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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Despite the avalanche of new listening options, nearly all Americans still listen to the standard AM/FM radio — now eight decades old — at some point during the course of a week.

According to 2005 data found in the most recent “Radio Today” annual report (2006) —issued by the radio ratings company, Arbitron — 93.7% of people age 12 years and older still listen to traditional radio each week.1

That represents a drop of 1.6 percentage points since 1998, a relatively small decline compared with other media facing expanded competition from new technology. The one caveat is that the drop appeared to accelerate slightly in 2005.

Radio Reach
Percent of the population 12 and older, 1998 – 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Arbitron, “Radio Today: How Americans Listen to Radio, 2006 Edition,” February 14, 2006

The weekly listenership of traditional radio has also remained fairly stable. In an average week in 2005, according to the Arbitron data, people listened to the radio less than they did in 2002 by just under an hour. That takes the amount of average weekly listening down to 19½ hours, compared with 20¼ hours — a decline of 5% in three years.2

Radio News

If traditional radio’s audience is fairly stable, what about the listenership of news content in particular? The answer, given the complexities of measurement, is not a simple one.

For traditional radio, news remains a major draw. Arbitron each year measures what radio format listeners spend the most time with. Before 2005, the latest year for which there are data, the news/talk/information category was usually at the top of that list. It dropped in 2005 to the No. 2 spot, behind country music.3 The reason for news/talk/information’s fall, however, is a change in the way Arbitron does its counting, not a precipitous fall in audience. The news/talk/information format previously consolidated all news, all sports and talk personality programming. The latest Arbitron report, released in 2006, created separate categories for each of them. In the new measurement, 10.4% of listeners said they listened to the mixed format of news, talk and information radio (compared to 10.6% the previous year), while 2.1% listened to all sports, 1.5% to all news and 1.9% to talk personality.

When the excluded categories are added back in, the figure rises to 15.9%, which is unchanged from the previous year. And as in the past, the format moves to the top of the list of radio formats. Country music, the second most popular format, dropped slightly from the previous year’s data, down to 12.5%, from 13.2% in 2004.4

According to Arbitron data from the past six years, audience for news/talk/information radio has remained fairly consistent for most age groups. But the most recent data do illustrate a few changes, most notably a growing interest in news/talk/information among the elderly. Almost 20% more listeners between the ages of 55 and 64 tuned into news/talk/information programming in 2005 than in 2004. On the other hand, 25-to-34 and 35-to-44-year-olds listened less in 2005 than they had in the previous year, making noticeable departures from a once stable trajectory.5 Those changes could be a reflection, however, of changing national demographics, particularly with the large baby boomer generation entering retirement, and thus an era of increased leisure time that may be spent with radio news.

Listeners to News-Talk-Information Stations, by Age
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Arbitron, “Radio Today: How Americans Listen to Radio, 2006 Edition,” February 14, 2006
* 1998 data includes children’s formats.

Those who tune in to news/talk/information are also more educated than listeners to other radio formats, except sports radio. Over 43% of news/talk/info listeners are college graduates, compared with 48% of sports listeners, 15% of listeners to the popular country format and 27% of adult-contemporary listeners.6

The audience for news/talk/information radio also skews Republican. That finding is new to Arbitron’s annual “Radio Today” report. In its 2006 report, the company asked survey respondents to identify their political party affiliation. Of those who tuned into news/talk/information, 36% were Republicans, 27% Democrats and 26% Independents. The Arbitron report noted as general tendency that commercial talk radio appeals to a Republican audience.7 (See Talk Radio).

New Audio News

If news continues to be such a big part of traditional commercial radio’s appeal, does it hold the same sway in the new audio formats?

That is harder to answer. For now, the data on newer audio formats — satellite radio, Internet radio and podcasts — do not specify the type of content people tune in to. The total number of people and the time they spend listening to news is expected to become measurable with Arbitron’s Portable People Meter starting in 2007.

But a survey released by the Pew Center for the People and the Press does provide some insight into how many people are using the new audio devices to access news content, and how frequently.

