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The Pubradio Files, Part 1: The rise of public radio

August 5, 2011

(This is the first of three essays on the state of public radio. The second will look at the consequences of public radio’s recent successes. In part three, I will offer some ideas for a more relevant, vibrant public radio. As someone with nearly 20 years of experience in the field, I think I have some insight to offer. Hope so, anyway.

Previously, I wrote “There Is No Spit in Cremo!” which discussed the original concept of radio as a public service and its rapid descent into commercialism. In an attempt at drollery, I dubbed that essay “part zero” in the series.)


Back in the 1940s, all the big commercial broadcasters were on AM radio. Hard to imagine, I know. FM radio was in its infancy, it had very few listeners, and no one yet realized its potential as a superior broadcast medium. That didn’t happen until the late 1960s.

So in the ’40s, when the government set aside the lower end of the FM dial (from 88-92) for “educational” broadcasting, commercial broadcasters didn’t really care. Without that decision, we wouldn’t have any kind of public radio today; FM “real estate” is far too valuable to let any of its profit potential go to waste.

For its first couple of decades in existence, “educational broadcasting” was largely a backwater. Most licenses were held by colleges and universities, and operated in accordance with their educational mission. They didn’t really care how many people listened. And relatively few did. The bulk of the programming was classical music.

The original NPR logo

This began to change in 1970 when National Public Radio was established. The following year, NPR created All Things Considered, its afternoon news and information program. In 1979, Morning Edition went on the air. Those programs attracted an audience eager for serious news on the radio, and soon displaced other offerings from the prime hours of radio — “drive time,” roughly 6-8 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. Those are the peak ratings hours for all radio stations.

My own broadcasting career began in the mid-1970s, when I was a student at the University of Michigan. A couple of internships at the university’s public radio station led to a part-time job after I graduated. 

At the time, Michigan Radio was a congenial place to work. Staffers received generous pay and benefits, and were given wide latitude in doing their jobs. A few seized the opportunity and did some unique, exciting programs. Some, on the other hand, became too comfortable. They did minimal work, churning out pretty much the same stuff every day. 

But the biggest force for change was Ronald Reagan. When he became President, he made large cuts in funding for public radio and television. This forced local stations to become more entrepreneurial, seeking funds from listeners, corporations, and foundations. This meant that they had to pay more attention to their audience.

Michigan Radio was hit from multiple directions. The energy crisis of the late ’70s delivered a big blow to the US auto industry, and hence to Michigan’s economy. All three of Michigan Radio’s major funding sources — federal, state, and University — were cut at almost the same time. In the ensuing budget crunch, several staffers were laid off. Including me. 

The Reagan cutbacks, along with the early success of NPR’s daily news programs, set public radio on the course it has followed to this day. Stations needed listeners. The number-one attraction: NPR. From the early 80s onward, public radio gradually shifted away from music and cultural offerings and toward news and information. Also, away from local programming and toward higher-quality, higher-cost national programming.

This trend accelerated in the early ’90s, when NPR launched a full weekday schedule of news and information programming. The consistent format was an attractive proposition for stations that were hamstrung by mixed schedules of news and music: every time a station shifted from one to the other, there was an almost complete turnover in the audience.

This was a huge problem for stations becoming ever more dependent on donor support. The magic words for public radio fundraising are “time spent listening” (TSL). If you listen more than a certain number of hours per week (roughly 8-10 hours, last time I checked), you are very likely to donate. If your TSL is lower, you are very unlikely to give.

If a station wants to boost audience and TSL, a consistent format is a must. Since the news format was invariably more popular than music, the choice was clear.

Through the 1980s, Michigan Radio gradually, and rather grudgingly, adjusted to these new realities. But its finances continued to erode, eventually reaching a critical stage. In 1995, new management was brought in. The following year, most of the old staffers were let go and the station dropped classical music in favor of NPR’s news and information schedule. 

