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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Not long ago traditional “terrestrial” radio occupied a unique and seemingly unshakable position among media. It had the portability of a magazine or a newspaper and the content variety of television and cost nothing to use beyond the cost of a receiver. As broadcast television struggled to keep its audience from fleeing to cable and later satellite, radio remained stable. Technology certainly offered alternatives — portable tape and CD players — but they were clunky and lacked the scope and flexibility of old-fashioned radio.

By 2005 that had begun to change dramatically. Seemingly overnight, satellite radio, Internet-only stations, podcasts, MP3s and iPods were changing the way America and the world listened. And all of it was quickly getting portable. A listener could carry around everything from an entire home CD collection to a radio show downloaded last night, and the new audio programmers were capturing and creating content limited only by the scope of imagination — from blues of the 1920s to dance club music like “deep house” to long-form informational content like audio documentaries.

So what impact is all this having on audiences?

By traditional measures, the figures for the reach of radio continue to hold a stubborn line. According to data in the most recent edition (2004) of Arbitron’s annual Radio Today report, 94% of people 12 years old and older still listen to traditional radio weekly. That is a drop of just one percentage point since 1998. Compared to some media, such as newspapers or network news, that is not only a remarkable percentage of the population but a remarkably consistent performance.1

That number may soon be shifting, however, and not necessarily because of listeners leaving traditional radio for the new audio, but because of changes in how radio listenership is measured.

Radio Reach
Percent of the population 12 and older, 1998 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Arbitron, “Radio Today: How America Listens to Radio, 2005 Edition,” December 22, 2004

Traditional radio research is based on personal diaries and surveys, but there are growing questions about the reliability of those methods. The questions have become even more critical as traditional radio begins to compete with elements of the new audio (Internet radio stations, MP3 downloads) that record detailed information about listener use.

Already, one “observational” study by academic researchers at Ball State University has found that 73% of those observed listened daily to terrestrial radio. The study, involving 394 adults from Indianapolis and Muncie, Ind., who were observed during the course of the day, found that they listened to the radio for an average of 80 minutes a day, and more in the car than at home or work.2

The current Arbitron data are also not as detailed as the audience data for new audio, which offer advertisers hard numbers on exactly who is listening or, at the very least, who paid in advance to listen. In an effort to develop such concrete data regarding traditional radio audiences, a company called Navigauge created an in-car measurement system that automatically collects data on listener habits. Its device, wired up to the car’s audio system, date- and time-stamps dial changes and tracks vehicle position to provide a detailed record.

But some critics argued that the technology relied too heavily on the perception that radio listening is largely confined to the car. Arbitron tried to solve that problem by creating a wearable device, the Portable People Meter. Launched in the U.S. with a small-scale test in Philadelphia in 2002, the meter, often referred to as a PPM, automatically logs the wearer’s media consumption. Tracking is initiated when the PPM detects an audio signal, thereby eliminating potential human errors. The single device can also track terrestrial or satellite radio use in the car, online or through a traditional radio receiver.

Early reported results from the Arbitron PPM trials in Philadelphia and a later test in the Houston market showed that while listeners were listening more often and to more stations than the old diary system revealed, they spent less time actually listening. Bob Papper, a Ball State professor of telecommunications, notes that the findings closely resembled those of the personal observation studies conducted as part of The Middletown Media Studies.3

Still apparently unsatisfied, Clear Channel Communications released an RFP (Request For Proposals) in July 2005 for the design of a “state of the art audience measurement system.”4

In whatever form of measurement emerges, advertisers and others are likely to demand more information about who listens and when, and the economics of radio advertising and subscriptions could be reshaped.

For now, that hasn’t occurred. The data available suggest that users may not yet be replacing the old with the new as much as adding it to the mix, the way they did when the FM band was added.