The data suggest that the devices are not being widely used for consumption of news, not yet anyway. Only 12%8 of the Internet population has ever downloaded any kind of podcast on an MP3 player, and only 2%9 has done it for a news podcast, according to Pew data.

News on Mobile Devices

Mobile News Demographics % of MP3 Owners % of Cell Phone Owners % of PDA Owners
Every day
A few times/week
Less often

Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press’ biennial consumption survey, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 30, 2006

But of MP3/iPod owners (25.5% of the population), 8% say they download news podcasts to their MP3 players.10 Though that is a small percentage, Pew survey data show that about a quarter of the news podcast downloaders report doing so daily.

Watching or listening to news on a cell phone is about as popular as podcasts. Some 6% of adult cell phone owners (who make up 74% of the population) say they receive news headlines or news reports on their cell phones.11 And a little over a third of them say that they do so daily.

BlackBerry and Palm Pilot users, however, are much more avid consumers of news on their portable devices. Of the 12% of the population who own such a PDA device, nearly one in five (18.5%) say that they receive news headlines or reports on it.12 Just over half of them report doing so daily. It should be remembered, however, that those people represent only 2.3% of the overall adult population. What’s more, the Future of News study conducted by Robert Papper for the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation showed that fewer than 5% of the U.S. population had ever consumed news on a small-screen device (mobile phone, PDA iPod or the like) and that only about 10% said they had any interest in doing so.13

Those numbers represent a small percentage of the total population of portable news consumers, but it’s also true that millions of Americans are receiving news in this manner. Pew data also show that those on-the-go news consumers tend to be wealthier and more highly educated than average, which could soon make them a prime target for marketers.

How big is the overall audience for those new audio technologies? It is worth examining them one technology at a time.

Satellite Radio

One of the first major rivals to traditional radio — satellite — began to show some signs of difficulty in 2006, ultimately leading to an announcement in February 2007 to merge.

After several years of explosive audience growth but heavy financial losses, the industry began the year with high expectations. It projected not only to continue expanding its subscriber base, but also to begin turning a profit.

The high hopes weren’t realized.

While subscriber bases for the two satellite radio systems — XM and Sirius — did grow, year-end figures fell far below early estimates. 16 Throughout 2006, XM’s forecast of its year-end subscription base declined. In March, the company predicted a base of 9 million subscribers, but by the end of July, that estimate had fallen to between 7.7 million and 8.2 million.14

At the end of the year, XM reported its subscription base as 7.6 million. Always the leader in audience totals and audience recognition, it remained so; Sirius reported its subscriber base at 6 million.

But in the last two years, Sirius had been closing the gap. XM grew 29% from the end of 2005 to the end of 2006, adding 1.7 million subscribers. Sirius grew even more, 82%, adding 2.7 million subscribers.15

The two companies’ subscription totals added up to 13.6 million satellite subscribers. That is more than a third higher than the 9 million reported at the end of 2005. Total audience reach for the satellite media, moreover, is estimated to be higher still, since subscriptions represent entire households, but an exact figure is hard to pin down.16

For the moment, until the people meter system becomes more widespread, analysts must rely on the figures reported by each company for the size of satellite radio’s audience. Still, the platform is growing, while the traditional radio audience is shrinking, though slowly.

Another measure of satellite radio’s audience can be derived from survey data. According to the biennial media consumption survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press in the spring of 2006, 10.5% of adult Americans said they had listened, at some time, to satellite radio.17

There are also signs in the data, however, that satellite radio’s growth may be approaching a ceiling. According to an Arbitron survey, only 4% of non-subscribers to satellite radio said they were “very likely” to subscribe in the next 12 months. An additional 14% of non-subscribers said they would be “somewhat likely” to subscribe.18

One possible explanation for the slowdown in satellite radio growth is competing technologies, including MP3 players (such as iPods), Internet and HD radio, which all offer consumers breadth and diversity in their listening options. And the big advantage that satellite radio has offered and seemed to cultivate most effectively — high-profile talk personality talent — may have proven to be too expensive for successful competition with the portable and customizable choices offered by other digital audio technologies. These will be key arguments that the companies will use before the Federal Communications Commission and the anti-trust courts as they make their bid to merge.

