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Audio: Medium on the Brink of Major Change

By Kenny Olmstead, Amy Mitchell and Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Traditional AM and FM radio still dominates the audio landscape, and for the last decade it has been among the most stable traditional media. But heading into 2011 there are growing signals that raise questions about its future.

Large majorities of Americans continue to listen to AM/FM radio each week, more than nine out of ten adults. Yet they take the medium for granted. In surveys, most Americans point to newer technologies, which they actually spend less time with, as having more “impact” on their lives. And when they use those new technologies, they are heading to new places. On the web, for instance, Americans for the first time report listening more to online-only outlets like Pandora or Slacker Radio than they do to streams from AM/FM stations. Perhaps even more ominously for traditional radio, online listening has even seeped into what the industry has seen as perhaps its safest (and most captive) audience – those listening in their cars.

Meanwhile, the industry’s main technological initiative, HD Radio, has failed to take off. It hasn’t generated the public support the broadcast industry expected it would when it was introduced in 2002. Only small percentages of people listen to HD Radio or are even aware it exists, and in 2010 those numbers remained flat. Perhaps more tellingly, fewer stations are investing in making the transition.

On the other hand, there was good financial news for AM/FM last year. Revenues grew 6% in 2010 over 2009. 1  How much of this increase reflects the general upturn for the U.S. economy, rather than structural growth for radio, is difficult to assess. Either way, most the AM/FM’s revenue remains tied to traditional streams, mainly on-air advertising, which would be threatened if audiences continue to move online and to other audio sources.

As for another closely watched technology, satellite radio, it also enjoyed some good news in 2010. After several bumpy years, including the merger of the two satellite providers Sirius and XM, the platform had an increase in both audience and revenue. Sirius XM devoted much of that revenue to programming, including the renewal of Howard Stern’s contract at $400 million over five years, $100 million less than his previous. 2

National Public Radio continues to be a growing source of news for many Americans, its audience expanding each year as news disappears from commercial radio outside of the country’s largest markets.  Overall NPR’s audience grew 3% in 2010, to 27.2 million weekly listeners.

But NPR faced a political backlash from the poorly handled firing of commentator Juan Williams in October 2010. Early in 2011, news chief Ellen Weiss was forced to resign and pressure was building in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to cut or eliminate federal funding for the service.

AM/FM Audience Shows Signs of Change

Though under growing competitive pressure, traditional AM/FM broadcasting remains the primary form in which people listen to audio content. 3

More than nine out of ten Americans (93%) report using or owning an AM/FM radio, according to Arbitron. 4 Perhaps just as important, unlike many other traditional media, that figure has remained stable over time, slipping only 3 percentage points in the last decade. That stability places radio ahead of newspapers, which 31% of Americans reported reading “yesterday” in 2010, a drop of 16 percentage points since 2000, according to the Pew Research Center For the People & The Press biennial media consumption survey. 5 (See audio data section for more)

There are new signs, however, that the medium may be on the brink of more rapid change as the use of new technologies has grown. Heading into 2011, for instance, cellphone usage is now only slightly behind the use of AM/FM. Fully 84% of American over age 12 report using or owning a cellphone. 6

Cellphones and traditional radio are not exactly apples to apples, but each of their places in Americans lives does cross a similar path. If in the past radio was the one device audiences were exposed to most, the cellphone is now almost as ubiquitous. And in some ways exposure to the cellphone is even greater, as it travels with people wherever they go. If the modern, more powerful cellphone begins to be seen as an audio device as well as a phone—something on which people listen to content in addition to making calls—there is a potential for it reducing  AM/FM listening.


That potential is reinforced by survey data that suggest that Americans perceive the AM/FM radio differently than newer media options. When asked which devices had a “big impact” on their lives, just 22% said AM/FM radio, despite the fact that almost everyone listens to it for at least a few minutes each week. On the other hand, more than twice that many said cellphones had an impact. Fully 54% cited cellphones, 44% cited iPhones, and 45% BlackBerries, as having a major effect on their lives. And 49% cited broadband internet. 7

The notion of impact here seems to be equated in people’s minds with change rather than usage. And broadcast radio has been around for so long (90 years in the case of AM; 70 for FM) that people are no longer changing their daily behavior to use it. They are exposed to it passively. If people see newer technologies like the smartphone (like the iPhone or BlackBerry) as having an impact on their lives that they appreciate, that may imply a warning to broadcast radio. If those newer technologies can provide audio content beyond AM and FM, people may embrace them.


