In one of the great under-told media success stories of the past decade, NPR has emerged not as the bespectacled schoolmarm of our imagination but as a massive news machine poised for what Dick Meyer, editorial director for digital media, half-jokingly calls "world domination." NPR's listenership has nearly doubled since 1999, even as newspaper circulation dropped off a cliff. Its programming now reaches 26.4 million listeners weekly — far more than USA Today's 2.3 million daily circ or Fox News' 2.8 million prime-time audience. When newspapers were closing bureaus, NPR was opening them, and now runs 38 around the world, better than CNN. It has 860 member stations — "boots on the ground in every town" that no newspaper or TV network can claim.
A common question on the left is, "Why is there no liberal talk radio?" That is, no wildly popular liberal version of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Laura Schlesinger. And the answer is: there is. It's called NPR. When lefties listen to the radio, that's what they listen to.
Now, NPR is obviously not any kind of direct analog to Rush. It's not a one-man talk show. It has a generally liberal worldview, but it doesn't traffic in the kind of in-your-face partisanship that Rush does. It has an eclectic variety of shows. And its audience comes from all over the ideological spectrum.
Still: when people wonder why lefties won't listen to talk radio, they're wondering the wrong thing. Lefties do listen to the radio, they just prefer listening to a different kind of radio than conservatives. But why? I'm thinking about a piece for the magazine right now that hasn't really taken form yet, but as I noodle about it this is one of the questions that I keep coming back to: when it comes to radio listening, why do conservatives prefer the style of Rush/Sean/Laura/etc. while liberals tend to prefer the style of NPR? Is it just a historical accident or is there something more to it? Leave your guesses in comments.