Tuesday, April 3, 2018


Image courtesy of NPR
Last week NPR sent out a press release [link] touting its stellar performance in broadcast ratings and digital analytics. 

The release received heavy play in industry media. One major trade publication reported the story under the headline It’s a new world – where NPR brags about ratings.

The first sentence the press release claims NPR and its Member stations have upheld their highest broadcast ratings of all time. This is only partially true and ignores the actual performance of many top NPR member stations. As usual, ratings can be sliced and diced to fit a narrative.

An analysis by Spark News of Nielsen Audio’s February 2018 PPM ratings of listening to the top twenty NPR News/Talk stations shows cracks in NPR’s happy face. In fact, the number of estimated weekly listeners to these twenty stations in February 2018 (9,838,100) dropped by 3.7% compared to February 2017 (10,217,100).

The downward trend is more profound at individual stations. KUHF, Houston lost 22% of its estimated weekly listeners, comparing February 2018 with February 2017. KNOW, Minneapolis was down 16%; WBEZ, Chicago was down 17%; and WAMU, Washington DC – and de facto NPR News flagship – was down 15%

Overall 13 of the top twenty stations (65%) had fewer estimated weekly listeners in February 2018 than a year earlier. Seven stations (35%) increased their estimated number of weekly listeners over the same period. Dual-formatted KNKX, Seattle was the biggest gainer, up 20%.

The charts on the left show that NPR’s record performance occurred  in some markets but not in others. 

While the continued growth of estimated weekly listeners to WNYC-FM is heartening, the drop in weekly listeners to WAMU is puzzling. 

Is the declining number of estimated listeners to WAMU because the programming is less appealing? Or is commercial News/Talker WTOP taking away listeners from WAMU? Or are people turning off radio and getting their news elsewhere? Perhaps all of these explanations are true.

Another cause for concern is WBEZ, Chicago. ‘BEZ’s estimated weekly listeners have fallen to pre-2016 election levels, erasing months of growth. Dual-formatted KCRW, Los Angeles is showing the same pattern.

KUHF, Houston was the biggest shocker of all. The number of estimated weekly listeners to KUHF has fallen to levels not seen since 2014. The number of estimated weekly listeners to KNOW, Minneapolis, fell 18% compared to February 2017. Even NPR News/Talk icons such as KOPB, Portland, and WHYY, Philadelphia were down.

NPR uses average-quarter-hour (AQH) share estimates to prove their claims. It is possible for a station to increase its AQH share while its number of weekly listeners decreases. This is because AQH shares are a percentage of people listening to radio. The weekly cume is the total number of listeners 6+ in the entire metro area, whether they are listening to radio or not.

For example, even though the number of KQED’s estimated weekly listeners in February 2018 dropped 5% from February 2017, KQED’s AQH share grew from 7.7% in February 2017 to 8.8% in February 2018.  So did KQED gain or lose ground? The bottom line is that in February 2018 there were 50,000 fewer people listening to KQED than there were in February 2017, at the height of the post-election ratings bliss.

There is another potential downside to NPR’s excessive crowing about beating commercial stations in the Nielsen Audio ratings. Public radio stations pay much, much less money for access to the data than commercial stations do. 

The Radio Research Consortium (RRC), the broker for Nielsen’s noncommercial numbers, cautions clients not to brag too loudly about beating commercial stations in the ratings. The fear is that big commercial radio companies like Hubbard Radio, owner of WTOP, might claim that a noncom station like WAMU is paying too little for its data. This might cause commercial stations to question RRC’s sweetheart deal with Nielsen.

On the practical level, NPR doesn’t need to boast about its ratings because trade press like Spark News will get the word out. So, Jarl, it is cool to point out success but there is no need to hype it.

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