One example of this substitution is already evident in the data. High-speed or broadband internet use continues to expand and is perceived as having more impact than radio on daily life. And on this platform, traditional AM/FM outlets are losing ground.

In the last four years, from 2006 to 2010, the number of Americans who listen to AM/FM radio on their computers, by streaming a station’s regular programming, fell by 8 percentage points. Fully 48% of online listeners were streaming traditional radio in 2006. That dropped to 40% in 2010, according to Arbitron. For the first time since the question was asked, more online listeners, 55%, report listening to online-only audio (like Pandora or Slacker Radio) than to the streams of radio stations. 8 (See audio data section for more.)

The number of Americans listening to online audio is still relatively small, around 17% of adults reported listening the week before, but if it continues to grow, AM/FM’s ability to capture that audience seems to be weakening. 9  (See audio data section for more.)

Other media are gaining ground over radio on the internet as well. The same Arbitron survey found that 16% of respondents said they had used a local radio station website in the last month, versus 27% who had accessed web sites of local newspapers or television stations. 10  (See audio data section for more.)


But perhaps the biggest warning signal for AM and FM is associated with changes on the horizon for a particular kind of listening – in the car.

In the last two years, those interested in listening to online radio in the car (as opposed to the broadcast stations) has more than doubled. More than a quarter of Americans (27%) said they were “very interested” in listening to internet radio in the car in 2010, up from 10% in 2009, and  6% said they were already using their cellphones to listen to internet radio in their cars.11 (See audio data section for more.)

If this expressed interest translates to usage, this could mark an enormous shift. Throughout all the technological changes over the last decade, the car had continued to serve as a bulwark for traditional radio. While some alternatives forms of listening like CDs and cassettes have existed for years, they never supplanted AM/FM stations. People could listen to CDs, but newer technologies were more limited. As the Internet becomes more available in cars – and indeed becomes an integral part of vehicle operations – the competition for where to tune in expands enormously. More and more manufacturers are building large hard drives into vehicles that will turn the car’s audio console into a library for downloaded music. The Ford SYNC system, introduced in 2007, offers drivers the ability to sync their phones and music collections so they can be accessed through the car stereo. In an effort to move internet radio into the car, Pandora announced a deal with Pioneer, the company that manufactures car stereos, to bring internet-enabled stereos into cars. And Toyota announced at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show that it would be including Pandora in its multimedia system called Entune that will become part of new Toyota models in mid-2011.

Such developments will open the potential for drivers to access an array of options from their own music libraries to Pandora, and more. The Pandora announcements represent “a direct challenge to broadcasters of satellite and traditional radio, who have long dreaded the arrival of internet radio in cars,” reporter Sarah McBride observed in the Wall Street Journal. 12

Former WABC program director Phil Boyce told Talkers Magazine that the battle in the next few years “is going to be over the dashboard.”13


HD Radio Falters as Broadcasters Look for New Technologies

Another vulnerability facing traditional radio is that the industry’s attempt at creating a viable digital version of analog broadcasts has stagnated.

HD radio was the initial attempt to offer listeners a new, enhanced way to consume traditional AM/FM radio with newer features. But HD radio has largely failed to break into the mainstream and awareness of HD radio has remained flat for years. Only 31% of listeners said in 2010 that they had heard something about HD radio recently, up slightly from 29% in 2009. And only 7% said they were “very interested” in HD radio, a figure that has remained largely unchanged since 2006.14  (See audio data section for more.)

As a result, stations themselves seem to be losing interest in HD radio as well. As of October 2010, only 2,086 out of the 14,608 commercial radio stations in the country (14%) were broadcasting in HD radio. And, more telling, in 2010 only 21 stations converted to the new technology. That is a significant decrease from a peak of 521 that converted in 2006. The once-promising new platform, which offered stations the chance to target audiences by offering them clearer sound and multiple program signals, seems to be stalling.15  (See audio data section for more.)

This is  similar to the problem that radio faced with the advent of FM. “It seems clear that broadcasters are repeating the mistake made with FM radio a half-century ago by pushing sound quality rather than providing new and different programming,’’ Christopher Sterling, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, said in an interview with PEJ. “Providing the same programs as are now on AM and FM outlets gives people no incentive to invest in the more-expensive digital receivers as most of us seek new content, not audio quality.”