In a survey conducted by Arbitron and Edison Media Research, 82% of Americans surveyed said that even with all the new audio technologies, they planned to listen to traditional radio as much in the future as they did now. That included 70% of 12-to-17 year olds, even though that age group is most likely to consider an iPod or MP3 player a staple of their daily lives.5

The patterns may change in time. Fully 30% in the survey by Arbitron and Edison Media believed that a time would come when there would be no traditional, commercial radio stations because all audio content would come from online or satellite radio providers. Some 62% thought that would never be the case.6

For now, other research seems to support Arbitron’s current findings. According to a study on audience attrition conducted by Bridge Ratings & Research, the audience for traditional radio , while appearing to decline in the last half of 2004, had leveled off. In fact, with listeners 35 to 64 years old, listening to traditional radio had increased almost back to its previous level.7

The age group with the most significant amount of attrition, however, was the young — 12-to-24-year-olds. The average amount of time they spent listening to traditional radio dropped from 15.5 hours a week to 13.25.8

Satellite Radio

Another way of assessing the future of traditional radio is to get a sense of the growth in audience for the new technologies. Of those, perhaps the one getting the most attention in the press is satellite radio.

Its audience is still small, comparatively. The combined memberships of XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio exceed 9 million, compared with roughly 247 million listeners to terrestrial over-the-air radio.9

But the satellite number is growing. XM, which reported more than 6 million subscribers at the end of 2005, was projecting adding 3 million more by the end of 2006. Sirius reported a total of more than 3.3 million in 2005 and expected to have 6 million by the end of 2006.

Satellite radio has had similar success in making people aware of it as a possibility. Since January of 2002, awareness of both XM and Sirius has grown at a rapid pace (from 17% to 50% for XM, from 8% to 54% for Sirius).10

At the same time, the satellite providers have made gains in the kinds of content and outreach they can offer. Among other steps in 2005, XM reached an agreement with AOL for online broadcast and with Hyatt hotels to place satellite radio in guest rooms. It crafted an expansion into Canada and signed a deal with the audio content provider, which will be creating a unit that will not only play satellite radio but also allow for iPod-like downloading of audio content. The network continued to add new content as well, signing on Ellen Degeneres, Snoop Dog, Food Network and HGTV.

Sirius, the smaller of the two companies, signed a deal with Jaguar to offer the satellite network’s system as an option for their cars and developed a hip hop channel with Eminem, a good-living channel with Martha Stewart and a podcasting channel with the former MTV veejay and “Podfather” Adam Curry. And for those who somehow managed to miss the buzz, on January 9, 2006 , the shock jock Howard Stern added his name to the network’s program list. Sirius had also found a spot on hotel nightstands, with the trendy New York and Los Angeles W Hotels. In the event that you’re unable to get a room at the W, you can also turn to your Sprint phone. In September 2005, Sprint added 20 Sirius channels to its cell phone’s capabilities.

Both U.S. satellite radio companies have moved toward portability, as well. XM released its cell-phone-sized portable satellite receiver, the MyFi player, in October 2004. The unit was designed to offer both portable satellite listening and up to five hours of recorded audio content. Both companies have developed a variety of “plug and play” receivers. Plug and play units allow satellite listeners to move the technology between their cars and their homes through a system based around a detachable receiver. The receiver can be connected to a variety of speakers and ports, turning the car unit into a boombox-style player or a home stereo-style player.

HD Radio

In 2005 traditional radio was finally able to come back at satellite with the launch of its long awaited HD radio. The idea behind HD radio is almost identical to its television counterpart. With HD, broadcasters are able to offer radio content with a high-end sound quality — close if not identical to the sound of a compact disc. Broadcasters are also able to insert additional programming by splitting their signal into what become essentially separate stations. For example, WAMU, an NPR station licensed to American University in Washington, D.C., used its HD station, WAMU-2, to broadcast gavel-to-gavel coverage of the hearings on the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts. Even in the nation’s capital, the audience for the broadcast of such proceedings could be expected to be a limited one. But thanks to the new technology, the station was able to reach out to listeners eager to hear every question of the Senate hearings without having to disrupt its regular programming. For those without an HD receiver, WAMU made the audio stream available on its Web site. The next challenge for HD radio is the development of content that will entice listeners to pay for HD radio receivers.

