Audience numbers show that people turn to radio on a regular basis and their listening patterns demonstrate that radio is a solid and stable medium. But, are people listening out of habit or loyalty, or do they feel they are getting something unique from radio? Do they tune into news radio because they are trapped in the car or because they are looking for information they can trust?
If we look at radio in comparison to its sister mediums, survey data from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press indicate that radio falls below newspapers, television and the Internet as the public’s primary source for national and international news. This is not surprising. With the exception of such programming entities like NPR, the BBC and the ABC Radio Network, listeners tend to identify radio as a local medium and rely on it accordingly. When the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF) surveyed individuals about their interest in news content on the radio, the top answers were items that were immediate and local: weather, news and traffic.1 These are areas where the nature of radio becomes its strength. The weather box on the front page is set the moment the newspaper leaves the press and, while local television news and online editions of local newspapers are able to provide up-to-the-minute traffic reports, few individuals (currently at least) have televisions or online capabilities in their vehicles.
But again, are we seeing examples of radio as a vital medium or a default medium? What do people think about radio?
Percent ’’very interested’’ in each type by age group
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Source: Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, “The American Radio News Audience Survey.”
A September 2003 survey conducted by Zogby International on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters reported that 84 percent of the people responded that radio played an important role in providing news and information to their community (53 percent said very important and 31 percent said somewhat important). The same survey suggested that 49 percent of Americans turn to radio on a daily basis for news, weather, traffic, sports and community activities. Findings from the Pew Research Center survey mirror the Zogby results, with 48 percent of respondents saying they listened to news on the radio regularly.2
It seems impossible to predict, given the data available, whether further conglomeration of radio stations will affect public perception of radio as a reliable, local medium. While it may not be the top moneymaker of an organization, evidence shows that it enjoys a constant, consistent and loyal audience.
If local TV news has its more sensationalized stations, radio has its “shock jocks.” But the highly specialized or compartmentalized nature of radio formatting allows more precise selection by listeners. There is rarely confusion or overlap between the more radically opinionated talk radio station and, say, an NPR news station. When asked what they considered to be news, respondents to the RTNDF survey were very clear. Of individuals who considered themselves to be “news followers,” 80 percent said they felt that both reporting on the stock exchanges and traffic updates were news and 89 percent thought daily weather reports were news, but only 24 percent said that felt that shows like Rush Limbaugh’s or Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s were news reporting.3
This would seem to fall in line with a January 2003 Gallup Poll that found that 22 percent of Americans relied on Talk Radio as their primary news source, double from four years ago.4 While the percentage was viewed by some media organizations, and even some hosts of talk radio shows, as troubling, it is not surprising when the broader outline of radio as an information medium is considered. Radio is a medium that has evolved into one with an eye toward very specific formats. Because of its segmentation, despite the fact that formats are not always clearly and consistently delineated, it fosters a situation where listeners will go to the outlet of their own choosing. Many talk radio stations present themselves with a clear and well-defined position and philosophy that their programming holds closely to. It allows listeners, who might be interested only in a particular mindset or the opinions of a particular host, to select the portion of the dial that they feel best suits their needs or may, in fact, be filling a void they feel is left open in other media sources.
Where advances in television and in technology have worked to give viewers and Web surfers increasing amounts of information (think of the now ubiquitous cable television news channel “crawl” or even the less welcome Internet pop-up ad), radio advances seem to open more options for paring things away. The evolution of radio has given listeners increasing control over the kind of content they want to receive. Satellite radio entities like XM radio and Sirius, due to an enormous number of niche station types, allow listeners an almost surgical control over what type of music or talk they listen to. Thus, the Rush Limbaugh listeners can go to their spot on the dial, the Pacifica radio listeners to their spot and the NPR listeners to another. According to the same Gallup Poll survey, 22 percent of the respondents said that they got their daily news from an NPR affiliate station.5
All spots on the dial offer listeners another element that seems important to the strength of radio. Radio, to a greater degree than the newspaper and even local television, has the ability to provide citizens with the opportunity for participation in the public forum. The letter to the editor or online submission to an Internet site seems to be a far more passive and less personal interaction than hearing one’s voice on the radio. Even more importantly, the radio call-in show involves response from either the host or program guests. While some might debate the “news” value of such programming, the level of audience engagement is indisputable. There is a great value to responsible, considered dialogue on critical issues between experts and the general public.
Survey of radio news listeners, 1995 vs. 2000
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Source: Radio-Television News Directors Foundation,”The American Radio News Audience Survey.”
* Question: Please tell me which one — TV, radio, online sources, newspapers, etc. — you are most likely to turn to first for each of the following reasons.
Radio also has a certain advantage as a broadcast medium because it is audio. Radio has the ability to be instantaneous, to break in with important news without concern for having a crew on the location of the event or having to get good pictures. This is not to say that getting reporters to a location for segments is never an issue, but it is less critical than television. One radio personality, remembering a live event he broadcast from the front gates one of Martha Stewart’s summer house in Maine after Stewart purportedly blocked a tour group from her property, said that some people listening to his show later asked him if he had really been on location. It’s a question a television reporter would generally not have to answer.
Freedom of location might be part of the reason why 84 percent of those responding to Zogby International’s NAB 2003 survey said that radio would be very important in “the event of a terrorism attack, mass power outage, inclement weather or other catastrophe.”6 Another likely reason is practical. Radios can run on batteries, it is an available outlet for individuals traveling by car, allowing constant contact with an event, and it is local, allowing listeners to feel as though they are receiving information specific to their own safety as defined by their community’s situation.
1. Radio-Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF), “The American Radio News Audience Survey,” 2002.
2. NAB/Zogby International Survey, “Americans Love Their Radio,” Oct. 6, 2003.
3. RTNDF, “The American Radio News Audience Survey,” 2002.
4. Information taken from Steve Carney, “Radio: Around the Dial: 22% of Americans get news from talk jocks”, Los Angeles Times, Friday, January 10, 2003.
6. NAB/Zogby International Survey, “Americans Love Their Radio,” Oct. 6, 2003.