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Public radio station WNPR, for the first time, is region’s news-ratings leader

BY John Stearns

3/5/2018
HBJ Photos | John Stearns
HBJ Photos | John Stearns
Sarah DeFilippis, senior vice president of branding and marketing for Connecticut Public — the new master brand for Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network’s properties, including WNPR, CPTV and CPTV Spirit, reflected in the new logo behind her — said WNPR’s rise in news ratings affirms listeners are responding to the station’s programming.
Radio listeners have increasingly tuned into Connecticut public radio station WNPR for news and talk over the last couple years, helping it in recent months nudge past the Hartford region's longtime news-talk leader, WTIC-AM, according to industry data.

WNPR, at 90.5 FM, edged past WTIC, at 1080 AM, for the first time in September in 24-hour overall market share ratings. WNPR has maintained that lead in four out of the previous five months, through Jan. 2018, according to data from the Radio Research Consortium (RRC), which provides research to noncommercial stations based on Nielsen Inc.'s audio data. (WNPR is not No. 1 in overall market share when music stations are included.)

While WNPR didn't gain its first overall lead until fall 2017, it had begun to edge ahead in morning and/or afternoon drive-time ratings, where the bulk of listening occurs, said John Dankosky, executive editor of the WNPR-based New England News Collaborative, host of "The Wheelhouse" and regional news program "NEXT."

"I would say up until 2017, they were the leader in market share for news listening, without a question," Dankosky said of WTIC-AM, "and starting in 2017 that began to change and now we're hopeful that that has changed even more moving forward."

The ratings shift, media experts say, could be explained by several factors, including the current political environment and changing listener habits, in which people increasingly prefer commercial-free broadcasts — something WNPR offers.

While the membership-based public radio station doesn't use ratings to sell advertising, the numbers affirm listeners are responding to WNPR's programming, said Sarah DeFilippis, senior vice president of branding and marketing for Connecticut Public, the new master brand for Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network's radio, TV, educational and other offerings.

Hartford-based WNPR has invested heavily in its journalism in recent years, including a state-of-the-art studio at Gateway Community College in New Haven that opened Feb. 14 and is intended to further engage students and the community with Connecticut Public.

WNPR has five local news programs — "Where We Live," hosted by Lucy Nalpathanchil; "The Colin McEnroe Show;" "The Wheelhouse," hosted by McEnroe and Dankosky; "NEXT," from the New England News Collaborative and hosted by Dankosky; and the "Faith Middleton Food Schmooze" — that DeFilippis said are helping fuel the ratings rise. They're complemented by NPR's national programming.

Radio ratings for the Hartford-New Britain-Middletown metro area can be viewed different ways and ratings can fluctuate month to month and week to week based on stories, with the news competitors trading positions in overall ratings and morning and afternoon drive times.

WNPR, though, has nearly doubled its overall share of audience, reflected as the percentage of all people listening in a month who are measured by Nielsen, from 3.3 percent in March 2016 to 5.9 percent in Jan. 2018 and more than doubled its morning drive share from 3.4 percent to 6.9 percent, with overall average weekly listeners rising from 106,000 to 113,700 over the same period.

Both stations are heard well beyond the Hartford-New Britain-Middletown area, but that's the market for which ratings are compiled, meaning their total listenership is larger.

"We're really just talking about a snapshot in one market that's easier to measure where these stations go head to head," Dankosky said.

WTIC confident

Steve Salhany, vice president of programming at Entercom-Hartford — which counts WTIC-AM among four of its holdings locally, including FM stations WTIC 96.5, WRCH 100.5 and WZMX 93.7, all acquired as part of Entercom Communications Corp.'s merger with CBS Radio Inc. last November — acknowledged WNPR's recent monthly wins, but said he looks at average ratings over the course of a year, which he considers more accurate. WTIC-AM has led in that measure since at least 2011, he said, and he's confident it will retain that lead at the end of 2018.

Salhany said he isn't overly concerned by WNPR's recent higher ratings.

"I've been here at the TICs for almost 30 years and numbers kind of go up a little bit and down some," he said. "At the end of the day, providing consistent information and local content, being part of the community and being part of our listeners' lives are really the most important thing for us."