Internet Radio

Before satellite, the new radio approach with the biggest expectations was audio on the Internet. To a degree that may be surprising, those expectations have not yet been met.

Getting definitive numbers is difficult, but what data there are suggests that while the number of Americans with broadband or high-speed Internet connections in their homes has quadrupled to some 48% since 2001, Internet radio stations have not attracted nearly the audience even of satellite.

One piece of evidence can be found in Arbitron ratings. As of September 2005, the five largest online radio networks together attracted an average weekly audience of just 3.7 million.

Still, there is growth. According to the Arbitron study, in January of 2000 “only 5% of the population during the past month had listened to Internet broadcasts of over-the-air radio stations or stations available only on the Internet.”11 By January 2005, that number had climbed to 15%. What is interesting is that the largest concentration of online listening is not in the population one might immediately expect, teenagers. Fully 25% of those saying they had listened to Internet radio in the previous month were 35 to 44 years old. Another 17% were in the 45-to-54 range, and 20% were 25 to 34. Among the younger age groups, just 15 percent of those 12 to 17 years old had listened in the past month, and just 11 percent of those in the 18 to 24-age range.

What is it about Internet radio that is drawing these listeners? The attraction to online radio (including traditional stations simulcasting online) can be traced to the same roots as the public’s attraction to the new audio and other online activities: flexibility. People can listen to programs and stations from other areas, at times that are more convenient to their schedules, and to content they might not be able to get anywhere else. In a survey by Arbitron/Edison Media Research, 17% of those who had reported listening to Internet radio said they did so to hear audio they couldn’t get other places, 13% said they wanted more music variety and 15% sought to control or choose the music played.12

Radio News

While traditional radio, as a whole, appears to be holding on to its audience, what is the future of radio news?

The answer appears to be that while the news sector is steady, what might be conventionally thought of as journalism on the radio may now be quite different and not as local as it once was.

The latest edition of Arbitron’s Radio Today report shows that stations in the format category of News/Talk/Information have held steady over the last four years. Indeed, the news and talk category is the most popular of the top 10 station formats. In 2004, 16% of listeners said they listened to talk and news, three percentage points more than the next most popular format, Country and Adult Contemporary.15

What Radio Formats People Listen To, 2000 vs. 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Arbitron ’Radio Today’ annual report

It is not necessarily current event news, though, that is drawing this audience. The news/talk/information grouping of non-musically centered formats includes stations that broadcast “all news,” “all sports,” “news/talk” and “talk/personality.” When the overall news/talk figure is broken into its individual parts, “all news” stations make up less than 2% of listenership. “All sports” and “talk/personality” makes up another 2%, with almost 11% of the listenership tuning in to other stations that consider their format “News/Talk.”16

News/Talk stations are something of a puzzle; without listening to every program on every station, it is difficult to determine how much news is broadcast and how much talk. Talk, which is cheaper to produce, probably makes up the lion’s share.

In past years, we have discussed the idea of “incidental“ or unintended news consumption by listeners to music-format stations from top-of-the-hour news briefs or headlines. A survey by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation in 2000 found that most radio listeners did not switch stations during news reports or information breaks. Some five years later, there are signs that the top-of-the-hour radio newsbreak is not as prevalent as before, perhaps reduced to a brief weather or traffic update.

