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Radio – Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism


Radio might be called journalism’s forgotten but stable middle child.

The medium that came after newspapers and before television remains one that virtually every American continues to use, and one whose audience isn’t declining. While the medium spans as many as 47 different formats, many radio stations include some hourly news briefs in the course of the day, and the number of news stations that are mostly news and public affairs remains robust.1 Some outlets, such as National Public Radio’s affiliate stations, are a reminder that there is a growing audience for in-depth radio news coverage from around the world.

But there are also signs of concern, as in other media. Though the evidence is hard to pin down, the amount and character of locally produced news on radio appears to have seriously eroded in recent years. Consolidation has made original local public affairs content more of an afterthought. Hourly updates are often not more than headline reads. And the data available suggest a growing number of stations are not local at all, despite a high desire among audiences for local information. The people who work in radio news are not well paid. Their ranks are shrinking and those who remain are being stretched thinner.

Despite radio’s durability, when the subject of the news media comes up, radio often sits ignored. The conversation usually centers on newspapers, the oldest medium; television, the most visual, or the Internet, the newest. There is little academic research into radio, either as journalism or the medium as a whole, and what research is done is often conducted to persuade advertisers about the medium’s continued vitality, usually by gathering proprietary data for specific needs.

Thus, much of what people know about radio is rather like blind men touching an elephant. Each comprehends the elephant in a different way. The man grasping the trunk thinks the elephant is like a snake. The man holding the tail thinks it is like a paintbrush.

This is quickly illustrated in trying to answer even the most basic questions: How many radio stations are there?

As of September 30, 2003, the FCC listed 13,450 licensed broadcast radio stations in the United States. This count includes every station with a set of call letters and a frequency, even those that are silent, or currently not broadcasting.2

Number Of Licensed Broadcast Radio Stations, 1990 to 2003
Design Your Own Chart
FCC quarterly report
* Numbers as of September 30th of each year

Arbitron, on the other hand, an international media and marketing research firm, counts 13,685 in its 2002 Radio Today Annual Report.3 BIAfn, a media investment research company, includes Canadian and Mexican stations (stations that begin their call letters with a C or an X, respectively, instead of the W or K used in the United States) as well as radio stations located in American territories. It lists a slightly lower total: 13,215 domestic radio stations. To try to sort this out, we can contrast data sets against each other. Doing so reveals 13,400 to 13,700 radio stations in operation in the United States.4

This is approximately a 99 percent increase since 1970, due almost solely to the growth of FM (rather than AM).5


1. Arbitron’s Web site lists 47 major formats which are used in their listening surveys.

2. Federal Communications Commission,

3. “Radio Today: How America Listens to Radio, 2003” Arbitron Inc., p. 4,

4. As a kind of experiment, to judge how closely the various counts relate, we extracted the number of radio stations listed with Arbitron under the format heading of News/Talk. For Arbitron this includes news, talk, information, business news and sports. We then took the data from BIAfn and individually counted stations providing news, talk, information, business news or sports. We came up with a number of 1,812-just 187 stations fewer than Arbitron’s listing in its 2002 Radio Today report of 1,999 stations.

5. AM radio occupies a frequency band of 535 kilohertz (1 kilohertz equals 1,000 cycles per second) to 1.7 megahertz (1 megahertz equals 1 million cycles per second). The FM radio band spans 88 megahertz to 108 megahertz.