Internet Radio

One new technology that had been slow to gain momentum, Internet-based audio, began to emerge in 2006 as a meaningful competitor.

Internet radio, as the name implies, is audio content offered online, usually in the form of live streaming. One of the appeals of Internet radio is its potential for even greater breadth and depth of listening options. iTunes was an early leader in providing such online listening. Among its many options, iTunes software offers users a wide selection of radio stations to stream live through their computers.

Now, both news and music outlets have jumped on the audio Internet bandwagon. Broadcast radio stations are increasingly putting their content online as audio clips and podcasts. And Web sites like Pandora and Yahoo Music uniquely allow listeners to craft individual music stations that home in on the specific kind of music they enjoy, while discovering new artists in the process. The customizability and choice of such Web sites distinguish them from traditional radio and the other forms of new audio.

Those new Internet options seem to have helped fuel interest. After being somewhat stagnant in recent years, according to Arbitron and Edison Media Research, weekly Internet radio audiences jumped 50% from January 2005 to January 2006.19 That translates into 12% (up from 8% in 2005) of the American population over the age of 12 — or 30 million people — who reported listening to Internet radio in an average week, according to Arbitron. What’s more, Arbitron reports that the number rises to 21%, or 52 million people, when asked if they had listened to Internet radio in the past month — a 40% increase over the previous year.20

Much of that growth can probably be explained by the big jump in broadband use, which allows for a much faster connection and higher quality sound. According to the Pew Internet Project, broadband penetration in the home jumped 40% from March 2005 to March 2006, rising to 84 million homes, up from 60 million a year earlier. That growth rate is twice that of the year before, and puts the total portion of adult Americans with broadband in the home at 42%.21 FCC numbers from a year earlier suggest that the number is lower.22 But both agree that broadband penetration is growing.

In addition to broadband connections, other factors can also explain the increased popularity of Internet radio. Like its video counterpart — particularly YouTube — Internet audio offers consumers flexibility and a shot at innovation of their own. People do not need expensive equipment or broadcast licenses to put their content in the public domain. And traditional radio stations are increasingly offering their content online for listeners to hear at times that are convenient to their schedules.

Another factor is that more radio stations are now streaming their broadcasts online. After big pushes by CBS and Clear Channel, Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio, estimates that about 33% of over-the-air radio stations are now streaming. “Radio was slow to get off the mark, but it’s doing some catching up,” he said. Most likely, in turn, some proportion of that Internet radio listening involves people listening to traditional radio broadcasting over their computers.


Along with the Internet, podcasts also saw a good deal of growth in 2006. The rise of MP3 players fueled much of that. MP3 players are pocket-sized devices that enable people to download content from their computers and take it anywhere they go. Music files transferred to computers from CD’s have historically been popular for MP3 downloading. But now that Internet podcasts have gone from being a B-list player to an A-list player, the content of MP3 downloading has diversified.23

Podcasts originally were popular for giving people the ability to be their own DJ’s and distribute their unique content, similar to the way the Internet granted bloggers a public voice. While still a common practice, the pool of available podcasts is increasingly being filled with content distributed from mainstream media outlets, in the form of news segments and now, even television shows.

The particular strength of podcasts is portability — listening wherever you are. But podcasts also embrace many of the characteristics of other new audio — flexibility, breadth of selection and digital-quality sound. Like Internet radio, the array of listening choices is seemingly infinite.

