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.

A Third of Stations Hoping to Expand Local News

In a survey taken before the current debate over federal funding of public broadcasting, stations were relatively optimistic about expanding the time they devote on-air to their locally produced news and public affairs. More than a third planned to do so.

The stations were also asked if they had expanded their news time in the previous year. More than a fourth said they had.

The chart above shows that the bulk of US public radio stations maintained a consistent level of air time devoted to local news and public affairs in FY 2010. But, despite the economic downturn, more than a quarter of stations actually expanded their local news. A small segment (7%) cut back on news time in FY 2010.

The chart below shows the bulk of stations, in FY 2011, expected to maintain their 2010 levels of airtime for local news and public affairs programming. But a full third anticipated or planned to expand their local news offerings. Eight percent of respondents were not sure but only 1% expect to decrease local news.

News Salaries by Market Size

Larger broadcast service areas correlate with higher salaries, but not as directly as with higher budgets. That’s because you find low budget stations in large markets, and they pay low budget salaries not large market salaries. (Go here for news salaries by news budget size.)

Here are three charts showing the top 10 annual average salaries in public radio news jobs according to the “market size” of the respondents. These market size groupings are based on the population within the broadcast service area of the responding public radio stations. There are more than 100 respondents per each market size sample, but the number of respondents per job title can be quite low depending on the rarity of the title.

Small Markets

Medium Markets

Source: PRNDI/MVM Consulting

Large Markets

News Salaries by News Budgets

I’ve sorted the average annual salaries in public radio newsrooms by their station news budgets. As you would expect, the higher budget categories closely correlate with higher average salaries.

If you look under “news directors,” for example, you’ll see that stations spending between $500k-$1m a year on their newsrooms, spend an average of $60k-$65k for news director salaries.

Again, this is based on a survey of almost 400 U.S. public broadcast station managers last summer.

The thicker the line in each of these graphs, the more the number of stations contributing to the average. Click on the graph to see it larger.

Refer back to the earlier salary charts to see highs, lows, medians, averages and actual station counts per each job title.

News Directors

The thickness of the pink line attests to the many stations in that $50k-$250k newsroom budget bracket. The news directors at these stations share an average annual salary in the low 40s. There is a jump, however, in the newsroom budget brackets above $250k. The managers of these bigger newsrooms are averaging between the mid 50s to the mid 60s.


Again, we see the thick pink line due to the many stations in that lower budget bracket. Hosts at those stations get paid in the low 30s on average. The newsrooms above $250k push the average pay up over $45k a year.


The trend lines for reporters are obvious — more pay at bigger shops — though the upper range of averages is only in the upper 50s.


Public radio news producers show average annual pay rates quite comparable to reporters relative to their respective newsroom budgets.

Executive Producers/Directors and VPs of News

Note the larger scale range used to display the VP of News average annual salaries. This position is more common in the larger stations.

The Executive Director/Producer chart shows this position can be found in smaller stations, but the pay still scales according to budget.

Senior Producers and Assistant News Directors

Senior producers are averaging salaries just below those of news directors in the larger stations.

The assistant news director chart has enough random deviation in the small sample to limit its usefulness.

New Media News Positions: Content Director, Online Editor, Web Producer

There are few of these in the sample to begin with, so the green line is an outlier (part-time position, most likely). Similarly, the deviation from the normal curve may also be due to the newness of this job title and the likelihood it represents different jobs in different stations.

Again, jobs that focus exclusively online are still relatively rare in public radio (it is far more common to find hybrid positions mixing broadcast with new platforms), yet despite the smaller sample size, we can see patterns emerging in online editor and web producer average salaries.

Public Radio News Salaries

New data from a 2010 local public radio station survey shows the median news reporter salary under $37,000 per year.

The median for news hosts was $40,000. The median for news directors was $45,000.

The overall highest paid position was vice-president of news with a median of $92,500. The lowest median salary was $32,000 for assignment editor.

The data show vast differences between individuals performing the same job at different stations. For example, the lowest paid content director earns $128,000 less than the highest paid content director.

The most common jobs in local public radio newsrooms are news directors, reporters, hosts and producers.