Backers of HD radio are trying to adjust. The company that invented and sells HD radio technology, iBiquity, announced a partnership with Citadel Media in September 2010 that would help Citadel stations upgrade to HD radio without having to invest up front. The deal is an attempt to encourage more stations to make the transition to HD radio without making the capital expenditure that is one factor limiting HD radio’s expansion .16 (See audio data section for more.)

In the face of the faltering of HD radio, broadcasters are trying something else to graft traditional radio onto new technology. The most recent attempt is an effort by the National Association of Broadcasters and other radio industry representatives to have the federal government require cellphone makers to put FM radio antennas in cellphones. As of 2009, about 10% of the cellphones sold in the U.S. contained FM chipsets, but there is no evidence of how many users know their phones have this capability, or if they use it.17 In effect, people would be carrying around a 21st-century version of a portable radio with them most of the time. There is little evidence that this move has public support, and cellphone makers (as well as providers like Verizon) vehemently oppose it, arguing it is a step backward in cellphone innovation that will have harmful effects, such as shortened battery life.

Broadcasters argue that the move not only has backing from users, but that it has public service benefits as well.  For example, putting FM radios in cellphones would give most Americans access to a radio in the event of an emergency. The debate was unresolved when the midterm elections converted control of the House of Representatives to the Republican Party. It is expected to resume in the summer of 2011, but the outcome is unclear.

The Economics of Radio Improve

Even as the audience for AM/FM radio showed signs of vulnerability in 2010, the economic picture improved.

Overall, total revenue for traditional radio grew 6% in 2010 to $17.3 billion, up from $16 billion in 2009.18  (See audio data section for more.)

At least some of the ad revenue growth can be attributed to the upturn in the economy. Pinpointing exactly how much is complicated, but two national indicators shed some light: ad revenue growth across media and U.S. retail sales.

Total advertising revenue for all U.S. media was up 3% in 2010 according to eMarketer. 19  Radio fared better than that. That reflects some of radio’s traditional stability, and suggests that the medium has strengths that go beyond other platforms. Retail sales, a more general economic indicator, were up 6.6% in 2010 compared to 2009, according to the Department of Commerce. 20

By that comparison, radio is faring as well as the economy overall, but better than some other media. (See audio essay for more.)

The firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson predicts that all parts of radio revenue will continue to grow through 2014. Online and mobile revenue are predicted to have the largest growth, but compared with traditional radio they will still be a relatively small part of the revenue picture.21  (See audio data section for more.)

News on the Radio

What does all this mean for news?  The question remains complicated. In 2010, the portrait for news on radio looked mixed at best.

The total number of “news/talk” stations rose in 2010, as did the number of “all-news” stations. But these increases need to be put into perspective. First, few stations in the U.S. outside of public radio are all news. In fall 2009, the latest available data from Arbitron, there were a total of 30 all-news commercial stations in the United States. That is up from 27 in 2008. 22

Far more stations, 3,446 in 2010, call themselves “news/talk/information,” and the evidence suggests that means heavily talk. That number is up from 2,634 in 2009.23 24

This compares to 14,608 total commercial stations nationwide. Thus news and news talk make up about 24% of all commercial stations, making it the second-largest format, behind country music. Moreover, these stations often rank among the top in audience in their markets.25  In the New York City market, for example, WCBS, the CBS all-news station, is No. 2, behind WLTW, which carries a mix of talk and music.


Another way to assess the influence of news on traditional radio is through public surveys. These surveys have asked about both the total number who regularly turn to radio for news and the amount of time they spend listening.

In 2010, a third of Americans (34%) said they received some news through the radio “yesterday,” according to the Pew Research Center For The People & the Press’ biennial media consumption survey.26  This is down just slightly from 35% in 2008, but it continues a gradual decline over the last ten years. In 2000, the number was 43%. Other alternatives are rising. Internet news users have now caught up (34%), and television use remains well ahead (58% watched television news “yesterday”). Radio now outpaces newspapers, however, which have seen a much sharper decline. Just 31% of Americans reported reading a newspaper “yesterday” in 2010, down from 34% in 2008, though there is some substitution here with people accessing newspaper websites.27

More ominous perhaps, the youngest age demographic of 18-to-24-year-olds is listening to news on the radio less than they once did. Their portion as a percentage of all radio listeners declined three percentage points in the last two years, from 25% in 2008 to 22% in 2010. This has been countered by an increase in online news consumption among the same demographics, with 32% of those in that age group getting their news online in 2010, up from 30% in 2008.28


