The COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 138,000 Americans and sent ripples through even the most mundane aspects of American life, and that includes our daily grinds. So many people are working from home that, without all of us trapped in car commutes, National Public Radio is facing a historic downturn in listenership.
NPR reported on its own loss of listeners yesterday:
Broadcast ratings for nearly all of NPR’s radio shows took a steep dive in major markets this spring, as the coronavirus pandemic kept many Americans from commuting to work and school. The network’s shows lost roughly a quarter of their audience between the second quarter of 2019 and the same months in 2020.
People who listened to NPR shows on the radio at home before the pandemic by and large still do. But many of those who listened on their commute have not rejoined from home. And that threatens to alter the terrain for NPR for years to come, said Lori Kaplan, the network’s senior director of audience insights.
“We anticipated these changes,” Kaplan said. “This kind of change was going to take place over the next decade. But the pandemic has shown us what our future is now.”
Losing a quarter of your listeners is huge! And traffic certainly has dropped off significantly on America’s roads. A study from the data firm Streetlight Data found daily travel in the U.S. dropped by 68 to 72 percent in the last two weeks at the start of the pandemic. Currently, some of the country’s traffic is getting back to normal or even worse than before, but there are still steep declines in coastal areas of the United States—prime NPR country.
According to a new study by Morning Consult, those listeners might stay gone. A full 75 percent of Americans said they would work from home at least once a week if/when the pandemic is under control. Another 32 percent want to stay in their home offices full time. As Streetsblog noted, a 32 percent reduction in daily drivers could lead to as many as 48.1 million cars off the road every day.
Before the pandemic, the average American traveled 26.6 minutes each way on their commutes. That was a lot of time to mellow out to the soothing tones of Terry Gross or just fervently listen to the latest horrifying news while desperately wishing you could hear just one more episode of Car Talk.
But the truth is NPR was already losing its literally captive audience. Its business model is ready to topple as entertainment options in new cars are limited only by your imagination. I know I used to be a NPR listener (and even got my start in journalism at the 101.9 Detroit) but now I mostly listen to podcasts of their broadcast shows, if I listen at all.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the news network, as NPR is maybe happier to report:
There are some countercurrents. Ten major stations have enjoyed a spike in audience, thanks to a sharp rise in listening at home. Those include Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Austin, Texas. Public radio officials say they do not yet know to what to attribute that rise.
Ironically, this larger plunge in radio listenership has occurred even as a record number of people are turning to NPR for news and other content. More than 57 million people now consume the network’s offerings each week, whether on radio or its various digital platforms. That’s a rise of nearly 10% from last year, despite the severe drop in the broadcast audiences. Podcast downloads and the usage of NPR’s listening apps are up nearly a quarter, and there is a 76% increase in users of NPR.org as more people access the network’s content from home.
COVID is going to change many things for good, and NPR will have to change as well if it wants some years left in it.