Public Radio Time Devoted to Local News

The survey we’ve been unpacking here for the past few weeks still has more to offer!

In this series, we reveal what we found about the amount of airtime that was devoted to local news and public affairs in an average week during 2010 on public radio stations in the United States. At the bottom of the page, we offer an educated guess on what this adds up to per year.

The chart below shows the distribution of our sample per airtime category.

It is quickly apparent that the bulk of stations (72%) are devoting between 1 to 10 hours per week on-air to local news. The largest single share is in the 1-3 hours per week category. Followed by the 4-6 hours per week group.

Another 22% of public radio stations go further, committing well in excess of 11 hours per week to local news programming.

Only 6% offer less than an hour per week of local news.

We didn’t separate weekday programming from weekends, but we can say from observation and experience that the vast majority of the local news time reported here would be during the five day work week. This means the bulk of local public radio stations are offering roughly 30 to 120 minutes of local news per day. And some heavy hitters are providing around 4 hours per day.

Local News Still A Modest Commitment by Most

The next chart shows the same data but in real numbers rather than percentages. It also separates out those stations that are radio only from those that are shared with a television station (the joint licensees).

This chart shows the predominance of stand alone radio stations in providing the bulk of local news minutes, especially in comparison to the joint licensees. However, it also shows that joint licensees (with their larger service missions of both radio and television platforms) tend to make up a larger share of those columns toward the right side of the graph — the stations devoting greater airtime to local news and public affairs.

More News Spending Yields More News Programming

To slice things a bit further, we did a cross-tab by annual news budget size. The news budgets were reported earlier but now we can see how they may relate to the amount of airtime committed to local news.

The following chart takes all the respondents and sorts them into 8 budget categories — the eight colorful columns. The smallest budgeted newsrooms are in the column on the left. The largest budgeted newsrooms are on the right. For each column, there are color coded segments that correspond to the legend — sorting the stations by average weekly airtime allotted to local news. The number inside each color segment shows the actual number of stations.

This allows you to find your station according to news budget size… and then see where you compare in terms of weekly news time.

[Editor’s note: this graph was corrected after this post was first published. The original graph did not exclude TV only stations. This one does.]

Columns are sets of public radio stations by news budget size. Each column shows relative distribution of stations by “average news time per week.”

Granted this chart got a little squished in the translation (click on it to see it more clearly). But essentially what it shows is that as the stations invest more money in news, they report greater amounts of airtime devoted to news. This can be seen easily in the color progression from left to right. The blue, orange and green segments generally diminish while the red, purple, brown, lavender and gray segments generally increase. Of course, the numbers of stations are still largely concentrated in the lesser budget columns and in the more modest airtime segments.

While this tells us nothing of the quality of the programming, the correlation between budget resources and programming time indicates a quality connection. The good news is that stations seem to be striving for quality relative to staffing and budgeting — thus you should see less quantity among those stations on the left of the graph…  and those on the left airing many hours per day raise some suspicion about their quality.

Bottom Line: Over 100,000 Hours Per Year!

Since we didn’t ask for exact numbers (we only asked stations to choose a category), we can’t say definitively how many hours of local news are produced each day in public radio. However, we can approximate. Using the midpoints of our category ranges, we multiplied that mark by the number of stations in each category. (For the 21+ category, we used 24 as the multiplier.)

For our sample, then, we arrive at just under 2000 hours per week of original local news programming on U.S. public radio. Or about 400 hours per day. That scales to roughly 100,000 hours per year based on 50-weeks of output. This seems to be a handy number and rather conservative too — considering the sample is roughly 80% of the actual public radio universe in the United States.

FYI — earlier we reported on the news programming trends showing a third of stations plan to increase their news time commitment this year.

About the Survey

A direct-invitation survey was conducted between July 26 and August 15, 2010 by Michael Marcotte of MVM Consulting with help from Steve Martin of SFM Consulting and Ken Mills of the Ken Mills Agency. This survey was conducted as a supplement to a CPB/PRNDI census of local public broadcasting journalists. (Download a copy of the survey.) Ninty-two percent of all CPB-qualified public broadcast organizations took part in the main survey, and about 80% of those went on to complete the supplemental (or about 380 stations). The section reported here combines the radio and joint licensees, and leaves out the TV respondents.


Published by

Michael V. Marcotte

Hi, I'm the (first-ever) Professor of Practice in Journalism at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I teach multimedia journalism and launched are innovation/collaboration lab: New Mexico News Port. Previously, I was the 2012-2013 Reynolds Chair in Ethics of Entrepreneurial and Innovative Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno... and, before that, a 2011 Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. I'm also very active as a consultant in public media news, having spent over 20 years as a news director. My website is or on Twitter:

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