The Washingtonian asks that very question in this recent, lengthy article.
When reporter Nina Totenberg started there in 1975, NPR had all the fame and reach of an underground newspaper. “When you called sources, nobody had any idea who you were,” she recalls. Legendary political operative Frank Mankiewicz had heard not a single broadcast before he was recruited to head NPR in 1977. By 1983, the network stood on the verge of bankruptcy.
Those days are long gone. Since Lyndon Johnson made public broadcasting part of his Great Society, NPR has transformed itself from ragtag alternative radio into a mainstream news powerhouse with more bureaus worldwide than the Washington Post and 26 million listeners a weekâ€”twice as many as a decade ago. Morning Edition draws the second-biggest radio audience in the country next to The Rush Limbaugh Show.
Gone, too, are the days when every round of federal cuts promised financial ruin. Today, only 1 percent of NPR’s revenues come from Congress. Virtually alone in the media, it is a financially robust organization devoted to reporting on foreign affairs and public policyâ€”success that’s drawn competitors like Washington Post Radio.
Over the years, as NPR grew in popularity, it came to dominate the public-radio airwaves and erase the homegrown, eclectic flavor of local stations. Hundreds of stations, like Washington’s WAMU, ditched the locally produced shows that gave them their identities and hitched their fortunes to the NPR brand. Public radio–once a smorgasbord of music and cultural programs–today carries a steady stream of news and talk shows, most of them nationally produced.
While NPR has more listeners and more money, it isn’t going blithely into middle age. For all its success, growth in public radio’s audience has flattened recently, rattling the industry. Years ago public radio adopted the commercial-radio strategy of building its audience to attract corporate sponsors and increase revenues. Now that its financial well-being is tied to the size and loyalty of its audience, any drop in listening is cause for concern.
Declining audience numbers coincide with the controversial departures of brand-name hosts Bob Edwards and Tavis Smiley and NPR’s top news executive, Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Marimow, who exited awkwardly last fall after only eight months on the job.
All of which makes for a sense of urgency as public broadcasting nears its 40th birthday. In an internal memo, a top editor wrote, “This is a critical moment for NPR News, for all of NPR really.”