Case Study: NPR Is Crushing Podcasting In The U.S. Right Now. Here’s Why…

NPR Is Crushing Podcasting In The U.S. Right Now. Here’s Why…

npr podcasts

The nonprofit organization’s pivot to podcasts offers a blueprint for other traditional media companies

Exec Summary

  • NPR is a radio network in the US which recently pivoted towards podcasts
  • NPR is not only dominating the podcast rankings in the US, it has worked out how to drive audiences back from podcasts to traditional media.
  • The network’s standout show “This American Life” has a monthly audience of over 5 million (all data and analysis in my Podcast Report available free at the end of the article)

The podcast industry is seeing its biggest year of growth since 2006

  • Celebrities are using podcasts to grow their personal brands
  • Brands are producing shows to engage with consumers in new ways (see our Brand Original Podcasts)
  • Average joes are using DIY podcast services like Anchor and Pippa to launch new careers.

There’s a ton of money to be made – podcast network Wondery has a valuation of $100 million. And there’s even a disruptor in Luminary, a premium service betting big on the idea that consumers are willing to pay $7.99 per month for a form of entertainment they previously accessed for free.

But perhaps the most exciting story in podcasting right now has nothing to do with Luminary’s ambition or the boatloads of money to be made – it’s NPR’s pivot to podcasts.

The wild success of NPR podcasts

NPR, short for National Public Radio, is a nonprofit media organization that broadcasts local, national, and international stories to an estimated 105 million listeners across its various platforms, including its traditional radio shows, independent apps, live events, social media, and, of course, its podcasts.

  • As of April 2019, NPR was the leading podcast publisher in America, with 19.39 million listeners downloading its shows each month.

That’s slightly more than iHeartRadio and it’s almost triple the monthly totals for popular publishers PRX, the aforementioned Wondery, and The New York Times.

Part of what’s driving NPR’s podcasting success is its diversity of programming.

best npr podcasts

NPR’s top shows include…

  • Up First, a daily news and politics podcast that covers the day’s top three stories in just 15 minutes
  • White Lies, the limited run true crime podcast about the 1965 murder of Rev. James Reeb in Selma, Alabama
  • Planet Money, which breaks down various aspects of the global economy
  • The beloved This American Life, a popular weekly radio show that has found a second life as a podcast, amassing 2.5 million listeners each week (in addition to the 2.2 million people who listen to it the traditional way).
  • NPR also hosts a slew of shows covering everything from comedy and storytelling to culture and identity.
    But more than the sheer number of shows that NPR offers, its hallmark is the organization’s dedication to robust reporting.

Whether a show is making complex political news more accessible or illuminating the backstories of little-known hometown heroes, the details are vivid, the hosts are engaging, and the stories always entertain.

This American Life – A Case Study

this american life
This American Life, which is hosted by veteran radio host and producer Ira Glass, explores a different theme each week over the course of an hour, and it does so in several acts.

A single episode could include essays, field recordings, or excerpts from memoirs. The show’s mood ebbs and flows from the serious to the humorous. But what’s always consistent is This American Life’s focus on nonfiction journalism, something the show has delivered to great fanfare since 1995.

What’s unique about This American Life is that, as mentioned above, it airs on public radio stations around the country and 2.2 million people tune in to each episode. But the show still finds an additional 2.5 million listeners through its podcast.

If anything, its dual success across formats shows that radio programs translate well to podcasts. But This American Life also proves that listeners are still hungry for traditional radio content; they just want it available on-demand.

Gone are the days when the entire nation crowds around a radio to listen to the same show; we’re living in a world dominated by Netflix and Spotify, one in which there isn’t a single, unifying content experience. But listeners are still willing to invest time into quality radio programming.

How Podcasts Are Driving Audiences Back to Radio

npr podcast data

Data from my report: Podcasting 2020 – A Playbook for Asia

As NPR’s podcast audience has grown exponentially, so has its listenership on traditional radio.

From 2014-2017, NPR’s total listeners more than doubled, from just 2 million in 2014 to 5.4 million in 2017.
This trend defies expectations; one would assume that as NPR grew its podcast presence, its radio audience would shrink. But, this isn’t the case. NPR has cracked the “omnichannel” podcasting strategy.

Simultaneous growth can be attributed to a couple factors.

First, listeners who discover NPR through an individual podcast learn about the organization’s other shows (through in-show ads and in-app recommendations), which can be accessed on the NPR One app or on the radio.

Where a prototypical podcast listener might not be inclined to listen to the radio, their experience with NPR shows them that traditional talk radio and podcasts aren’t all that different. They become fans of the NPR brand and engage with NPR content wherever they can find it, be it on Google Play, Apple Podcasts, or on their car’s dial.

Second, millennials haven’t given up on radio, a common misconception because of the popularity of streaming apps for music and video content.

According to Nielsen’s Millennials on Millennials report, 93% of this group still listens to AM/FM radio. Podcasts may have amplified listeners’ ability to access shows on-demand, but they’ve also reinforced the power of radio and convinced a tech-savvy generation that’s there’s still value in tuning in at a set time.

What Traditional Media Can Learn From NPR

It’s easy to get lost in the headline-grabbing success of companies like Wondery and Gimlet, as they raise funds for expansion and sell shows to streaming networks like Amazon Prime Video.

But those stories are of little relevance to traditional media companies. NPR’s success – 270% growth in the U.S. – provides a possible blueprint for public radio stations, and all aging organizations, that hope to maintain relevance, generate new revenue streams, and grow their audiences in the digital age.

In some cases, NPR has simply repurposed existing IP to podcasts, reaping the benefits of listenership through two different mediums. But the nonprofit has also learned the ropes of the podcasting industry and created content that appeals strictly to avid podcast listeners. NPR has expertly embraced new tech without abandoning its core audience or losing its identity and, in the process, it has become the gold standard of podcasting.

Other radio stations could use this same strategy, publishing podcast editions of their most popular shows and working with internal talent to create new properties. The publishing industry could benefit too. Just look at The New York Times’ The Daily, its wildly popular news podcast that boasts 2 million listeners per day. The veteran newspaper’s pivot to podcasts and digital content has helped it prevail in an era of newspaper closures and consolidations.

Even a struggling company like magazine publisher Condé Nast, which has spent the last few years clumsily testing digital versions of its titles, laying off employees, and consolidating departments, could benefit.

vanity fair podcast

Imagine Vogue or Vanity Fair launching weekly podcasts with celebrity interviews, or Conde Nast Traveler diving into unique and exciting travel stories from the world’s most exotic locations.

NPR has shown that an authentic and focused pivot to podcasting can not only save a brand; it can reinvigorate it and leave everyone else in the dust.

It’s time that other forms of traditional media get onboard so they can do the same.

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