Public Radio Has Appeal Among Its Most Truculent Detractors

There was a very interesting piece on last week about just how many truck drivers listen to NPR in seeming contrast to the “business leader,” “educated lifelong learner” or any of the profiles described by National Public Media.” 

Even truckers who hate the politics and values embodied by public radio programs tend to be regular listeners. After using a disparaging term for the network, a driver who is a member of the KKK is quoted saying he can’t stop listening because it accompanies him across the country. Another says he listens for much the same reason even though he finds public radio “disturbing.” One driver said she wore out a booklet listing all the public radio stations in the US she received for pledging and wished she asked for two.

This information came to light when long haul truck driver, Finn Murphy, started talking to public radio stations about a book he wrote. Most were incredulous at the news that a large swath of truckers listen to NPR.  Some stations and programs do recognize that there are a lot of drivers among listeners, but

the system has a blind spot, said John Sutton, general manager of WESA in Pittsburgh…When people in public radio look at research and talk to potential underwriters and foundations, Sutton said, they focus on how public radio listeners are different — how they’re well educated and more likely to volunteer and engage with the arts.

“Those things are important, but … we often blind ourselves to how similar our listeners are to the average American,” Sutton said. “There are a lot of people who listen to us who don’t have college degrees, and we just don’t focus on those people in a lot of our discussions.”

Murphy suggests that public radio stations try giving a shout out to truck drivers during pledge drives to see if they would be willing to donate. If nothing else, the acknowledgement helps build relationships and goodwill for the network of stations.

You have probably intuited the point I am working toward. Misconceptions about the demographics of existing and potential audiences are a problem shared by a wide range of arts and cultural entities. So don’t get down on yourself for doing a bad job of it because you are in good company. But it is something that needs to be done better.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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