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The growth in stations, and the possible erosion in local journalistic content, has not materially transformed how many people listen to radio. The 94 percent figure calculated by Arbitron has stayed virtually unchanged for the last five years, the time from which data are available.

Radio Reach
Percent of the population 12 and older, 1998 – 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Arbitron ’Radio Today’ annual report

Similar to what is occurring in the magazine industry, the growth in stations, instead, appears to be fragmenting the radio audience into finer and finer niche groups. The 47 recognized radio formats include such things as Adult Contemporary, Alternative, Country, Classical, Beautiful Music and Farm/Agriculture. And even these 47 formats are prone to splitting and changing to create new niche markets. What was once Contemporary Hit Radio, or CHR, now includes CHR-Pop, CHR-80s and CHR-Dance.1

This represents a remarkable shift. When commercial radio was begun, stations were broadly programmed channels, much like the later television networks. The same channel, depending on time of day, offered serials, then soaps, music and news. Today, the strategies behind formating radio are even more targeted than cable television. This narrowcasting, as it is termed, adds to cultural fragmentation. It also tends to minimize accidental learning – people becoming more familiar with news, information or even music that they were not seeking out.

This targeting in recent years has most likely played a part in the stability of radio’s overall audience. The stability might also be attributed to the fact that radio is a medium built on habit. With preset stations on the car radio, the clock radio and even on streaming audio, people’s radio tendencies tend to vary little day to day. Think about your own radio listening. Have your habits changed significantly? Do you listen in the car on weekdays? In the kitchen on Saturday morning when you have your coffee? Only to Dr. Laura?

Tied to listening to the same stations for the most part, data gathered over the last five years reveal little change in where people listen to the radio. The lone shift here has been a steady climb in car listening over the past five years. Why? The most likely explanation is cultural. People are driving more. Data from the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics indicate that the average driver spends 55 minutes behind the wheel every day.2

What has intrigued radio professionals is that there has been no apparent change in listening due to technology. There were theories that Internet radio streaming, which makes it possible to listen to radio on the computer, at work or at home, and to pick from among many more stations than just those in the listener’s own city, would radically transform radio. The Internet has led to a surge in news consumption of text-based Web sites. People check out news Web sites such as at work throughout the day, creating a whole new class of news consumers.

But no analogous surge in daytime listening has happened on the radio. Research suggests that while people may be willing to dip their feet in the water they may not necessarily dive in. According to a 2003 study by Arbitron/Edison Media Research the number of individuals who had ever listened to radio stations on the Internet increased from 6 percent in 1998 to 33 percent in 2003.3 But when asked about more regular online listening, only 10 percent had listened to a radio station online in the past month. Only 5 percent had listened in the past week.

Where People Listen, 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Arbitron ’Radio Today’ annual report
Where People Listen
Design Your Own Chart
Arbitron ’Radio Today’ annual reports

What is the cause of this apparent disconnection between radio and the revolutions occurring in broadcast technology? One contributing factor is the decision made by some organizations to limit or prohibit alternative forms of broadcast-such as Internet streaming of audio and video–for their so-called over-the-air radio stations (those stations also available through traditional radio outlets and not Internet or satellite-only stations). As a result, the information and programming that attracted a listener to the station is simply not available online.

Another might be the attitude cited by some researchers that many listeners view their computer as simply another receiver, no different than the traditional radio that might already be sitting in their kitchen or on their desk. The listener with this mindset would most likely choose whichever mode of listening is most convenient to their location. Add to this the reality of the digital divide and the weight online streaming can put on computers and computer networks. Some organizations and corporations have instituted rules limiting or prohibiting the use of streaming websites in office settings while some at-home computer users are simply not sufficiently equipped to enjoy streamed audio in as clean a fashion as the traditional radio on their desk.

The newest evolution of radio is the advent of satellite networks like Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio. While this report is primarily concerned with the state of radio journalism on over-the-air stations these satellite networks are enabling radio listeners an increasing amount of control over the content they listen to thanks to a finely delineated formatting scheme. Moreover, satellite technology allows listeners the kind of universal access offered by the Internet (an individual abroad can access radio stations from back home) while specially designed receivers for car and home preserve the mobility that is radio’s personal strength as a medium.

Radio News Listnership

So how much of radio listening is listening to news?

The answer is not as simple as one might think.

BIAfn data indicate that 3 percent of the nation’s 13,000 radio stations (or 348) list Talk as their primary format. Some 1,000 have chosen to list their primary format as News (8 percent). We cannot ignore the effect on the findings of self-declared formats and the lack of overall format guidelines. Anecdotal information suggests that many of these News stations might more properly be considered Talk or Information stations.4

In addition, many stations mix news and talk or news and classical music. Others listed as Spanish-language stations do news in Spanish. These format designations just indicate what represents the majority of the broadcast day, but do not account for what may make up some or even a large minority of the broadcast day.

According to information in Arbitron’s 2002 Radio Today Annual Report, 15 percent of radio listeners say their primary radio station is a News/Talk station, the largest single category of radio listeners.5

What Radio Formats People Listen To, 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Arbitron ’Radio Today’ annual report

News/Talk formats have enjoyed a minor increase in audience since 1999 and there have been some – but not huge – shifts in the audience size of other formats. The greatest increases have taken place in Country and Religious audiences (about 3 percentage points each over the last five years), while various other formats, Urban, Oldies and Adult Contemporary, have all declined marginally.6

Cultural cues may provide some answer. There was the expansion of country music into the mainstream with the popularity of singers and bands like Shania Twain, Garth Brooks and Lonestar.

