Attributes of Local NPR Stations: On Air Content

Our new survey of local public media newsrooms finds a solid commitment to daily coverage, a broad effort to provide depth coverage, and rather sporadic levels of deep engagement and intensive production.

The charts below provide a break-out of NPR member station survey responses on their depth of commitment to local news broadcast elements. (To see all public media results, see this overview piece.)

Two years ago, we took a look at what local NPR stations were calling local news on their airwaves. While we modified the survey and the analysis somewhat, in general the picture looks quite similar.

Here is the stack of local news program types we asked about in the 2012 Survey of Stations (MVM/UNR/USC 2012) — ranked by their mean score. The higher the score, the more prevalent the commitment of resources to this programming type.

MVM 2012 NPR On Air Means.001

This hierarchy of commitments ranks about the same as it did in 2010 — though, as mentioned, the methodology changed to cover more program types and to give us a more refined look.

Here are the charts for each program type.


Interviews are such a key element of original news gathering, it’s great to see they rank highest among all NPR stations as a local news staple.

2012 MVM NPR Interviews.001


Most stations are heavily vested in newscasts as the vehicle for their local news.

2012 MVM NPR Newscasts.001

News Features

The 3-5 minute feature is a fundamental unit of news in public radio, which devotes more time to issue coverage. Over half the NPR stations have a high or very high commitment to feature reporting.

2012 MVM NPR Features.001

Breaking News

Breaking news coverage ranks a lot higher than one might guess, given the emphasis on depth coverage on NPR stations. Yet, these radio stations are assuming a larger role in the daily coverage of their communities and that requires some willingness to get on top of breaking news.

2012 MVM NPR Breaking News.001

Beat Reporting

Beat reporting is a sign of a depth and commitment to original journalism. This is less of a program type than it is an organizational approach to news, but it is fundamental to how news is gathered, packaged and presented. Since beats generally require larger newsrooms, there’s a divide in the data.

2012 MVM NPR Beats.001

News Series

Another sign of healthy commitment to depth of coverage is the “news series,” where a topic is too big to be covered in one report, so it is managed in multiple installments. A quarter of stations have a high or very high commitment to series.

2012 MVM NPR Series.001

Specialty Programs

Local stations serve their communities well when they can tailor content to meet local needs. This category shows a rather healthy commitment to specialty programs — whether they be segments on arts, health, business, etc. Sometimes these elements are more attractive to sponsors, which may help fuel wider adoption.

2012 MVM NPR Specialty Prog.001

On Air Calendars

These on-air calendar of events used to be a larger staple of public radio. Websites are better at delivering that kind of information. However, many small stations still provide them.

2012 MVM NPR Calendar.001

Talk Shows

This chart is rather flat indicating that talk shows are not uniformly popular in public radio. But they rank as high or very high commitments from almost a third of stations. In general, talk shows indicate a station’s larger staffing commitment to local news and public affairs.

2012 MVM NPR Talk Show.001

News Specials

This chart shows a low commitment to this kind of local news programming. The news special is typically a timely, one-off, intensively produced program. News stations don’t need to resort to news specials if they are doing a good job of daily coverage, feature coverage, series coverage, beat coverage, etc.

2012 MVM NPR News Specials.001


Public Service Announcements aren’t news but they fulfill a local community service commitment, and sometimes they are handled by newsrooms. More than half of stations have little or no commitment to them.

2012 MVM NPR PSA.001

Town Hall Meetings

In an age of social media, the town hall meeting is more anachronistic than ever. Seventy percent of NPR member stations make little or no commitment to hosting or airing them.

2012 MVM NPR Town Hall.001

Live Reports or Live Remotes

Radio is a medium for immediacy, but two-thirds of local NPR stations are hardly committed to this form of news coverage.

2012 MVM NPR Live Reports.001

On Air Magazines

Most stations don’t produce on-air news magazines, which tend to be labor intensive. Yet, a fourth of stations do have the resources or commitment to produce them.

2012 MVM NPR On Air Magazine.001


The local radio news documentary has been a fading form for years. The most remarkable thing in this chart is that some 12% of stations are committed to them.

2012 MVM NPR Documentaries.001


Radio commentaries give opinion leaders access to the airwaves to provide perspective on the news. This was the least popular form of local news programming found in the survey.

2012 MVM NPR Commentary.001

About the Survey

The 2012 Survey of Stations was conducted by Michael V. Marcotte of MVM Consulting in coordination with the University of Nevada School of Journalism, where Marcotte is a visiting professor. Collaborating on the invitation only, online survey was PhD candidate Sandra Evans of The Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. 136 stations participated, 103 of them were NPR members.