Compared with data gathered in previous years, the age profile of news, talk and information listeners has scarcely changed. The highest proportion of listeners fall primarily into the two oldest demographic groupings: 55- 64 year olds (19%) and those 65 and older (29%). The third highest listening percentage falls in the 35- 44-year-old age bracket (17%). Those 12 to 24 years old are the least likely to listen to news, talk and information stations. Just 1% of news, talk and information listeners are aged 12- 17 with only 3% being 18 to 24.17

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

Listeners to news, talk and information formats are incredibly loyal. Arbitron, in its Public Radio Today 2005 report, defines those who listen to a single radio station more than any other station as “P1” listeners. More than half of those who listen to commercial news, talk and information stations (59%) are considered to be in the P1 category.18 On public radio, the P1 figure for such stations jumps to 90%.19

Public Radio vs. Commercial

In all the discussion of the rapid growth of satellite membership and worry over an audience exodus from conventional radio, one can lose track of public radio. That universe includes Pacifica Radio, National Public Radio, American Public Media and Public Radio International. Each of those radio groups operates somewhat like a TV network, supplying programming to public-radio member stations for a fee. The local member station can then intermix nationally broadcast material with locally created content. For example, Maine Public Radio follows its evening broadcast of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” with the regionally focused “Maine Things Considered.”20 KUNM-FM in Santa Fe , N.M. , programs a mix of public broadcasting content that includes NPR’s Morning Edition, PRI’s National Native News and Pacifica’s Democracy Now! program.

Public radio appears to be a growth area. Numbers provided to the Project by National Public Radio indicate that NPR’s weekly audience had been flat between 2003 and 2005. To keep this number in proper perspective, even with no growth that would still mean that the organization’s weekly audience of 22 million represented 50% growth over the past five years and 315% since 1985.

But the Wall Street Journal cited other NPR data suggesting that the audience had grown to 25.3 million listeners, which would be up 3.3 million since 2004. The higher number, according to NPR, included audience estimates not only for NPR programming like “All Things Considered” but also for shorter newscasts played on member radio stations. That makes the numbers inappropriate for historic or longitudinal comparison.

Cognizant of the role public radio plays in fostering a connection between the local and the national and, in a way, stepping into the void left by the consolidation or closing of many local radio newsrooms, Public Radio International, in 2003, developed Capitol News Connection. The idea behind it is to bring political news from Pennsylvania Avenue to Main Street by creating what PRI describes as “ unique localized reporting — custom crafted for each subscribing station…”21 In other words, rather than asking listeners to make what may occasionally be a complicated connection between national political news and their own lives, CNC works to make that link part of the story. According to its Web site, launched in July 2003, CNC is now broadcast in some 220 markets.22

The profile of news on public radio — its tendency to tell stories in longer segments with complex narratives — is attracting talent from outside. Recently Ted Koppel, longtime anchor for ABC’s “Nightline,” signed on with National Public Radio to do occasional commentaries. He joins a list of “outsiders” that includes, among others, the ABC News correspondent Michel Martin (who will continue to do pieces with ABC), Robert Krulwich (also formerly with ABC News), and John Hendren and Elizabeth Sogren, who had both previously been with the Los Angeles Times. Bill Marimow, NPR’s managing editor and acting vice president for news and information, came to the network from the Baltimore Sun. That sort of switch is nothing new at NPR — Daniel Schorr and Michele Norris came from other media and are now firmly identified with the organization — but at a time when newsrooms are becoming smaller entities within larger chains and corporations, the public radio newsroom is assuming a new stature. Relating a conversation he had with Koppel, NPR’s senior vice president of programming, Jay Kernis recalled, “We said, ‘You have to find somebody else who will pay you a lot of money so we can pay you a little money…’ Mr. Koppel concurred. He said, ‘Jay, this is not about the money.’ ”23

Nor is public radio ignoring the growing presence and pressures of the new audio. Public radio has adapted its terrestrial identity to one that exists online. Its programming is available on both of the satellite networks, and it was an early mainstream media experimenter with the creation of program podcasts. NPR’s Annual Report for 2003 said its Web site averaged more than 2 million unique monthly visitors and some 50 million total visits. “At the peak of the lead-up to the war in Iraq , 45,000 simultaneous users were listening to the NPR online program stream,” the report said.24

