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Hundreds of local and regional radio and television stations comprise the U.S. public media system. On the radio side, organizations such as NPR and Public Radio Exchange (PRX) produce and distribute programming, reaching audiences through local stations as well as digital channels. (American Public Media, which has provided data for this sheet in the past, did not do so this year.) Individual stations, such as New York’s WNYC and Chicago’s WBEZ, produce nationally syndicated original journalism as well. On the television side, PBS NewsHour produces an evening newscast that airs on local PBS stations around the country. The organization has a digital operation as well. On the whole, the news offerings of U.S. public broadcasters have been marked by relative financial stability and audience. Explore the patterns and longitudinal data about public broadcasting below. (Further data on podcasting is available in a separate fact sheet.)
The top 20 NPR-affiliated public radio stations (by listenership) had on average a total weekly listenership of about 9 million in 2020, down 9% from 2019. (This includes listeners of NPR programming as well as original or other syndicated content aired on these stations.)
When looking specifically at NPR programming across all stations that carry it, terrestrial broadcast listenership declined by 7% between 2019 and 2020. (Traditional radio listening is “terrestrial,” i.e., coming from radio broadcast towers rather than satellites or the internet.) About 26.1 million average weekly listeners tuned in to NPR programming during the year, down from 28.0 million in 2019, according to internal data provided by the organization.
Programming from PRX, which distributes programs such as The World and The Takeaway, reached a terrestrial audience of about 9.5 million on average per week, roughly the same as in 2019.
Weekly broadcast audience of NPR and PRX
NPR’s broadcasting reach remained mostly stable between 2019 and 2020 in terms of both the number of member stations (stations either owned or operated by member organizations) and the number of stations airing any NPR programming (which includes member stations). The number of member organizations – flagship educational and community organizations that operate at least one station – stood at 254, down 4% from the previous year.
Broadcasting reach of NPR
In 2020, 927 stations were airing programming from PRX, roughly the same as in 2019.
NPR’s digital platforms continue to be an important part of its reach. The NPR One app, which offers a stream of individual shows and podcasts, had a similar average number of total completed sessions in 2020 as in 2019, depending upon the device. (A completed session is any instance in which a user starts and stops using the app.) The NPR News app, which offers livestreams from individual stations and digital content, increased sharply in completed sessions among iPhone users.
The audience for public television programming increased sharply over the past year: In 2020, the NewsHour program, which airs on PBS, attracted 1.2 million viewers on average, up 18% from the year before.
The financial picture for news outlets in public broadcasting appeared strong both locally and nationally.
At the national level, NPR’s total operating revenue in 2020 was $270.1 million, roughly the same as 2019. PRX was down 10%, falling to about $37.6 million in total revenue for 2020.
Total revenue for NPR and PRX
At the local public radio level, an analysis of the public filings provided by 123 of the largest news-oriented licensees (organizations that operate local public radio stations) shows that in 2019 – the last year for which reliable data is available – total revenue for this group was $989.7 million.
This revenue for local public radio comes from a range of streams, but individual giving (which includes member revenue and major gifts) and underwriting (from businesses and foundations as well as other nonprofit organizations) are two key sources of funding. Among the 123 news-oriented licensees studied here, individual giving and underwriting accounted for a combined $657.4 million in revenue in 2019.
The total number of individual members – defined as anyone who has given money to one of the stations owned by these 123 licensees in each calendar year – in 2019 was 2.4 million, about the same as the previous year.
On the television side, NewsHour derives its revenue from a variety of sources, including PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and a mix of “nonpublic” streams such as corporations, individual giving and foundations. While the details about public sources of revenue were unavailable for this analysis, NewsHour did provide information about its breakdown of nonpublic funding. In 2020, contributions from individuals comprised 24% of total nonpublic funding. (Information on whether the total amount of this funding rose or fell was also unavailable.)
Program and production expenses for the 123 news-oriented local public radio licensees was $500 million in 2019, compared with $487.9 million in 2018. While program and production expenses comprise only a portion of overall station expenses, an increase in these kinds of expenditures indicates that the stations are directing more dollars toward the creation of news content.
Find out more
Pew Research Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder. This is the latest report in Pew Research Center’s ongoing investigation of the state of news, information and journalism in the digital age, a research program funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Read the methodology.
Find more in-depth explorations of public broadcasting by following the links below:
- Broad agreement in U.S. – even among partisans – on which news outlets are part of the ‘mainstream media’, May 7, 2021
- How Americans Navigated the News in 2020: A Tumultuous Year in Review, Feb. 22, 2021
- Measuring News Consumption in a Digital Era, Dec. 8, 2020
- Americans’ main sources for political news vary by party and age, April 1, 2020
- U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided, Jan. 24, 2020