Is Traditional Radio About to Crash? Audience Levels In America Have Been Flat for Three Years Straight

2019’s radio listening statistics make this format look deceptively resilient.

According to the Nielsen’s 2019 Audio Today Report, which was recently made available, 272 million Americans listen to traditional radio every week, an increase of 7 million or about 2.5 percent, from 2016’s figures.  Sounds like an impressive gain on an equally impressive base of listeners, though total listenership has actually remained stagnant since 2017.

After a 6 million jump in 2017, listener levels dropped by one million listeners in 2018 to 270 million listeners.  Nielsen now reports a bump to the 272 million figure.

Despite the stagnation, that sounds like an enormous number of people, especially for a country with a total population of nearly 330 million (adults and children).  Indeed, Audio Today‘s 2019 analysis provides an optimistic outlook for radio, but a deeper review of the numbers shows some potentially serious issues ahead.

One surprisingly positive sign is that radio remains far more ingrained in American life than anyone would have guessed.  The report indicated that radio’s share of listeners — anywhere from 90 percent to 94 percent, depending upon the age group — is higher than the shares of all other leading platforms, including televisions, smartphones, and computers; the Audio Today researchers believe that radio’s listenership is indicative of continued popularity and profits.

What these same researchers don’t note, however, is that radio listeners are generally less focused than users of other platforms.  While smartphone adverts command solid prices because users must acknowledge them, radio listeners need not focus on commercials — or any particular portion of a broadcast, for that matter.

What, precisely, is the definition of “listening” to the radio?  If one shops at a grocery store that plays a local station through its speakers, does that count as listening to the radio?

It must also be emphasized — though doing so can be uncomfortable, given the widespread reliance on the company’s figures —that Nielsen, which produces the Audio Today Report annually and provides industry-standard television ratings — doesn’t ask each person in the country when they listen to the radio, why they listen to the radio, how often they listen to the radio, and so on.  Thus, when it’s stated that 272 million Americans listen to the radio weekly, readers would do well to remember that the figure is in fact an estimate.

The methods responsible for creating this estimate are also a source of relative controversy.  If Nielsen’s way of measuring radio-listener demographics is similar to its way of measuring television-viewer demographics — and one would have to believe that the two are similar, both generally and because of the specifics listed at the end of the 2019 Audio Today Report — the details may surprise those who aren’t yet familiar with them.

Nielsen doesn’t employ a comprehensive data-review initiative before providing its large, specific viewership estimates.  Rather, Nielsen pays a few thousand houses around the country a small monthly fee to write down the programs that they watch on television (or the stations that they listen to on the radio).  This number, which doesn’t account for internet users, is then converted, via a publicly unknown formula, to millions (so as to represent the whole viewership of the US).

Aside from radio listeners’ focus (or lack thereof) and the reliability of Nielsen figures, the cited radio listenership is, as a matter of fact, flat with the last three years.

The aforementioned small bump — about two percent — is within the margin of error. To expand upon the point, there are two ways to look at the reported statistics: Radio is healthy and not going anywhere, or radio’s failure to improve its popularity is a dire sign.

Only time will tell which of these outlooks is correct, and while logic and history indicate that the former is the more accurate of the two, there are a couple factors that should be considered along with the previously mentioned information.

First, the number of podcast listeners in the U.S. increased by more than 100 percent — 40+ million people — between 2014 and 2019.  The same resource expects the number of podcast listeners to surpass 130 million in 2022 — a boost of nearly 400 percent in less than a decade!

What’s more is that podcasts, being entirely digital, bring with them wholly reliable listenership figures.  It’s easy to doubt Nielsen’s convoluted system of estimating viewers and listeners; it’s difficult to speak negatively of the accuracy of download totals and listener counters.

Additionally, music streaming services attract ample listeners.  In the current year, for example, Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music are providing songs for hundreds of millions of listeners per month.  With targeted adverts, reliable sound, and customizable playlists to their credit, these services might spell trouble for radio.

In conclusion, radio’s outlook is a bit cooler than some, including the authors of the 2019 Audio Today Report, let on.

With comparatively inaccurate listenership-measuring methods, marked disadvantages compared to music-streaming services, and the inability to offer podcasts, radio could well encounter some serious popularity setbacks in the coming months and years.  One wouldn’t know as much from reading reports — especially those that boast of 90-percent radio-listenership rates —but the writing is on the wall.

This reality doesn’t mark the end for radio, but it does indicate that as tech further develops, so too will the way music—and audio entertainment—is enjoyed.

8 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    I think for now, between those who don’t want to pay for satellite, those who have capped data plans, and those who don’t have Bluetooth in their cars (or don’t know how to set it up), radio will probably be around for a while longer. But ask again in a year or two.

  2. Steve Allan

    Are you familiar with Nielsen’s PPM ratings technology? It would appear not as you mention that people “write down” what they listen to. This is true in diary markets but not in PPM markets.
    Also, you say that radio listeners are “unfocused” and therefore don’t hear the advertising messages. That is untrue as radio is still a powerful advertising medium. As for digital ads – how many really see them? And, how quickly do people look for the “x” so they can close them?

  3. Rob Sheeley

    Take out the folks that only listen to the radio in the car during drive-time and what you have is a ghost of a mighty empire.

    • ScLoHo

      Rob, I work in Fort Wayne, Indiana in the media world and have access to radio rating information. Fort Wayne has over 20 radio stations and most transportation is done by car (versus bus or train).

      Listenership number from the last rating survey will probably surprise you:

      Total Population for Metro Fort Wayne 460,900
      Total number of people who listen anytime 24/7 weekly: 435,130 94%
      I then looked at the common dayparts for all radio listenership in Fort Wayne and here’s the weekly number of listeners:
      Morning Drive 6a-10a 313,000 68%
      Mid-days 10a-3p 286,898 62%
      Afternoon Drive 3p-7p 271,345 59%
      Evenings 7p-12m 165,281 36%
      Weekends 391,611 85%

  4. Bill Frizzle

    I usually listen to talk radio, which, of course, has higher attention levels. But when my teenagers to twenty-somethings are in the car and the radio is on they are GONE when a commercial comes on (which means that ad had a minimum zero value). If we get stuck in one of those massive iHeart 9-minute ad breaks at every dial position we just switch to something on their phones.

    “Radio Listeners” will never matter much for this reason. The metric should be “ad-engaged listeners,” which I don’t believe there are many of.

    • ScLoHo

      Bill, I agree that if there was a way to measure “ad-engaged listeners” it would be valuable info. And there actually is, but it’s anecdotal information, not from a survey. The measurement is from the advertisers who run campaigns on the radio year after year and know that their customers are coming in because of the ads. I have dozens of these success stories from businesses I have worked with for the past few decades.

      By the way, I have also worked in the digital ad world and applying the same standards of measurement just isn’t satisfying to most local business owners. The number of clicks and views doesn’t mean as much as actual customers that can be measured more directly by the business.

  5. Smitty

    …if you think about the FUTURE of radio, my kids and ALL their friends NEVER listen to the radio. So, unless the medium finds a way to attract them, I fear the worst…

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