How U.S. Public Broadcasting Works

National Public Radio (NPR)
National Public Radio's Carl Kasell organizes news articles while preparing for one of his last newscasts at NPR, Dec. 30, 2009, in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When NPR debuted in 1970, it was charged with producing and distributing national news programs to member stations. Member stations — there were 90 to start — could air programs solely licensed from NPR and others, or they could also produce some original content of their own. (For instance, the popular talk show "Fresh Air" is produced by WHYY-FM, the flagship NPR station in Philadelphia but is broadcast nationally by NPR.) The first thing NPR ever aired was live coverage of the Senate hearings on the Vietnam War.

"All Things Considered," an afternoon newsmagazine, was NPR's first major program, and was unveiled in 1971. "Morning Edition," a newsmagazine for the morning rush hour, followed in 1979 [source: NPR]. Few probably dreamed of how prestigious and widespread the fledgling public radio organization would become.

Some 40 years later, NPR has nearly 1,000 member and associate stations broadcasting its programs, which cover not just news, but a variety of genres such as humor, music and quizzes. NPR also has a multimedia presence via podcasting, mobile applications and social media. As of March 2017, NPR had 34 national and international bureaus. Listeners approach the 40 million mark among all NPR stations, with more than 41 million unique monthly visitors at [source: NPR].

Much of the group's growth and popularity comes from its high-quality content. "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" are two of the top-ranked nationwide radio programs, and both have won numerous journalism awards.

NPR receives its financing from a variety of sources. In FY 2014-16, fees and dues from its member stations were the largest sources of revenue (39 percent), followed by corporate sponsorships (24 percent), and grants and contributions (14 percent). Other income sources include foundations, colleges and universities, and CPB [source: NPR].

Stations are charged for carrying "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" based on the volume of listeners the stations have, multiplied by a unit price. Other shows, for instance "Fresh Air," are priced in proportion to the station's total revenue. So, a station with a lot of listeners will pay more for a program than a small station. That's because larger stations can raise more money from listeners through the biannual pledge drives.

NPR has also had digital success using an instant fact checking tool to annotate the 2016 presidential debate transcripts on its website and streaming Facebook Live episodes of its reporters and anchors at work.