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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

How does the public view the transition from radio to audio?

Sorting through the answer shows several components, but a key one is whether listeners’ attitudes toward how they get radio — whether they are willing to pay for it, how portable they want it to be and whether they want it commercial-free —matter more than what content they want there. Another major question in a changing information landscape is how much people will turn to radio as a source for news.

As noted in the section on audience, only 30% of Americans believe that the new audio will result in the complete demise of traditional radio.1 Another study, by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, found that of the 11% of Americans who an MP3 player or iPod, only 30% had ever downloaded a podcast or Internet radio program so they could listen to it later. In short, the penetration of the new audio technology is only beginning.2

Still, there is evidence that people are open to new sources. In a study commissioned by the Public Relations Society of America with Harris Interactive, the vast majority of adults, 71%, indicated they had a defined set of news sources that they trusted. Of that number, a sizable minority 42%, said they relied on “independent sources like Internet chat rooms, blogs or other alternative media to get news and information.”3 Only a slight majority, 54%, stated they continued to rely exclusively on traditional sources. Perhaps most interesting, more than half, 65%, said they “actively look for news and information that challenges [their] political opinions and social beliefs.”4 Whether they really do is uncertain, but the numbers suggest they believe they should.

So it might be that the growing array of options is not replacing so-called old media outlets, but supplementing them.

The question for radio is to what extent people want to continue to hear the news, rather than to read it as text or see it on video.

There are some answers already. When it comes to national and international news it appears only a minority look to radio as a prime source. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that less than a quarter of survey participants got this kind of information from their radios — just 22%, compared to 74% for television, 44% for newspapers and 24% for the Internet. (Survey respondents were able to select more than one response, so the total figures add to more than 100%).5

This may be a chicken and egg dilemma. Perhaps people don’t turn to radio for this type of information because it’s not available there. If it were available, as in the past, maybe more people would rely on the medium for it.

There is some indication that the same low numbers may also be true nationally for breaking news. In a separate survey conducted by the Pew Research Center , only 17% of respondents indicated that they were getting their news about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath from radio, compared to 89% for television, 35% for newspapers and 21% for the Internet.6

In truth, a national overview about media may not offer the full picture of radio’s value. During Hurricane Katrina, for instance, the accessible nature of radio —including the portability of radio receivers, the low cost of buying radios and free nature of the content, and ability to run on multiple power sources even when the electrical grid is down — made it a critical lifeline for those stranded by the storm.

That was true not just for those in New Orleans who utilized resources like the constant information stream provided by the United Radio Broadcasters (See Ownership), but also for those evacuated to the Houston Astrodome, where radios were distributed and a mini-radio station was set up to aid communication and speed family reunions. In other words, while there will always be a desire to move to the ”next big thing,” there must also be consideration of what can potentially be lost.

Will the new media make the old no longer economically viable, or will they be added on as an interconnected web? The answer will have important civic as well as economic implications.

And one factor in all this may be regulatory. In early December 2005, Chairman Kevin J. Martin of the FCC suggested the creation of so-called “à la carte” offerings for cable television. As a way to provide people with greater control over the media content that comes into their homes, Martin proposed that cable companies allow consumers to pick and choose what individual channels they receive and pay for.7

The success of that proposal could have broad implications on which cable producers survive, and what they produce. It could also set the parameters of how other new technologies develop, and whether older technologies like print can begin to get money from their online activities by bundling them the way cable has.

It is difficult to guess how such a change would affect satellite radio, but the basic situation is virtually identical. Like cable, satellite listeners have intentionally purchased special equipment to receive content and have made the decision to receive that content by paying a membership fee. Also like cable, XM Satellite even offers a blocking option. On its Web site, the home page of the “Opie and Anthony” radio show (a shock jock duo whose antics on traditional radio included the broadcast of a couple supposedly having sex in St. Patrick’s cathedral as part of a competition) includes a link to information on how to use XM’s channel blocking. And Sirius satellite radio’s Web site, like some television programming, advises parental discretion for programs like the Howard Stern Show.

If an á la carte system like the one Martin has proposed for cable were to be applied to satellite radio, the biggest question would be how, exactly, members would be charged for the pick-and-play system. Would members choose nine stations for one price and then ten more for an additional fee? Turning to content, would a changing membership structure affect the networks’ willingness to program channels that might not be able to attract enough members to pay for themselves? Would an “á la carte” system degrade the niche content that originally made satellite radio desirable?

