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People outside the worlds of media or marketing would probably be amazed at the level of detail researchers are asked to (and are able to) provide regarding media audiences.

Data exist from the very public kind – “What kind of car does the urban-format radio listener drive?” – to the very personal, even odd: “How many members of our classical music audience suffer from nail fungus?”

A Mediamark research study conducted for one national radio broadcast group not only offered information about listeners’ marital status and income, but also about whether they clipped coupons, whether they felt advertising on cable channels was “too loud,” the percentage that used Kleenex or Heinz products and the size of their television screens. Someone reading the report would be able to determine what percentage of the station group’s listeners had rented a U-Haul truck, used mayonnaise, ate olives, bought coffee at a convenience store, owned metal cookware, owned binoculars, or suffered from heartburn or backaches or sinus congestion.

While it might seem a slightly ridiculous level of scrutiny into the habits of audience members, the truth of the matter is that the highly segmented radio business is increasingly dependent not simply on knowing its audience demographic in broad terms – age, income, marital status – but on knowing who these individual listeners are exactly. What products do they want to hear about? Are they primarily commuters who will be looking for a station with a good traffic report, or are they hikers who want to know the weekend weather? Do they follow politics? Do they look for local news content on the radio, or do they bypass news in favor of classical music in the evening? The answers to these questions might make the difference between whether they listen to your station or make a move up the dial or abandon terrestrial radio and head straight to satellite or to Internet streaming.

To this point, those looking for substantial information about audience members have turned to companies like the research organization Arbitron. And, because radio is a portable medium, information about listenership has largely been tracked through the use of personal diaries.

Questions have been raised about the reliability of those diaries and of various other kinds of research.

In the spring of 2004, a team of researchers at Ball State University in Indiana released The Middletown Media Studies.1 Conducted by Robert A. Papper, Michael E. Holmes, and Mark N. Popovich, the research compared the various methods used to track media use by consumers. According to their data, people asked to record or remember the amount of time they spend with various media tend to underestimate. The researchers say this does not appear to be an intentional act; people are not simply trying to hide the amount of time they spend watching programs like “The Swan.” They also underestimate the amount of time they spend on such “acceptable” media activities as reading the newspaper or watching the evening news.

For example, when the researchers used observational methods to track how many people were listening to the radio, their results very much matched the widespread belief that radio is part of virtually everyone’s everyday life. They found that 83% of their sample group listened to the radio. What is striking, however, is that only 72% recorded radio listening in their diaries. The number dropped even more significantly in the telephone survey; only 58% of the sample responded that they had listened to the radio.

Time Spent with Medium, by Research Method
Time is measured in minutes

Local Phone Survey
Local Diary Study
Local Observation Study
Total Reading (newspapers, magazines, books)
All Radio Listening
All TV Viewing

Source: Middletown Media Studies, Spring 2004
*Home use only; in all cases, the numbers include simultaneous media usage

Time Spent Listening to the Radio “Yesterday”
Various methods of measurement
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Middletown Media Studies, Spring 2004

There is a longstanding belief that radio news listening is even more undercounted in the radio diary system than listening to, say, music stations. According to Adam Powell, director of the U.S. National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Multimedia at the University of Southern California, this has led stations like the news station WTOP in Washington, D.C., to go with such promotions as “Your favorite radio station doesn’t play music.” The hope is that these kinds of prompts remind diary keepers to record the time they spend with non-music stations.

It is impossible, of course, to talk about radio listenership without discussing in-car listening.

Navigauge is a relatively young company that has developed what they consider to be an innovative technology for recording in-car listener habits. Navigauge’s on-board monitoring system electronically time and date stamps what station an individual is listening to, when they were and for how long the individual has listened to a particular type of content. Much like Middletown’s observational studies, Navigauge data are collected in real time, eliminating the risk that listeners might forget or omit part of their personal listening diaries.

But the method of collection has been disputed. Arbitron has said that to measure only in-car listening is to miss too much data, and results from the Middletown Media Study seem to bear this out. Contrary to the commonly held idea that the bulk of radio listening takes place in the car, Middletown’s examination revealed that in-car exceeded home listening by a margin of only two percentage points (32% versus 30%). And this pays no attention to those listeners who might be streaming their favorite music, talk or NPR stations through their computers or listening to the XM or Sirius radio networks on satellite receivers or through home entertainment centers.

So while radio observers will be paying attention to what happens to the Navigauge system, the car-bound measurement device may be too limited for a radio landscape that is rapidly stretching its own boundaries.

With this expanding universe in mind, Arbitron developed its Personal People Meter technology, which is a portable cell-phone-sized unit that tracks individual use of Internet, terrestrial or digital radio and the whole range of television viewing-from cable to satellite.

For the vast majority of listeners, whether the radio signal is captured by the car radio, satellite radio, portable radio or PC, an audio receiver is simply an audio receiver. It is simply there, nearly everywhere. According to Middletown’s observational studies, radio ranks second only to television in number of minutes used.