The amount of time people listen to radio news (as opposed to the number of listeners) has remained more stable over the last decade. People spend more time listening to news on the radio each day than they do reading newspapers or getting news online, according to The Pew Research Center For The People & the Press. In 2010, people spent an average of 15 minutes listening to radio news “yesterday,” up one minute from 14 in 2008. The figure for radio again remains below television (32 minutes) but now more than newspapers (10 minutes) and more than, but close, to the internet (13 minutes).29

Anecdotally, there is evidence that some news operations suffered cutbacks in 2009. These operations were already small. The average size of a newsroom in 2008 was just shy of 3 people (2.8) according to a survey by Robert Papper.30  While the sample size from this data in 2010 is too small to draw firm conclusions from, some radio professionals have voiced worry that some of these operations may have cut back too far and will suffer in the marketplace as a result. “One byproduct of the down economy is that many radio station operators took to shredding news departments by eliminating news personnel,” Talkers Magazine concluded in a cover story in December 2010. For instance in Las Vegas, radio programmer Bob Agnew arrived in the market and said that he found that “there are 1.8 million people in this immediate area and not a single station did news.” 31

These cutbacks have also tended to benefit commercial radio’s noncommercial rival in news, National Public Radio. NPR’s audience has more than doubled in the last 10 years to 27.2 million listeners a week. (see NPR section for more) It is worth watching, as audiences continue to shrink and pressures on revenue grow, to see whether commercial news operations will slim down even further, or if, to give audiences something worth tuning in to, they build up resources instead.

Satellite Radio Gains in 2010

One newer audio technology that had some gains in the economic upturn of 2010 was satellite.

Satellite radio has presented itself as an alternative to traditional radio listening since its creation in the early 1990s. Two competing companies, Sirius and XM, offered the service. In 2008, the companies merged to form Sirius XM, which became the sole provider of satellite radio. But in 2009, because of rumors of bankruptcy, the first drop ever in the number of subscribers, and declining revenue, the future of satellite radio was in doubt.

In 2010, however, those trends began to change. Both the number of subscribers and revenues for satellite radio increased compared to 2009. Sirius XM subscriptions grew 7.5% to 20 million and revenues rose 12% to $2.8 billion.32 (See audio data section for more.)

Awareness of satellite increased as well. The number of those who said they had heard of Sirius XM in 2010 was back up to the same level it was when the companies were separate (there was a decline in awareness of the company in 2009).33


After a tumultuous 2008 and 2009, Sirius XM spent 2010 building its programming base to include new content. Sirius XM re-signed a contract with Howard Stern, who hosts one of the most popular shows on Sirius XM. In addition, Sirius XM expanded its coverage of college football, successfully put a fifth satellite in orbit to expand programming, and signed deals with Kia Motors and BMW motorcycles to include Sirius XM in new vehicles.34

While satellite radio continues to gain subscribers and expand its programming base, the increased use of internet radio (especially in cars) poses the same threat to satellite that it does to AM/FM radio. New audio technologies do not only affect listening to the oldest technology, AM/FM radio, but they also are competing against one another for the attention of Americans.


Another alternative audio platform, podcasting, had more limited gains in 2010.

Podcasts, which are recorded audio segments available through the Web, were an early creation in online formats, originally developed as audio files you could download to your iPod and then take with you to listen to later.

In 2010, the number of podcasts released grew almost 30% from 70,000 in 2009 to 90,000. More product did not translate into substantially more listeners. The percentage of those who said they had “ever” listened to a podcast rose just one point to 23% of adult Americans, according to Arbitron.

The rate is even lower for news podcasts. Only 4% of respondents said they had listened to a news podcast “yesterday” and only 3% said they did so regularly.35

As mobile broadband becomes more ubiquitous the distinction between a podcast and streaming audio may well disappear. (See audio data section for more.)

National Public Radio Continues To Gain Audience, But 2010 Brings Controversy

NPR had a good year by the numbers in 2010. Audience, member stations, revenue and news investment all showed growth for the year, according to internal accounting.36 There was more to the year than just the numbers, though.

The firing by NPR executives of long-time commentator Juan Williams in October sparked controversy both internally and externally and led to the resignation of NPR’s chief news executive. As of early 2011, the embers were still simmering.