Indecency Regulations

When President George W. Bush moved Kevin J. Martin from his seat on the FCC to the position of chairman in March 2005, the agency seemed to be entering a new phase of aggressive policing of the public airwaves.

The former chairman, Michael K. Powell, had initially stayed away from regulation of broadcast content, but the Janet Jackson halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII on February 1, 2004 , brought the issue to forefront. The FCC began leveling some of the heaviest and most wide-reaching fines in its history. By the end of his four-year tenure, according to an accounting by the Washington Post, Powell proposed 28 fines against television and radio broadcasters for so-called indecency violations. As the Washington Post noted, that is 30% of the 92 known proposed fines issued by the agency since Chairman Dean Burch in 1969.8

Under Powell, not only were broadcast networks being fined, but individual affiliates who aired the “indecent” content faced financial consequences as well. Those fines had a pre-emptive effect. In November 2004 more than 60 ABC affiliates to choose not to air the network’s broadcast of Saving Private Ryan for fear of being fined for the film’s use of foul language and violence. Powell had publicly said that he would ask the FCC to dismiss any complaints brought against the film because the language used was not indecent given the context in which it was used. Yet the rules of the road naturally differed case by case. In other instances, the agency was dismissing content disclaimers, digitized body parts and bleeps as sufficient protection for listeners and viewers. In the same way that the Supreme Court has said of pornography, indecency was something you knew when you saw it rather than something that could be defined easily in rules.

Radio, which had been publicly dealing with the FCC and its indecency regulations for some time, was also under the FCC’s gaze. One public radio affiliate fired a correspondent over an editing error that failed to ”bleep” a curse word ( See State of the News Media 2004, Content ). Facing a fine of nearly $500,000 from the FCC (which was later absorbed into a $1.75 million settlement covering multiple charges) Clear Channel did the virtually unthinkable by removing the incredibly popular Howard Stern Show from its stations.

The agency’s actions throughout 2004 seemed to be the opening trumpets of a concerted war by the FCC against so-called indecent content. After Powell departed, Martin assumed chairmanship of the FCC. As a board member Martin had suggested the need for broader FCC powers to enforce decency standards. In February 2004, weeks after the Janet Jackson incident, Martin wrote in a report to the Senate: “I hear a call for the same rules to apply to everyone — for a level playing field. If cable and satellite operators continue to refuse to offer parents more tools such as family-friendly programming packages, basic indecency and profanity restrictions may be a viable option that also should be considered.”9

That call for a level playing field may have come from broadcasters who complained that cable had an unfair advantage. To what degree was it also coming from citizens? How much of an issue is indecency for the public?

Working from the numbers, the answer is cloudy. The number of broadcast indecency complaints (television and radio) filed with the FCC shows that activity, while periodically spiking in the post-February 2004 time period, is not a constant stream. The numbers exceeded 100,000 complaints four times between September 2004 and January 2005. In most months, there was little or nothing nationwide. In February 2004, the biggest month, the FCC received more than 543,000 complaints.10 That is an impressive number, but it also represents less than .18% of the U.S. population.11

Inevitably, there is also evidence that some of the complaints are orchestrated. In July 2005, after a period of extremely low complaint activity, the FCC received 23,547 complaints. The Broadcasting & Cable Web site reported on November 14, 2005 , that 23,542 of those complaints were brought by members of the Parents Television Council. That figure meant that that only five complaints came from a source outside the PTC. (A significant portion of the complaints was lodged against the Fox program “The Inside” for what some saw as violent and sexually inappropriate content. A larger portion, 12,767 complaints, was lodged against ABC’s airing of the benefit Live 8 Concert, which included a profanity that made it past the East Coast monitors.)12

Beyond the number of complaints, other evidence suggests there is broad support for tighter federal restrictions. A survey conducted by Time Magazine and SRBI Research found that 51% of all respondents believed that the FCC should be stricter in its control of sexual language on the radio. Some 11% thought the FCC should be more lenient, 34% felt enforcement should stay the same and the remaining 4% said they didn’t know.13

When the conversation is moved outward to the new audio, the public’s attitude toward governmental enforcement changes. Fully 57% of those surveyed felt that governmental regulations should not be enlarged to cover content broadcast on satellite radio. An even larger portion (64%) did not believe that should be done for cable television networks.14

The opening eight months after Martin’s appointment went by relatively quietly, with no action taken on indecency complaints.15 The commission’s activity instead was later revealed to have been of a broader nature. In October 2005, the FCC launched a new Web site designed to fully explain its rules governing indecency, how its complaint system works and its enforcement procedure.