The selection runs the gamut: homegrown music, citizen DJ’s, iTunes playlists, pajama pontificators and daily news coverage. From the Web sites of NPR and the New York Times, to Yahoo News, local and national television news sites and user-generated content sites like, podcasts are an important component of news Web sites. A good indicator of the universe of available podcasts is Podcast Alley, an online directory of podcasts. As of December 2006, it catalogued over 27,000 different podcasts, up from the 1,000 it listed two years previously.24

Podcasts also may have a bigger upside in terms of growth than some other new audio. In November of 2006, the Pew Internet Project reported that 12% of adult Internet users (those 18 and over) — or approximately 17 million people — said they had at some time downloaded a podcast to listen to or view at a later time.25 That was up from 7% just six months earlier — an increase of over 70%.26

But in a survey that included people aged 12 through 17, Arbitron, the radio audience rating service, found that teenagers make up a large percentage of those who download podcasts. Of Americans who said they had listened to an audio podcast, one in five was between the ages of 12 and 17. That age cohort contributes largely to the April 2006 Arbitron finding that 11% of the entire population (including non-Internet users) 12 and older — or 27 million Americans — reported having listened to podcasts.27

The rapid growth of podcasting and the high use among teenagers certainly suggest that the podcasting universe is likely to continue growing. The Diffusion Group, a research and consulting firm specializing in new media, predicted that by 2010, the number of American podcast users would swell to 66 million, more than doubling in four years.28

Another factor helping the growth of podcasting is the continued spread of MP3 players necessary to download the material. Arbitron’s 2006 report on digital radio revealed that approximately 25% of Americans over the age of 12 owned such a portable digital music player, up 56% from January 2005 to January 2006.29 Of those digital devices, 11% were iPods (up 83% from the previous year).

And the industry expects MP3 sales to keep increasing as the technology of the devices improves. Microsoft recently introduced its version of a souped-up MP3 player to compete with Apple’s popular iPod, and the battle for the ultimate portable audio/video device doesn’t look like slowing anytime soon. As the devices attempt to invent themselves as the new Walkman, it is reasonable to expect that podcasts will also hit the mainstream.

But if growth in the number of people who podcast seems likely, a bigger question may be how often they will do it. According to Pew Internet data, only 1% of respondents claimed to download a podcast everyday.30

(For more on podcasting, see also “What is Podcasting?” a PEJ commentary).

HD Radio

Many radio professionals believe that HD radio is traditional radio’s strongest chance to compete with satellite and Internet radio. HD radio is a digital version of the traditional AM/FM dial.

HD radio made a big push in 2006. According to the “HD Digital Radio” Web site, 1,00131 stations were broadcasting on a digital signal as of December 2006 — about 7% of the total number of stations in the country.32

The reason that HD radio is thought of as an answer to new digital competition is not only that it offers better signal quality, but also that it allows stations to multicast, or take advantage of HD’s split signal to broadcast multiple stations. The number of stations broadcasting on what is known as the HD2 multicast channel was around 700 at the end of 2006 according to the “HD Digital Radio” Web site,

Though HD radio’s penetration rate is low, experts think its future looks promising. Those numbers are already moving faster than the long buildup and slow deployment of its digital television counterpart, HDTV.

There is also evidence that audiences are receptive. Arbitron’s survey on digital radio platforms found that more than a third of survey respondents were interested in the technology. That number rose to 4 out of 10 when satellite radio subscribers were asked of satellite subscribers. Whether satellite subscribers would switch away from satellite or simply augment their listening platforms is yet to be determined.34

In addition the Internet and podcasts, HD technology offers one more way that traditional radio stations can compete in the era of consumer control. (See Economics).

Mobile Radio

Finally, if one can put radio content on an iPod, one can also download it onto other digital devices, including cell phones and PDA’s like BlackBerries and Palm Pilots.

In September of 2006, Clear Channel announced its plan to stream radio content to cell phones with service provided by Cingular Wireless. The mobile radio program began streaming content out of New York’s station WHTZ-FM Z100, and includes live radio and news features, as well as on-demand podcasts. The service is called Z100 Mobile, and requires a subscription fee of $2.99 a month. Subscribers to the service can also request songs and locate the titles and artists of recently played songs via text messages on their cell phones. Clear Channel reported in its September press release that it expected to expand the service to 100 stations by the end of 2007.

Demographics of ‘New Radio’

For now, the new digital forms of audio are not only expanding the potential for listening beyond that of traditional radio, they are also attracting a different audience. Some of these differences are to be expected, but others are more surprising and subtle.