Asked if WTIC-AM planned to do anything different in the wake of the recent ratings, he said it would continue doing what it always has, "which is to be extremely local, in all of our content, whether it's our news, our traffic, our weather, our sports, our talk and information."

The all-important morning drive time is a key focus for WTIC-AM, which features longtime morning host Ray Dunaway. Other names include Angela Dias in news, Bob Joyce in sports, Bob Cox in weather and Mike Alan in traffic.

Salhany put the station's news staff at about seven full time and eight to 10 part time. Dankosky puts his station's count at about 22 in radio, of which about 20 regularly work in news.

Salhany is complimentary of WNPR.

"They've done some really good things — lot of respect for them," he said. "And we're a great radio station, too, and so we're just going to continue to get better and work really hard to make sure that we provide the best local content for the community."

Like WNPR taps NPR for national news and programming, WTIC taps CBS.

Salhany said he doesn't think, though, comparing commercial and noncommercial stations is apples to apples.

"We're really not the same type of station," he said. "We do local news 24/7 at the top and bottom of every hour, excluding when we have sports, which is quite a bit, which they don't have."

Meantime, WTIC is losing UConn sports at the end of the basketball season after UConn recently signed with iHeart Media and ESPN 97.9 FM to broadcast basketball, football and men's hockey. Salhany acknowledged people love UConn sports, but said WTIC "will be just fine," going forward. Another Entercom-Hartford official said WTIC would continue to emphasize local sports and would sharpen its focus on the professional teams it airs.

WNPR's ratings surge mirrors an increase by NPR nationally. Total weekly listeners for all programming on NPR stations in 2016 reached an all-time high of about 37.4 million in fall 2016, up almost 4 million from 2015, according to an NPR news release citing Nielsen Audio ratings. Through last spring, it reported total weekly listeners for all programming on NPR stations reached an all-time high of 37.7 million.

WNPR’s gains

Ben Bogardus, assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University, sees three factors influencing WNPR's ratings surge.

First, Connecticut is a highly educated population and that's NPR's core audience, he said.

"In Connecticut, Yale, UConn, Quinnipiac,Trinity, Sacred Heart — all of these universities in a very small state in a highly educated workforce, they tend to like NPR more than people in other states would," he said.

The current political climate is another factor, Bogardus said.

WTIC has some conservative talk radio, including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, which isn't as popular in the current climate as when the Democrats were in power, Bogardus said.

"Conservative talk radio does better when they have the opposition party in the White House," he said, "and so as people are looking for alternative viewpoints, they don't turn on Rush Limbaugh and then hear the news on WTIC, they turn on WNPR for that sort of alternative point of view."

Third, is what he calls the Netflix era, in which people prefer commercial-free viewing. Commercial talk radio has frequent advertisements, he said.

"So listening to the radio in the car and being bombarded by constant ads, I think, is also turning people off," Bogardus said.

"I think another sort of factor is the world of podcasting," said Bogardus, who teaches a course in that at Quinnipiac. "The idea of more highly produced, more longer-form programming, people are starting to warm up to. That's, again, what NPR does best."

WNPR's DeFilippis said people tune in for the deep-dive stories, offering so-called "driveway moments" where a listener, hooked by a story or program, continues listening in their vehicle even after arriving home.

WNPR research affirmed that its biggest fans are lifelong learners, DeFilippis said, and the station tends to attract those listeners.

Dankosky said WNPR enjoyed news growth since about 2006, adding local hosts like McEnroe along the way. In 2016, Dankosky got a grant to start the New England News Collaborative, beefing up regional news relevant to Connecticut listeners through "NEXT."

The growth is being fed by a broader audience, too, both younger and more racially diverse, which WNPR has intentionally sought through its programming, Dankosky said. Listeners also are nearly split between men and women.

"We've been investing in news, local news, regional news, national news, international news," he said, adding that WNPR also partners closely with NPR in Washington, D.C., setting a high standard for its productions.

WTIC is focused on quality, as well, Salhany said.

"What's important is what comes out of the speakers every day and to make sure that we're local, we're committed to our community, we provide the best coverage we can with news, weather, traffic, sports and entertainment," he said. "That to me, I can guarantee you that we will do that in 2018."