Public Radio Audience Is Aging

NPR news audience grows while classical, jazz listenership stagnates, study finds
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The non-com audience has long been dominated by baby boomers, those who came of age during the years of the Vietnam War, hippies and underground FM, and particularly by highly educated boomers, the oldest of which turn 64 on Jan. 1, 2010.

The United States Census Bureau defines the demographic baby boom as 1946 to 1964, during which time approximately 76 million babies were born in the country.

In "The Aging Public Radio Audience," Dr. George Bailey of Walrus Research used AudiGraphics software to analyze spring Arbitron data from 51 FM public radio stations in the top 50 markets — those that generate 75 percent of pubcast radio listening.

He wanted to answer four questions:

  • • At what rate is the public radio audience aging?
  • • Does aging differ among formats?
  • • How do the dynamics of listening vary by format?
  • • What are the implications for future growth of listening and fundraising?


Walrus Research chose a 10 year period — spring 1999 to spring 2009 — to calculate the rate of aging for each format.

News

The best news concerns audience for news formats.

Stations that have dedicated their format to NPR news attract an audience with a median age of 52, almost exactly in the center of the baby boom generation. Ten years ago the same set of NPR stations had a median age of 47. As seen in the second chart, as the median age for NPR news stations went up from 46 to 52 years, their employed audience declined from 77 to 70 percent from 1997 to 2009.

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As of spring 2009, 19 percent of the audience for NPR news stations was generated by persons 60+ years old and not employed. For NPR news station listeners, retirement is top of mind.

By contrast, the audiences for jazz and classical formats are aging faster and those formats are not growing audience. The median age for jazz listeners is 55. Public jazz stations have been less successful at raising money from listeners, which Bailey attributes in part to the audience dynamics. There has been minimal growth in the size of that audience and more of its listeners are further down the road towards retirement than are news listeners. Twenty-three percent of the jazz audience is generated by persons who are 60 years or older and not employed.

Classical

The oldest public radio format is classical music; the median age of its audience has aged seven years over the last 10 years — to age 65. That means half of the classical audience are not boomers but seniors.

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This chart shows how the audience for NPR news stations has been moving into the next stage of life. Although 63 percent of the classical audience was employed in 1997, by 2009 employment was 47 percent. In fact, 46 percent of the classical audience is now generated by persons who are not employed and at least 60 years old. There has been no growth in the size of the classical audience over the 10-year period studied, except as public radio has been able to purchase failing commercial classical stations, Bailey notes.

Age and life stage explain why the classical audience is mostly listening at home, rather than away. The end of employment may have an impact on their willingness to contribute money to stations.

Implications

In fall 2008 NPR news benefited from interest in the Obama campaign; but tracking the size of the audience going forward has been complicated by Arbitron's changeover from the diary to the Portable People Meter.

Bailey says the PPM, just like the diary, finds listeners to be highly educated, affluent and beyond middle age.

Unlike classical or jazz stations, NPR news stations have brought in more listeners over the study period.

Accordingly, educated boomers are likely to dominate the NPR news audience — and more so the contributors — as they age into their retirement years.

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