has programmed KGOU for over 20 years.

The battle for NPR News bragging rights in OKC between KGOU, Norman and KOSU, Stillwater is an unusual competition. 

Both stations operat on the fringes of the geographically large metro area.  Both are dual-format stations. Both exist in a state that is 50/50 Snooners and Cowboys. BTW – KOSU was also up and has lots of listeners in the Tulsa metro.


NPR News WWNO increased their number of estimated weekly listeners from June 2015 and June 2017 by over 18% in a two-year trend. We used the June 2015 Nielsen data because apparently WWNO did not subscribe to the ratings in June 2016. 

WWNO’s second station Classical 104.9 did not appear in June 2017 results.

Meanwhile, WWOZ’s new GM Beth Arroyo Utterback starts her job with the highest number of estimated weekly listeners in recent memory.  Credit consultant Arthur Cohen, in part, for WWOZ’s 23% gain.


Thank you to the reader who pointed out an error.

Here is the chart without numbers. Podtrac distributes two monthly podcast charts. 

One shows detailed data regarding the top podcast publishers. 

The other, the one we have today, contains no analytics whatsoever. 

Why won’t Podtrac show line-item data for individual top podcasts?  They aren’t saying.

Think of today's Podtrac chart as an "impressionistic" creation. 


Monday, July 24, 2017


Scott Hanley, GM WZUM, Pittsburgh
Scott Hanley is known as an innovator, former NPR Board member and a successful manager of public radio stations. 

To folks who know Scott, or have followed his career, he is a Jazz music fan and a promoter of Jazz on the radio.

Now, after four years as manager of WBHM, Birmingham, Hanley has returned to Pittsburgh and now is GM of WZUM AM/FM in Pittsburgh [link].   

Hanley is not only a manager, he is an on-air host with deep ties to the Jazz scene. He is a trained musician and performer and the leader of the Jazz Radio Consortium, a collaboration of hosts and stations from across North America.

WZUM's "rim shot" signal
This will be a new kind of challenge for Hanley. Unlike WBHM and WDUQ in Pittsburgh (where Hanley was also GM for many years), WZUM is what is known in the radio biz as a “rim shot” – a marginal signal from outside the metro that only covers only part of the market.

Guiding a station with less than perfect market coverage requires doing more with less.   

In such a situation, every member counts. Fortunately WZUM has a robust streaming audio feed [link]. 

UPDATE Monday 7/24 10:30am CT

Aaron Read just sent me information about a pending upgrade in coverage for WZUM-FM. The new map is on the left. 

Here is Aaron's comment:

You're forgetting that WZUM also has 1550AM that covers the heart of Pittsburgh, and has a CP to put 101.1FM on the air FROM the heart of Pittsburgh. (FM translator to WZUM/AM)
Thank you, Aaron

Though it doesn't have a powerhouse signal, WZUM is a for-real radio station. Known as “Pittsburgh’s Jazz Channel,” WZUM is owned by Pittsburgh Public Media, led by public media entrepreneur Chuck Leavens. It is a combination of several frequencies including WZUM-AM and WZUM-FM, licensed to Bethany, West Virginia.

Look for Hanley and WZUM to “punch far above their weight” as they bring unique public service to the community.


According to estimates provided by Nielsen Audio, in the June 2017 PPM ratings, stations based on NPR News/Talk programming comprise over 50% of the stations with the most weekly cumulative listeners. In fact, secular public radio stations occupy 23 out of the Top 30. Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) stations hold the other 7 slots.

CCM appears to have a larger format share in the June 2017 numbers because four stations operated by the Educational Media Foundation (EMF) now subscribe to the Nielsen ratings. EMF owns two satellite-delivered CCM networks K-Love and Air1.

click to enlarge

As you know, many NPR News in the largest markets have been on a roll recently. 

According to Nielsen Audio estimates, the three stations with the most weekly listeners are WNYC-FM, New York, KQED, San Francisco and WAMU, Washington, DC. 

Compared to June 2016, all three stations have increased their number of weekly listeners by double-digit percentages.

click to enlarge

The four EMF stations that are included in the June 2017 Top 30 were a factor in displacing four stations in the June 2016 Top 30: Triple A KCMP (89.3 The Current), NPR News & Jazz KNKX in Seattle, Dallas Triple A KKXT, and Latin Pop KNIA in Phoenix. 

I’m glad that the listening to the K-Love stations are now known because I feel this Top 30 chart provides a good snapshot of noncom listening in the top markets. K-Love is a sophisticated format that obviously has lots of listeners. Plus, station's that derive 100% of their programming for satellite channels are cheap to operate.

click to enlarge

WQXR, New York, was the only one of the four Classical music stations in the Top 30 to increase its estimated number of weekly listeners. 

KUSC-FM lost over 100,000 weekly listeners and was down 15% compared to June 2016. 

Both Jazz music stations also declined as did Triple A WFUV.