50 Years of NPR
by Patrick McCullough | published Dec. 29th, 2021
This year, National Public Radio celebrated 50 years on the air.
In half a century of broadcasting, NPR’s reporting has brought history into the American home: from protests against the Vietnam war in the 1970s — to bleeding-edge coverage of the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
NPR has been a touchstone of American culture since its frantic inception with the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.
In fact, the words “and radio” were literally Scotch-taped into the bill at the very last minute, words that would lay the foundation for public radio as it’s known today.
At the time of writing, the non-profit radio network has around 138 million audience members a month and hosts the top two drive-time talk radio programs in America.
How We Got Here
Public radio has been a part of American media even before it was taped into law.
In the early days of radio, colleges operated information and entertainment stations for local listeners. As the quality of the content increased, so did competition for airspace.
In 1941, the Federal Communications Commission reserved the lower levels of the radio band for noncommercial, educational FM stations, where most of public radio remains to this day.
The two biggest names in public broadcasting then and now are National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Both were incorporated under the umbrella Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) as non-profit organizations funded by a mix of government money, public donations and underwritten statements from sponsors.
NPR releases news through a series of ‘affiliate stations.’ Content filters down from the national broadcaster to local-level stations, who release it alongside their own local news.
NPR’s model includes syndicated, national-level shows and reporting that the central organization sends out to affiliated local stations.
Those stations broadcast the big picture from NPR, and add more specialized local reporting to the mix.
Scott Fybush is a reporter for Rochester’s own NPR affiliate WXXI. He has been working at the station for seventeen of the thirty years he’s spent in the radio industry.
“There is a place for being an established source of news and of information," Fybush explained. "I think a lot of local NPR stations have done that really well, especially at a time where a lot of other places that used to fill that need have been diminished in the extent to which they can do it."
The conventional forms of media — like the newspaper — have diminished, if raw numbers are anything to go by.
According to an analysis by Pew Research, newspaper newsroom employment fell by 57 percent between 2008 and 2020 while digital-native platforms grew by 114 percent.
Even with the sharp contrast between print and digital, overall newsroom employment dropped by 26 percent in the same period.
In a time where the majority of Americans get their news from a smartphone or tablet, formats like radio can seem like old news.
“The whole universe has changed around radio. I think the broad story of radio in the last twenty years has been ‘where is the niche that we can still occupy,’” Fybush explained. “We can still be that thing that is live and local and telling you what is happening right now.”
That’s the benefit of public radio’s ‘member station’ model. Listeners are able to hear reports from all around the country through NPR, but that information is presented alongside local stories from local reporters.
This lets member stations tailor their programming to the needs of the community, something public radio has gotten very good at doing.
Much of public media is framed as providing a necessary public service. Their reporting is funded by the community they report on and subsidized by the federal government.
Thomas Dooley is a lecturer at the School of Communication at RIT. He has also worked as a producer for PBS specializing in multimedia journalism.
“There’s a misconception in the public that PBS and NPR are fully funded by the federal government, which is not the case," Dooley said. "It is a significant amount of money for those small stations, but in the federal budget $450 million dollars is pocket change.”
In some cases, the CPB makes up the majority of a station’s income. In others, local radio stations need to get creative — public donations, grant funding, underwritten adverts and even vehicle donation programs are all ways of funding public media that fall outside the traditional, advertiser-centric media model.
Stations that are supported by local communities have a vested interest in covering local events. The depth of coverage offered by public radio affiliate stations allows them to reference NPR’s wider body of work when talking about national issues while still maintaining local reporters to discuss local happenings.
“Because public media is built in a way that is not reliant on advertising dollars, they rarely have to break into coverage for any kind of underwriting credit,” Dooley explained. “NPR and PBS are able to provide stories that go much longer in time and much deeper in their quality of coverage.”
In some cases, these stations are one of a handful of others covering political events at the town and county level, since the audience for that kind of content is limited to the county where it happens.
Public stations are also able to cover stories that commercial stations may choose not to. Through a partnership between WXXI and the Golisano Foundation, the Move to Include program was “designed to promote inclusion for people with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities.”
“Disabilities are not often in the news — whether they are positive stories or news stories around issues,” Dooley explained. “The Move to Include initiative basically guarantees coverage across all of WXXI’s media properties; they have PBS and NPR.”
The initiative, which covers a traditionally under-covered group of people, started with WXXI was such a success that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarded the station a grant to expand out to five additional public media stations.
Success stories like Move to Include underscore the stated purpose of NPR and its affiliates: “To create a more informed public — one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.”