Are Public Radio & TV Station Revenue Trends Really That Different?

Our October blog post explored how public radio revenue is now higher than public television revenue thanks to significant radio growth over the past decade. The post also highlighted great disparities between radio stations of different sizes – big growth for large stations and revenue declines for small stations. The variation by station size is also very evident in public television. Small TV stations (those with annual revenue below $5M) declined by 32% between 2008 and 2018 but large TV stations (those with revenue above $10M) declined by a much lower 8%.

The revenue declines for public television over the past decade suggest an uncertain future for public TV stations of all sizes but this is an oversimplification. Public television was hit very hard by the recession and took a long time to recover whereas public radio got through the recession relatively unscathed. If we focus on the period since 2013, then public television compares relatively favorably with public radio. TV revenue grew 11% between 2013 and 2018 whereas public radio grew by 26%. This is a big difference compared with the 2008-13 period when public radio revenue grew by 15% but public TV revenue declined 23%.

The type of station also matters. The revenue trends for radio and television stations look very different, depending on whether you are looking at community licensees (stations licensed to independent 501(c)(3) organizations), university licensees, or state licensees. From 2013 to 2018, community public radio stations outgrew their TV counterparts 27% to 20% but the variances were much larger at institutional licensees: 25% revenue growth for radio versus 5% for TV at university stations and 23% growth for radio compared with a 3% revenue decline for state licensed TV stations.

Size is also an important factor. The very largest community stations (TV stations with annual revenues above $10 million and radio stations with revenue above $3 million) show little difference between TV and radio. Since 2013, large community TV station revenue is up 27% compared with revenue growth of 31% for large community radio stations.

So are public radio and television stations really that different? It depends on when and where you look. We’ll continue exploring this and other questions in a future blog post.

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