Reading Hacker News today I stumbled on this article titled "Why NPR is Thriving (They're Not Afraid of Digital Media)". In it the author forms conclusions that, as far as I can tell, are false. Below I address those conclusions.
But before that let me just make one point. I, given my tech industry bias, am obviously a big fan of digital media. Most of the media I consume is digital media. But in saying that I also realize the way the industry provides this digital content is lousy. Podcasts in particular are backwards to the point of preventing average users from listening to them.
That's why I'm making this post. Artificial claims of success will only encourage the industry to keep providing digital media in the same way they are now and that, imho, is unacceptable. With that said...
First Claim: NPR's listenership is booming.
True (but probably not related to digital media). The article I'm quoting didn't give an actual number of listeners but a quick Google search turned up 20.9 million listeners. But here's the thing, that same news source also puts Rush Limbaugh's numbers at about 25 million and he keeps his digital content behind a paid subscription wall.
So this increase is probably due to everyone feeling more political after an election and not NPR's open policy on Digital Media.
(For the record, all these ratings numbers are disputed but no one seems to be disputing the trend which is that both went up)
Second Claim: NPR.org grew 78% from 2007 to 2008
Maybe True but I doubt it. Though it can be inaccurate with smaller sites I've found Compete.com to be fairly accurate with larger ones. Looking at their numbers for NPR.org it shows that NPR.org's traffic is wildly inconsistent (which doesn't gel with the idea that people are coming to the site regularly). More to the point they got 9.1 million visitors in April of last year and 8.5 million in February of this year and then 9.8 million in March of this year.
So while their numbers are going up and down they are doing so in about the same range as they were a year ago. That indicates to me that there's been very little actual growth.
Third Claim: NPR is listened to by as many people as are watching Network TV News
True if you define the word just right. The article doesn't openly make this claim but leaves it to this chart to make the claim for them. But when they say "Network" TV news they are only talking about the non-cable networks. In fact, much of the drop in "Network" TV news is attributed to those viewers going to cable.
Oh, and for the record, if NPR was doing so well last year why did they lay off 7% of their staff in December '08?
There could be a lot of reasons why NPR is doing well but I sincerely doubt any of them have to do with embracing Digital Media. Every indicator I've seen has said that podcasting is a miniscule market and that streaming audio is only slightly larger.
In the end NPR's success is really just the result of an era of political polarization. Liberals are rushing to radio programming that they know will give them news tailored to their political ideology (just as Conservatives are rushing to Limbaugh for the same)