|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
The public’s relationship with radio has moved a fair distance since the medium’s debut in the 1920’s. Gone are the days when it was a stationary sound box that the family gathered around. Today, radio is a portable audio device that may carry music or news from a variety of different sources, not bound to broadcasting a traditional AM or FM signal.
Yet even though the traditional AM/FM dial has lost some of its clout and audience, the quick embrace of portable audio platforms signals the enduring appeal of the power of listening — its intimacy, mobility and adaptability to different styles of content.
According to the 2006 Pew People and the Press biennial news consumption survey, people turn to radio primarily for information. Three quarters of radio listeners cited that as a reason, just as respondents did for newspapers, Internet and television. But radio was also rated highly — more than any other medium — as a place to “pass the time.”1 That seems to reflect another quality that is vital to radio’s appeal: people can do other things while listening, whether driving, walking, cooking, or surfing the Internet.
What type of news do people look to radio for? The data suggest that it’s a medium with no particular specialty. Of the nine types of news that Pew surveyed in 2006, radio was not a top-three preference for any. It fared the best for political news, but even there came in fourth of seven information media at 5%, ahead of only magazines, talking with people and “other.”2 Radio seems a medium for general information and for talk, a jack of all subjects.
Measuring a different way, a survey by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation found that local radio news programs came in fourth on a list of seven news sources, ordered by the percentage of people who identify their major source of news.3
Most Popular News Destinations
Source: Bob Papper, RTNDf/Ball State University Annual News Director Survey, “Future of News Survey,” October 2006
One measure of the public’s attitudes is the level of trust in certain news outlets. Such numbers are not as readily supplied for radio as for other media. National Public Radio is the only radio outlet about which the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey asks respondents to rate believability. Compared with many outlets, NPR ranks pretty well on the believability scale. Since 1998, NPR’s believability among the public has been growing, albeit slightly, while other major news sources’ rankings have been sinking. What was once a 24-percentage-point spread between top-ranked CNN and NPR has now closed to eight percentage points, though CNN still leads.4
Compared with other information sources, the public also views local radio newscasts as “newslike.” In a survey by Bob Papper and the RTNDF, respondents were asked to score 13 media programs based on a 1-5 scale of how “newslike” they were. Local radio newscasts came in fourth (4.0 on the scale), after local TV news, cable newscasts, and network evening newscasts, each at 4.4. Talk radio programs like Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken scored ninth (2.4), just above Entertainment Tonight and the Daily Show (tenth and eleventh, respectively, with scores of 2.3 and 2.1).5
Media consumption choices are also influenced by a person’s overall interest in the news. The vast majority of people who “enjoy the news a lot” (52% of the population) turn to newspapers for their regular news diet (66%).6 Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio show regularly attracts only 6% of such news junkies. Radio over all has a similar problem. In general, radio (whether NPR, religious radio or Rush Limbaugh) is the least likely to attract the attention of those who enjoy the news a lot. Even NPR only regularly attracts 23% of that category of people.
Political news junkies show a similar trend, seeking out their political news from newspapers. Slightly more than a quarter of such people, 28%, say they are regular listeners to NPR. Ten percent of them listen to Rush Limbaugh.7