The site also includes information on the television rating system and information on the V-chip and channel blocking. Martin himself spoke of the importance of such technology and even put out a call for more such devices in October when speaking to a group at the inaugural Helms Forum in Charlotte, N.C. “We need an easy way for consumers to be able to control content,” he said, adding that “it’s important for parents and families to have more tools to have more control over content.”16 Broadcasters themselves have been encouraging and promoting parental-control technology, in the hope that if the public begins to police its own living rooms there will be less call for federal policing of the airwaves. The trick, however, is getting consumers to actually use the technology. For the most part, parental blocking technology like the V-chip has gone largely unused.

At a congressional hearing in late November 2005, Martin returned to an earlier theme of his — the regulation of the cable and satellite television industry — advocating the creation of those “á la carte” cable packages so that consumers could choose not to have offending channels in their homes. The outcome of this is by no means certain. Some religious broadcasters fear Martin’s proposal would be the end of their channels because not enough consumers would choose to pay for them and they would die.


1. Internet and Multimedia 2005: The On-Demand Media Consumer, Arbitron Inc./Edison Media Research, March 23, 2005.

2. Lee Rainie, “We Stand By Our Data,” Pew Internet & The American Life Project, April 6, 2005.

3. PRSA/Harris Interactive, “Executive, Congressional and Consumer Attitudes Toward Media, Marketing and the Public Relations Profession.” Study conducted June 7-12, 2005.

4. Ibid.

5. Survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International in association with the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Survey conducted June 8- 12, 2005.

6. Survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Survey conducted September 6- 7, 2005.

7. Currently, most cable systems offer a number of pre-selected cable packages that individuals can customize through the purchase of ‘premium’ channels like HBO or Showtime. Á la carte would potentially transform this system by allowing customers to tailor their entire station purchase—regardless of whether these channels were ‘basic’ or ‘premium.’ Presumably then, the customer who was opposed, for whatever reason, to CNN or Fox News could chose not to purchase those channels.

8. Frank Ahrens, “Delays, Low Fines Weaken FCC Attack on Indecency,” Washington Post, November 10, 2005.

9. Kevin J. Martin, “Protecting Children from Violent and Indecent Programming.” Written statement for the Commission on Commerce, Science and Transportation, U.S. Senate, February 11, 2004.

10. Data taken from the Federal Communications Commission website, Enforcement Bureau, Complaint and Enforcement Statistics,

11. Data taken from U.S. Census Bureau, Population Clock,

12. Broadcasting & Cable, “PTC Drives Spike in Smut Gripes,” November 14, 2005.

13. Survey by Time. Methodology: Conducted by Schulman, Ronca, & Bucuvalas, March 15-17, 2005 and based on telephone interviews with a national adult sample of 1,010.

14. James Poniewozik, “The Decency Police,” Time Magazine, volume 165, No. 13, March 28, 2005.

15. Reuters , “TV, radio indecency complaints plunge 96pct-FCC,” September 28, 2005.

16. Paul Nowell, “FCC Chairman Kevin Martin speaks at inaugural Helms Forum,” Miami Herald, October 11, 2005.

17. Stephen Labaton, Lorne Manly & Elizabeth Jensen, “Chairman Exerts Pressure on PBS, Alleging Biases,” New York Times, May 2, 2005.

18. Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Office of Inspector General, “Report of Review: Review of Alleged Actions Violating The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, as Amended,” Report No. EPB503-602, Pg. 6, November 15, 2005.

19. Ibid.

20. From the Young America Foundation website,

21. David Folkenflik, Morning Edition, June 30, 2005.

22. Stephen Labaton, “NPR Conflict With Overseer Is Growing,” New York Times, May 15, 2005.

23. Tom Ashbrook, “The Assault on NPR,” Boston Globe, May 26, 2005.

24. Harris Interactive/ Public Relations Society of America, “Executive, Congressional and Consumer Attitudes Toward Media, Marketing and the Public Relations Profession,” November 10, 2005.

25. Summary of poll results from The Tarrance Group & Lake Snell Perry & Associates for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, “CPB-Commissioned National Opinion Polls,” December 2003,

26. The Tarrance Group,”Executive Summary to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” Pg. 6, October 8, 2003, pg. 3

27. The Tarrance Group, pg. 6.

28. Ibid, Pg. 6-7.

29. Transcribed from The Diane Rehm Show,, May 18, 2005.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Pew Research Center, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” June 8, 2005, pg. 14.