What makes public radio cool?

It’s no secret that public radio audiences tend to be older folk. Not every market has a Current to bring the demographics back toward the middle.

Now, the New York Times reports, NPR chose South By Southwest to unveil a new initiative to make public radio… cool.

Curiously, it took two years for its champion to sell it to the bosses, the newspaper reports.


After about two years of pitching — “I had to ‘sell’ it inside NPR,” she said — Ms. Deabler won the financial and logistical backing of the chief executive of the organization, Gary Knell, and his colleagues. Ms. Deabler calls it “a conscious movement to connect NPR with younger audiences and connect these fans to one another.”

By “younger,” she means listeners under 30, though she is happy to sign up people closer to her own age as well. (She gave her age as “Generation X.”) The age of the typical NPR listener falls somewhere between that of the network personalities Peter Sagal, 48, and Carl Kassel, 78; a 2009 study of public radio found that the median age for an NPR News listener was 52, up from 47 in 1999. The median age for a classical radio listener was 65, up from 58. For NPR’s Web site, the median age is lower. And for podcasts, it’s lower still — about 36.

And so now, there’s a Generation Listen twitter account, on which young people seem to be professing their love of NPR. And a Facebook page with 155 “likes” so far. That’s not a lot.

  • andy

    I started listening to MPR when Wellstone’s plane went down (I was 27). It was the only station where there were no commercials. I’ve been hooked ever since.

    People do say (and have always said) that I act like an old man however…..

  • Matt B

    My wife and I both started listening to public radio in high school (99-2001 time frame). She grew up with Central Michigan Public Radio, I had Michigan Public Radio.

    We’ve been members of MPR for a few years now (we’re 30 and 29) but have always enjoyed the news and shows it has to offer, both in Michigan and Minnesota.

  • Kassie

    I’ve been listening to public radio for as long as I can remember. My dad listened to it when I was growing up and when I went off to my small town college, it was one of the stations that I could actually get on my long drive home.

    I first became a member after college graduation and getting my first job in 2001 or 2002. I was about 24. My parents on the other hand just became members for the first time this year at 55 and 60. It took them a long time, but they finally realized that it was the right thing to do.

    I guess I always thought EVERYONE listens to public radio because everyone I know listens to it and has for years. Are the statistic younger for MPR News than for normal NPR listening? I know The Current brings down the demographics, but what about pre-Current years?

  • BJ

    The Facebook page is already up to 311.

    Am I now to old for this campaign, at 39? Having hard time running my DVD player and smart phone so I must be.

    I listen to KQ in the morning and MPR news most days for the ride home (the current some days or 94.5 some days). Started listening to MPR when I was 29.

  • Chris

    I confess I don’t know the demographics of the NPR audience and I’m sure the 91.1, 99.5 and 89.3 MPR audiences are different with some overlap (I listen to all 3), but I think NPR’s best best is to produce good content. I don’t think garnering a few hundred or a few thousand twitter followers is meaningful to developing a radio audience.

  • Kassie

    Chris- I don’t know if that is true. For TV, if I watch local news (which is rare) I only watch WCCO because of online twitter relationships I have with WCCO personalities, particularly Jason DeRusha. If on twitter he, or another one of the WCCO personalities/accounts, tweets about something coming up on the show I want to watch, I’ll tune it, but I’d never know about the content if I didn’t follow them on twitter. Twitter has been fantastic for Wits which has a much younger demographic than Prairie Home Companion coming out to the tapings.

  • Jeff

    I’m 42. I started listening to public radio in college. My friends and I did Gary Eichten impersonations. Today it seems that almost everyone I work with (all my-generation) listen to MPR. My 9-year-old son asks, “Is Car Talk or Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me on?” every time we get into the car on the weekend.

    How do “they” know the average age of the pubic radio listener? Why do NPR execs think public radio doesn’t appeal to people under 50? Am I all that unusual to know so many fellow public radio listeners?

  • JackU

    As a median age NPR news listener I can say that I got hooked on NPR after college while working outside of Philadelphia listening to Fresh Air in the afternoons on WHYY. When I came to Minnesota for good a couple of years later I started listening to MPR and have been a member for a long time now. (Of course last year I became a punch line, now I’m a median age punch line. College educated, Public Radio listener who drives a Prius.)

  • Chris

    I know Kassie, I am one of those luddites who doesn’t quite get twitter. I think the Fitz holds 900 people, Wits has 1800 followers on twitter. How many people hear it on the radio now? Many more than 1800. Twitter may be a way to market a show to some people, but it is the show itself that garners and holds an audience, not a new way to market the show.

  • Phillip

    I too would be interested to know what the average age of the listeners for each of the stations is, but I don’t know what would be comparable to other NPR affiliates. We’re special and have the three, plus the streaming ones (would the little kids that listen to Wonderground count and drive it even lower?).

    I grew up on 99.5, but since college and then becoming a member I listen to a lot more Current and News. Actually in part because of a friend in the Pacific Northwest would listen to “Talk of the Nation” and “Fresh Air” there in the evenings when I’d help on her farm or we would make supper for each other.

  • http://www.greenlightdesigns.us Jordan

    I’m a college student (ok… I’ll give you that I’m a graduate student), and I’ve been a member of two public radio networks for a few years now. I was initially drawn in by The Current and shows like The World Cafe, but now also am drawn to shows like Wits and the TED Radio Hour, and I have been known to tune in for A Prairie Home Companion. Maybe I’m atypical, but I know in my social group there are other public radio members and even more listeners. It will be interesting to see how this campaign goes.

  • Phillip

    And I’m 26.

  • mark

    I assumed Wits existed for this very reason. It seems like they’re specifically targeting Earwolf subscribers (younger alternative comedy fans).

  • Christin

    As a child I was a passive listener to MPR, both teh news and classical stations. As a young adult, I started listening to MPR on 9/11. I was 21 and have listened daily ever since. Having programs like Wits and stations like the Current in town definitely makes MPR more attractive to younger people. The investment of the Current in our local music scene has made a huge impact (“The Current Effect”) and the Daily Circuit seems to be very aware of a younger more diverse audience as well. If anything, I would say that MPR has listened to criticism about the sterotype of the audience, and as a result has expanded programming in to reach more listeners. I cannot say whether the same is true of NPR…perhaps they ought to take a cue from St. Paul?