To begin with, contrary to popular conception, teenagers are not necessarily the most avid consumers of new technology, at least not with new audio devices.

Young adults, for instance, those between age 18 and 34, are the most likely to listen to Internet radio. Nearly 1 in 5 does so at least once a week, compared with closer to 1 in 10 of 12-to-17-year-olds.35

Teenagers, though, are more likely to listen to podcasts — 21% of people under 18 report doing so — but listening to podcasts is equally as popular with 35-to-44-year-olds, followed closely by people 25 to 34, at 20%, and 45 to 54, at 17%.36

The listening device that reigns supreme with youth is the MP3 player. A majority of U.S. teenagers (51%) now report that they own an iPod or some other brand of portable digital music player, according to Arbitron.37

Of the new audio formats, satellite radio attracts the “oldest” crowd, though it isn’t really old at all: those between 35 and 44 are most likely to listen to satellite radio. Of those surveyed in that age group, 24% said they listened to satellite radio, followed by 20% in the 25-to-34 age range and only 6% of those 18 to 24.38

Weekly Use of Digital Audio, by Age
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Arbitron, “The Infinite Dial: Radio’s Digital Platform”, April 13, 2006

The new digital technologies also tend, at the moment, to skew toward the more affluent. Americans who make less than $25,000 a year — though they make up one-fifth of the population — constitute less than one-tenth of the audience for any of the new audio formats.39

Those who make more than $100,000 a year — 14% of the population over all — make up over a quarter of those who report listening to satellite radio.40

Podcasting also skews toward the affluent, but not as heavily. Though 22% of people who listen to podcasts earn more than $100,000, more than half of podcast downloaders (55%) earn between $25,000 and $75,000.41

Weekly Use of Digital Audio, by Income
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Arbitron, “The Infinite Dial: Radio’s Digital Platform”, April 13, 2006

As in years past, males are also more likely to consume the new digital audio options, making up 58% of the population who listen to radio online. Other new audio formats are more balanced between the sexes, though still tilt toward the male side: satellite radio attracts an audience that is 53% male and 47% female, and podcasting splits 52% male and 48% female.42

The Pew Center for the People and the Press offers a view of the demographics of digital listeners that is different from Arbitron’s.43

Demographics of Satellite Radio and MP3 Owners

Satellite Radio MP3 Owners
< $20,000
$75K +

Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press’ biennial consumption survey, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 30, 2006

Pew finds that nearly 11% of the population has listened to satellite radio and 25.5% owns an iPod or other MP3 player. Also, both audiences skew male, young, and affluent, as seen in the Arbitron data. While satellite listeners also skew white, MP3 owners skew non-white.

Public Radio

Whatever is happening in new audio, one traditional platform from the old technology continues to thrive in delivering news. Public, or non-commercial, radio has been one of the success stories of the audio platforms — and news is at the crux of that success.44

While most news organizations in the country have seen audience declines, public radio, particularly National Public Radio, has seen dramatic growth. With the sudden expansion of new digital audio technology, is that growth continuing?

For NPR, the answer is that the audience may have reached a plateau for the moment. The largest of the four main public radio providers nationally, NPR found its weekly audience level steady at 26 million in 2005, the latest year for which there are data, according to its annual report.45 The network distributes programming to over 800 public radio stations nationwide, and to Sirius satellite radio.

After a decade of remarkable growth, what does that number mean? Is growth for public radio slowing, perhaps because of competition from satellite radio and other new rivals? That is worth monitoring in the next year or two.

The other public radio networks are significantly smaller than NPR. American Public Media, with headquarters in St. Paul, Minn., reports a weekly audience of 14.7 million listeners. According to Arbitron, it distributed programming to 744 affiliates as of the spring of 2006. Public Radio International, through a partnership with the British Broadcasting Corporation, reports program distribution to over 750 public radio stations across the U. S. And the Pacifica Radio Network owns five stations, in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C. It also distributes to 103 local affiliates across the nation.46 Audience numbers for these public radio networks are difficult to track. The numbers are calculated internally and not all networks release them.

