Layoffs in public broadcasting: Addressing the triple threat of declining audiences, podcast glut and underwriting challenges

This movie is a rerun


Hardly a week has passed this year without a layoff announcement from one public broadcaster or another: 20 positions eliminated last September at WNYC, 16 in February at WAMU, 34 in April at WNET, eight at KUOW in May — plus a round of buyouts (potentially followed by layoffs) at KQED and LAist. By my count, nearly 150 jobs have been lost at local stations since last fall, and that's on top of the 100 positions NPR eliminated in the spring of 2023.

Each announcement cites particularly local reasons: the shuttering of a niche radio service, the closing of a podcast unit amid the bubble in that space, or, in some rare cases, atrocious management.

Read individually — you can explain it away with the hoary old saying, “When you know one public broadcaster — you know one public broadcaster.”

However, there are three common themes to the layoffs — and warning signs for the entire industry. I’ve seen this movie before, and the third act is particularly ugly.

Traditional audiences are fragmenting.

A worrisome study by TRAC Media for the Public Television Major Market Group found that over-the-air prime-time viewership of PBS stations is down by half in the past decade, and public television is only recapturing a tiny fraction of that audience via its streaming platforms. (The report hasn't been publicly released, but nearly every public television GM I talk with has seen it. And it's keeping many of them up at night.)

It's just as bad in the radio world. Dave Sullivan at the Radio Research Center notes that audience is down by 15% across all radio (including commercial stations) over the past eight years. A separate study by Paragon Consulting and Listen Again Tomorrow suggests the declines could be as much as 50% for some NPR stations.

But time spent with audio is essentially flat — meaning our former listeners are switching to on-demand audio and podcasts. Should we just pivot to podcasting? Well, there’s a problem with that.

Podcasting is glutted, and the sponsors know it.

NPR is justly lauded for pioneering podcasting, and many local stations have followed suit. New Hampshire Public Radio was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for its stunningly reported “The 13th Step.”

The trouble is that anyone can produce a podcast. Spotify alone has more than 4 million different titles on its platform, and the glut is only growing. (The podcast search engine Listen Notes found over 227,000 new titles in 2023.)

The podcasting advertising market is still mushrooming — from $800 million in 2020 to more than $2.2 billion in 2023. But with all those new titles, advertisers can choose precisely the audience they want. They’ll focus on the mega-hits, not the boutique podcast struggling to attract an audience. That makes generating underwriting revenue for local podcasts particularly tricky.

And underwriting is dropping, too.

The “Trump Bump” audience growth news organizations saw in the late teens drove a similarly impressive growth in underwriting revenue. Many stations recorded record underwriting in 2019, and many took the growth as a long-term trend and staffed up accordingly.

Across all public broadcasting, "business revenue" (including underwriting) peaked at $457 million in 2019, only to be hammered by the pandemic and changing listener habits. (More is in CPB's annual reports on station revenues.)

Underwriting has started to recover, but it’s back to 2017 levels. In other words, all the audience growth is gone.

Worse, local advertisers, especially mid-sized businesses, are following the national agencies and shifting more dollars to digital and programmatic platforms, especially the Facebook/Google duopoly. Rick Ducey of BIA Advisory Services estimates that digital platforms now capture nearly half of local ad revenues and continue to grow while legacy broadcast declines.

That makes it hard to believe that traditional over-the-air underwriting will significantly grow.

Where have we seen trends like these before? Our local commercial brethren. That’s the “ugly third act” I mentioned above.

For decades, newspapers faced declining audiences but maintained revenue growth by jacking up rates and insisting that “those kids will start to read us when they hit their 30s!”

They didn’t, and the newspaper industry has lost more than half its revenues over the past 18 years.

We’ve seen the beginnings of similar trends in local television news. Ad revenues have been essentially flat for 20 years, and the only growth category for local TV (retransmission fees from cable companies) has been kneecapped by cord-cutting. Note, too, the average demographic of a local TV news viewer: over age 60, compared to the halcyon days of the '80s and '90s, when local news broadcasts had a lock on the coveted 25-49 demo.

What to do?

There’s no single answer, let alone a simple one. Answers start with recognizing two critical points:

  • The good old days are not coming back. Drive-time audiences are never going to return to their late-2010 peak. Our traditional audiences (old, white, wealthy and suburban) will only get older (until they fall off a cliff of the actuarial tables).
  • Engaging different audiences requires a deep, humble understanding of their wants, needs and desires. Simply broadcasting the same old programs to them is no longer good enough.

Does your station’s strategic plan reflect those realities?

Tom Davidson is a consultant for public and nonprofit media organizations and an adjunct lecturer in media entrepreneurship and nonprofit news management at the University of Maryland. He can be reached at


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