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With an average household income of $78,000, NPR's audience is among the most affluent and educated in the nation. Public-radio listeners are staying tuned in for the same amount of time weekly that they did in 1995, despite an 8% drop in time spent listening to radio overall. One reason: NPR spent much of the 1990s bulking up its news staff, adding 28 reporters and correspondents and opening 31 offices, with the aim of becoming more of a primary news source rather than a purveyor of features a few days late under the guise of "analysis." The 9/11 attacks were a watershed. NPR News broadcast for a record 90 hours straight, adding 2.6 million weekly listeners, and it has gained 270,000 more listeners since then. Its two big news shows--Morning Edition and All Things Considered--have a combined weekly listenership of 15.7 million, making them the U.S.'s No. 2 and No. 3 programs, after conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh's show. Even Newt Gingrich, who wanted to dismantle NPR when he was a conservative leader in Congress, today says he's a fan and contributor. "Either it is a lot less on the left, or I have mellowed," he said in a recent speech.
NPR's audience roughly reflects the nation's ideological breakdown of conservatives, moderates and liberals, according to a 2002 survey by the Pew Research Center. But many conservatives believe that the network remains the voice of the liberal elite. "There is a strong market for liberal voices, and it's being satisfied by NPR to a great degree," conservative media critic Brent Bozell said on an NPR talk show. Bruce Drake, 54, vice president of NPR News, acknowledges that if the Fox network's conservative TV and radio star Bill O'Reilly were given a regular slot on NPR, "I might have a listener revolt." Drake adds that O'Reilly appeared as a guest on an NPR talk show last year.
Supporters of Israel have criticized NPR's treatment of that country, and NPR, trying to show its balance, made transcripts of its Middle East coverage available free on its website. NPR has also been criticized as being biased against President Bush's policy toward war with Iraq. The network says it fairly presents a wide range of views. Griping may reflect a polarizing radio audience, with listeners flocking to one end of the spectrum or the other. "Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage are shouting, while NPR has positioned itself as the opposite, with carefully modulated voices," says David Schutz, an industry consultant in San Diego.
NPR's news shows have few challengers, but its music, talk and variety programs face tough competition, not only from PRI but also from regional stations jostling to take their offerings national. WNYC, for instance, is gaining a national audience for a variety show called The Next Big Thing. Nationally syndicated shows account for 55% of public-radio airtime, a share that has grown 10 percentage points in the past decade.