The September 11 terrorist attacks may provide further explanation. Country music prides itself on its unashamedly patriotic nature, and a turn toward more religious messages might be a logical response to the terrorism followed by war. This would also reflect the rise in religious syndication, particularly in the AM band. One example is American Family Radio, a Christian radio group that is part of the American Family Association. According to BIAfn, the American Family Association owns 107 stations in 36 markets and is the fifth-largest owner in radio today.7

But turning back to News, who are these people who choose News or Talk as their favorite format to listen to? They are a remarkably diverse mix, more diverse, indeed, than most other news mediums. The Arbitron study, for instance, shows a wide educational and economic range among those who listen to News and Talk. While the largest percentage of listeners (40 percent) leans slightly toward college graduates and those making more than $75,000 annually (35 percent), 13 percent of listeners earn less than $25,000 annually and list their highest level of education as a high school diploma.8

This demonstrates another strength of radio: its lack of cost to the consumer. A house may have one or two television sets costing a few hundred dollars each. A newspaper may cost little for the value, but still 50 cents a day. A radio can cost a few dollars to buy and last for years, affordable enough for one in every room, the car and work.

The age of the news audience is also surprisingly diverse. As is the case in other news media (newspapers and network TV), the largest group is people 65 and over (30 percent). Individuals 35 to 44 make up about 17 percent of listeners, as do those 55 to 64.9

Listeners to News-Talk-Information Stations, by Age
1998 – 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Arbitron ’’Radio Today’’ annual reports
* 1998 data includes children’s formats.

The news radio audience is more male than female, and it is becoming even more so. Males now account for 60 percent of news listeners, up from 57 percent in 1998.

There is most likely no one reason for the decline in female listenership. It is possible that female listeners have a negative reaction to the aggressive nature of the male talk radio host. Another influence might be traced back to the car. While it is a statistic that soccer moms across the country might want to debate, Bureau of Transportation Statistics data show that women actually spend roughly half as much time on in the car each day than men. The average female driver tends to spend about 44 minutes per day in the car and drives approximately 21 miles. Male drivers, in contrast, spend an average of 67 minutes behind the wheel and drive 38 miles daily. As noted above, the average overall is 55 minutes.10

What are we missing by looking only at the News/Talk format to get an idea of the use of radio for news? Namely, the hourly newscast that happens on many music stations, from Country to Hit Radio. To assess the impact of these news segments, we must turn to survey data.

A 2000 survey of radio listeners conducted by the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF) suggests this is an important part of radio news. The vast majority (98 percent) of listeners interviewed indicated that they did not change the dial when news came on and did pay attention during those hourly updates. Fully 41 percent of self-declared heavy listeners indicated that they got news content while listening to a music format station. And 47 percent said that they chose their radio station based on the news it provided. Looking more broadly at all respondents, 88 percent said they listened to news on music stations during the week. Only 2 percent reported changing the station when the news came on. Even when choosing a radio station with an alternative format, the news content available still informed the listener’s decision.11

This may mean that even though radio is perhaps the most narrowly targeted communications medium, it could still involve one component of news consumption that has been unique to broadcasting, the idea that listeners might come across information they did not know they would or should be interested in. The once-an-hour news brief offers the possibility that the teenage Hispanic female who listens only to Urban format stations, the middle-aged White male who listens primarily to talk radio and the older African-American female whose car radio is set to classical programming will all receive information on issues regarding health care, taxes or immigration issues. This so-called incidental knowledge is a critical element in building public opinion about issues of the day.

Nevertheless, this possibility is severely limited by the extreme brevity of these newscasts. One or two minutes once an hour is not uncommon, which leaves room for little more than headlines. A listener might learn that Congress is voting on a new Medicare bill but not understand the impact of the measure. With the growth of media consolidation and such techniques as voice-tracking, any local aspect to this news is even more limited.


1. Arbitron, website data,

2. The statistics bureau does not have trend data on this figure. But its data do indicate that that 87 percent of people use their personal vehicle, as opposed to public transportation or some other mode of travel, when making daily travel. Daily travel, as the bureau defines it, includes commuting, shopping and errands and social or recreational trips (visiting friends, relatives, etc.).

3. Arbitron/Edison Media Research, Internet and Multimedia 11: New Media Enters the Mainstream, 2003

4. 2002 data from Arbitron list 1,999 stations as News/Talk formats. As noted earlier, there are some discrepancies between numbers cited by Arbitron and those included in BIAfn’s data.

5. Arbitron, Radio Today, 2003

6. The category “other” is actually higher, but it is a miscellaneous catchall. This percentage has not changed appreciably over the years, even as the radio dial has become more fragmented.

7. BIAfn MediaAccess Pro, unpublished data,

8. Arbitron, “Radio Today,” 2003, p. 38

9. Arbitron, “Radio Today” reports, 1998 – 2003

10. Bureau of Transportation Statistics

11. Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, “The American Radio News Audience Survey,” Nov. 25, 2002, p. 11-12,