Where and When Radio Happens

For the majority of Americans (excluding teenagers and those over 65) most listening to traditional radio occurs outside of the home, usually in the car or at work. In the morning, Americans are almost evenly split between listening to the radio at home (39%) and in the car (37%), while only 23% tune in at work.47 Though the audience is smaller in midday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the majority of those that tune in do it from work (41%). Audience spikes again in the late afternoon, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., when most people listen to the AM/FM dial from their cars (44%), again during their commutes. These numbers, for 2005, are similar to those of past years.

But it is interesting to note where people tune in to the different radio formats. Adult Contemporary is the most popular format people listen to from work. Contemporary Christian, Sports and Alternative are the most popular formats in the car. And News/Talk is the most popular format at home, followed by Mexican Regional.

Where People Listen
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Arbitron, “Radio Today: How Americans Listen to Radio, 2006 Edition,” February 14, 2006

Audience Demographics for News/Talk: Public vs. Commercial Radio

There are some distinct differences between public and commercial radio audiences. In a comprehensive look at public radio statistics, Arbitron’s “Public Radio Today: How America Listens to Public Radio Stations” records that nearly 26 million listeners tune in to public radio in an average week.48 Of the eight format types that Arbitron looked at, the News/Talk format dominates listenership, commanding about 50% of public radio’s audience, with an average weekly audience of 13 million listeners.

Audience characteristics for public radio differ quite a bit from commercial audiences:

  • Public radio listeners skew to the economically elite and more highly educated. Commercial news/talk listeners are more blue-collar and more male.49
  • The public radio audience for news/talk is fairly evenly split by gender (52.5% male and 47.5% female), while the commercial news, talk and information audience tilts more heavily male (56.1% and 43.9% female). That gender gap in commercial news/talk narrowed 10% over the previous year (2004), from a 22% disparity.50
  • Nearly equal to the previous year, more than 71% of public radio news, talk and information listeners were college graduates. That number for commercial listeners was 43.1%. High school-only graduates made up almost 20% of the commercial news, talk and information audience but less than 7% of the public radio audience. Both figures were unchanged from the previous year.51
  • Public radio audiences also tend to occupy a higher economic stratum. Some 50% earn an annual income of $75,000 or more, up 3% over the previous year. By contrast, 36.8% of commercial news, talk and information listeners earn that much.52
  • Public radio listeners, according to Scarborough data, are 14% more likely than all consumers to vote in presidential elections and 24% more likely to vote in statewide elections.53

Also, unlike commercial radio audiences, the audience for public radio tilts somewhat more Democratic, a trend that has become more pronounced recently. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, there is a ten-point difference between National Public Radio listeners who define themselves as Democrats and those who identify as Republicans. Of those who tune in at least occasionally, 40% identify as Democrats, 30% as Republicans and 39% as Independents.54

The total audience for news/talk/information, on commercial and public radio combined, tilts Republican, according to Arbitron: 36% identify as Republicans, 27% as Democrats and 26% as Independents.55

One other difference between public radio audiences and commercial news/talk audiences is the time they spend listening. According to the Arbitron data, people listen to commercial news, talk and information longer. Commercial audience members aged 35 to 64 spend nine hours listening a week. News, talk and information public radio listeners of the same age spend an hour and a half hours less, 7.5 hours. That gap has narrowed slightly since last year.56 One reason people spend less time with public radio news may be that most of news/talk time on commercial stations tends to be talk, while most NPR stations include considerably more news programs each day, and that news includes a certain amount of repeat programming. NPR’s Morning Edition, for instance, is two hours long each day before repeats. Rush Limbaugh alone, by contrast, airs for three hours.

Time Spent Listening to News/Talk/ Commercial Radio Vs. Public Radio
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Arbitron, “Public Radio Today: How America Listens to Public Radio Stations,” July 27, 2006 and “Radio Today: How Americans Listen to Radio, 2006 Edition,” February 14, 2006.