With the sharp rise of social media and the rapid collapse of so many daily newspapers in recent years, it would be easy to assume that radio is another traditional media format in decline.

As more and more young listeners turn to music streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, predictions of broadcast radio’s imminent demise have become widespread.

But radio—particularly nonprofit and community radio—is seeing a strong resurgence across the country. And philanthropy is playing a vital role in expanding the reach of public radio and related audio content. That being said, grant makers could be doing even more to support radio programs if they recognized the continuing vitality of the medium.

Radio is one of the oldest forms of mass media, beginning to reach a large audience nearly a century ago. And it has remained one of the most pervasive media forms to this day. According to Nielsen, radio reaches more than 228 million adults a week, compared with fewer than 217 million people watching television and fewer than 68 million people listening to streaming audio. Even while new formats are growing more prevalent, radio does not seem to be disappearing.

Indeed, it may be more accurate to suggest that rather than disrupting traditional information and entertainment media, new formats are reviving existing types of content: Netflix and YouTube are sparking a golden age of documentary film, while Twitter and other social-media services are helping draw attention to long-form investigative journalism as never before. And podcasting is expanding demand for in-depth radio programs that would have never seen such wide distribution and in-depth listening.

Influencing a Supreme Court Battle

One such example is American Public Media’s Peabody Award-winning podcast In The Dark. In its second season, In The Dark examined the extraordinary case of Curtis Flowers, who has been tried six times for the brutal murder of four people in a furniture store in Winona, Miss., in July 1996.

Among the many irregularities uncovered by the reporting team, who lived in Mississippi for more than a year to cover the story, In The Dark revealed that the prosecutor routinely dismissed African-Americans among prospective jurors from his cases at a rate far higher than white jurors were removed.

As a matter of fact, the case is now on appeal in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the findings of the exhaustive inquiry published by In The Dark are included in the legal documents that were presented in the case. For grant makers and media organizations searching for examples of the impact of their work, it does not get more significant than this.

More Dollars Than Buzz

Radio does not get much attention in philanthropy circles, as more novel topics and tools like digital applications, online news services, and other media innovations tend to be the focus of discussion. But radio continues to reach a vast audience. And even if it does not generate buzz, it does reap substantial financial support.

According to a new report from Media Impact Funders, foundation grants for radio over the past decade amounted to $970 million, increasing by 25 percent, from $80 million in 2009 to $102 million in 2017. During that time, community foundations provided $117 million in grants to support radio. At the same time, support for audio activities beyond radio amounted to just over $74 million, but the rate of increase was even steeper in this category, rising from $3 million in 2009 to $12 million in 2017.

Looking more broadly, beyond foundation funding, total revenue to American public radio stations rose 19 percent from 2014 to 2018, increasing $180 million to roughly $1.1 billion, according to recent figures from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Results are not universally positive across public broadcasting stations. Small stations have seen a slight decrease in funding over the same time. But over all, revenue has been relatively healthy in recent years.

This should not be a surprise, given the strength of audience figures for public radio listenership. At NPR, 28.9 million people listen to the network’s programs each week on 1,084 stations nationwide, an increase of 11 percent over the spring of 2015. Viewed more broadly, NPR estimates that all its products combined — broadcast, digital, podcasts, and NPR.org — reach a monthly audience of 105 million people. There are some skeptics in philanthropy who see public radio as a small and narrow niche broadcaster, a means of only “preaching to the choir.” But these figures erase that impression.

Promoting Culture, Not Just News

Public radio also plays a particularly vital role as a major cultural institution in many communities, serving as the principal media outlet for jazz and classical music and as a platform for local and emerging musical artists. Last week, many of the nation’s leading noncommercial music radio stations came together to launch a new association — the noncomMUSIC Alliance — that will advocate for the growing importance of public radio music stations in serving the cultural and educational needs of their communities and working to create and preserve a thriving music scene.

According to a new report released by the alliance, 734 public radio stations feature music as a primary or significant part of their programming across the nation. Collectively, these stations serve more than 20 million listeners each week, including 8.4 million classical listeners and 4.7 million jazz fans, along with 5.5 million listeners in the Triple A format, a category that contains indie rock, Americana, folk, bluegrass, and other eclectic sounds. Altogether, the range and reach of public radio music stations is significant. And they can be even more effective in serving their communities if philanthropy begins to recognize their enormous potential.

For grantmakers seeking a way to strengthen local news coverage and enhance the vitality of cultural life in their communities, public radio has demonstrated that it is a vibrant and essential element in a healthy media ecosystem.

This piece originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on May 23. Vince Stehle is the executive director of Media Impact Funders and a Chronicle columnist. He is also a board member of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

About the Author
Vincent Stehle

Vincent Stehle

Executive Director

Before joining Media Impact Funders in 2011 as executive director, Vince was program director for Nonprofit Sector Support at the Surdna Foundation, a family foundation based in New York City. Prior to joining Surdna, Stehle worked for 10 years as a reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he covered a broad range of issues about the nonprofit sector. Stehle has served as chairperson of Philanthropy New York and on the governing boards of VolunteerMatch, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) and the Center for Effective Philanthropy.