(Note: See also News Salaries by News Budget and News Salaries by Market Size)

The charts below compare median salaries for 16 newsroom positions. Below each chart is a table showing the salary ranges for each position. In addition to the highest and lowest salary are the median and average. The “count” is the number of stations reporting a position salary. (The “count” is NOT a count of individuals in those jobs.)

Median Public Radio Salaries

News Director Host/Anchor Reporter/ Corresp Producer
Count 169 92 112 67
Low $5,500 $8,000 $7,000 $4,000
Median $45,000 $40,000 $36,500 $35,000
High $140,000 $114,000 $75,000 $60,000
Avg $47,972 $44,786 $37,793 $35,814
Median Public Radio Salaries Chart Two

VP of News Exec Producer Content Director Managing Editor Online Editor Senior Producer
Count 12 25 17 17 14 33
Low $45,000 $10,000 $12,000 $26,000 $49,750 $20,000
Median $92,500 $57,000 $56,000 $55,000 $50,000 $49,000
High $150,000 $97,500 $140,000 $97,500 $62,000 $90,000
Avg $94,167 $60,486 $60,695 $55,889 $48,268 $50,616

Median Public Radio Salaries Chart Three

Pub Aff Director Bureau Chief Asst News Director Web Producer Photog/ Videogrphr Assignmnt Editor
Count 15 15 24 22 11 11
Low $55,369 $48,900 $15,000 $5,000 $17,000 $10,000
Median $45,000 $45,000 $40,250 $38,415 $38,000 $32,000
High $100,000 $76,000 $70,000 $50,000 $51,000 $59,500
Avg $53,677 $47,795 $40,652 $33,149 $34,992 $35,494

The survey was conducted by myself with help from Steve Martin and Ken Mills during July-August 2010. Over 300 stations participated. The survey was a supplement to the PRNDI/CPB census of journalists which has yet to be released by CPB.

This is the first comprehensive public radio news salary survey that we know of. As such, we do not have trend data.

However, we can make some salient comparison using data gathered by Dr. Bob Papper of Hofstra University who conducts an annual newsroom survey for RTDNA. Dr. Papper includes both commercial and non-commerical broadcasters in his survey, though, in general, his data are viewed as a snapshot of commercial newsrooms.

Here is one chart from the radio section of Papper’s 2010 newsroom survey

Credit: RTDNA/Papper 2010

As one can see, public radio stations show a wider range of high and low pay rates for news directors, reporters and anchors. Somewhat encouragingly, public radio newsrooms show overall higher median pay rates for those positions.

Local Public Radio Spending: Most News Budgets Under $250K

Our survey of U.S. public radio stations in 2010 found that 90% had news budgets under $1-million, and 70% spent less than $250-thousand on news.

The sample of 288 stations spent between $77-million and $168-million on public radio news programming.

As the chart shows, the single largest news budget bracket was $50K-$250K (37% of stations).

Distribution of NPR Stations by News Budgets
Two Thirds of Local Public Radio Stations Spend Below $250K on News Annually

Survey Question: Approximately, what is the dollar range of your total budget for local news and public affairs in FY 2010?
Answer Options Response Percent Response Count
Less than $50,000 33.3% 96
$50,000-$249,999 37.2% 107
$250,000-$499,999 10.1% 29
$500,000-$749,999 7.3% 21
$750,000-$999,999 3.1% 9
$1m-$2.49m 5.2% 15
$2.5m-$4.99m 3.1% 9
$5m-$7.49m 0.7% 2
answered question 288
skipped question 13

Typically the lion’s share of spending in a newsroom is for personnel.

For illustration purposes, we multiplied the number of stations per bracket by the low and high end of the dollar ranges so we could see what the range of actual spending was for this sample. It showed actual spending between $77-million and $168-million.

Actual dollar range spent on local npr news
Actual FY 2010 spending on local public radio news was between $77 and $168 million

This chart shows how the overall spending on news is not carried out by the many stations at the lower dollar amounts. Rather, the lion’s share of news spending is generated by fewer stations in the larger brackets.