Total listenership to NPR grew 3% in 2010 to 27.2 million weekly listeners, up from 26.4 million in 2009. And this growth is “real” growth in the sense that it reflects an increase in listeners to stations already carrying NPR programming rather than stations newly carrying NPR programming. The number of member stations remained constant in 2010 — at 268 — as did the total number of stations carrying at least some NPR programming each day, 764 stations.


As the economy picked up, in general NPR’s financial picture improved as well. Its total budget for fiscal year 2011 grew 5% from the year earlier, to $161.8 million (NPR operates on an October to October fiscal year).  Its news operations, which account for a little less than half the total budget, benefited directly from this growth, also increasing 5% for the year to $65.1 million up from $61.9 million in 2010.   The remaining spending goes toward NPR’S website, running the radio broadcast facilities, and general company operations.

At least part of the increased news budget went toward ramping up their reporting capacity. The total news staff, which includes digital media editors and traditional on-air staff but not engineers, grew 8% in 2010 to 335 people (21 part time and 314 full time).

As NPR continues its primary presence on the radio, it is increasingly emphasizing its digital identity as well.  By mid-2010 NPR offered iPhone, iPad and Android apps, something many other newsrooms are still in the early stages of. According to its own internal measures, across all digital platforms (including mobile and apps) averaged 15.7 million monthly unique visitors (NPR uses the online metrics firm Omniture). That is up more than 5 million over 2009 (10.4 million) and puts it about on par with CBS News, according to Nielsen figures.

NPR also seems to have bucked the trend on podcasts, which showed just the smallest audience growth overall for the year. It has created more ways for users to consume its audio content online from streaming audio to podcasts.  In December 2010 NPR reported 23.3 million downloads of its podcasts each month. That figure is up 58% from 2009.

Juan Williams Firing

In October, Williams appeared on the O’Reilly Factor on Fox News and commented on the anxiety some people feel seeing Muslims aboard airplanes in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Williams, who was a regular contributor on Fox and a news analyst on NPR, had this exchange with O’Reilly:

Williams: Well, actually, I hate to say this to you because I don’t want to get your ego going. But I think you’re right. I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts. But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all as President Bush did after 9/11, it’s not a war against Islam. President Bush went to a mosque.

O’REILLY: Well, there isn’t any theology involved in this at all from my perspective, Juan. But you live in the liberal precincts. You actually work for NPR, O.K.?


O’REILLY: And it’s not about – it’s about politics, as I said. But – my analysis is that this Israel thing and that liberals feel that United states is somehow guilty in the world, of exploitation and backing the wrong side, and it makes it easier for them to come up with this kind of crazy stuff that, well, you can’t really say the Muslims attacked us on 9/11.

WILLIAMS: No, but what Barbara Walters said to you – .

O’REILLY: Were they Norwegians? I mean, come on.

WILLIAMS: Wait a second, though, wait, hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don’t say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That’s crazy.

O’REILLY: But it’s not at that level. It doesn’t rise near to that level.

WILLIAMS: Correct. That’s – and when you said in the talking points memo a moment ago that there are good Muslims, I think that’s a point, you know?

O’REILLY: But everybody knows that, Juan. I mean, what are, in third grade here or what?

WILLIAMS: No, you don’t – but you got to be – this is what Barbara Walters was saying – .

O’REILLY: I got to be careful, you just said it. I got to be careful. I have got to qualify everything 50 times. You know what, Juan? I’m not doing it anymore. I’m not doing that anymore.

WILLIAMS: O.K. So, be yourself. Take responsibility

Three days later, NPR executives fired Williams in a phone call. The initial statement from NPR said: “Juan has been a valuable contributor to NPR and public radio for many years and we did not make this decision lightly or without regret. However, his remarks on the O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”37

Less than three hours later, in response to queries from member stations, NPR president Vivian Schiller tried to clarify NPR’s position by explaining that Williams’ termination was not due solely to his comments on O’Reilly but also on a pattern of comments over the years that violated NPR’s ethical guidelines, “[T]his isn’t the first time we have had serious concerns about some of Juan’s public comments. Despite many conversations and warnings over the years, Juan has continued to violate” this principle.38

And later, in a speech in Atlanta that day, Schiller addressed the issue again in a way that seemed personal, saying: “This is not a reflection on his comments, this is not a debate. Juan Feels the way he feels, that is not for me to pass judgment on, his feelings that he expressed on Fox News are really between him and his psychiatrist, or his publicist, or take your pick. It is not compatible with the role of a news analyst on NPR.” She later acknowledged that the comment was a mistake.

