National Public Radio, a frequent target of conservatives for its liberal news and commentary, has been hit hard by the global pandemic as commuters have been largely forced to work from home, costing the broadcaster both listenership and sponsorship/underwriting money that makes up a large part of NPR’s budget.
Compared to the same time period in 2019, NPR lost nearly one-quarter of its audience despite the fact that ten major affiliates saw an increase in listenership including Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis and Philadelphia.
Lori Kaplan, the network’s senior director of audience insights, blamed the drop on commuters that didn’t continue the same listening habits once they were confined to their homes, but that it was anticipated to some extent in an interview with NPR’s David Fokenflik.
“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.”
“We’re experiencing a sea change,” Kaplan said. “We’re not going back to the same levels of listening that we’ve experienced in the past on broadcast.”
Kaplan warned that this could alter the terrain for NPR for years to come and not in a positive way.
NPR CEO John Lansing calculated that the pandemic will result in the loss of $23 million in sponsorships putting severe pressure on the company as workers stay home.
“The first thing that I see is a situation driven by habits of consumers that are not related to the content of our programs,” Lansing said. “It’s almost entirely related to the disruption caused by the pandemic to commuting patterns both in the morning and the evenings. [Most] of us, including me, are working from home.”
Lansing has managed to negotiate pay reductions with the staff including furloughs, a near-total hiring freeze, and a temporary freeze on employer retirement contributions through Sept. 30 in exchange for job protections.
If things don’t improve quickly Lansing may have to lay off staff when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 and is projecting a deficit of between $30 million and $43 million for the upcoming year making it easily the worst in NPR’s 50-year history.
NPR has no plans to stop broadcasting, but programming may look very different from the pre-pandemic days under a more austere budget.