Public Radio: What is the best NPR station in the country? That’s a question on Quora I thought needed answering. So I did, with this:
Here’s a quantitative answer to your qualitative question: WVPS of Vermont Public Radio. Because, in Nielsen’s Audio Ratings, it scores a 12.6 in its home market of Burlington, and a 16.2 in its neighbor market of Montpelier-Waterbury. Far as I know, those are tops among all the country’s NPR-affiliated stations.
Honorable mentions go to WUOM in Ann Arbor with a 13.0, KCLU in Santa Barbara with a 10.2—plus others you’ll find if you follow the links in Where Public Radio Rocks, which I published in April of last year. All the numbers I sourced have changed since then, but they’re easy to find at the links I provided.
In the long run, however, “best” will come to mean which stations, producers and distributors are best at streaming and podcasting. Because that’s where listening is headed. Vermont Public Radio makes that clear on their own website, which appends “#stream/0” to its URL when you go there—and does its best, on the site, to encourage listening over-the-net rather than just over-the-air.
At this point in history, nearly all radio stations already stream, for a good reason: in the digital world, where every one of us with a smartphone and a data plan has the best radio ever made, antique broadcast virtues such as “range” and “coverage” have become bugs. This is why, when my family drove around Spain in a rental car last summer, we listened to KCLU from our home town of Santa Barbara, piped from one of our phones through the car’s entertainment system (which is no longer called a “radio”). It’s also why, when I’m up early on the West Coast, I often listen to WBUR from Boston or WNYC from New York, my other home towns. (I get around—or at least I did before the plague.)
The streaming numbers in Nielsen’s ratings are still low, but they are growing, and in many markets exceed the numbers for nearly all the remaining AM stations. For example, in the latest ratings for Washington, DC, 36 stations are listed: 33 FM, 2 streams and 2 AM. Those are drawn from a roster of 52 FM and 35 AM stations with listenable signals in Washington (according to radio-locator.com)—and 6 of those FM signals are translators for AM stations, including the two AMs that show in the ratings (which means that even the ratings for AM stations were likely for those stations’ FM signals).
Also, while streaming is the big trend for stations, podcasting is the big trend for programming, aka “content.” Podcasting is exploding now, and earning ever-larger slices of the listening pie, which is a finite sum of people’s time. Podcasting wins at this because it has far more optionality than live over-the-air radio. You can listen when you like, slide forward and backward through a show, jump past ads or skip over topics you’d rather miss, and listen at 1.5x or 2x the normal speed. Those are huge advantages.
It’s also not for nothing that SiriusXM just paid $325 for Stitcher (says Variety), and not long before that Spotify paid $100 million for Joe Rogan’s podcast and (according to Business Insider) nearly $200 million for The Ringer and “nearly $400 million in recent purchases of Gimlet Media, Anchor, and Parcast.”
For that kind of money you could buy every AM and FM station in New York or Los Angeles.
Noncommercial players are also looking pretty good in the podcasting world as well. According to Podtrac, NPR is the #1 podcast publisher and PRX is #5. Also showing well are WNYC Studios, This American Life/Serial and American Public Media. NPR also has 9 of the top 20 podcasts. In fact the majority (11) of those top 20 are from public radio sources.
Off the top of my head, the public stations with head starts in podcast production are WBEZ in Chicago, WBUR in Boston, WNYC in New York, KQED in San Francisco, KPCC and KCRW in Los Angeles and others you’ll hear credited when they open or close a show.
But it’s early. Expect lots of change in the coming months and years as many podcast creators, producers and distributors jockey for positions in two races. One is the free public one, syndicated by RSS on the open Internet and ready to hear on any browser, app or device. The other is the private subscription one, available only through the owner’s services. This is clearly where SiriusXM and Spotify are both going. SiriusXM is audible only by subscription, while Spotify remains $free (for now) but exclusive. (For example, Michelle Obama’s new podcast is available only on Spotify.) This split, between free/open and paid/closed, will be a big story over the coming years.
So, in the meantime, hats off to Vermont Public Radio for being the top public radio operation in the country—at least in its markets’ ratings. And stay tuned for the fights among players in streaming and podcasting.
I expect VPR will continue being the alpha broadcasting, streaming and podcasting service in its home state, both because it does a great job and because Vermont is very much a collection of communities that have come to depend on it.
And, if you want to know why I think journalism of the fully non-fake kind has a last (or first) refuge in the most local forms, dig The story isn’t the whole story, my TEDx talk about that.