Roger Ailes, the combative Fox News president and former Republican political consultant, then used the incident to make explosive comments about NPR. In an interview with Howard Kurtz in the Daily Beast, Ailes said of NPR executives: “They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don’t want any other point of view. They don’t even feel guilty using tax dollars to spout their propaganda. They are basically Air America with government funding to keep them alive.”39 Ailes later apologized his reference to Nazis in his comments.

Ailes also gave Williams a new multiyear contract that expanded his role on Fox News.40

Ultimately, the decision to fire Williams, and the way it was handled, provided new ammunition for those conservative critics of NPR, and public broadcasting in general, who see them as liberal media supported by tax dollars. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said on Fox News, for example, “I think the U.S. Congress should investigate NPR and consider cutting off their money,”41

The fallout from Williams’ dismissal from NPR continued into 2011. The NPR board commissioned an independent review of the firing and among that panel’s recommendations was that NPR update its ethics code (which Williams was accused of violating) and that it review policies about staff members appearing in other media outlets. At the same time the report was released it was announced that NPR’s senior vice president for news, Ellen Weiss, had resigned.

In February, the House voted to defund public broadcasting, including NPR, though the Senate had not yet voted. Then in March NPR was embroiled in another controversial incident.  In a sting video set up by conservative activists, NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller criticized the Tea Party movement and the Republic party and praised the firing of Williams. A day later, NPR’s board accepted the resignation of President and CEO Vivian Schiller. NPR board chairman Dave Edwards publically clarified Vivian Schiller’s departure, “The events that took place [particularly Ron Schiller’s statements and Juan Williams’ dismissal] became such a distraction to the organization that in the board’s mind it hindered Vivian Schiller’s ability to lead the organization going forward.”

The Right Stuff

Conservative talk hosts, who tend to flourish playing offense against a Democratic president, continued to dominate the talk radio universe in 2010.

Of the top 10 talk hosts by audience size, as identified by Talkers Magazine, eight are conservative, led by Rush Limbaugh’s estimated 15 million listeners a week and Sean Hannity’s audience of 14 million.  One of the top 10, Dave Ramsey (8 million listeners), is a financial advice host. And another, Neal Boortz (6 million), is a libertarian, although he supports a number of conservative principles.

The top liberal radio talkers—Alan Colmes, Thom Hartmann, Stephanie Miller and Ed Schultz—are well down the list, with estimated weekly audiences of about 2.75 million each.

In a notable blow to liberal talk radio, Air America—the network the once featured such high-profile liberal personalities as Al Franken and Janeane Garafalo—shut down in January 2010 after about six years of existence. In a number of markets, the Air America hosts were handicapped by the fact that they were broadcast on smaller, lower-signal stations.

Meanwhile, there were some ideological fireworks last year when controversial civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who hosts his own talk radio show, called for the Federal Communications Commission to take a closer look at Limbaugh. Sharpton argued that the FCC had the right to keep programs off the airwaves that use “racial or gender bias as their format.”

That effort triggered plenty of reaction in the blogosphere, with Limbaugh fans declaring it a liberal assault on free speech. But in reality, it posed no threat to the man with the biggest talk radio audience.

The Narrow News Agenda

Two things distinguished the news agenda on talk radio in 2010: its almost singular focus on domestic politics to the virtual exclusion of events overseas and even within domestic politics, the way a handful of stories dominated the airtime.

Indeed, the three biggest talk radio subjects—the 2010 elections, the U.S. economy and the battle over health care—accounted for nearly half (48%) of the airtime studied by PEJ. By contrast, the top three stories in the media overall—the economy, the midterm elections and the BP oil spill—accounted for less than one-third (31%) of the newshole.

Given the basic talk show formula of ideological hosts selecting polarizing topics that are likely to engender strong opinions, it’s not a surprise that hot domestic issues such as the elections, the economy and health care dominate on talk radio. But the talk radio news agenda is even more constricted than that the prime-time programming on cable news, which is also driven by political talk shows. Indeed, the top three stories in prime-time cable news in 2010—the elections, the economy and the oil spill—accounted for 38% % of the airtime studied.

Moreover, events overseas—even those directly involving U.S. troops or occurring on America’s doorstep—received minimal attention on talk radio. The war in Afghanistan and the devastating Haiti earthquake combined accounted for 2% of talk radio airtime in 2010 compared to 6%  in the media overall.