NPR’s audience members followed it to the Web not simply because it was a Web site or because there were podcasts to be downloaded, but because of the content available. Again, according to the network’s annual report, visitors e-mailed “more than one-half million NPR stories to friends and family…”25 An article posted in the Online Journalism Review’s Web site reported that “On Nov. 21, NPR’s podcasts held down 11 spots on the iTunes Top 100, more than any other media outlet.”26 NPR is also hosting podcasts of member-station shows, crafting content from various programs into thematic pods like “NPR: Books,” or “NPR: Open Mike,” and even producing original content for its own alternative brand of alt.NPR “as an incubator for edgier content.”27 Given the numbers, it would seem that the network’s efforts to adapt to the changing technology while not forgetting the role it serves for its longtime listeners is proving to be a successful model.

The Audience for Public Radio vs. Commercial News/Talk

For the first time, Arbitron research in 2005 took a focused look at public radio. Its inaugural edition of Arbitron’s Public Radio Today: How America Listens to Public Radio Stations records that out of 808 U.S. public radio stations, 225 operate with a News/Talk/Information format. That is the second-largest format group, surpassed only by classical programming with 229 stations, and does not include formats for a group of stations categorized as “Educational.” “Educational,” as Arbitron explains in the report, is not a content designation but a collection of those stations licensed to an educational institution.28

Most of the comparisons between the audience for public radio news/talk and the one for commercial do not surprise:

Public radio listeners skew to the economically elite and more highly educated. Commercial news/talk listeners are more blue-collar and more male.

The public radio audience is fairly evenly split by gender (53% male and 47% female), while the commercial news, talk and information audience tilts more heavily male (61%, compared to 39% female).

More than 70% of public radio news, talk and information listeners are college graduates.29 That number drops to 43% for commercial listeners.30 High school-only graduates make up almost 20% of the commercial news, talk and information audience but less than 7% of the public radio audience.31

Public radio audiences for the format tend to occupy a higher economic stratum as well. Some 47% of public radio listeners earn an annual income of $75,000 or more. Fewer than 40% (37.6%) of commercial news, talk and information format listeners earn that much.32

The Arbitron study doesn’t examine the stereotype that public radio audiences tilt to the left while commercial news talk audiences tilt right. But data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press don’t reflect such a tilt. A June 8, 2004 , survey found that 30% of National Public Radio listeners identified themselves as liberal, 31% as conservative and 33% as moderates. Those figures match the profile of the public at large. For commercial radio call-in shows, meanwhile, 45% of listeners identify themselves as conservative and just 18% call themselves liberal. And for one of the shows most known for its conservative take on issues — Rush Limbaugh’s — the ratio is 77% conservative to 7% liberal.33

One other difference between public radio audiences and commercial news/talk audiences is in the time they spend listening. According to the Arbitron data, the commercial news, talk and information station listener tends to spend more time with the format. Commercial audience members aged 35 to 64 spend 10 hours and 30 minutes listening a week.34 News, talk and information public radio listeners of the same age spend a full three hours less. That becomes more interesting when we look at data for the distinct parts of the day.35

While drawing direct comparison between public news/talk and commercial news/talk is slightly complicated by differences in measurement used,36 some interesting comparisons can be made between the general trendlines. The public radio audience remains remarkably solid not only throughout the entire day, but from weekday to weekend. The greatest percent of commercial and public news/talk listeners tune in during the morning drive time (weekdays, 6am to 10am ). The commercial audience then begins a steady decline across dayparts with the lowest listening percentage takes place on weekends.37

In contrast, the public radio audience bounces up and down with the lowest percentage of listeners tuning in between 7pm and midnight . Weekend listening is high, just 15 percentage points lower than weekday morning drive time. This contrasts with a decline of some 30% for commercial news, talk and information stations.38


1. Arbitron, “Radio Today: How America Listens to Radio, 2005 Edition,” December 22, 2004.

2. Erika D. Smith, “Media Madness,” the Indianapolis Star, September 26, 2005.

3. The Middletown Media Studies is a project by researchers at Ball State University’s Center for Media Design. The Middletown studies have employed a variety of methods—diary, phone survey and direct observation—to establish a fuller picture of how individuals use various media. Ball State researchers have created two editions of this report.

