The System We've Built

Dec 31, 2013

I just returned from a meeting of station managers from across the country who gathered to take stock of the public radio system and develop strategies to attract and engage the next generation of listeners. It’s always refreshing to step back from the churn of daily operations to view the bigger picture. As local stations, together with NPR and the other national producers and organizations, look to the future, it’s also pretty amazing to consider the system we’ve built together.

The public radio system today is comprised of over 900 stations that broadcast, stream and podcast a diverse array of programming.

Roughly one-third of programming aired by the average public radio station is locally produced and deals with community and regional topics of importance. In the area of news and public affairs, public radio collectively deploys more than 1,400 reporters, editors and producers in 21 domestic bureaus and stations across the United States and 17 foreign bureaus around the world—more than any of the major TV broadcast networks. This represents a robust and growing on-the-ground commitment to news gathering and journalism.

While many traditional news sources are contracting or disappearing, recent investments in expanded journalism efforts by stations—often through innovative partnerships—are helping to improve public radio’s role in international, national and local news. Public radio stations now reach more people than the total circulation of the top 114 national newspapers. In numerous national surveys, public radio is identified by members of all political parties as one of the most trusted sources for news and information.

In its music and cultural programming, public radio has created a valued partnership that connects music and those who devote their lives to it—artists, performers and composers—to audiences. Local stations play a significant role in music discovery, preservation, education, and local music economies. Nationally, more than 180 public radio stations have full-time music formats and 490 play music as part of their programming lineups. On the whole, local public radio stations air nearly 5 million hours of music per year, the majority of which is local programming and includes 3,000 in-studio and community-based performances. Public radio provides a home for genres that are not economically sustainable in the commercial market, including classical, jazz, folk, opera and independently produced music. Local public radio stations help support and strengthen other cultural institutions in communities, including symphony orchestras, music festivals, theater groups, and historical venues.

As the public radio system considers its future in the hazy age of digital everything and technology fever, two things remain absolutely clear. Creative, inspired content and an ability to tell the story of the human experience will continue to be central to our relevance and success — no matter what platforms or future listening devices emerge. And, the unique partnership between NPR, providing unparalleled national and international content, combined with content generated by engaged, passionate and well-run local public radio stations connected to their communities, will be key to our ability to remain essential in a world of exploding media choices.

Paul Westhelle, Executive Director,

Jefferson Public Radio