The combined attention to all foreign events—those directly involving the U.S. and those that did not—accounted for 20% of the newshole last year in the media overall. On talk radio, however, that number was a mere 4%.


  1. Radio Advertising Bureau
  2. Lauria, Peter. “Howard Stern’s New Deal: $2K a Minute.” The Daily Beast. December 9, 2010.
  3. For this discussion “audio content” does not refer to CDs or mp3s, but instead to programmed audio content like a AM/FM radio, satellite radio, or online-only streaming content like Pandora Radio.
  4. Arbitron. “Overall Radio Listeners Persons Aged 12 and Older Increases More than 3.3.million year over year.” December 7, 2010.
  5. Pew Research Center For The People & The Press. “Americans Spending More Time Following the News.” Sept. 12, 2010.
  6. Arbitron. “The Infinite Dial 2010.” April 8, 2010.
  7. Arbitron. “The Infinite Dial 2010.” April 8, 2010.
  8. Arbitron. “The Infinite Dial 2010.” April 8, 2010.
  9. Arbitron. “The Infinite Dial 2010.” April 8, 2010.
  10. Arbitron. “The Infinite Dial 2010.” April 8, 2010.
  11. Arbitron. “The Infinite Dial 2010.” April 8, 2010.
  12. McBride, Sarah. “Pandora Bringing Web Radio to Cars.” Wall Street Journal. Jan. 7, 2010.
  13. Kinosian, Mike. “Talk Radio At Crossroads About Role of News.” Talkers Magazine. December 2010/January 2011.
  14. Arbitron. “The Infinite Dial 2010.” April 8, 2010.
  15. BIA Data and PEJ Research
  16. Radio World. “iBiquity, Citadel Media to Facilitate Digital Projects.” Sept. 27, 2010.
  17. Stimson, Leslie. “FM in Cell Phones Emerges, Slowly.” Radio World. Dec. 21, 2010.
  18. Radio Advertising Bureau
  19. “US Online Ad Spending: Online Outshines Other Media.” eMarketer. December 2010.
  20. “Monthly Retail Trade Report for December 2010.” U.S. Department of Commerce. Feb. 15, 2010
  21. Veronis Suhler Stevenson. “Community Industry Forecast 2010-2014.”
  22. Arbitron. “Radio Today: How Americans Listen to Radio, 2010 Edition.” March 12, 2010.
  23. Arbitron. “Radio Today: How Americans Listen to Radio, 2010 Edition.” March 12, 2010.
  24. All-sports is a separate category, but there may be some sports content under “news/talk/information”
  25. Arbitron. “Radio Today: How Americans Listen to Radio, 2010 Edition.” March 12, 2010.
  26. Pew Research Center For The People & The Press. “Americans Spending More Time Following the News,” September 12, 2010.
  27. Pew Research Center For The People & The Press. “Americans Spending More Time Following the News,” September 12, 2010.
  28. Pew Research Center For The People & The Press. “Americans Spending More Time Following the News,” September 12, 2010.
  29. Pew Research Center For The People & The Press. “Americans Spending More Time Following the News,” September 12, 2010.
  30. Papper, Robert. RTNDA/Hofstra University Annual News Director Survey. “News Staffing and Profitability.” RTNDA Communicator. September/October 2009.
  31. Kinosian, Mike. “Talk Radio At Crossroads About Role of News.” Talkers Magazine. December 2010/January 2011
  32. Sirius XM Press Release, November 2010
  33. Arbitron. “The Infinite Dial 2010.” April 8, 2010.
  34. Sirius XM Press Release, September 2010
  35. Pew Research Center For The People & The Press. “Americans Spending More Time Following the News.” September 12, 2010.
  36. NPR provides internal data to PEJ on audience, staffing, and financial information.
  37. Rehm, Dana Davis and Christopher, Anna. “NPR Statement On The Termination Of Juan Williams’ Contract.” NPR. Oct. 21, 2010.
  38. Roderick, Kevin. “NPR memo to stations: why we fired Juan Williams.” LA Observed. Oct. 21, 2010.
  39. Kurtz, Howard. “Fox News Chief Blasts NPR ‘Nazis.’ ” Daily Beast. Nov. 17, 2010.
  40. Farhi, Paul. “Juan Williams at odds with NPR over dismissal.” Washington Post. Oct. 22, 2010.
  41. “NPR Funding Under Fire After Williams Ouster.” Oct. 21, 2010.