And from the time of our report last year, there has been little change in the number of people reached by radio. In fact, according to Arbitron’s Radio Today Reports, since 1998 radio’s reach to people 12 years old and older continues to hold at about 94%.

Radio Reach
Percent of the population 12 and older, 1998 to 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Arbitron “Radio Today” annual reports

But how much of radio listening is listening to news?

Average quarter hour (AQH) listenership figures for news/talk/information-formatted stations continue to lead in Arbitron’s annual Radio Today summary report, holding at 16%.2

According to Arbitron’s breakdown of audience numbers for the individual formats which make up the broad news/talk/information category (news/talk, all news, sports, and talk/personality) shows that news/talk stations make up 10.8% of the news/talk/information AQH share. This is a higher AQH than the total percentage of listenership for the popular formats of contemporary hit or urban radio.3

What Radio Formats People Listen To, 2003
Percent of the population 12 and older, 1998 to 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Arbitron “Radio Today” annual report

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press’s biennial news consumption survey found that “The percentage of Americans who listen to radio news has remained relatively stable in recent years. Four in ten say they listened to news on the radio yesterday. This is virtually unchanged from 2002 (41%) and down only marginally from 2000 (43%).

“Talk radio is holding onto its corner of the media market – 17% of the public regularly listens to radio shows that invite listeners to call in to discuss current events, public issues and politics…[and] National Public Radio’s audience is holding steady as well: 16% of Americans regularly listen to NPR.”4

Again, if we look only at data and statistics, the picture of radio’s audience is steady and fairly unremarkable. Even the age profile of those listening to news-talk-information programming remains static from previous years, with negligible teenage listenership and the bulk of its audience in the 65 and older age range.

Listeners to News-Talk-Information Stations, by Age
1998 to 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Arbitron “Radio Today” annual report

But if we go just below the surface of the all of these audience numbers, we find something else that’s interesting. While only a percentage point separates the Pew Center’s listenership numbers for talk radio and National Public Radio – (though the definition used for talk radio might readily be applied to many programs on NPR member stations), the shape of the audiences is quite different.

According to the Pew Center’s survey when compared with the average talk-radio listener, the NPR listener is younger and more likely to say he or she is a Democrat. Fully 41% of talk-radio listeners say they are Republican, only 28% Democrats. The numbers virtually invert themselves when we look at the listenership of NPR, a radio network largely thought of as “liberal’ in its viewpoint. Fully 41% of NPR listeners identify themselves as Democrats, 24% as Republicans.5

And here we have a trend that appears to be moving its way through the news media. American media audiences appear increasingly to be seeking out those media outlets that speak to their viewpoints and ideas. The niche formatting of radio, where a listener can select an all-news station, and the surgical-precision of formatting on satellite radio, where a listener can select a conservative, pro-gun, talk-radio station, makes this media particularly well suited to this kind of self-segregation.

But content might be only part of the radio audience discussion; the method of delivery also seems to play a significant role.

Data suggest that one reason NPR skews younger is that many of its affiliates are on the FM dial. Research has shown that an AM talk or news station, simulcasting the same content over an FM station, most likely has two different audiences – an older AM audience and an FM audience 10 years younger. Moreover – and this has surprised many radio insiders – a station simulcasting the same content on line will find that that audience is 10 years younger than its FM audience. In other words, it’s not that there are no young people tuning in to news/talk radio. It just might be that they are streaming content, not scanning the AM dial.

So with radio listenership largely maintaining its steady picture, the question about radio audience may soon be moving beyond who is listening and how many of them are listening to how they’re listening.


1. Robert A. Papper, Michael E. Holmes, and Mark N. Polovich, “Middletown Media Studies,” The International Digital Media & Arts Association Journal, Spring 2004.

2. AQH: The average number of persons 12 years of age or older listening to a particular station over a fifteen-minute period.

3. We must always be careful, whenever we are looking at news and talk radio, to maintain the line between these two separate formats. The line between News and Talk is, admittedly, a bit fuzzy (the idea that “I know it when I see it” or rather “hear it” comes to mind) and is compounded by the fact that they are often grouped into a single category (news/talk or news/talk/information) when statistics are generated. And the point should be made that many who think of themselves as being news radio listeners are, in all actuality, listening to talk radio. This is further muddied by the fact that format is largely self-defined by radio stations.

If we were to try and paint very broad strokes, talk radio tends toward being more personality-driven. Programming involves the almost constant presence of listener call-ins with a very clear agenda or point of view directing the conversation. News radio tends toward a focus on the dissemination of information to the public and, while it may include interviews with experts, academics and various officials and authorities, it is an information format, not ideological.

4. Pew Research Center on the People and the Press, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” June 8, 2004, p. 8.

5. Pew Research Center on the People and the Press, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” June 8, 2004, p. 8.