Is Public Radio Too Middle Aged?

Public radio has hit hard times in the United States. According to recent accounts in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, National Public Radio is having budgetary problems resulting in show cancellations as well as tensions with its member stations over fundraising.

I worked at Chicago Public Radio for four years, so part of my interest in these developments is purely personal. But I wanted to talk about it here because it’s also the case that listening to public radio – in America, at least – is and always has been a much “older thing” to do. No one I know in the States began listening (or much less contributing money) to public radio until they were well into their thirties. I distinctly remember the first time that I began to identify with a local station – WAMU in Washington, DC. I was thirty-four.

I’m not sure why listening to public radio has become synonymous with maturity, exactly. It could be the long form interviews…the more in-depth news analysis…the sometimes esoteric programming…or simply the age of the average guest/host that somehow, combined, demand a longer attention span. The sort that comes with age.

There’s certainly been a lot of handwringing within the public radio world over how to reach a younger demographic. Chicago Public Radio responded with something called Vocalo. Others may remember the short-lived Bryant Park Project which was meant to cultivate a younger, more diverse NPR audience. (A friend of mine who’s an economist once appeared on a BPP segment via telephone. As she waited for her interview to begin, she listened to the hosts talk with some hip, young guy about his “podcamp” that was spreading like wildfire. Then, when they segued to her story, they literally said: “So, there’s something going on in DC about health insurance programs. No, don’t reach for the ‘off ‘ button on your Ipod! This is actually interesting…” Ouch.).

I don’t know how NPR is going to square this circle. Apparently, listeners are at an all time high, but they are tuning in for shorter and shorter periods of time. We here in Great Britain face our own travails with the BBC (more on that some other time), but at least I don’t have to worry that my beloved (lengthy, overly-intellectual and decidedly middle-aged) programming will end any time soon. Phew.

In the meantime, I think I’ll just tune out of this whole dilemma and go back to that great Aldous Huxley retrospective I was just listening to on Radio Four…


If you are a public radio junkie, by all means visit a new website created by two of my former Chicago Public Radio colleagues –  Radiopublic – where you can listen to and talk about your favorite shows, as well as catch up on what’s going on inside the industry.

Image: National Public Radio Headquarters by SavetheDave via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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