Attributes of Local NPR Stations: Local News Airtime

Data from the 2012 MVM/UNR/USC survey of local NPR news stations show that almost half the stations in the system are producing an hour or less of local news per day (M-F).

The other half of the stations go much deeper into local news… with a quarter of stations producing more than 12 hours per week.

2012 MVM NPR Air Time Radio.001


NPR Stations See Need to Improve Local Online News

New survey results from MVM Consulting show NPR stations far less satisfied with their online local news than with their local news on air.

The data show 72% of NPR stations are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their on air local news programming. Only 10% were at all dissatisfied with the broadcast product.

2012 MVM NPR Satisfaction On Air.001
But when the same question was asked about each station’s online local news content, the responses were far less effusive. A third of stations expressed dissatisfaction.

2012 MVM NPR Satisfaction Online.001
As reported earlier, stations are reporting efforts to expand their online news staffing and content. But for now there’s a significant gap between their levels of satisfaction, radio versus online.

The 2012 Survey of Stations was conducted by Michael V. Marcotte of MVM Consulting in coordination with the University of Nevada School of Journalism, where Marcotte is a visiting professor. Collaborating on the invitation only, online survey was PhD candidate Sandra Evans of The Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. 136 stations participated, 103 of them were NPR members.

Local Public Media On Air News Time by News Budget

I just thought this data visualization was cool. It uses an area chart to compare public radio stations.

The x axis are budget categories of stations. Small budgets to the left. Large budgets to the right.

The y axis are the percentage of stations in that budget category.

The colorized data, as shown in the legend, are the “average local news hours per week.”

So what looks like a colorful cubist bird diving past jagged mountains is simply this: the lower budgeted stations do fewer hours of local news on-air, and the higher budgeted stations do more hours of local news on-air each week!


Weekly On Air News Time by Local Public Media News Budget

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.

News Programming

One of the longstanding questions among public radio programmers is what kind of news should we produce?

Journalists debate trade-offs between spot news and in-depth features. Producers love what the magazine format lets them do. Many stations have launched local talk/interview programs as an economical way to achieve news impact. And so on and so forth.

It looks to us like daily news is coming on strong. Stand-alone shows are less prevalent.

A supplemental local news survey taken last summer by consultants Mike Marcotte, Steve Martin and Ken Mills (as a piggy-back study to the CPB/PRNDI Census of Journalists) asked all public radio and TV stations in America to provide some detail on what they are producing as local news and public affairs.

The charts below show the share of stations providing various news program types. The TV-only stations have been excluded, leaving a sample of 289 radio-only, or radio-TV joint licensees.

These charts are stacked in order of the most common to the least common news program types.

Daily Newscasts

It can now be said with absolute authority that a major majority (72%) of public radio stations are in the business of providing daily local news.

Daily Features

While we did not define all the program types here, the labels are part of the common parlance in local public radio news programming. In the category of “Daily Features” we might have simply said “Features” and it would have implied the same thing. These are in-depth stories that are programmed within the daily news format clock — which 49% of stations are providing.

Breaking News

This is a very interesting finding — again because the system has debated over the years about what its journalism stands for. No one has argued against depth and context, but more and more feel the responsibility to grow their ability to respond to fast-breaking events. While the majority of stations (55%) do not provide breaking news, those who do (45%) puts this category among the leading news program types at local stations.

Specialty Programs

Ranking as common is the specialty program which would be recurring coverage under an umbrella theme such as arts… or business… or health. Forty-two percent of stations provide specialty programs of some sort.

Special Reports

It would seem to be a good measure of local news sophistication that 41% of stations produce occasional news specials as a way of spotlighting an important issue or topic.

News Series

Similar to special reports, good local newsrooms put together occasional news series as a way of delving more deeply into high priority issues. Thirty-eight percent of stations do this.

Weekly Public Affairs Programs

We discover it is more common for stations to produce weekly affairs programs (38%) than daily or monthly.

Weekly Talk/Interview Programs

Here we see that 27% of U.S. public radio stations produce weekly talk/interview shows. This is slightly more common than the daily talk/interview program that we’ll see in the next chart.

Daily Talk/Interview Programs

Despite the rising popularity of this format staple, only 25% of stations are producing daily talk/interview programs.


That 25% of stations report producing documentaries is rather striking. This typically long-form production style has been on the decline for years.

Weekly News Magazines

News magazines are rather labor intensive productions and have been less prevalent over the years. Still, we see a fifth of stations are still producing them on a weekly basis.

Daily News Magazines

Again, the resource-intensive daily magazine is found on few stations these days (12%).

Monthly News Programs

We’ll just group the last three charts here under “Monthly News Programs.” The most prevalent of these are the monthly public affairs programs (9%) and the monthly talk/interview programs (9%).

Last, and certainly least, is the monthly magazine found at very few stations.