Welcome to Public Radio 101. American public media is hard to explain—it's free to the public but it's not a government service. It's colloquially called NPR or PBS but it's actually a group of individual stations that share content across the country. Even people who love public radio don't intuitively understand how it works.

That's why we've put together a brief explanation. See below for 5 quick facts you can use to impress your friends (along with links to additional information). As always, feel free to contact membership@wbur.org with questions or comments.


Quick facts

  1. WBUR was founded in 1950.
  2. NPR was founded in 1970.
  3. Shows like Morning Edition are called newsmagazines.
  4. "NPR shows" get recorded all over the country.
  5. The government provides just 4.49% of WBUR's funding.

1. WBUR was founded in 1950.


The following excerpt comes from WBUR's archives. Read more at wbur.org.

WBUR-FM went on the air at 4 p.m. on March 1, 1950, as a 400-watt non-commercial educational station licensed to Boston University. In its early years, the WBUR staff comprised amateurs, professionals, volunteers and students.

Through the 1960s, more and more radio professionals joined WBUR and gradually transformed the station’s format. By 1971, WBUR had enough full-time employees to qualify for status as a public radio station and applied to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) for certification.

In 1980, the station began to receive programming from NPR via satellite. By 1982, WBUR had established its identity as a news station, with NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered broadcast each weekday and local news programming produced by a staff of young reporters.

2. NPR was founded in 1970.


Public radio has been around since the 1940s. NPR was founded in 1970. Today, NPR is synonymous with public radio—but they aren't the same thing. Here's a quick timeline from npr.org.

1940s: Our roots go back to the earliest days of American broadcasting. In the 1920s, many of the country's first radio stations grew up at colleges and universities who wanted to experiment with this new medium to educate and entertain the public. In the late 1940s, the Federal Communications Commission allotted the lower end of the new FM band exclusively to noncommercial, educational stations, setting the stage for a major station expansion. This is where most public stations are still found today.

1970s: As commercial radio began its first decline with the advent of TV, public radio grew, along with public TV. The big breakthrough came in 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act. This new law led to the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which Congress called upon to encourage "the growth and development of non-commercial radio" and to develop "programming that will be responsive to the interests of the people." [...]

NPR was incorporated on Feb. 26, 1970, by 90 forward-thinking charter stations to provide national news programming. In April 1971, NPR hit the air with live coverage of the Senate hearings on the war in Vietnam. Just a month later, NPR debuted its first weekday newsmagazine, All Things Considered. In 1977, NPR assumed a new responsibility — to represent the interests of NPR member stations (who had grown from 90 to 190) — before Congress, the FCC and others. NPR's morning newsmagazine, Morning Edition, launched in 1979, signaling that the network was becoming an all-day news service.

3. Shows like Morning Edition are called newsmagazines.


Morning Edition and All Things Considered are NPR newsmagazine programs that blend national and local news coverage. NPR produces both shows for national syndication, but Morning Edition at WBUR might sound different from Morning Edition at KQED. That's because each station has a different local host.
From the American Archive of Public Broadcasting:

The word "newsmagazine" is a portmanteau used to describe programming that combines a magazine-style format, or a show consisting of sequential, unrelated features (to the same effect of flipping through a print magazine), with a focus on news content. Mainstream examples include NPR’s All Things Considered and ABC’s 20/20, but the paradigm of the genre is generally considered to be CBS’s 60 Minutes.

4. "NPR shows" get recorded all over the country.


NPR alum Andy Carvin has an excellent explanation of how NPR works at quora.com. The whole thing is worth a read (and will take you less than two minutes), but here's what he has to say about NPR programming:

Meanwhile, just because you're listening to a show on an NPR member station doesn't mean it's an NPR-produced show. Love the show Marketplace? Me too. It's just that we don't produce it; it comes from another national public radio producer, American Public Media. Or do you like BBC programming on your local public radio station? That comes via Public Radio International, the other big public radio producer. So, when you listen to an NPR station, you'll hear a mix of our programming, programming produced by other organizations, as well as by individual stations.

5. The government provides just 4.49% of WBUR's funding.


Many people think that NPR’s basic needs are covered by government funding. In WBUR’s case, just 4.49% of our funding comes from taxes or the government. We get some funding from underwriting, sponsorship, and the money we make from syndicating our shows to other NPR stations. But it’s support from the public that lets WBUR be a public radio station.

While some public radio systems around the world—like the UK’s BBC or Canada’s CBC—are fully funded by taxpayers and licensing fees, things work differently here in the United States. American public media started out as a network of stations operated by state colleges and universities. Early public radio stations were internally funded, so the system we’ve got today grew up to be fundamentally different from European public media (which started as a government-run project and is still pretty centralized). Our decentralized nature led to decentralized funding: stations pay a fee to be part of NPR, but they still have to figure out how to pay for themselves. So while you can't donate to NPR directly, you can support the NPR system by donating to your local station.


Donate if you can; keep listening either way.

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