"The first wave of letters tends to be the people who are grumpy about what we've done, particularly pop culture," says Christopher Turpin, the executive producer of All Things Considered. "They feel very strongly that they don't want us getting into the gutter." But that's not the whole story. "What tends to happen is that the day after we air those letters, we get a bigger wave from people who say, 'I loved your piece on Charlie Sheen,' or 'Please, more Ken and Barbie!' " Turpin says. In other words, the grumps are the outliers.
NPR doesn't usually air these kinder letters, Turpin says, because "we don't like to pat ourselves on the back." But Turpin has good reason to believe that they represent the "silent majority" of NPR listeners. To the horror of many NPR snoots, many of the people who work at the network love pop culture. "I noticed it during the Winona Ryder shoplifting trial—the entire staff of ATC was gathered around the television to watch the verdict," Turpin says. * "That was the moment a light bulb went off." NPR staffers generally come to the network after a lifetime of obsession with public radio; if the staff loved celebrity news, Turpin came to realize, most listeners probably do too.
Public radio's audience statistics seem to back up this story. From the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, public radio saw an enormous spike in listeners. In 2003, 11 percent of all Americans—and a quarter of college graduates—regularly listened to public radio, according to a 2006 study of the public radio audience by researchers George Bailey and David Giovannoni. The growth was made up in large part by young listeners—people born after 1970—who now account for the second-largest share of public radio listeners, after baby boomers.
In the last decade, NPR has moved deftly to keep these younger people listening. Jay Kernis, a longtime producer who now works at CNN, is generally credited with encouraging NPR staffers to cover pop culture more often. In an e-mail, he told me that he did so because "NPR programming and coverage should not be elite, but reflect a wide range of American expression—high, low, remarkable, strange, etc.—as long as it was worthy of the audience's attention." Many of the reports on pop culture that I've heard on NPR live up to this mandate; they're smart, funny, informative, and deep. A year ago, for instance, NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon spent 10 minutes interviewing Ke$ha, whose single "Tik Tok" was then at the top of the charts. It was as thorough an examination of her rise as I've heard anywhere else, and it was also just fun to listen to. Of course, the letter-writers couldn't stand it. ("I thought this radio station was supposed to be a bit more cultivated and cultured than most. What an insult," one said. "We listen to NPR precisely to avoid this sort of stupidity," claimed another.)
After plateauing between 2003 and 2007, NPR's audience has been growing lately. * Still, like many media outlets, its audience is also getting older; between 1999 and 2009, the median age of NPR News' audience rose from 47 to 52. This shift has produced some anxiety in public radio circles. NPR, it's clear, needs to attract younger audiences without dumbing itself down and without turning off the boomers who are its most fervent listeners. One idea that's been floated is to create stations that target programming to young people. "In large markets, you could have a channel for NPR News listeners in their 20s and 30s, essentially the children of most of today's listeners," says Bailey, president of the public radio consulting company Walrus Research. "But that doesn't mean the younger station would be for idiots. In fact these people would be the most-informed, educated, politically active segment of the 30-year-olds."
Tell that to the snoots! I suspect that any move to create stations for young people would be met with howls of protest from the letter-writing classes. Here's hoping public radio officials ignore them. Indeed, let's all ignore them. The next time you hear a smarmy letter wishing that NPR would quit wasting its time telling you about Charlie Sheen, let me suggest that you respond with pity, not anger. Clinging to an outmoded view of what's fit for consumption by the rest of us—it's just so, so sad. Indeed, I listen to NPR precisely to avoid that sort of stupidity.
Correction, March 2, 2011: This article previously misspelled Winona Ryder's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, March 3, 2011: This article originally claimed that NPR's audience has declined over the last five years. NPR's listenership has actually increased since plateauing between 2003 and 2007. (Return to the corrected sentence.)