4. Joe Mandese, “TV, Radio, Outdoor Ratings Poised for Transformation, New Alliances,” Media Daily News, July 22, 2005, posted 8:15am EST.

5. Pew Research Center on the People and the Press, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” June 8, 2004, p. 8. Younger listeners clearly see the appeal of the new technologies more than their elders do. More than a quarter of 12-to-17-year-olds own one of the new audio devices such as iPods or MP3 players. Compare that to about 20% in the next highest group, 25 to 34, and only 10% of people 45 to 54. As the older demographics become more accustomed to the new audio technology, it is worth asking whether and how quickly those figures might change. Arbitron/Edison Media Research, “Internet and Multimedia 2005: The On-Demand Media Consumer,” March 23, 2005.

6. Ibid.

7. Press Release, “Bridge Ratings Audience Erosion Study 2005 – Update,” October 10, 2005.

8. Ibid.

9. Membership data for XM and Sirius radio taken from announcements made by the respective satellite networks — XM Satellite Radio press release, January 4, 2006, and Sirius Satellite Radio Press Release, January 5, 2006. Data for traditional radio listenership based on an estimate from the National Association of Broadcasters.

10. Arbitron/Edison Media Research, “Internet and Multimedia 2005: The On-Demand Media Consumer”, March 23, 2005.

11. “Internet and Multimedia 2005: The On-Demand Media Consumer,” survey report by Arbitron/Edison Media Research.

12. Ibid.

13. Information from the HD Radio Consortium indicates that HD2 stations, those stations split off main frequencies, will run commercial-free for as much as two years.

14. The newly formed HD Radio Alliance (see Ownership) has been working to ensure that second or split stations will broadcast commercial–free, at least while the new technology is gaining a foothold with the public.

15. Arbitron, “Radio Today 2005,” pg. 43.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Arbitron, “Radio Today 2005,” pg. 45.

19. Arbitron, “Public Radio Today: How America Listens to Public Radio Stations,” June 13, 2005, pg. 33.

20. As mentioned in the State of the News Media 2004, some National Public Radio members stations found themselves trying to make the distinction between NPR and being an NPR member station clear following the Kroc family’s sizeable financial gift to NPR. Some station’s members mistakenly believed that these monies would automatically subsidize the operations of member stations. See Content, State of the News Media 2005.

21. From the Capitol News Connection website:

22. Taken from the Capitol News Connection website:

23. Sarah McBride, “TV News Stars Move to NPR And Sound Off,” the Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2006.

24. National Public Radio Annual Report 2003, pg. 4.

25. Ibid.

26. Mark Glaser, “Will NPR’s podcasts birth a new business model for public radio?” Online Journalism Review,, November 29, 2005.

27. Ibid.

28. Arbitron, “Public Radio Today 2005,” pp. 18 & 27.

29. Arbitron, “Public Radio Today 2005,” pg. 29.

30. Arbitron, “Radio Today 2005,” pg.45.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Online News Audience Larger, More Diverse: News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” June 8, 2004, pg. 14.

34. Arbitron, “Radio Today: How America Listens to Radio,” 2005 Edition, pg. 45.

35. Arbitron, “Public Radio Today: How America Listens to Public Radio Stations,” 2005 Edition, pg. 29.

36. Arbitron’s reports—Radio Today 2005 and Public Radio Today—calculate AQH (average quarter daypart listenership share separately. This means that percentages given for public radio listening are news, talk and information are based on the percent of the public radio audience and the AQH share for commercial is based on the commercial radio audience. This makes comparing percentages directly inappropriate, but does allow for the comparison of trendlines.

38. Public Radio Today, Pg. 28.