Across the United States, public radio is an important cultural phenomenon. Unlike the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., public radio is not funded by advertising. Rather, public radio stations are funded by contributions from listeners (usually collected during those ever irritating pledge drives) and underwriting from organizations of various kinds. Although public radio stations carry a variety of types of programming, the most common are talk shows syndicated from production companies like National Public Radio (NPR), Public Radio International (PRI), and British Broadcasting Company (BBC).
No Ads Means No Ad Revenue
In an age where it seems that everything we do is mediated by advertising, how can public radio continue to survive? Advertising is an important source of revenue for other media outlets, including most radio stations, as well as products and services of all kinds. In some industries, like social media and publishing, advertising is so important that it is difficult to see how those products could exist without it.
Public Radio and Portable Electronic Devices
Another thing that seems to be working against public radio is the proliferation of portable electronic devices like MP3 players and cell phones. With these gadgets so easy to come by, people can listen to their own hand-picked music, podcast, or other audio, no matter where they are. Satellite radio has also decreased the popularity of radio in general, and traditional stations are suffering. Yet somehow, public radio appears to be thriving in many parts of the country.
Public Radio is a Cultural Authority
One possible explanation for this strange state of affairs is the cultural authority that NPR, PRI, and BBC have earned over the years. Many people look to these outlets as sources of reliable news reporting, and their well-respected status allows them to continue to generate support from individuals, businesses, and foundations. Public radio stations are not limited to news, however; music and variety shows can be heard on many public radio stations, so their reputation as reliable news sources does not entirely explain the stations' success.
Who Needs Ads, Anyway?
Paradoxically, the lack of advertising on public radio stations may be part of what accounts for their success in the age of advertising. As radio in general has become less popular, many traditional stations have increased the volume of advertising that they air. Too much advertising may turn listeners away. Since public radio stations do not use advertising, they may be seen as a reliable alternative to the now ad-glutted traditional stations.
Public Radio Anywhere, Anytime
A third factor in the continued success of public radio is the convenience and reliability of radio as a medium. While it's true that MP3 players and other portable electronics can be used in place of radios, these devices require a little bit of foresight and the right equipment. People who just want to listen to something for a few minutes, or who don't know what they want to listen to, or who didn't anticipate needing audio entertainment - these people can always flip on the radio and know that their local public radio station will be airing something worthwhile.
The Future of Public Radio
Will public radio survive into the future? It might be true that, as those irksome pledge drives insist, the future of public radio all depends on the listeners. Public radio syndicators like NPR receive some funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and from underwriters, but listener memberships and contributions still make up a sizable percentage of its funds. Members contribute money to their local public stations, and the stations pass along these funds to NPR in order to receive syndicated programming. The local stations keep the rest of the money for their own operating costs. Ultimately, then, the reason public radio still thrives is because people still pay for it; if that stops, so will the programming.