I had rejoined Michigan Radio in 1993 after several years in commercial radio. I was, I believe, the only on-air regular who fully survived the 1996 transition to the new format. I stayed there until 2000, when my wife and I moved to New England. 

Meanwhile, commercial radio had virtually abandoned any kind of news and information programming. Most commercial stations don’t even pretend to offer any news. Even the so-called “news” stations do little or no original newsgathering; their news departments largely consist of anchors, ripping and reading copy from the Associated Press or lifted from newspapers and websites.  Into this massive breach stepped NPR, offering high-quality news that towered above the meager efforts of commercial stations and networks. NPR had a clear field. And it was a very fertile field; news listeners tend to be well-educated, affluent, and inclined to become donors.

In many markets, public radio stations are very competitive in the ratings race. In some markets, the public station is actually #1. And thanks to the affluence and loyalty of its audience, public radio has become a fundraising powerhouse — especially in large markets. Most public radio stations have become highly professionalized operations, becoming more and more separate from their roots in higher education.

Public radio has done (and still does) wonderful things. It provides an absolutely unique service to our social dialogue and our political system with its serious and objective news coverage. By and large, it has used its success wisely, making significant investments in its programming. It has also done better than many traditional media outlets in adjusting to the Internet age, providing supplemental material to its broadcast offerings and plenty of original stuff as well. This is, in most respects, a golden age of public radio.

But success has its consequences. I’ll explore those in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned.

One Comment
  1. Ned Ryerson permalink

    Thank you for doing this John. I am rather interested in radio as a medium. I even thought I wanted to work in radio and was in the “College of Journalism and Telecommunications” before I discontinued my relationship with the University of Florida. The academic study of the radio “industry” is pretty much worthless, although, as you did previously, examining the roots and the intended public good in light of what radio has become is eye opening.

    I still remember those announcements they used to (were required to?) run about the license status and how the licensure filings were available for the public to view at the station. I often wondered how many people wandered into a radio station asking to look over the application for license.

    This installment really speaks to me because I’ve always found the NPR (and some of those other “networks” like PRI to be fantastic and have always sought them out, but, particularly here in the Tampa Bay area, the big powerful public radio station (WUSF) was committed to huge blocks of the day for classical music. I found that frustrating personally because I would much prefer to hear words and ideas (particularly the way many of these programs presented them) than more Mahler. (Not that I casually dismiss classical music as worthwhile, but it seems like a waste to fill up all the airtime when you could hear immediate, thoughtful takes on what’s happening in the world…I was a freshman in college when Marcos was overthrown in the Phillipines and I listened with fascination as audio from election offices being stormed as the people rose up and demanded that sham elections be discredited. Where else was I going to get this?)

    Something really interesting has happened here in the Tampa Bay area in the last year…interesting and frustrating. WUSF acquired the tower and signal of a defunct Christian station operating in the southern part of the region (Sarasota) with the intent of operating two different signals simultaneously. One would run the news and talk station and the other would continue to run the classical music and even expand the offerings. People that couldn’t stand Morning Edition could get their baroque fix earlier in the morning. So win win. They did announce that the signal of the station they just acquired would have to be boosted in order to cover the same area that the original signal covered, but listeners were assured that this was all planned out and that it would take a few months to complete. They went ahead and switched to the news and talk format on the original station, but then ran into protracted technical prblems due to some conflicts with Coast Guard emergency broadcast equipment sharing the tower with the Sarasota station (I think I have the right, but don’t quote me). So the classical music fans are miffed. Some are also unhappy with the “liberal bias” of the news (or at least that’s one way they frame their complaints against the new content, sorry this kvetching is kind a personal bugaboo of mine). I find these developments an interesting illustration of the points you make about Public Radio finding and maintaining audiences to stay viable and making sometimes hard choices to stay in operation. And yes, even though work prevents me from listening during most days, I personally am happy to have this current programming and am much more likely to support it than the previous musical format. I’m not sure what the current status is for the transition. The squabblineg has died down.

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